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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 6)

Emotional Distance

While we tend to measure distance literally in the space between two points, the concept of “emotional distance” is something that has come to the forefront since I began flying in foreign countries. The concept is rather simple: long flights tend to involve more work, skill, risk, and complexity. Accordingly, if we have not done something ambitious before or are younger pilots, then those flights seem riskier and potentially difficult. Add such things as major metropolitan airspace, large mountains, wilderness areas, and large bodies of water and one gets the idea. Our emotional response to the distance involved is proportional to the actual distance.

The first time the reality hit home for me that emotional distance does not always equate to actual distance was in the US while flying over Yellowstone. Something about an entirely forested, bear inhabited plateau with few good emergency options, elevation of over 8,000 feet, large lakes, sulfuric boiling ponds of liquid, strong winds on the north and east outlet points, and some distance to airports stacked up to make me tense before I would take a flight over the place. Other than that, many ambitious flights in the US were correlated to how long they took.

Europe is self-evidently more complicated from an airspace standpoint, though that is only the beginning. Terrain and climate zones change much faster in areas bordering the Mediterranean than the Continental US. Add in obvious national borders, lower airport density, a very complex airport network, and now one can understand why a flight of a similar distance feels infinitely more complicated, almost as though it is literally much farther away.

Those factors one can desensitize to over time, as I have partially done. There are still some flights, generally involving major mountain ranges, where it seems entire worlds change in a short period of time. While the element of national borders, climate zone changes, and airspace are real, there is something almost intangible about it. The first time I experienced it was flying from Pic Canigou, France to the Mediterranean coast. In the space of 20 minutes, I went from snow in the Pyrenees to palm trees adorning the beach. It is hard to grasp such a massive change so quickly.

Before coming to the Alps, I noted on the map how interesting things seemed down on the Italian side of the range. It is technically not that far, though one must go up and over the Alps, transitioning from Central European weather to mountains and then straight into the Mediterranean. While it can be done if the forecast is right, there was still something seemingly “distant” about it, to the point that, I had not done it. Many times, I had flown along the southern ridge of the Alps, given pause not by the glaciers I was above, but by looking down into Italy, trying to get my head around the complexity of going from one side of the range to another.

I decided to knock the item off my list, saving the aggravations of customs by flying from the northern side of Switzerland to the Italian-speaking section of the country. On the south side of the Alps, it is a section of the country that protrudes into Italy. Geographically and linguistically, it’s the same. Politically, maybe not so much.

The intended flight path was only 77 nautical miles direct, with a refueling point in Locarno, before returning a slightly different way. I planned to fly along Lake Maggiore in Italy and take a different pass coming back, so the actual flights would end up roughly 130 miles each, by no means very long. Then again, I grew up about the same distance from Lock Haven and we never did fly there. My grandfather bemoaned that it was “too far away” and “there is nowhere to land in those forests in Northern Pennsylvania.”

Climbing out from Gstaad Airport.

Over the pass between Lenk and Adelboden.

The Gasterntal, just before crossing Gemmipass to my right.

Brig and the Obergoms.

Simplon Pass.

The friendly little Rossbodegletscher.

Approaching Italy.

Italy, near Varzo. 

Toce River south of Domodossola. I went from cold with my winter coat to flaming hot. Flying at 2,500′ MSL.

About to leave the foothills of the Alps.

Lago Maggiore!

I have resigned myself to getting wet if the engine quits. Not like the shorelines of this body of water are inviting…..

Locarno Airport. Note that there are three runways. I was cleared to land runway 26 center. It has come to my attention that this is my first landing at an airport with more than one parallel runway.

Maggia river on climb out. My flight path was to follow the Maggia and hang a left at the Bavona River, then over the ridge toward Grimselpass.

Working my way up the valley.

Looking back from where I came.

Approaching the ridge and, uh-oh, some showers and small thunderstorms on the other side. Perhaps this “emotional distance” business is rather real.

Annual snowpack with the Ghiacchiaio del Basodino glacier at the top.

Obergoms again. My outbound path was right to left almost to the horizon. Note Ulrichen closed airport bottom left, and Munster Airport a little off center in the valley. That would be an alternate if need be.

Oberaargletscher. The holy trinity: thunderhead, glacier, and deep snow.

The Grimselpass, relatively low at 7,099′, was blocked by the towering clouds to the right. I had to climb to 12,500′ to sneak over the Bernese Alps ridge.

While it looks pretty awful, radar and other observations indicated it should be ok just on the other side.

Looking back. Note the glacier on the bottom right.

Well past the ridge, looking back. Grindelwald is hiding in the black on the right. 

Diverted around Interlaken due to a growing shower. Aiming for the sunny Swiss Plateau and take it from there.

After some lovely lightning bolts, the storm began to move to the south. Thunersee. Alternate airport just out of sight to the right, bathed in sun.

Approaching the circuit. While some 10,000 foot peaks are clouded in to the left, Saanetschpass in the center was open apparently. Clearly there is some reality behind the complexity of crossing the Alps and landing. Total flying time: 4.5 hours. Arrive-at-the-hangar to leave-the-hangar time of 7 hours.

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.

What’s wrong with this picture?

An excellent artifice to take stock of the status of one’s situation as a pilot is to focus on what one is excited about. We all know what it was like to tell war stories as a student pilot about light to moderate crosswinds, which was at the time the most exciting thing to happen in an airplane. It would be natural to assume that a regularly active pilot would have more and more adventures under his or her belt, so the level to which something becomes exciting or novel would elevate.

I would expect that proposition to be linearly true if I stayed in the United States. I would have likely dragged the Cub well into Canada and possibly Alaska by this point, ratcheting up the adventure component, not-so-ironically flying in mountains that look quite like the Alps, and then some. As that did not happen, it exposes some additional dimensions which, as I have alluded to, do not always open the mind.

The first thing that caused me to wonder if I need some sort of psychological assistance is the practice of getting excited about my monthly invoice for my home-based airport. I have various photography and logging methods that keep track of flying, which means that every one to three months, I go back and update the official logbook. Thus, I don’t precisely recall where and when I went flying; I just go and let the chips fall, which they do in this case in the form of a monthly bill. The absolute perversion is that I have gotten to the point where I am excited if the bill is higher! For the month of April, it was “only” $192.31, which meant I went flying “only” seven times. My record is $274.73, which is ten times in a month, which I seem, again, perversely determined to break.

The second thing that raised an eyebrow is how I have convinced myself that I am now Indiana Jones with my landings at non-home-based airports. As I have ranted about before, European airports as a whole, country notwithstanding, tend to have a wide variety of categories, with a cornucopia of unique rules, charges, operating hours, and aggravations. The bottom line is that one cannot do what I used to do in the US: a flight briefing checking weather and TFRs for the whole area, NOTAMs for the intended refueling point, and then change my mind in flight (checking the AF/D and NOTAMs in the air). Here, much more research is involved and, in the case of Switzerland, PPRs (Prior Permission Required) are generally the norm, except for towered airports. That means picking something and sticking to it, with its attendant planning steps.

Since the last post, I landed at three other airports. Emotionally, it feels like I am some sort of ace pilot maverick though, much like my glee at how high I can ratchet a landing fee invoice, it has a certain perversion of logic to it. I recall days in the US where I landed at more than three different new airports in a single day. For that matter, I landed at four in one day in France on the escape from Germany in 2016, and at three each day for two days in a row while crossing from the Pyrenees to the Portuguese Coast in 2018.

I did recently experience the dreaded nightmare that caused this inertia. One of the things I am afraid of is either landing at a field and realizing that I broke some rule, or down to reserve and finding some reason why I cannot get fuel. There is another reality that prevents trying in the first place: PPRs. The first PPR I ever obtained required filling out a form on the web and waiting for email permission to land. Fortunately, it came within the hour, before the intended maintenance flight later that day. Somehow, I thought they all were like this, and I thought to myself: “How on earth am I ever going to go anywhere if I must get permission the day before, or if I don’t know if and when they will reply?” In my insistence to conquer this problem in the last two months, I forced myself to deal with it and found that each airport is different. Most are a quick phone call where they jot down the tail number and are rather flexible, which resulted in getting comfortable.

Not so fast! The day in question was after a long period of bad weather, in advance of a raging windstorm due the next day. There was going to be some “south Föhn,” which is problematic where I wanted to go. I wasn’t sure how much of this Föhn was going to blow, though the intended airport of Bad Ragaz is known as the worst in Switzerland for when south Föhn is blowing. Sure enough, it was a bit frisky that morning, so I devised an alternate. That resulted in a bunch of phone tag the morning of the flight to arrange a PPR. As I thought about it, every flying club aircraft in Switzerland was in the air at that moment. A perfect summerlike day in Spring, with impeccable visibility, no wind, and good glider lift? The PPR guy would obviously be out fueling and running around managing a litany of airplanes (that got their PPR the day before). I eventually chose candidate number three, for which the same thing happened, so I found number four, that had a phone recording PPR and the AIP said avgas was available for visitors on weekends. Just in time, airport number three called back, and I visited there some hours later.

While I can be descriptive as to the logistical vagaries belying my disproportionate excitement over landing at three other airports, it really is a reminder that something is wrong with this picture that I am excited with only three in a month. Since there is nothing one can do about the airport network, I am going to have to ratchet up the determination to untangle the situation and, at times, get the motivation up to snuff to keep at it.

The third reaction this month to my flying that I found interesting relates to two separate flights: one to above the summit of Mont Blanc (summit: 15,771’ flight: 16,200’) and a second flying in and out of the upper glacial valleys of the major glacier basins in and around the Aletschgletscher. Both of those were incredibly calming and pleasant, “how flying is supposed to be.” I recently had a way to drive this point home when chatting with the airport attendant at Reichenbach. I mentioned how “flying in this very south Föhn wind at the summits does not bother me. It is the airports, ATC, traffic, and turbulence down low that is a problem.” It’s funny how having to explain it to someone else coalesces the whole thing.

Much like how normal pilots find dread from the landing fee invoice while regularly flying outside of the wilderness conveniently and safely enjoying airspace and airport services, they tend to find flying over glaciers and wind shorn summits to be mildly disconcerting. I suppose it took reviewing what I find exciting and noteworthy to take stock of the whole thing. Despite my oft stated rationale behind it, I am not an Indiana Jones pilot for landing at three new airports in a month.

One of the rare opportunities to run errands using the Cub and have it be worth the time.

Thunderbolt Display successfully delivered to the Apple repair shop. Now don’t lose an engine climbing out from Lausanne. So far, Lausanne Airport is the closest to general aviation procedurally to the USA, as it is uncontrolled and public (no PPR).

Vierwaldstättersee, the site of getting beaten by south Föhn winds in February. I flew down the lake and into the valley this time.

Tight quarters however not an issue when the wind is out of the north.

Fuel. The only thing that gives away that its not in Wyoming is the ‘propeller whacking a head’ warning sign in German. Triengen.

Why Bad Ragaz was out of the picture. A breeze over Eiger and Mönch, which was translating into south Föhn in places.

And now the relaxing stuff. Mont Blanc (15,771′) from below.

From 16,200′ with Aosta Valley in the background.

Finsteraarhorn (14,022′) from the south. 

Finsteraarhorn from the north.

 

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.

An Irrational Fear of Airports

The issue with airports in Europe has been a cumulative problem since my arrival. While I had an initial burst of enthusiasm (delusion) in Germany, the situation calcified in Spain with a near phobia of airport chaos, such that I didn’t land outside of my base airport for over six months. Eventually, I snapped out of it and settled into a middle ground.

As previously described, the problem resurfaced in Switzerland. Ironically in this case, my first forays here were met with a similar enthusiasm, where I landed at a few technically challenging locales. I was so starstruck with the Alps that I was willing to dive in and figure things out as I went. That lasted for a while, until a combination of COVID and calcification of the mind caused the problem to come back.

Sure, a slow plane with one tank coupled with legitimate extra steps for airport visits in Europe does contribute to the problem. The other is a sort of mindset that creeps in imperceptibly, where it becomes simply easier not to. While there are plenty of places to visit in a reasonably short range, over and over a line of reasoning developed: why go to these places, put up with complicated and unique procedures, and pay a bunch of fees, when I don’t really need the fuel where they are located, and I can fly in the Alps instead? Who would have thought that stunning beauty would be an excuse for lazy closemindedness?

Like Spain, where it was the month of March where a complex web of seasonality and biology likely interacted to cause an exit from “airport hibernation,” it was this month of March where I equally and suddenly snapped out it. Sure, I had visited Wangen-Lachen (LSPV) near Zürich in February (terrifying myself with south Föhn winds), though that really in my mind was an errant dose of exuberance that changed little. I had terrain I badly wanted to see and forced myself to test out the place as a fuel stop.

A funny lineage led to this new reality. I had been invited to join the Fluggruppe Saanenland, a small club of pilots in the local area. After sending in a membership form, I received audited financials, bylaws of the Swiss verein, and a small invoice; the Swiss are, if anything, orderly. After receiving a few newsletters in German, I eventually received a few small magazines from the Aero Club Berner Oberland, which is apparently the regional parent club for the small group that I had joined. Many months after that, I started getting “Flying Revue,” a magazine in German from Aero Club Schweiz, the national aero club, which is apparently higher on the totem pole than the regional club. When the second magazine arrived, I thought to myself “this is not going to be free.” Sure enough, an invoice in German came two weeks later, for which I could not tell if it was an actual bill, or one of those membership solicitations where the invoice is included for “ease of joining.” It dutifully listed my involvement in Fluggruppe Saanenland and Aero Club Berner Oberland, with specific nominal surcharges associated with each. Given the reasonable amount and my disinterest navigating the situation in German, I paid it. That resulted in the next magazine, where there was an article about “Flugparcours 2021.”

Apparently, at the centenary of Swiss aviation in 2010, there was a similar Flugparcours, where pilots would fly to ten airports in Switzerland in honor of the anniversary. It was repeated every two years since. While I am not sure if said Flugparcours is the exact same ten airports or if they vary, there is a form with all the airports, a place to enter details, receive a signoff that a visit was completed, and a deadline to get it done by October 2021. Apparently, if I do complete it successfully, I send the form in and I get added to a list.

For some reason, that did it. I decided to get off my rear and start visiting some other places, for the simple reality that landing at other airports can actually be something other than mind-bendingly complicated. Besides, if there is a national scheme to encourage landings at these places, surely they will not snarl at the idea of visitors?

I knocked two of them off: La Côte (LSGP) and Neuchâtel (LSGN). Ironically, Langen-Wanchen is on the list, so three are done. I also decided to start work on my instrument rating, so I flew to Yverdon-les-Bains (LSGY) to meet with an instructor, although it was not on the Flugparcours list. It is ironic that visiting other airports is a reminder that landing at the same base airport over and over (and nowhere else) is NOT good for making smooth landings….

While meeting with the instructor, I began snarling about PPRs (Prior Permission Required), and he had an excellent explanation, which was accented by having spent many years in the USA, so he is familiar with my American-centric perspective. Basically, all of the PPR airports are private. While they look and act like public airports (maintenance facilities, fuel, flight schools, paved runways, etc.), they are under tremendous regulatory pressure if they were to operate officially as a “public” airport, which comes with insurance, noise, and other complications. It is a form of ducking under onerous rules to operate privately. For some reason, I had deduced that the PPR requirement had something to do with FOCA statistics, and it does not. Most airports I have talked to just want a quick phone call, tail number, and aircraft type (to verify the visit is not ill advised) and that’s the end of the PPR issue.

At any rate, I have set my mind to visit the rest of the list. And, while I am at it, why not visit the ones that aren’t on the list? We’ll see.

I mistakenly pressed the wrong button and got a 10x time lapse video from my Go Pro. Below is a 4 minute rendition of the flight from Gstaad Airport (LSGK) to La Côte (LSGP).

Climbout from La Côte. Unsurprisingly, that means “the coast.”

Right hand downwind for Neuchâtel. The body of water is Lake Neuchâtel.


Climbout from Neuchâtel, with the city of Neuchâtel along the lake. In the event of engine failure, one’s options consisted of impacting a hard object or getting wet.


Climbout Yverdon-les-Bains.


Some exploits in the past month that didn’t necessarily involve other airports….

Jura Mountains from France. Geneva airport is in the center, along with the Large Hadron Collider lurking amongst all this farmland.

Bütlasse. It has been a bit cold this March in the cockpit…

Sunset on the Spitzhorn, with a 35 knot breeze.

Mt. Blanc, France (15,771′) from above Chamonix. Visiting another airport is not necessary to see this. 

Grosses Engelhorn. No airport stop necessary…

Summit of the Matterhorn (14,692′) with Dufourspitze (15,203′) in the background. This does not bother me as much as airport gymnastics.

Doldenhorn with a bit of a breeze from roughly, 12,400 feet. It is almost comical that flying in such a circumstance is rather relaxing whereas I have to reach deep down to find the motivation to overcome my reticence to land elsewhere….

Book #30 is done: Pobles de la Cerdanya. It is a photo journey of unique villages in Spanish and French Cerdanya, viewed over multiple years from the Cub.

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.

Flying in the Alps is That Dangerous

This post is a follow up both to last month’s, where I bemoan the aggravation of landing at other airports, and November 2020, where I posit the idea that flying in the Alps really isn’t that dangerous. I seemed to have turned both ideals on their head in one afternoon of flying.

As noted previously, there is a reality that Swiss airports require a filing either of a flight plan or a “flight notification” indicating details where one is going. Non-towered airports tend to have a PPR (“prior permission required”) requirement, where one has to file similar data in advance and receive a written reply granting permission to fly. Given that I tend to associate freedom with aviation, I find it stressful to determine that I will fly somewhere at precisely a certain time on a certain day, and to decide that sufficiently in advance to get approval. I think it is a ridiculous affront to the very concept of the freedom of private aviation in domestic, uncontrolled airspace. But who am I, but an ignorant foreigner spouting such ideas?

Anyway, Wangen Airport, on the shores of the Zurichsee, solves the PPR problem by requiring visitors to phone in and listen to a recording in German. Done. Incoming and outgoing documentation is solved with a self-service terminal in the C office, which works anytime airport operating hours indicate it is open, whether or not attended. Done. There remains the pesky matter of fuel. Can I fuel and pay, during airport hours, if not attended? An email went unanswered, so I googled and found a flight school on the airport, called, and eventually spoke with a flight instructor. He explained that the airport is always attended on weekends, though hit or miss during the week, and suggested that I text if I plan on coming during the week, to see if he will be there instructing. While I may rail against the “system,” it is often true that pilots in any country are a supportive bunch.

I eventually decided to come on a warm February Sunday afternoon. I was hoping to see the Glarus Alps, a section I had not yet viewed, and then refuel at Wangen, before returning to base. However, I made the boneheaded move to fail to notice in advance that my transponder inspection ran out at the end of January. Checking the Swiss AIP, I found that Mode S is required “in class E above 7,000 feet,” where Class E tends to be 2,000’ AGL and higher in the Alps. While most would think that 2,000 feet is enough, peak-to-valley elevation change can be as much as 12,000 feet, which means that one would have to do a bunch of yo-yoing through the Alps, which is untenable in a poky old Cub.

This is where I hatched the “brilliant” scheme to fly the foothill regions of the north side of the Alps. That changes this post from one about the vagaries of airport rules to one where I have upended my presumption that alpine flying is somehow not dangerous.

While it was a sunny day, there was a curious reality with regard to the weather. Upper-level winds up to 20,000 feet were not screaming. There was more than one high pressure zone firmly parked in Central Europe, with a 10 hPa (0.295 in hg) pressure differential between the southern and northern Alps, with higher pressure over Milan, Italy. For some reason, pressure did not want to relieve itself going up and over the Alps; rather, it was “pressed” down and squeezing through the deep valleys of Evionnaz, Grimselpass, Andermatt/Altdorf, Mollis, and Bad Ragaz. How does one know this? While winds at the Jungfrau were tranquil, they were 30kt gusting 40kt and higher in weather stations at the aforementioned points. While that seems frisky, these are weather stations at passes or valleys, where peaks of the Alps and the general entire area north of the Alps was almost calm. If one doubts the severity of what I am speaking of, the day before, my wife and I drove to Andermatt, where the same winds were blowing. The Obergoms Valley of Ulrichen had no wind. On the other side of the mountain in Andermatt, we saw a woman get blown over while walking. We attempted a “pleasant afternoon stroll in the Alps” and found interference walking on groomed snow-covered paths, got back in the car, descended toward Altdorf, and the wind disappeared.

In my “Is Flying in the Alps that Dangerous” post, I basically posited the notion that weather in the Alps is fairly predictable. If winds are excessive or a storm exists, don’t go flying. If it is docile and pleasant, supposing that the prop keeps spinning and one manages to not fly into the side of a mountain, then it generally works out fine. That all hinges on a fairly basic concept: that a pilot has a full grasp of existential dangers. As long as one is not surprised, then it’s fine.

I got surprised. Part of the problem was my self-imposed altitude limitation of 7,000 feet. I went west to east between Interlaken and the Jungfrau, over Grosse Scheidegg above Grindelwald, with no wind. As I flew along the massive rock face of the Grosses Engelhorn, I had a thought cross my mind: “You’re about to come out where this rock face ends abruptly into a wind funnel coming from Grimsel Hospiz.” I turned north toward Meiringen, just in enough time to get tossed around like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Assuming Sustenpass would be fine, I intended to continue eastward in the same geographic trench that I was already in. As I got to the other side of the wind funnel, airplane crabbing into the angry wind, I was tossed around much worse, even though I was on the windward side of Sätteli. Even perpendicular to the Triftgletscher, with the sizable Winterberg Massif supposedly blocking winds, I was riding an angry bronco, so I turned north and aborted where I took Brünigpass to Stans, crossing over a saddle south of Stanserhorn, to avoid Class D airspace (due to my transponder silliness). Did I mention that the frequency south of Meiringen, where I was getting the snot beaten out of me, was filled with airplanes at all sorts of altitudes, having a grand old time?

As I hugged terrain heading northeast, wind was tranquil again. It was fine crossing a saddle south of Buochserhorn, playing my game with 7,000-foot limitations. It was upon attempting to fly east along the southern shore of the Vierwaldstättersee, north of a small hill called the Zingelberg where I started riding the bronco again. I crossed the lake north, at 4,500 feet, now hugging the south slopes of Rigi Hochflue, getting beaten even worse. Now at maneuvering speed, sweating (might have something to do with OATs of almost 70F due to Chinook winds), and confused why I am riding this angry bronco, a low wing fabric airplane passes me on the right slowly, not experiencing an ounce of the misery I was. The stick flying in all directions, wings rocking left and right, and bouncing around, this other airplane sails on by without a care in the world!

“I’ll follow him,” I thought to myself, now going east over the lake. He climbed slowly, disappearing into the sky without a problem, so I thought I could do the same toward Mollis and the canton of Glarus. Wrong. South of Grosser Mythen, the turbulence began with a jackhammer like intensity. I brought the power back to 1500 RPM and slowed down, and things were not improving. Getting whacked by some errant air movement so hard I had to question “how well a 72-year-old airframe is going to put up with this,” I began a gentle turn to abort. Forget the Alps. I am escaping to the lowlands to the north.

Normally, turbulence is easier going with the wind. At 1500 RPM, gently proceeding north, 3,000 feet above rolling, gentle farmland, the inverse of the jackhammer occurred, where I suddenly found myself pointed nose virtually straight down and the airplane about 70 degrees to the side. The action was so violent that I pulled power to idle, went trim up, and rode the misery for another five minutes before it quit.

And then it was done. A beautiful day in Switzerland without any bumps. One can almost sense the cows chewing on grass peacefully below. Moo.

The strange thing is, while I can source a very limited wind funnel in various valleys of the Alps, I was 26.6 statute miles north of the worst of it (where the lady got blown over). Recall that the entirety of the alpine region had virtually calm wind readings, from summits to cities of the plateau to the north, with a few valleys with high wind readings. Other airplanes were filling the skies, enjoying a “wonderful” Sunday. Another airplane passed me, upwind of my misery, without any hint of distress. And yet, somehow, almost 27 miles from the wind funnel, I find myself in the tumble dry setting…

At this point, I was flustered. My mind began the taunts: “See. This is what happens when you land at other airports!” to which the other part of my mind replied with: “Knock it off! You’re 13nm from your destination. Just land there so you can get this neurosis out of your system!” One would think that a nearby airport in such circumstances would provide comfort, and yet I was still more traumatized by unknowns around paperwork then some very real and unpleasant wind. Literally, I prefer to fly at 16,000 feet above Mont Blanc in 50 knot winds, if I can land back at my base airport, than to try new airport procedures!

The landing at Wangen went fine, with roughly three knot winds. The airport attendant explained the source of my woes: “FOCA (Federal Office of Civil Aviation) wants their statistics.” I would imagine that Swiss pilots would be more than happy to dispense with the paperwork if they could, to which I wonder why nobody has either a) engaged FOCA to discuss this ridiculous overload of paperwork and intrusion of privacy or b) sued them under Swiss’ constitutional presumptions of privacy and freedom. Maybe they have and failed. Alas, that is for another day. One has to live through the infamous Föhn wind in order to then complain about the paperwork necessary for the flight.

So there, I have landed somewhere else, while experiencing the fourth most terrifying incident in the PA-11. Getting turned upside down in Virginia still takes the cake for number one, which is curious, as both of them were in mountains at very low altitudes on sunny days….

Climbing out approaching Lenk. A tad of wind.

East of Frutigen, playing the “7000 foot game.” No wind.


Thunersee to the north. No wind.


Mönch & Eiger in the distance. Shall I belabor the point that there was no wind?

About to slink over Grosse Scheidegg at 7,000 feet or so.


As this ridge sloped to the left, it occurred to me that the wind funnel from Grimsel Hospiz would be an abrupt problem.


Tail between the legs, heading north to Brünigpass.


Vierwaldstättersee. Pilatus Mountain to the left. I was riding the bronco here. 


26 miles north of Andermatt, riding the bronco, after getting passed by an airplane that was in a bubble of tranquility.


Lauerzersee. One minute after getting jackhammered.


Entering the circuit at Wangen. Zürich on the far end of the lake.


Swiss Appalachia. On the way back, well out of the Alps. No wind.


Thunersee. I went west to east beneath the largest peaks on the left without a problem, yet was in a similar scene as this over the Vierwaldstättersee and got trounced. The Föhn is clearly fickle.


Book #29 is done: Cadí-Moixeró & El Pedraforca. These were favorites to fly over in the Pyrenees and have been monumentalized in print.

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.

Five years of Europe

Between last month’s post and this one, the five-year anniversary has passed, both of the PA-11 getting unloaded from the container and touching German soil, and of our disembarking a 747 in Frankfurt with our cat and dog, driving in a jetlagged stupor to our new home in Germany at the time. If there is ever a time to reflect on the original plan versus how it turned out, that would be now.

The Alps figured into the plan from the beginning. The wording was “we expect to find ourselves in the Swiss or Austrian Alps eventually.” My mental idea was that it would take two or three years, as we hoped to do Germany an appropriate justice, which is to say that I wanted to go to university to work on the next degree while integrating into the local culture. It is an understatement to point out that none of the above happened, finding myself later in that year in the Pyrenees, though the plan has worked partially as anticipated, for none of the original reasons.

If one were to take any five-year period in life, there would be an element of personal evolution, independent of the cultural realities of living abroad. That is to say that, if I remained in the United States, we still would have faced a relocation in late 2015 and, in hindsight, would have continued to try to reconcile unsustainable mountain town development, ever increasing costs, and rapid housing turnover with my desire to live near and fly in very large mountains. In effect, I can say that I have exchanged certain aggravations for other ones in pursuit of the same goal in the past half decade.

I expected aviation to be more difficult in Europe than the USA and was aware that many costs would be vastly higher. As those who have read my more vitriolic posts are well aware, many things surprised me on levels I could not have imagined though, once I got the hang of it, I could acclimate and factor about 60% of the nonsense and find a way to press forward. Did I ever think that I wouldn’t care about $27 landing fees? I regularly get presented with landing fee invoices well in excess of $200 per month, and I have gotten to the point that I do not think of them while flying. “You only live once,” so I go flying when I want and that is that.

One thing I that I have not been able to conquer, much to my dismay, is the utter lack of desire to fly great distances like I used to do in the US. I simply do not like landing at other airports apart from the then current home, unless I have gotten to know the place and figure out what the procedures are. I can’t think of many places where one pays the landing fee and fuel both seamlessly and in the same place. It is often a dance of running around the airport to fill out reams of paperwork to pay exorbitant fees, which usually means refueling is about a two-hour process, instead of 38-45 minutes in US airports. Add that to 4 to 6 hours of flying, and the process takes all day, which means that it is rare. I have tried time and again to smack myself into some form of motivation to “get over it,” and it is astonishingly infrequent that I can seem to rouse myself to do.

As a case in point, I have this glaring hole of terrain that I would like to visit in Switzerland, in the Alps from Andermatt east to Liechtenstein. That necessitates about 5 hours in the air plus a fuel stop, so I found a nice little airport not far from Zürich, ideally situated with regard to proximity and microclimates. While the official aerodrome chart indicates that there is avgas and specific operating hours, that is not enough to go by. There is also a “PPR” (prior permission required) requirement, which is common in Switzerland, though muddling through the website in German I found that the PPR requirement can be satisfied by listening to a recording on the phone before visiting, though the recording is in German and my language skills are inadequate to process aeronautical details in such a fashion. I’ll solve that by getting someone to call for me, though the problem that remains is something on the site about how to handle paying the landing fee if the airport is open, but it is unattended. It mentions nothing of the same for fuel, so it is imperative to find out if fuel is automatic or not, and if automatic, how does one pay? Payment in Europe is anything but consistent: some are Total cards only, Air BP cards only, cash only, or all of the above inclusive of major credit cards. In any case, I email in German and English to get the scoop and…two weeks later…no reply, which means back to getting a friend to call and sort it out. One can understand why, when there are pretty mountains and scenery nearby, I land and takeoff from the home base airport and forget the aggravation.

In any case, I’d like to find a way to “get over it.” It likely will involve an expensive installation of a second fuel tank in the PA-11, as my three-hour range, coupled with low airport density in mountains and an incredibly slow airplane, is a significant deterrent. This remains on my personal “to do” list, as there are 27 countries in the EU, with more in Europe as a whole, and the Cub has only been to 9 of them.

Back to reflecting on a half-decade of being outside of America, and I can safely say that most of my expectations and understanding were vastly incorrect, the bulk of which was cultural. I don’t think I am overly unique in my point of view, as many people back home draw certain conclusions about Europe, similar to how I used to think, that are not fully correct, requiring more than some visits to debunk. At the same token, while most everything that I thought was true turns out not to be, many other things turned out to be far better than I expected, in very subtle and cumulative ways.

For starters, there is virtually never an instance where I look at a flight in the Cub and have a chunk of time where I am simply letting it pass by to get somewhere. Countless times in the US, I would have a destination in mind, whether an airport or some scenery, and there were vast sums of repetitive space that needed to be overflown, which meant that I would go into a butt- and mind-numbing “road trip” mode, where I would get lost in my mind, letting the hours pass. Instead of a vivid flight filled with luscious discovery, I saw a day in three-hour flight legs, refueling as fast as humanly possible, and a reward at the end having flown as far as possible while the sun was up. The thought of doing that here is simply ludicrous as I am almost never bored in the air. All one has to do is look down and there is an endless cornucopia of castles, curvy roads, orchards, vineyards, rolling farms, mountain chalets, and the like to entertain oneself.

To that end, after what I consider a “good flight,” which is usually one with resplendent lighting and includes discovery of something new, I spend a moment reflecting after putting the airplane in the hangar, still struggling to believe that I am having these experiences at all, much less with the airplane that I used for my solo flight in 1997. I thought the feeling would go away quite a long time ago and, five years later, it hasn’t. Many have inquired of me privately why I put up with the frustrations of international living, and that is the answer, that the allure of what is around the next bend is greater than the joy of raw aviation freedom in the US. Hopefully I can get over the bad combination of low & slow flying + European bureaucracy and start flying some longer distances.

In any case, I do have a new chapter in life that is soon to unfold, which should, if things go as planned, result in lots of more flying. Stay tuned.

Some photographs from recent escapades in the air….

Rime ice.

There was a sandstorm recently, blown up from the Western Sahara. So what did I do? Go flying! One reason most generally avoid sandstorms is that visibility changes rapidly, which is what happened for the worse. In any case, the below image is de-saturated and accurate to what it looked like in the air. The Cub got a new air filter afterward.

An “alp chalet” surrounded by avalanches.


I flew this valley on flight simulator and then did it in reality. The F-16 climbs better through here than my tired old O-200.


Vineyards with snow.

One way to solve the avalanche problem: build a dike to divert them.


Grand Combin (4314m / 14, 154′) with a tad too much wind. Staying low in the Alps tends to work.

Alp chalets covered in snow to the right, avalanche to the left.

Mt Blanc (center horizon, 15,174′) with mountain wave and wind on the lower ridges. I know how to thread the needle flying through these ranges without getting pummeled, though I have to be in the right mood for it.

The forecast called for more docile winds and, well, here we are. 

A rare swarm of paragliders in winter. 

This is actually a hiking refuge, buried to the roof. The structure to the right of it is completely buried.


Book #27 is here: Abstractions of the Alps, basically containing whatever I found to be particularly beautiful thus far in my alpine flying adventures.

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.

Ten years of Cub ownership

As the new year approached, it occurred to me that I have owned the Cub for now just over 10 years. There is nothing like the passage of time measured in a base 10 number for a tad bit of reflection. Instead of rambling on endlessly about many of the stories that I have already told, I realized that I have most of the expenses for the airplane readily available. What better way to summarize a decade of flying than to reduce it to some numbers to tell the story?

It turns out that I only have these records collated for calendar years 2013 to 2020, so we will go with that. I compiled a chart below of my effective hourly operating cost, as measured in US dollars. For the cost accountants among us, I decided to not include my commercial pilot certificate training costs, installation of new equipment, the move to Europe, nor the costs of my European pilot’s license (which, as I have ranted, were intemperate). Since 2020 for me was an utter bloodbath cash wise, spending record sums to keep the prop spinning, there had to be a better representation of maintenance costs. Can I really believe that the $500 I spent on maintenance in 2013 is fair compared to $12,500 in 2020 (it’s a Cub!!)? In effect, the restoration costs incurred by my grandfather made the early years fairly cheap. During the following years where I flew it like crazy, I was effectively racking up a bill for something so unfortunate as 2020. Thus, I took 8 years of maintenance costs, pooled them, and applied them based on hours flown. The result is below:

10 Years of Hourly Operating Costs

Now, I expected it to look something like this. The technical components are pretty simple: in 2015 I flew over 300 hours. 2017 and 2018 featured lots of flying, particularly in cheaper places like the Iberian Peninsula. 2019 and 2020 is the result of finding the most expensive country in Europe, flying in it, and then watching the Swiss franc appreciate in value rather strongly, making the problem worse.

So, what can be done about this problem? I shall reflect on a conversation I had when negotiating hangar space at a certain airport in Switzerland. The quote for rent was astonishing, to which I replied: “You’re quoting me 1/3rd of the value of the airplane, paid every year in rental costs.” Without as much as a shred of humor, the person replied: “Get a more expensive airplane.”

What is the solution? Fly more! I probably could get the rate down to about $140 if I reasonably increased flying hours, though that is about it, unless I go bonkers and repeat 2015. I did have to ask myself if owning my own aircraft is the most financially sensible option, for which I have a good cost comparison available. I am a member of the flying club in Gruyères, for which a PA-18-95 is available wet for 182 CHF/hr ($206), it being substantially the same airplane as mine. That includes everything but landing fees, which in my case, my effective [bloodbath] wet rate without landing fees is $175/hr. The advantage of the Super Cub is that everything is maintained without me having to lift a finger. The disadvantage is that the distance is difficult, and the plane is regularly booked by other members. Despite approaching equivalent rental costs, owning is still a better option for how I like to fly.

This exercise had a surprise emotional reality. I expected it to be little more than numbers, with an effective comparison of Europe vs America, with results that we all could predict. What I did not expect was to have the following reality smack me in the face: “Nothing has not been as good as 2015.” That was the year of living on Alpine Airpark in Wyoming and flying the wings off the airplane.

The truth is that 2015 was false in many ways. I flew probably 100 hours more than I would have normally, due to the impending move to Europe, which began in August 2015; such motivation would have been less if I did not have projects to finish. Housing availability on the airpark turns out to have been for us a very limited window where we were lucky and could not have reasonably expected it to continue past spring of 2016. Further, the alignment of factors that made Europe possible were many and all came together precisely when the housing situation in Wyoming went south. If we were faced with the same circumstances again, there is little doubt we would make the same decision again. It was opportunistic to have been in Wyoming in such a fashion and equally to come to Europe at that time.

That doesn’t change the fact that the best year for aviation was 2015 by a wide margin. Europe has thus far been astonishing on many levels, though this exercise woke me up to the fact that, despite world class scenery, I am staying too close to home and I would like to change that paradigm. While I won’t be able to recreate the raw freedom and introspective expanse of the American West, I have some ideas that I am considering.

Some pretty pictures from recent flights:

Chablais Alps on the French side of Lake Geneva. Accidentally flew into a light snow shower that I didn’t see and got a splatter of icing, for the first time ever.

Islands in the sky, on the NW side of the Alps in France. It seems this is rather common in winter.

Mont Blanc (15,774′) with some blowing snow. Chamonix, France is beneath the inversion.

Mosquetaire aircraft on skis taking off from Wildhorn, Switzerland. The smooth area is a glacier.

Outrunning a snow shower – Château-d’Oex, Switzerland.

Super Cubs on the Wildhorngletscher, Switzerland.

Book #26 has hit the shelves: “Flight of a Lifetime: A Monument to an Epic Flight in the Alps.

 

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.

Weather flight

When I first visit a mountain range, particularly one that I intend to do some flying in, I gaze from the car, train, or walkway up into terrain, wondering what it would be like to fly in such areas. Then my mind wanders to what kind of bad weather the place experiences. The natural evolution of this process is to imagine what kind of marginal days might exist which would be splendid to view from the air though questionable to pull off.

When in a new area, the obvious choice is to restrict flying to nice weather days. For me, that is often not only VFR but usually sunny as well. As we know, mountain winds are something that I do not mind surfing, though I don’t see the point in doing so if it is hazy or otherwise uncompelling, as I like to take impactful photographs. Too much in the way of clouds or other standard stormy weather usually isn’t worth it on either level.

When it comes to icing, dangerous wind, thunderstorms, and IMC, it is obvious that those days are ones where the Cub stands in the hangar. Most other airplanes do as well, as it is hard to pull off IFR flying deep in the mountains, unless one is landing at a long runway with a good ILS or RNAV approach, which is not usually the case in tight terrain. In any case, on those stormy “obvious” bad weather days, I am frequently looking out the window, assessing what is going on.

What interests me is to catalogue a basis for understanding if I were to get caught in unexpectedly bad weather. Does moderate rain tend to have low ceilings? Is it legal VFR, or if technical IFR, is it survivable in the Cub? Could I get fooled in such a situation, fly down a dead-end valley, and get boxed in behind me? If that happens, does it fog in below, or can I land in a field? These questions are going through my mind whether I am at home, in the car, or doing anything else on the worst of days; I’d like to know what I would do in that situation in the Cub, in that weather, in the mountains.

That lends to the number of times where the forecast is an “obvious” bad weather day, and it turned out to be anything but. Sure, it may have lower ceilings, some valley fog here and there, with precipitation coming and going, but did it ever become IFR at any point? Would I have been truly stuck if I went up? If I went up and things changed, could I make it back to the airport? Could I make to an escape route out of the mountains to another airport? I then login to webcams to examine my suppositions.

When I started mountain flying in Colorado, I can only count one marginal day that I flew. Nothing bad happened, though I filed in my mind that I “only flew on sunny days.” Forgetting my summer flying around the Appalachians (half the time in MVFR weather), I started flirting more actively with marginal days in Wyoming. It helped to live on the runway, so I could hop in the plane, circle around the valley, and dive back to the airport if things went south. Ultimately, I took next to no risks in that regard, only progressively beginning to chase beautiful cloud phenomena associated with weather after about 200 hours of Wyoming flying.

The Pyrenees opened up the floodgates of that kind of behavior, aided by time, the fact that the valley tended to stay VFR, and the reality that weather often parked itself over one of two ridges. I slowly nibbled at the question, until it became something regular to take a local flight on days that would be unacceptable to traverse a longer distance.

That still left the Alps as a wildcard. None of the aforementioned ranges had the notoriety, vertical relief, or precipitation count as high as the Alps. Treating it with appropriate respect, I reset my understanding when it came to what was acceptable and what was not.

It did not mean that I avoided looking out the window and asking myself how I’d handle being in the air, no matter what I was looking at. That led to some marginal days that I flew, where a cross country flight was out of the question, though a local one was not. It was a reality that has repeated itself enough times that the itch that demanded to be scratched was facing a bona fide stormy day.

In this instance, there was a stalled low driving a strong front into the southern Alps. As I would be taking off from the north side, it was evident that clouds bunching up against the Pennine Alps ridge would not be a problem on the north side, though Mediterranean moisture was so extreme, dumping over 3 feet of snow on the south side, that it was breaking containment on the north side, dropping some inches all the way into southern Germany. That front was parked to my east, with a variety of swirling clouds and other features in western Switzerland.

After extensive browsing of an official flight briefing, unofficial weather sources, micro models, 360 degree webcams all over the Alps, and my good old intuition, I decided that I wanted to do something new: I would leave the local area, cross the Bernese Alps into the Rhône Valley near Sion, and come back. I left myself the right to completely change my mind, and I had three alternate airports if the plan went south. The only way to truly gain some experience in this area would be to actually go up in the air and experience things firsthand. My goal was to compare how I feel on the ground in my personal throne where I suppose upon how I’d handle bad weather in the mountains, to how it felt in the cockpit.

I offer a narrated photo tour below of the flight in question.

Takeoff from Gstaad Airport, runway 26, 300′ AGL.

Between Leysin and Montreux, looking west toward France. Fairly clouded in below, but some surprise sun to the west.

Looking south, where I intend to go. Roc du Champion to the left, Dents du Midi (10,686′) to the right, occluded in some light snow. Bex Aerodrome available in the open valley before the stratus deck.

The Rhône River emptying into Lake Geneva. This kind of cloud deck is fairly common and shouldn’t move too much.

Some action in the Vaud Alps, though note Les Diablerets (10,000 feet or so) in the back, with the summits open. My intention is to get to the other side.

Martigny at the bend, with the intended flight to the left. Snow shower has abated and the stratus deck appears to not want to close. Alternate airport one mile below and 3 miles behind me.

Dents du Midi to my right. Snow shower showing no signs of snowflakes down here.

Rounding the bend, looking into the heart of the Alps in the Rhône Valley. Sion Airport in the gap in the clouds, most of the way down.

Had to call Sion Tower to get cleared through the CTR, due to terrain. No traffic was active other than rescue helicopters.

Approaching Sion. Believe it or not, I am in glide range of the airport and can do so VFR. It is just under the gap to the right. Darker clouds ahead are the big snowstorm pummeling other parts of the Alps.

Still in VFR glide range, though I have proven my point. Raron Airport is down the valley, though I am not sure it is open, and I am really extending myself if I plunge into the precipitation, try to get back, and find that things have changed. Time to head over the pass to my left.

Looking back from where I came, as I start climbing north. It looks worse than it is. A sliver remained open for Sion (for which I kept a leery eye). I also could have gone down to Martigny and flown under the cloud deck if need be.

Climbing toward Sanetschpass. Summits look clear, though some clouds I am unsure about ahead.

Sanetschpass on the right. Clouds seem inconsequential.

Crossing the pass. Clouds were there, actually – just hard to see.

On the north side, reassuring that things haven’t worsened to the west, as I had some concern clouds would grow from the NW. They were to my right from this point, as expected.

Virtually in glide range to Gstaad Airport. Massif du Vanil Noir on the right. Those low clouds were not there when I took off, so they were actually beginning to ooze up the valley. That phenomenon is extremely hard to forecast on some days.

North side of Vanil Noir.

Now heading toward the airport. Some days this cloud deck stays here…. all day. Other days, it moves up another 2 miles, and parks there. And other days, its devilish tentacles creep further up, cover the airport, and that is that.

Left hand downwind for runway 26.

Left base, runway 26, per the procedure. It is a “box” circuit around Gstaad.


All in all, it was uneventful, though one can see how, if I was wrong in my assumptions, it could have been quite eventful. There were always backups and options in mind, with clear weather to the west, though it is worth noting that nobody else was up during this flight, either in Gstaad or Sion.

Book #25 has been released, “Glaciers of the Bernese Alps.” It is something I am rather proud of, an aerial compendium of nearly every glacier in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland, which contain the largest glaciers in Continental Europe.

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.

Is Flying in the Alps that Dangerous?

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.

Showstoppers

  • 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).

Situational Differences

  • 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.

Les Diablerets (ridge in front), Mt. Blanc (center horizon). What could go wrong?

This is actually one of my fears: an inversion socking in while in flight. This image taken while hiking.

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.

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.

Decoding Transcendence

On most flights taken in the Cub, I come back a much happier person. However, on certain flights, I am in a transcendent state of happiness for much of the rest of the day afterward. I have often wondered why it was the case, initially ascribing my feelings as proportional to the majesty of the experience. Having taken the Cub to so many mountain ranges and countries has allowed for quite a number of tremendous experiences, which makes it easy to compare how one flight might be old hat whereas another could be something that left me nearly speechless.

Hanging around the Alps has complicated the assumption about the relationship. The scenery is generally world class no matter what the specific flight is like, though sometimes I am merely happy, and other times I am utterly transcendent as described above. I tried to explain it away as an issue with novelty, as I am more prone to stay within 50 miles of the airfield as the Alps are filled with more terrain than one knows what to do with. Was I tiring of seeing similar things?

That theory went out the window when the pandemic made the world smaller. Repeated flights over similar areas are actually increasing in majesty, even though the reality of the pursuit of novelty could be argued either way. While it is possible that I have changed my perspective, there is still a reality that some flights are utterly spectacular, whereas others are merely pleasant.

Since inversions are a regular part of European weather, particularly around terrain, I supposed that flying above the clouds might have something to do with it. It is an age-old sense of bliss, to be in massive terrain, with mountains poking up here and there, and a stratiform cloud deck below (ideally not entirely covering a safe glide range to the valley below). Separated from human society by the cloud layer, one finds himself soaring in the heavens, literally, with the inability to see human influence. It is nothing short of stupendous.

The problem with that theory was that I have had this differential of feeling on flights where clouds were not involved. While I can place a bookmark in the idea that soaring above the clouds constitutes something special, I think that there is more to the story as evidenced by my experience.

The next theory that I had is a more significant one. Aviation has many elements where we often find in magazines and other pilot communications something to the effect of “only with aviation can you see…” where the item in question is some sort of resplendent experience. I find that those experiences can be grouped into two main categories: the sheer majesty of being in the air, and the speed that aviation affords. To fly any kind of airplane and change states, countries, vegetation, or climate zones in orders of magnitude faster than a car is something that we clearly cherish in an aircraft. At the same time, “low and slow” Cub flying is cherished equally as much (if not more, depending on who is rendering the opinion). “Low and slow” is the embodiment of the majesty of being in the air, irrespective of the purpose behind it.

With a pokey old Cub, it is very hard to experience the theory of going anywhere fast. If it is Kansas, then one might as well drive. In the mountains, it is a mixed signal as the Cub can certainly beat a car, sometimes by a wide margin. The world on one side of a mountain range is often different than that of another, so some mix of the two can happen in such an occasion.

I thought I had the problem solved when I figured this reality out. Since I have been flying around mountains for the majority of the last 7 years in this airplane, I have had plenty of opportunities to experience this phenomenon. As the mountain ranges have gotten steeper and taller, the world on the other side has grown significantly more different, including now often meaning that it is a different country on the other side.

It took a few recent flights to furnish some clarity. Not only did I fly over mountains, into other countries, and into what felt like other worlds, I also landed somewhere else. COVID-19 has accentuated a problem that I knew had shown up when I came to Europe: I am far less likely to land at an airport that is not my home base (wherever that happens to be) if I am in Europe compared to the United States.

The opportunity to shut down the engine, step out, take in the scenery, and let the reality of where I stand sink in is one that contributes greatly to the sense of transcendence which remains in my psyche long after the flight has completed. Something about merely flying over to the other side of the range and then turning back, even if it is a full tank three-hour flight, is not the same as the silence that comes from a parked airplane. This reality held true in the semi-arid regions of Spain, where mountains may have only been incidental to the flight at hand. Something about landing elsewhere makes it all sink in.

So, the question becomes, how much has my flying changed since I came to Europe? I did some gymnastics with my logbook and tallied total hours, by year, where the entry included “Local” as the destination compared to those where it did not. Some simple division furnishes the percentage of local flights, where I return to home base compared to a flight where I landed elsewhere. I did not differentiate between the FAA definition of “cross country”; I merely added total hours of the flight if it included going to or coming from a landing at another airport. The chart is not my total flying career, but basically the point at which I became active again and acquired the Cub.

The results are quite interesting: 43% of flight hours in the United States started and stopped at the local airport, whereas 68% in Europe did so. The underlying reasons are pretty simple (to me): there is more paperwork and aggravation to coordinate a flight elsewhere, so I do not do it as much. To make matters more complex, the pandemic has added additional layers to daily life, which means that 90% of my flights in 2020 have been local.

Motivational incentives are lined up to the contrary. I am not bumming around my grandfather’s grass strip in an area that I lived since I was born, nor I am floating around over the Piedmont of North Carolina, which is relatively repetitive. I am in a foreign continent filled to the brim with things to see and do and yet I still find myself motivated to fly locally more than ever. I think that reality, coupled with the added layer of pandemic restrictions, made some recent landings elsewhere stand out entirely. Flying took on a more transcendent dimension, merely by making concrete on a mental level the magnitude that aviation affords. The freedom is immense and hard to quantify, when we have a chance to use it.

 

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.

A racket about noise

For a few months, I have had a line of thought brewing in my mind, which is a superlative form of the majesty of flight, applying it to the magnificence of the Alps and other mountain regions. As I would get close enough to make the concept emotionally tangible, something ridiculous would happen, such as my diatribes from the last two months about maintenance nonsense. While the airplane is flying and I have had some transcendent moments, I find that grasping and sharing that concept is still a bit out of reach.

It starts with that pesky reality called noise in Switzerland. I recently have had the unbridled joy of forgetting what sleep is like, as sociological changes brought on by the pandemic have created a sudden flood of people looking to squeeze themselves into flats next to ours, which has resulted in a raucous construction boom. As I laid there most certainly not asleep, snarling about the noise, I thought to myself how noise has reared its ugly head a number of times with Swiss flying.

I must first point out that patterns in Switzerland are not standard. They are unique to each airfield, necessitating looking at the Visual Approach Chart, to follow it within a moderate latitude under the risk of a fine from the Swiss authorities. The reason is due to noise, as these patterns snake around villages and other physical obstacles. To some extent, it makes sense, and it can also be very interesting, such as the approach into Saanen, which features rather sizable terrain just to the south of the field that has to be avoided.

In 2019, when I was flying for a while out of a different airfield, I got an email from someone I did not recognize. He attached a map and a photo of me flying over his house, noting that I have been “repeatedly” climbing over his house, and he is “kindly” asking me to stop doing it as he doesn’t like the noise. I thought the request was rather intrusive, as I was 1,500’ to 2,000’ above his property, choosing the path to avoid two other villages, though I couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing something. After all, it is a different country with different customs, and the guy was a pilot, noting that he “didn’t make a report to the police” and instead contacted me. I forwarded it off to another pilot friend, who said that it was incredibly considerate, as the custom is to report people and let the police handle it. At any rate, it was rather curious how the guy found me and got my email address, though I digress.

My next flirtation with noise was from a lesson taken in a PA-18-95 from an aeroclub about 35 minutes away. I decided to have a backup and be ready to go in case my aircraft goes down for maintenance again. The cost wasn’t as bad as I thought ($200/hr wet, fully insured with today’s exchange rate) and it is an aircraft rather similar to mine. I must confess that I was thrilled that this “perfect” airplane, maintained under EASA standards, smelled like exhaust like every other rag and tube Cub and had oil streaking down the belly…

Anyhow, during the course of the one-hour checkout, roughly 20% of the content of the lesson was about exactly where to point the noise coming into and out of that airfield due to very specific properties where the owner will call the police in the event of overflight. It was literally down to various houses, where the traffic pattern involved snaking this way and that, sometimes counterintuitively over a populated village to avoid a private school where an immortal hell is raised if it is flown over. The funny thing is that flying 200-500 feet laterally from the houses in question (while still rather high) is enough to sate these noise totalitarians. I am rather convinced that slant distance variation (and therefore noise reduction) is very minor from having done so. If it quiets these terrestrial dwellers, then best not to poke the hornet’s nest.

My third flirtation with noise is associated with my inherent passive aggressive reaction to fastidious and exacting rules. At all Swiss airports, like most of Europe, there is a closing time. Like Germany, it is important, so when dealing with the formula of “sunset plus 30 minutes or 8:00PM, whichever is earlier,” I start to ask my nitpicking questions. “Is it wheels down at 20:00, or pulled to a stop at the hangar with the engine shut off?” The reply was “Wheels down at 19:59, not 20:00.” Ok, so 19:59:59 it is which lead to a philosophical dilemma during a sunset flight.

After a, say, two-hour flight in the mountains, it is logical to return early enough to not trigger the collapse of the European order by landing after 8PM. Arriving over town at 7:47, I could dive in and land at 7:52 or…. I could circle and land at 7:59. Flying a really slow pattern at 45mph, nose up, behind the curve, the tires chirp at 7:58:30, leaving me quite proud of the situation. This was not the first time, though it was the closest to the appointed time.

After putting the airplane away, I was walking to the car and noticed an airplane careening into the circuit, obviously doing a full speed descent and then rapidly slowing down on short final and landing at….8:10 PM. Since it is not Germany, perhaps there is some grace and the situation isn’t the end of the world? Three minutes later, as I am loading things into my car, a Land Rover comes screeching into the parking lot, where the deputy CEO comes running over asking which airplane it was. As he lives under the approach path, it was evident to him what had occurred. He explained to me “the trouble we can get from the commune” and, before racing to address the problem, noted “I saw you come over at 7:57. Nice job.”

I explained the situation to my wife, and she asked, “Why didn’t you land at 7:50?” “Out of principle” I replied. “This silly rule drives me crazy and, since I am paying a landing fee, I am going to get every last minute I can.” “You need to stop torturing him and land at 7:50,” so said the woman who last got in my airplane in December 2014. I have to admit, she has quite a point, so I quit antagonizing the establishment. Are a few minutes worth annoying the people that own the place where I station my aircraft?

That brings me back to this duplicitous and hypocritical noise regime, where I find myself paying to not be able to sleep. “Go back to America,” the builder told me in so many words, for which I contacted the owner, a Super Cub pilot, and, well, I am sleeping again. The whole situation is one of many variables that has me in one of my cyclical states of misery (they happen every 8-20 months), where I get fed up and am ready to move back to America. So far, I haven’t done it but who knows, maybe someday I will. The mere thought of American aviation freedom is so utterly salacious at this point…..

Escaping the heat on the Italian side of the Matterhorn. They don’t care much about noise over here.

At 15,000 feet looking down on Chamonix, France. There were climbers on the ice that stopped their hike to presumably glare at the airplane making noise.

Solving the noise problem….fly above the clouds so nobody can tell who is making such an “obscene racket.”

 

 

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.
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