Carrier Landing

October 30, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

2nc0 airportSome airports are just tougher than others. Short, narrow, and high are descriptive terms for Mountain Air (2NC0) in Burnsville, North Carolina. The specs, as currently reported, are a 2,900-foot long by 50-foot wide runway at a 4,432-foot elevation. The private strip is nestled in the mountains with a country club and restaurant overlooking the runway—a ground-based “Vultures Row.” Navy carrier pilots will feel right at home as the watchers grade and comment on every landing. The only thing missing is the closed-circuit TV that records everything for the entire ship to see.
Flying into Mountain Air is definitely an A-game activity, much like a carrier landing. Over the last 19 years, nine accidents were reported—and perhaps a few that didn’t hit the record books (true of all airports). Two were fatal, including one that I wrote about involving a Columbia 350.

All the crashes involved high performance aircraft either going long or over-compensating and winding up short. Included were a Baron, a Comanche, a PC-12, a Mooney, a Saratoga, a Cirrus, the aforementioned Columbia, and a Citation (still scratching my head on that one). The latest is an A36 Bonanza that just crashed this month. No details from official sources yet. You can review the other accidents on the ASI website. By the way, when reviewing airport data from AOPA’s flight planning page on the website, there’s a link to ASI’s airport accident page (look for the ASI logo) that’s an opportunity to not go where others have gone before at any particular airport.

The information for the airport as quoted in one of the NTSB reports: “Mountain Air Country Club Airport, Burnsville, North Carolina, was a private, mountaintop airport with an elevation of 4,436 feet. The paved surface for Runways 32 and 14 was 2,875 feet long and 50 feet wide. Runway 14 began atop a steeply sloping terrace with an abrupt drop-off at the approach end, departure end, and left side of the threshold. The published Airport Information Summary card stated, ‘Runway 32 has an uphill incline of 46 feet. Runway 14, thus, downhill 46 feet. Recommended approach unless there is significant tailwind is runway 32.’ The card also stated, ‘High banks on right hand side of approach ends of both Runways 14 and 32, within 20 feet of edge of pavement… Mountainous terrain in area. Caution: Mountain turbulence, approach downdrafts, density altitude.’”

Several thoughts: One is that the performance data for most Part 23/CAR3 aircraft is a “wee bit optimistic” for most of us as stated in the Truth-in-Performance article. We recommend starting with a 50 percent pad for whatever the manufacturer says to clear the 50-foot obstacle, and then as you get really good maybe scale back a little. Note that approach downdrafts and mountain turbulence are not part of the computations—nor can they be. Do you feel lucky?

Please understand this is not a slam against Mountain Air airport, merely a reminder that sometimes either we or our aircraft may not be up to the task on a given day due to weather, proficiency, or the interaction between the hardware and the available real estate. Sometimes driving up the hill to enjoy the view after landing at the valley airport is a really good idea.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • S.S. McDonald

    Carrier Approach??? Try Mathis in Cumming, Ga. or Pelzer at Pelzer, SC, or for the #1 challenge worldwide, Lukla in Nepal.

  • P. Elgin

    Have landed this airport several times since they have opened, not a terribly difficult place to land, but as with any mountain airport, conditions will dictate when it makes sense to go someplace else.

  • Mike Roebuck

    With most people flying of of 4000 ft plus and 150 ft wide runways, I can see where this would be a problem. I see 172 cessnas using 2000 ft of a 4000 ft runway because they couldn’t get it down any quicker. With no mountain experience, this is not the place to learn to land on a shorter and narrower runway.

  • http://na Sam Beale

    After the crash in January 1995 of the Lance (not a Saratoga) that injured both parties on board, the passenger more seriously than the pilot, I had to fly up there to take care of the disposition and salvage, being a co-owner of the airplane. (My attorney slapped me silly every time I said partner.)

    The one thing that struck me as difficult in landing there, that I have not seen mentioned, was the lack of visual cues to the height above the threshold while on final approach. Usually you are approaching over terrain that is more or less level with the runway, which gives a cue in your peripheral vision of your height above touchdown. As you can see in the picture of the approach end of 32, the terrain drops abruptly at the threshold, so I had the feeling of trying to hit a point in space rather than converging with the runway. Just one of those things I had never noticed until I was without it.

  • Marlies Campi

    Pilots wanting to land at Mountain Air should consider taking some dual flight training on mountain flying with landings on short and/or sloped runways. The training should provide a better understanding of how air interacts with the mountainous terrain (up and down drafts), how to handle landings on runways where the threshold begins on the edge of a cliff and refresh density altitude notions.
    The slope at Mountain Air is very small but I think enough to prefer landings on 32 even with some tailwind (max tailwind speed will depend on aircraft type) and special attention should be paid to “nail” the airspeed on final and to aim at the numbers.
    Similar runways may be found in the French Alps: L’Alpe d’Huez, Courchevel.

  • Duane

    Landing on a mountaintop airstrip demands careful attention to flying your airplane by the numbers toward a spot landing. On windy days, don’t try it unless you’ve had a lot of experience with both the winds and the airstrip, and/or recent instruction from a capable mountain flying CFI.

    Nearly every one of the accident reports on the ASI website for this airstrip was due mostly to pilots who didn’t give proper attention to stick and rudder skills nor the proper respect for the high and gusty winds. Any one of these planes could have been landed successfully by a capable pilot on a calm day, although being high performance aircraft, their margin for error was considerably less than for slower aircraft like a 172 or Cherokee.

    Each of the accidents also seemed to be a case where the pilot eventually understood their landing approach was botched, but the necessary go-around was delayed until it was virtually too late to recover.

    Learning to fly in the mountains is fun and challenging, but it’s not for the self-taught. What you don’t know can hurt you bad.

  • George Manser

    I learned to fly at Westfield Airport, in Rahway, NJ, the long runway was 2500 ft
    and the short 1800 ft, another shorter one was abandoned.

    The FBO operated Cessna T-50 from there also an occasional Twin Beech and Lockheed 10 and I heard of, never saw it a C-47. I did witness a touch and go by a C-46. There was an occasion a Cessna T-50 lost an engine on Takeoff and was able to return to the airport safely.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    My apologies for not verifying. PA32 can mean several things. You’re right about sight pictures and when there isn’t a lot of margin even 20 or 20′ too high is a problem.

    An airport that is high, short and with visual illusions is challenging to say the least. Go around early if needed. Profound thought!

  • Mark Johnson

    Learned to fly in nearby Asheville, NC and later as a mission pilot for the local CAP squadron, flew some of the initial SAR sorties on several of the accidents mentioned in the article. Mountain flying is for neither the faint of heart nor the dull of skill, and you get good at it the same way you get to Hollywood: practice, practice, practice. It always saddened us to see otherwise excellent pilots attempt something just far enough out of their skill range that the results were tragic.

    Another area field that’s “fun” to fly into is Brevard (NC22). The approach is to fly the downwind and base legs directly towards the ‘cumulus granite’ –without being able to see the field– then roll out on short final, adjust and land. Go-arounds are, to say the least, problematic. My instructor had me making these kinds of landings with her by around 15 hours…in a 152 near max gross…..amazing!

    Haven’t flown in real mountains for quite awhile now, but always grateful for the great technique learned from the instructors there and the early lessons on DA and other issues.

    Now that I think about it, short-field ops have never bothered me much, and perhaps that’s why.

  • Joseph Jeffries

    I have flown into Mountain Air and other mountain strips, all a challenge. It is mandatory that AC performance, proficiency, and experience, and current field/weather conditions be properly, conservatively asessed prior to any arrival. Especially in difficult situations. The problem is that the average private pilot does not objectively do this well. We can all do better. Also, when the approach to landing, or takeoff doesn’t match expected performance, or just look right an abort or go around should be an easy decision. Last item, If you can not proficiently fly the numbers and get the expected result consistently, stay out of these situations. This Mantra is constantly reinforced to my students.

    J Jeffries CFII

  • Mark Kolber

    I flew into Mountain Air this past spring ( in preparation for a mountain flying presentation I gave to my flying club in the Raleigh area (I moved here from Colorado last December). While definitely a challenge requiring the appropriate training, skills and proficiency, I’m not sure I’d equate it with carrier landings with much less room for error.

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  • Chris Rodrigues

    And yet, it seems like a slam on Mountain Air (not your first perceived slam and not my first reply to you on the subject)… I agree that Mountain Air is not for rookies and I agree that it does feel like a carrier landing (kind of fun, actually). However, I believe that any competent pilot with several hundred hours and proficient flying his airplane which is not exceptionally high performance (no high stall/landing speed or difficult stall characteristics) and who is proficient in short field landings and has properly prepared for the experience can handle it with no trouble. I had about 600 hours when I went there in my 1957 Cessna 182A a number of times and had no trouble what ever. I only fly 40 or 50 hours a year and I currently have no no qualms about flying in or out of there right now. Watching the safety video provided by Mountain Air and heeding their advice to make several practice approaches without landing is GOOD advice. The real problem seems to me to be overconfident pilots determined to land the airplane regardless of emergent conditions on that particular approach. The most serious accidents there, including the recent A-36 overrun (not take off, as misreported on the website) and especially the Columbia 350 crash, appear to be the result of not aborting a landing when the approach has gotten too fast or touchdown too long (both referenced accidents verified with knowledgeable personnel). I don’t quite understand. That airport is surrounded by several thousand feet of altitude. That is, if you can get your aircraft off of either end of that airstrip at or near flying speed at full power, you can just drop the nose slightly and you are flying. Losing a engine after take off from 14 gives you the unusual option (similar to Jackson County airport at Cullowhee, NC) of lowering the nose and having several minutes to choose your landing area in the valley below.

    Pilot attitude is the key and willingness to go around if all is not right is a key part of that. By the way, I agree with Mark Johnson, that landing on 27 or taking off on 09 at NC22 (now 3NR3) near Brevard, NC are at least as much “fun” as Mountain Air. Knowing when to “punt” on a take off or, particularly, on a landing is one of the most crucial skill for all pilots, student through the most experienced to have. Mountain Air does not deserve the treatment or reputation you may have unintentionally given them by continually using them as a “bad” example. I continuously see pilots experiencing accidents for the same reasons at a lot of other airports I believe you would consider relatively “benign”.

    (Do not publish this paragraph: If I have not made my position sufficiently clear, please feel free to contact me by e-mail for clarification.)

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Thanks for your note. You have eloquently made my point. Flying into challenging strips and Mountain Air is one of them, requires pilots to be on speed and on altitude. And if you’re flying a higher performance aircraft, such as a Bonanza or a Columbia 350 there’s not much margin for error – unlike most of the airports most of us fly to. I’m glad that you’ve been successful and encourage that regular practice.

    Mountain Air has a history, like it or not, and if you fly there, you need to be up to the challenge. Pointing it out is not a “slam” in my view.


  • Ben Thebaut

    Having landed at 2NC0 quite a few times in a ’78 T-tailed Lance, an ’82 P-210, and an ’03 Cirrus 200, sometimes with sub-optimal weather, I have to say it was always a thrill. Having flown (mostly singles) since 1956, I have come to recognize good luck as an important ingredient through the years, in combination with currency! I think my secret for easiness was to use Rny 32, and to be on the ground before the hill starts up, without exception.
    We no longer have a place at Mountain Air, and miss it very much! Are you still flying in Trevor? How ’bout you, Mark?

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