Before I delve into my thesis, I must preface that I find narrow proclamations in aviation to be quite dangerous. I recall in 2015 saying to myself that I “hadn’t found a crosswind I couldn’t handle yet.” A few weeks later featured nearly flying into a fence….during a crosswind that I couldn’t handle. Such binary conclusions about one’s skill are unlikely to be true across the board; thus, I preface this concept of alpine flying lacking serious danger or difficulty as a relativistic proposition versus aviation dogma.
I have considered this subject before, in a lighter sense, as years of mountain flying have ticked by. It has grown to seem so, dare I say it, easy. When I say “easy,” I mean that pulling off a tranquil and pleasant flight, whether above 15,000 feet in terrain or down lower, on a windy day or not, does not require operating the controls of the aircraft like it is an F-16 in battle. The actual inputs to the controls on a typical mountain flight, inclusive of those that are of technical complexity, are relatively similar to a flight along the coast or over farm country. The only issue that complicates the matter is the presence of large vertical rocks in the way.
I approached the Alps as though they were the cream of the crop of danger and difficulty, at least with regard to the type of mountain flying that I do. I haven’t ventured to Alaska, Patagonia, or the Himalayas, so we’re talking about mountains that max out at just shy of 16,000 feet. While not the tallest, there are not too many ranges that exceed that height, so my determination is at least reasonable.
At any rate, drama around the “Föhn,” Europe’s equivalent to chinook winds, along with glaciers, sizable terrain, and a seemingly regular stream of fatal aircraft accidents cemented my view that the Alps were superior to the Rockies in Pyrenees in difficulty, danger, and height. The problem with my view surfaced from another pilot, a Czech individual who has been all over the world. While he wasn’t as enthused about mountain flying as I am, I asked how he was going to “handle” the Alps getting from Spain back to Eastern Europe. He replied, “It is not a big deal. There are two passes and I can go pretty low and it doesn’t take long to cross.” That reminded me of the only German that I spoke to in 2016 that openly dismissed the apparent doom flying into the Alps: “You can cross the Alps flying as low as 6,500 feet.” Considering that I had been based at 9,927’ MSL in the USA, that seemed to make a mockery of my presumptions.
It didn’t prevent an appropriate amount of dramatic and sometimes neurotic fear, until one day I asked myself where the fear went. Now, many readers will likely proclaim: “See! He is getting overconfident. The idiot is going to crash!” No sooner than I posited the question to myself did I decide to go flying on a nice sunny day. I wanted to get to the vineyards of the Rhône Valley in the Valais of Switzerland, to fly relatively low at 3,000’ MSL to see them in autumn color. At 5,500’, still in the Pre Alps, I managed to encounter 40 knot winds. Knowing that the funnel at Evionnaz and the turn at Martigny would be like the spin cycle of a washing machine, I gave up on the idea.
Therein lies what makes the Alps easy versus what makes them difficult. The ability to look out the window, see the sunshine, glance at the clouds, and have an intuition that “today will be a good flying day” means that a good read on weather and the sum total of alpine characteristics has been learned. After a confirmatory flight briefing, the question beckons: what is so dangerous about flying around on a sunny day with almost no wind, even if it is in the mountains?
Below I will break down some of the characteristics of mountain flying as some of them are very real, some are hyped, and some are contingent on the pilot and aircraft in question. Mountain flying is not unilaterally equally as dangerous in all circumstances; I would venture that, in certain circumstances, risk could be quite similar to flatland flying.
Dangers of Calm, Sunny Day Mountain Flying
- Emergency landing locations. Either locations are poor, there are less of them, or they are far from civilization. It depends on the situation whether this factor is worse than other types of flying (certain hilly and populated coastal locations are worse than mountains).
- Terrain Height. If the terrain exceeds the service ceiling of the aircraft, then terrain becomes a literal obstacle, which can introduce loads of complications. If an aircraft can fly above the range in question, dangers differ.
- “Calm, sunny day flying” can turn into something else, such as clouds, wind, and thunderstorms. While that is a risk anywhere, the problem is worsened if a pilot is thrust into a situation above his or her skill level in high terrain.
- Distance from Airports. Most mountain ranges of significance mean a greater distance from airports, which means less in the way of alternates.
- If down in terrain, flight service is often out of radio range, and flight paths can become curvy and more complex.
- Some pilots do not perform well physically in high altitude. Others may perform entirely normal, though not have much in the way of experience to understand what those thresholds are and if they are a problem. If the altitude in question requires expensive oxygen that the pilot does not have, then the point is moot.
- Aircraft Limitations. I was flying a Cessna 152 once in Virginia and decided to head above the clouds. When the airplane wouldn’t climb anymore at 9,200 feet, I thought there was a problem, so I emailed the flight school upon my return. “That’s as high as she’ll go.” If the airplane in question won’t climb or climbs terribly, then that might put an end to ambitions for some mountain ranges.
- Density Altitude. DA is the most pernicious when it comes to takeoff performance. Many airports in the US West are found at 4,000’ to 8,000’ (or higher), coupled with hot summers whereas the highest flat airport in Europe is at 5,600’, with average cooler summer temps than the US West. A spam can aircraft that needs 6,000 feet of runway to get off the ground is a serious problem. DA shows up when trying to climb at high altitude and unable to do so, though it is only problematic if coupled with another problem (inability to escape (below) or wind).
- Aside from skill and aircraft limitation, this is one of the biggest points that is missed. A spam can at 12,000’ entering a mountain bowl too low and too slow may end in death (I watched a video on just such a fatal accident outside of Telluride). A PA-11 or Super Cub in the same bowl can turn on a dime and leave. The difference between end-of-life and exploring another mountain feature (even if having miscalculated) boils down to the airplane. A fast cruising airplane near surface ceiling with no climb ability left is terribly dangerous if approaching terrain from below without enough room to do a 180. Sadly, this kind of accident repeats itself all too much.
- Wind energy in the mountains is about 10 times as complicated as flatland wind energy. It creates rotors, waves, and also different wind directions. A prevailing westerly wind will snake through terrain, locally changing direction as much as 90 degrees either way, before rejoining the prevailing flow on the other side. These winds over passes and down valleys can be stronger than at higher altitude (or not). Wind also tends to be associated with orographic lift and localized precipitation.
If there isn’t a situational or structural factor that categorizes a proposed flight as dangerous or impossible, then the difference between aviation in a large mountain range being easy and safe or difficult and dangerous boils down to one factor: knowledge. When I speak of knowledge, I am talking about it in the sense that, if a pilot knows what is happening in the mountains and knows how he and his airplane will respond, then a dangerous flight can be made safe and easy. The problem, however, is that only so much can be taught in a classroom setting. Most mountain knowledge is acquired through experience, as it is a complex art.
The ability to have a mountain flight take place with minimal turbulence and normal control inputs, including around the summit of the highest mountain in Europe with 50 kt winds, boils down to knowledge. There are places on that day where the airplane would likely be shredded by the wind or hurled into something inanimate. There are places on that same day, where the strong wind has no turbulence, and the flight is like touching heaven. The barrier between the two isn’t separated by much, which means knowledge is the difference between life and death, serenity and terror, general aviation and a crash statistic.
While an extreme factor, most mountain flying dangers are localized issues that lurk in specific, predictable places, with consequences from light turbulence all the way to catastrophe. Those things change day in and day out, as wind direction and weather systems come and go. One evening might present a physical impossibility for flight, whereas the next morning might be serene, where later that day news of a plane crash in the same area could be heard. I have personally been in the air in each of the Alps, Pyrenees, and the Rockies while someone has crashed within 10 miles of my flying location, which unfortunately is the most extreme manifestation of the localized nature of mountain flight danger. All of those days were partly to mostly sunny with light wind.
For me, the most salient takeaway some years into my mountain flying endeavors is the lack of an underlying neurotic terror. While I love flying in the mountains more than anywhere else, I have done it for years with a hyper tuned sensitivity to the dangers that lurk a few miles or less from where I am flying. Certainly, additional flying experience helps, as does reading more and more weather forecasts (to compare to reality), as well as hiking to many of these locations. Many valleys, ridges, and summits are no longer new to me, including the village, open area, or other emergency landing location below that I previously flagged mentally. Despite the passage of time, I am resistant to the idea that flying in the Alps is somehow deprived of danger. Perhaps it is less work for me to pull it off now, though that won’t be the reason I nearly fly into my next metaphorical fence.
Book #24 has been published, “Alps in Monochrome.” It is a compendium of aerial photographs taken in the style of Ansel Adams, landscapes in vivid black and white.