I recently had a realization that my perspective of mountain flying has changed a bit since I first got started. To quote a fellow pilot, “I must admit I laughed aloud at your comments about dangerous wild life in the mountains of the western US! A guy who will fly a 70-year-old 100hp airplane over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world in less than ideal conditions of wind and weather is worried about running into a bear…” Yes, that is one of my primary concerns, if we’re talking about flying in the Rockies. As long as a forced landing isn’t in a grove of pines or straight into the side of a cliff, bears are my biggest concern afterward, which admittedly seems a little silly. Whatever mountain flying I do is a careful product of removing risks endemic to flying in high terrain, so it doesn’t worry me too much to be in the air if I am well prepared.

Contrast that with when I got started. The biggest hills were a few hundred feet high in Upstate New York, weather tended to be worse in them, and a remarkable number of pilots met their maker flying into the Appalachians. My grandfather couldn’t be bothered with going anywhere near terrain, and the rest of non-pilot family piled on that mountains were equivalent to death, so there I began my pilot days, terrified of mountains.

I finally did fly into those Appalachians, renting a plane in Charlotte, NC and flying a tad into West Virginia on a sunny day. Although terrain was roughly 3,000’ at most, I cruised at 7,500’ just to be safe, and found myself in mountain waves, alternating between full power and descent power, with airspeed going from slow flight to maximum structural cruising speed, even though I was almost a mile above terrain. “Curious” I thought, got tossed around coming over the ridge in Bluefield, and made a graceless landing, where the guy picking me up noted that he “saw every last bounce of it.”

I’d eventually poke around in the mountains of North Carolina which max at 6,674’, managing to scare myself once with downdrafts at 3,500’ over Lake Lure that exceeded full power (ahem, turn around), though otherwise it didn’t seem like too terribly big of a deal…until moving to Colorado. At the last fuel stop before entering the foothills and then the Rockies, there was a kind poster that showed menacing peaks with black clouds and in large block text “Last year, 15 airplanes went into the Colorado Rockies and never came out.” With that illustrious introduction, I climbed painfully to 12,000 feet and wedged over a pass, certain that something bad was bound to happen. I was in the Rockies after all! After an hour of playing, it was somewhat anticlimactic, and there I was.

At every step of the way, I voraciously read more than one aviation magazine, learning the general wisdom of mountain flying, inclusive of standard advice: max winds 20 knots at the peaks, adequate clearance, stay on the windward side of the valley, cross at 45 degree angles, and always have an escape plan. Talking to locals hasn’t really ever been much use; they tend to reinforce whatever negatives exist, suggesting against it in “that airplane” and go about their merry way, casting an aura that I am a retard.

It wasn’t until a few years later that someone noted that “you taught yourself mountain flying.” In retrospect, it’s quite obvious, though I didn’t see it that way at the time. I frankly didn’t think that I “taught” myself much of anything; really, I just read up on seemingly senseless airplane crash narratives, and figured out where the wind was blowing, so I could avoid getting swatted out of the sky, as the PA-11 is basically a glider with a lawn mower engine hooked to the front at 14,000 feet.

Once I was quite proficient with Colorado and Wyoming flying, an enthusiastic friend who was a student pilot at the time (while also a highly skilled mountain paraglider) couldn’t get enough of my flying around the Tetons, acting like it was some kind of secret sauce. I finally said to him: “If I were sitting in the right seat, I could verbally tell you what to do, and as a student, you could do everything I am doing. It’s not that complicated.” He wasn’t convinced, and that began the discussion that I continue to struggle to distill.

The thing about mountain flying is that flight control movements to command the aircraft in almost all situations differs little from normal phases of flight. Turbulence on average is higher, though no higher than a summer day with angry thermals in the South. Otherwise, flight movements are pretty standard. If the airframe and engine cannot handle the conditions it is facing, the pilot needs to have not gotten there in the first place, or get out. The entire dance of flying around grand peaks has been more to do with weather and wind than a mystical operation of the flight controls.

I devoted some more time to thinking about the subject, as I find discussions of mountain flying to still remain dramatic (crashes continue – I am sure its related). I thought about another mountain sport: skiing. That is something where we specifically do not shove a beginner on a black diamond and let them figure it out. It is certain they will wipe out repeatedly, if not be unable to complete the first run. Is skiing a good comparison? Nobody downhill skis on flat surfaces and then increases mortality heading into the mountains, so it is not apropos. Ok, so I thought about walking and hiking. That is something that average people have certain skills at, and I think mountain parallels are similar.

Just about every risk to a hiker on relatively flat surfaces is amplified in the mountains. The biggest danger is a person who is unaccustomed to it and is therefore physically and mentally unprepared. Colder temperatures, stronger sun, rapidly changing weather, getting lost, bears…. the list is almost the same as what a pilot faces compared to flight over non-mountainous terrain. Even in North Carolina, a remarkable amount of people manage to kill themselves on basic day hikes on geologic features that are no more than hills in my view. Some of the stories are quite impressive, as we’re talking people with extensive university education managing to fall off of cliffs and/or die of hypothermia in entirely avoidable situations. In the end, lack of familiarity is the culprit.

The real issue with mountain flying is not operation of the controls; it’s the knowledge base and therefore aeronautical decision making to proceed through terrain minimizing risk and problems. While fearmongering the dangers of mountains presented significant barriers to entry to my initial mountain exploits (theoretically translated into safety), it became counterproductive once I got into the thick of it, as it seemed that nobody knew, or they kept to the zeitgeist that mountain flying was so mysterious that it is a thing of mythology. Yet, it is certain that there are mountain mavericks, as they land on glaciers in Alaska, though it takes a short conversation with a fuel attendant at Leadville to hear stunning stories of high-altitude aeronautical stupidity…in a flat valley that merely happens to be at 10,000’.

My contention is that we need more knowledge and less fear. It is evident that an ignorant pilot heading into the mountains for the first time is in a heightened state of risk. To advertise the maxim that mountains are merely dangerous only works to the extent it causes the acquisition of knowledge or avoidance of terrain. The moment an uninformed pilot heads into terrain (ironically least qualified to determine a safe day vs a poor one), fear does not give one pivotal bit of data that said ignorant pilot needs: why it is dangerous, particularly for the airplane being flown, in the mountain range in question, with the person behind the controls, and in the weather for that flight. Mere knowledge of the “why “of the risk in question almost automatically lends to an evident solution.

The reason I mention these factors is that mountain flying can be incredibly enjoyable while also at times having virtually no added risk (or even wind!). At the same token, depending what country a pilot lives in, it might be unavoidable to some extent. The USA features enough mountains that I am surprised I wasn’t taught something other than avoidance during initial flight instruction, though I guess the Rockies were so far away nobody figured I’d take the PA-11 there.

In the latest news, I have released my 18th book, “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 3000ers of the Pyrenees.” After reading this post, one should feel that it is inconsequential….


Some flying photos since the last post. It has been an active spring weather pattern, a nice contrast to a dry and windy winter.
Cadí-Moixeró with some late April snow fall.

The cloud clump was being blown out of the valley as I chased it. This is a frequent occurrence locally once a storm system clears out. There is a short window where winds aren’t too bad before the northerly waves get going.

Another day with Cadí-Moixeró producing some lee side cloud formations. One would note that I remain on the windward side.


Andorra to the left and France below. Whenever flying above overcast, I ensure there is a hole big enough in the event of a forced landing, and that I know what’s under it. In this case, I was over El Pas de la Casa, Andorra, with a hole below and about 2,500′ of space under the cloud with some fields to land in.

Also familiar terrain over Pic Carlit, France. There was an orographic consistent gap in the clouds to the right, with farms down below many thousands of feet. I could always land in the snow, except the post-forced landing survival matter would be complex given the late hour. I carry a tent, food, first aid kit, tools, and other supplies on all flights. 

Avalanche in late April snow. First I had seen one in this location.

Pedraforca with light May snowfall.

Spring in the valley.

After an early May snowfall, the north winds got going sooner than expected. This range is a bit of a fierce wind tunnel when the winds are going, so I stay on the windward side as getting sucked over would have featured severe turbulence, among a host of other problems.

France left, Spain right, Andorra ahead. Winds were light at 10,000′, with an overcast deck stuck against the north side of the Pyrenees. To my rear left was another orographic gap in the clouds, in the lee of Pica d’Estats, with a 4,000′ descent to a road below with hikers’ cars in the parking lot.

From Spain looking into Andorra. The Spanish side is in the lee; hence, the clouds dried out behind me, though they stayed in Andorra and it was precipitating on the north side, a common event. To proceed into the range would have been profusely silly.

 

 

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.