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.