For a while I have wanted to reminisce in writing about the “good old days” flying back in America, and a subject has surfaced that affords an opportunity to compare the two modes of flying. Perhaps European readers will find some of the details about flying in the West educational, and for everyone else, it might be interesting to note how the differences between both continents are made large by very small changes.
The project at hand is the publication of my magnum opus, “Glaciers of the Rockies.” Just before moving to Europe, I undertook an ambition to fly to every remaining glacier in the United States Rockies, during annual snowmelt, with the intention of photographing them before they disappear. Scientists estimate that could be as soon as 2030 for storied Glacier National Park, with varying results for other ranges. Given the time frame of a decade and a half and a looming move to the other side of the world, this project took front and center stage in the final summer before leaving, as it was logical to wonder if I’d be back again in that part of the world, with the PA-11, in sufficient time.
The project was undertaken while living at Alpine Airpark in Alpine, WY, roughly in the middle of the glaciers I intended to see. They were strewn along mountain ranges from northwest of Boulder, Colorado to Glacier National Park at the convergence of Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia, a linear distance of nearly 800 miles. For facts’ sake, what few glaciers in other Rockies states that existed have melted in the past few decades, so it was down to a list of ranges in those states. California, Oregon, and Washington have glaciers in the Sierras and Cascades.
I had a short window to fly them all, and got it done between roughly August 10thand September 23rd, having flown about 50 hours just for the project, hitting the highest peaks of 11 mountain ranges, which was no small feat in a 100-horsepower airplane. In the middle of this 43-day period, I lost about 20 days to thick smoke, and had to get the rest done in small windows where air was clear and winds slack enough to fly close to such high terrain. As far as mountain flying goes, the primary enemy was wind, as many of the glaciated ranges are near the Great Plains, which makes them windier than interior mountains. Five of the eleven ranges featured more wind that I would have preferred, and they all were part of a continued learning experience.
Late season smoke didn’t help. Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana. On one of two active flight plans for the project as there is not one single shred of civilization in this image.
Neither did early season snows obscuring the glacier beneath. Absaroka Range, Montana, with Great Plains to the left. It was rather windy.
As the project was done in America, the biggest issue was time, distance, weather, and wilderness, and not rules or regulations. I had recently installed a radio in the Cub, so I had that added resource; however, I did not have a starter or transponder. During the course of the adventure, not one single area of airspace that I needed had a restriction. I landed at three towered Class D airports, two of which were chosen due to convenience; the rest were uncontrolled. I filed two flight plans: one for the flight over Glacier National Park, given its harshness, and another over the Bob Marshall Wilderness, equally as much given its remoteness. I was able to maintain flight service position reports in Glacier, whereas the Bob Marshall Wilderness was in a radio shadow. Both flight service professionals accurately predicted in advance where I’d be able to talk to them. In all other wilderness terrain flying, I basically expected to be on my own should the worst happen. I paid one landing fee at Jackson Hole. The entire project required one flight service resource (online and by phone), and my iPad software was flawless and accurate.
If this same project were being done in Europe, 70% of it would be possible whereas 30% simply would be excluded. Of the remaining 70%, 30% would be an enormous aggravation due to small changes, and the rest would be similar to America.
Let’s for a moment draw the same line I had from Glacier National Park to Alpine, WY, then down to Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, except here in Europe. 800 miles with the home airport roughly in the middle. If that were the case here, we’d go from the mountains west of Madrid, here to La Cerdanya, and northeast to the center of the Swiss Alps, equally 800 miles. While there are not glaciers in every mountain range, the presence of various ranges is somewhat similar, so let’s pretend for a minute that I am chasing figurative glaciers in the highest parts of all mountain ranges in this line.
West of Madrid would be fine, including fuel. As the mountains head north of Madrid, it would be almost impossible due to restricted airspace and would require flight plans for the portions that would be doable. The high country south of Zaragoza would be possible, though a massive aggravation due to lack of airports and fuel, requiring carrying jerry cans in the back seat and 24-hour fuel reservations at Teruel. Here in the Pyrenees, fuel tends to work for the most part and airspace is rather open, with the exception of two Spanish national parks where overflight requirements are about 2,500’. On the French side, the location where the actual glaciers of the Pyrenees exist (there are a few in reality!) is all restricted, requiring 3,300’ AGL overflight. Remember that the Pyrenees comprise the border of two countries, so that is a healthy dose of complication. Also, three airports on the French side require the old French Mountain License, which has now been superseded by the EASA Mountain Rating. Those that do not are quite low, so descent to fuel and climb again is lengthy.
Continuing on, the Massif Central of France is a complete hodgepodge of continuous and chaotic military zones, requiring either flight plans or flight following. Many airports are restricted to members of certain flying clubs. A few others, despite being pretty low, are angled and therefore require the Mountain Rating. There are a few park areas, meaning that crossing the Massif Central requires heading to 3,300’ AGL in a few places. This results in few fuel options. From there, the next stop is the foothills of the Alps and then the highest part of the Alps, before terminating in the middle of Switzerland. All airports in the French Alps that are not down at the bottom of valleys (at 2000’ or less) are altiports, meaning that the Mountain Rating is required. That means a new license or the choice of descending 11,000’+ feet for fuel and climbing back up. The biggest glaciers of the French Alps have a combination of park areas, with a variety of restrictions ranging from 1,000’ AGL to 3,300’ AGL. The highest peak in the Alps is restricted, which it is possible to get permission. Crossing into Switzerland requires the clearing of customs on the ground. There are also a few noise restrictions, though far less than on the French side.
Three foreign languages would be encountered in this hypothetical project. iPad navigation software and national charts could not be relied upon as final information; advanced phone calls and coordination to airports would be required in Spain to make sure airports actually exist. Schedules for fuel would need to be checked. Some airports would only take fuel cards or cash. All of them would charge landing fees. For each country, entirely different preflight services would have to be sorted out to navigate NOTAMs and weather. A radio and transponder would be absolutely required for a good portion of the exercise. Many flights would depend on clearance through restricted zones, which may or may not happen on that day.
I ask myself what it would take to pull off something similar if it were here in Europe, spread out so far, and I get nauseated thinking about it. It would take years. There is no way, in the same airplane, that I could do such a thing in one summer! In fact, I haven’t considered doing the glaciers of the Pyrenees due to restricted areas over them. My primary concern with the American airspace system was the availability of fuel, which was splendid. A secondary concern was services in the event of a forced landing. Absent a happenstance ability to radio an overflying aircraft, I was entirely dependent on the ELT in the USA. There was next to nothing owing to remoteness, whereas Europe has far more radar coverage, radio coverage, and other services available due to population differences.
In both countries, the airplane needs to be airworthy, the pilot licensed, and the weather suitable for the intended flight. Pattern operations and actual flying is relatively similar. Europe differs from America in having less airports and imposing small requirements that on their own are not that big of a deal. When those small requirements are added against other factors, then the amount of flights that one could or would want to take drops quickly.
A bigger difference is the feeling of flying in each place. There is something incredible about the openness of America that is hard to put to words. Once leaving the “density” of the East Coast and crossing the Mississippi, it is an almost poetic experience to cross the Midwest, wander the Rockies, explore the deserts, and yes, chase glaciers. Whatever the spirit of America is, if one could reduce it to something simple, I could feelit when flying such great expanses in a Cub. Ever since coming to Europe, I have been working on a number of books that resulted from ambitions while flying in the USA, and each time I dive into my photo archive, it is an immersive experience, not just in the specificity of American landscape, but a zest I can’t seem to put my finger on. While Europe from a Cub is hard to put to words also, they are two completely distinct personal experiences in the air and I often find myself longing to have them both.
Why does this (Sawatch Range of Colorado, September)……
….feel so different in the air from this (October in Central Pyrenees, Spain)?
Or does this (Hungry Horse Reservoir, Montana with 10,000′ peaks in Glacier National Park)…..
….feel so different from this (La Cerdanya, Spain with 8,600′ Cadí-Moixeró)?
Europe has a way of making aviation feel elitist, under constant threat, and somehow wrong. It’s somewhat of an illusion, as the rules on the books and the economics of the situation allow the flying I do, just as the rules and economics in America allow flying that is pretty similar. Both places have something worth seeing. In the US, it tends to be expansive beauty whereas in Europe, it tends to be a mix of the old and new, natural beauty mixed with centuries of deep cultural impact and caretaking. The air molecules and how the airplane flies are the same.
I think I am venturing into the philosophies of growth as a pilot as well as what flying has meant to humankind from the time we yearn to soar like birds, to the moment we can use iPads for navigation. Inside of this existential personal exploration of the ruggedness of the West versus the complex magic of Europe, there is my growth from a low time pilot to a more experienced one. When I arrived in Colorado in 2013, I had 371 hours as a private pilot. I arrived back East in 2014 with 466 as a commercial pilot, and then arrived in Wyoming for the “real” western stint in 2015 with 568 hours. By the time I left later that year for Germany, I had 871, and I now have 1263 total time, which means that my flying career can be broken into even thirds: East Coast, Mountain West, and Europe, with similar totals in each.
Despite the challenges Europe offers, there is still more growth on the horizon. When I was installing a list of expensive equipment in late 2015 in the Cub for its operation in Europe, I had a decision to make about which transponder to install: Class 2 (up to 15,000 feet) or Class 1 (up to 50,000 feet), which cost a few hundred dollars more. With my dreams set on Mt. Blanc in France, the highest peak in Western Europe at 15,774’, I installed the Class 1 transponder. The Alps were an instinct even as I was wrapping up the glaciers of the Rockies, and it remains a more tangible goal. Stay tuned for some glacier exploration in Switzerland that will make the biggest glaciers in the US Rockies look small.