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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 5)

Rays of Bureaucratic Hope

I have spent enough time ranting over the years about European difficulties with general aviation. One can summarize my experiences as follows: high costs and airport aggravations that curtail aviation. While those are the most pressing realities in day-to-day flying, there are two other structures that have historically been in play: CAMOs and ATOs. I will preface with information about each and then get to the fact that Europe appears to have begun loosening things up a bit.

I have only alluded to CAMOs (Continuous Aviation Maintenance Organization) before. The gist I have gotten talking to various individuals is that there is no such thing as a freelance A&P. An aircraft must be maintained under the umbrella of an organization, which has requirements for lots of paperwork, manuals, quality procedures, and document retention. What I find, observationally, is that there are much less direct owners of general aviation aircraft, and a higher prevalence of flying clubs, which I presume are part of or closely affiliated with a CAMO. The more I try to research the concept, the more lost I get, so I confess some ignorance.

ATOs are “Approved Training Organizations,” which means no freelance flight instruction. Similar to a CAMO, an ATO is a procedure-driven organization where instructors operate as opposed to the direct model in the United States. As one can imagine, the net result is that things are harder and more costly, though the model tends to create a “flight academy” structure seemingly intended for the airlines, which I presume is what regulators had in mind.

Both of these constructs are a result of EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency), which is a creation that now has lasted over a decade. To Americans, EASA is a something of a bittersweet creation. Prior to its existence, effectively there were 28 European nations with different aircraft registers, licenses, and mechanics, operating under ICAO. That meant that Germans flew German-registered aircraft, maintained solely by German mechanics, and the like. One could see the complication attempting to rent or train in an aircraft elsewhere, to develop products for installation into aircraft, and the like, as each would have required licensure, type certification, inspection, and maintenance by professionals licensed various separate countries’ laws. For a period, JAR (Joint Aviation Regulations) existed, which were a precursor to EASA. I won’t get into them as they are obsolete.

EASA created intra-European recognition of aircraft registration, instruction, licensure, operation, and maintenance. With my EASA pilot certificate obtained a few years ago, I can walk in and rent a plane anywhere in Europe, without requiring license validation. I can take aerobatic training in Switzerland, or work on float rating in Italy, while it all feeds back to my license based in a separate nation. A Spanish mechanic could work on a Finnish registered airplane in Ireland, as long as the type certificate was honored. From a European perspective, it’s a brilliant concept which caused Europe to leap forward in aviation.

EASA is not without its difficulties. Enter in ATOs, CAMOs, and many other issues that are far more burdensome than in the United States. With the stroke of a pen, regulations spew out of Brussels that bind an entire continent into policies and procedures, good and bad. To Americans, this is not necessarily a model to pursue, as it is a union of national aviation authorities, whereas we just have one in the USA (imagine 50 state aviation agencies bound together under one umbrella). The primary difference is that electoral influence is all but moot. If a regulation from EASA eliminates the viability of a small business in Bulgaria, what is a Bulgarian member of parliament going to do about it in Brussels? Most likely nothing. Nonetheless, Europe has different points of origin, and one must remember the interoperability of the European aviation system, which is a benefit. It appears, from my point of view, that EASA initially followed maintenance and training models that worked well for the airlines: lots of manuals, procedures, quality inspections, and the like. For scheduled carrier flights, it works fine. In fact, local airport menus of fees, operating hours, and other procedures work just fine for airlines. If one knows that a flight will land on August 8th at 7:57PM, then it’s easy to plan in advance for whatever rules are thrown at the airline.

That doesn’t work for the freedom of general aviation, including private business aviation (which is comparatively much smaller in Europe than the USA).

On that note, I would like to point out some changes that have come down the pipeline for general aviation. This is the good side of EASA, where with the same stroke of a pen, change is brought into effect across an entire continent.

In 2019, “light” aviation mechanics licenses came into effect, called B2L and L-license. Prior to this directive, it is my understanding that a mechanic was licensed in a variety of categories – think “A” for airframe and “P” for powerplant – instead it is something like six verticals. To make it more complex, a mechanic would be type rated as would the repair station, with makes and models of airplanes, down to light aircraft. These new licenses are meant specifically to ease up on general aviation, changing to “systems-based” licensure, where a mechanic could work on light aircraft in certain areas (avionics, for example). More is hopefully to come in this light.

Part-DTO. With the stroke of another pen, Approved Training Organizations are no longer necessary for private pilot, LSA (LAPL in Europe), balloon, and sailplane instruction activities. Instead, a solo flight instructor files under Part-DTO with their national aviation authority, announcing the intent to undertake light aircraft instruction. Rules and requirements are much less than before, though it isn’t to the same level as the United States.

Cost-sharing flights. About two years ago, I saw some fanfare about EASA permitting cost-sharing flights, including the ability to advertise them in public online platforms. It appears that it was legal for quite a while, and some of the information I read indicated that it took a bit of time to filter into each country based on how certain air regulations propagated. Nonetheless, this is a highly rare instance where Europe is more flexible than America, allowing public advertising of private non-commercial flights, where similar pro rata cost sharing is allowed. The intent is to aid general aviation pilots to fly more hours and stay current.

After all of the shock, horror, fatigue, indignation, and now resignation after four years of flying in Europe, I figured it was time to give some credit where it was due, recognizing progress that EASA and Europe has made for general aviation, and can only hope that it continues. As an American, I am personally supportive of the existence of EASA in Europe, as I feel it’s the smartest answer to what would otherwise be 30 or more national aviation authorities creating a web of conflicting rules. I do suppose it is food for thought that what binds international aviation is the ICAO, created in the 1940s in the USA. That has formed the backbone of our basic international aviation ecosystem, and we can only hope that cross-border flying is something that can be improved.

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.

Fearing Fear Itself

For the longest time, I thought I had a very strange relationship with fear when it came to airplanes. Those who watch the product of my high-altitude flying in an aircraft that is of debatable suitability tend to exclaim that I must be some sort of fearless cowboy, incapable of noticing that impending doom lies around each corner. I tend to ignore those exclamations, as I am intimately aware of the neurosis that goes on in my mind before, during, and after each flight, and it tends to be the opposite of the cowboy mantra. I began to ask myself recently if my sensitivity to fear was getting worse.

As I sat down to address the concept of fear, it came to me that my view of fear is based on my perception of risk, which I can compare rather precisely. In a rather unusual chain of events, the PA-11 that I do most of my flying in was the aircraft in which I soloed and obtained my private certificate, 21 and 22 years ago respectively. As I have traveled the world with it, I can compare my approach and feelings about aviation in a rather controlled introspective study, as it’s the same exact airplane.

When I was a teenager, my grandfather had just restored the airplane, inclusive of obtaining an overhauled Continental O-200 engine, with all accessories at zero time. Those who saw the airplane exclaimed at its craftsmanship, often offering my father unsolicited purchase prices. That led me to believe that the machine was perfect, and absent something “crazy” like a connecting rod going through a piston wall, “nothing was going to happen.” And besides, what if it did? “We train for it, just land it in a field.” And if the plane gets damaged? “It’s insured.” Shrug.

One of the joys of being a teenager is the ability to not fully process the consequences of one’s decisions, so in that case, ignorance was truly bliss.

After an unwelcome break from aviation for eight years, I began flying in earnest in my late 20s, and I had to revisit fear again. I wasn’t worried about the ability to pilot the aircraft, as I had that ingrained into me since I was a kid. I was beginning to question the perfection of the airplane, as it was now fifteen years from its restoration, and was showing some signs of age, partially from sitting and partially from having some hundreds of hours on it. There is also the thought process, not of “its insured,” but “is the insurance enough for third-party damages?” Gone was the idea that I’d just “land it in a field.” Disability and health insurance, deductibles…..the teenage brain was no longer active, and now a responsible adult had to think these things through, inclusive of long-term consequences to a flight having gone wrong.

So how does one rationalize fear and risk? I developed a fetish that Cubs were basically an indestructible airplane that could scud run, short-field takeoff, short-field land, land in snow and mud, avoid busy airspace, fly around high peaks safely, land on the runway sideways in extreme wind….you name it, if a thought came into my mind that represented aeronautical danger, I could rationalize it away by noting some characteristic as to why the Cub wasn’t going to kill me, whereas a spam can would. In retrospect, I went through this mental exercise as I simply couldn’t accept that the airplane could crash with me in it.

That was a fine way to avoid thinking about death, until it almost killed me with a near swipe into a fence in Nebraska some years ago. After a long succession of events, including a blown weather forecast, extremely strong winds, sparse airports, and a furious crosswind in western Nebraska with no alternates in fuel range….well, suffice it to say that there is indeed a limit to how much crosswind the Cub can handle. After a near dance with a fence and a few other things, I landed on the airport lawn into the wind and now had a new problem: I became afraid of crosswinds.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this generic fear was stupid. Where I could have used fear would have been a fear about the fence before nearly flying into the fence. I now did not need a fear of all crosswinds, even if moderate. I had a long and storied history of developing skill landing in strong winds, and the reality of my feelings was not rational. Fear is a fantastic tool to fuel prevention; it does nothing when someone is edgy and panicky trying to fly a plane, as the mind punishes the pilot that he or she “should not be in this situation,” when the most pressing thing is to get out of said situation. Eventually, I slapped myself out of being afraid of every puff of wind, refined my fuel alternate planning, and put vortex generators on, so I truly can land across the runway if it’s that bad. I needed to later that year….twice.

Now that brings to the next phase of life. As middle-age approaches and my hours are getting higher, I find myself wondering what I have missed as I cannot believe that I have crossed into the threshold of immunity from accidents. After reading accident reports and talking to pilots about actual or near accidents…the set of keys, pencil, and coffee mug that jammed the controls on landing….the power line impact with a Super Cub…. I can’t tell if I prefer ignorance or if I do want to know about the multitude of things that I haven’t been thinking about. Both of them are challenging subjects to entertain. How old is that copper fuel line? Wasn’t there a pilot I talked to where his cracked and he landed in a warehouse? And those shock cords…they were installed when I was in eighth grade…shouldn’t they be replaced? Yet the reality is that one mechanic says to replace them whereas the mechanic I paid to do it wondered why I am messing with them as they are “just fine.”

As hours climb in an airplane, so does experience in piloting and decision-making, which reduces risk. However, each hour flown is another hour where something could go wrong, either mechanically or in another context, and I wonder where these dueling forces will come to equilibrium. Many times coming in for a landing, after having flown around prodigiously high glaciated peaks, I have two feelings running in my mind: satisfaction that I am back near base where things should be safer and the voice in my head that says “don’t let this landing be the one.” Just because it’s a sunny day and a successful jaunt into the Alps is coming near to a close doesn’t mean I won’t join the ranks of high-time pilots doing incredibly stupid things, earning their epitaph in a fatal accident study published in a magazine.

I would like to say that risk is ever-present, being the soulless probability of an incident, whereas fear is our response to it, and the two will always continue to be present. While I could make a textbook actuarial case for that statement, I think the relationship between the two is far more dynamic. While mechanical failure can seem to be an “act of God,” it is also the result of the sum of maintenance decisions made for the life of the airplane, mixed with uncontrollable chance. Appropriate fear, which prevents stupidity, lowers risk. Excess fear, which scrambles the mind of a scared pilot, increases risk. Experience reduces risk, mostly, whereas each additional hour in an airplane is another chance for an accident.

I think the takeaway is that fear and risk are a part of flying, are at dynamic equilibrium, and inevitably change during the life of a pilot. It would be safe to say that there is no final destination with safety and aeronautical decision-making, as humans are emotional beings, and a healthy relationship with available wisdom in light of flights taken is always changing. I suppose I shall continue to look at each nut and bolt on the airplane as a potential fatal encounter, while blissfully flying above glaciated terrain, with not a care in the world due to the beauty of it all.

Here are visuals of things that make me blissfully serene, yet ironically contain a fair amount of risk depending on who is looking at it. Transatlantic ferry pilots shudder looking at these, and I shudder even thinking about leaving gliding distance to shore.

Above the clouds, in snowy mountains, is the greatest escape on planet earth. Completely disconnected from civil society. An alternate airport was over the hill without overcast, and an orographically-induced gap was behind me.

In a close second is a sea of glaciers at 12,000 feet. 


A serrated knife blade of rock jutting into the sky (look and you’ll see one in the foreground) is quite satisfying.

It took a couple of years of writing and I have finally completed book #22: The 300 Hour Summer: Flying the Rockies in a Piper Cub. It is a travelogue of my experiences flying the Cub based in Wyoming a distance of the circumference of the earth in one long summer. The Nebraska incident, among other things, gets greater detail.

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.

Mountain Flying: Warn and Mitigate

There are two main themes to this flight. The first one was a nagging question I had not yet answered: “How long will it take before I fly around Mt. Blanc in high winds?” In retrospect, it took 6-8 months to take my first flights in the Pyrenees with blowing snow on mountain ridges, and over two years before dabbling in controlled circumstances with winds in excess of 40 knots in the mountains.

For this flight, it had snowed, was relatively cold, and I planned on “wandering into the Valais to look at some mountains.” I assured my wife that I would “definitely stay away from wind” as it was “too much work” and it was forecast to be 40kt or so at higher altitudes. The thing is, I should know myself better. There is an intuitive little spark that fires, where I get an idea for a flight of a certain type, and I tell myself I won’t do it. The second I get in the air and assess what I think from the ground, the switch flips and I do the very thing I said I wouldn’t.

In this case, upon clearing 8,000’ and rounding the bend near Martigny, I could see highly intriguing clouds blanketing the Massif du Mont Blanc, with evidence of orographic snowfall. Clouds looked majestic, much like they do in the Pyrenees in a similar situation. Ahead of me was Grand Combin (14,154’), with clouds billowing over the lee side of the summit. With upper level winds out of the southwest, I deduced that winds were more likely to be channeling around terrain than to properly align with the ridge of the Alps. In the latter case, large waves would form, which I wasn’t in the mood to play with.

I aimed for Grand St. Bernard Pass into Italy, which is a saddle between two large ridges. Ground speeds of less than 40kt indicated winds in excess of 30kt, augmented by cloud movement and extremely dry air due to down sloping winds. I skirted Grand Combin, hitting a few bumps before I figured out how to get over the ridge, where I found a cloud deck that was a few miles long. The formation was similar to the typical north wind event in the Pyrenees, with strong waves on the leeside and an overcast cloud deck stretching almost to Paris.

From there, I was convinced I could come around the bend and catch Mt. Blanc exposed on the windward side. The Massif du Mont Blanc was largely clouded in, as were the ridges below, though based on cloud movement and past experience, I was of the belief the effort was worth it. After ten minutes over the cloud deck, I saw my first sizable gaps over Val Ferrat, Italy, a relief if the engine quit. Then Grandes Jorasses (13,806’) showed itself brilliantly. I knew my scheme would work.

Gradually I came around the end of the ridge, and indeed Mt Blanc (15,774’), in all her glory, was sticking out into the wind, while strong winds buffeted the summit, forming clouds that billowed to the northeast before eventually dissipating. I did some back and forth over Aiguille de Bionnassay (13,294’) and then made my exit over the north side of the Chamonix valley, descending as I went.

Using groundspeed calculations in both directions, winds were 35kt to 40kt, with some higher speeds during my period at 15,000 feet. During the entirety of the flight, I experienced a few moments of basic turbulence, none of which was of any consequence. For the most part, it was tranquil, though it was extremely cold.

Which leads me to part two of the flight, which is an extension of my argument in my May 12, 2019 post “On the Matter of Mountain Flying.” The flight was proof that a little Cub could fly around the tallest peak in Western Europe in 40kt winds differing little from a two-hour summer flight on an afternoon in Texas (at least as far as forces on the airframe are concerned…not temperature). While I am not advocating that suddenly general aviation toss caution out the window and start buzzing large mountains, there is a valuable lesson.

Standard instruction on mountain flying, that occurs outside of mountains, tends to focus on a binary interpretation of what will happen. Namely, follow the rules (2000’ terrain clearance, 20kt or less winds, good visibility, etc.) and everything will be fine; break them and you most certainly will die. While that is instructive to prevent stupidity, there is the nagging question of “What happens if someone ends up in a situation that they were taught to avoid?” This could apply to a number of flight theories, though I tend to find warnings without mitigation apply most poignantly to thunderstorms and mountain flying.

While it is wise to tell a student “never to go near a thunderstorm,” what about the succession of decision-making, causal factors, or simply bad luck where now one has formed over his or her head? If the ‘grand bargain of instruction’ was to warn and not mitigate, exactly what should a student do in a thunderstorm? I know that my instructor taught me to avoid them; my grandfather was the one that taught me to “throttle back and ride it out if it gets crazy” if I happen to get near or in one (he did not advocate flying in thunderstorms, for the record). This line of thinking could go on and on to many subjects.

There are two sides to warnings without education on how to mitigate. Obviously, the positive side is that the pilot would not end up in a potentially dangerous situation, with the idea that not arming a pilot with mitigation tools would heighten the probability of avoidance. The negative side presents when he or she ends up in said warned-of situation, with no training on what to do. That very warning that said not to do it would increase fear and anxiety in the cockpit, precisely when the pilot needs insight. Instead of helping, fear is now punishing, at the worst time. Perhaps flying in the mountains in 30kt winds in a spam can might work out fine, even if the pilot is ignorant. However, if alarm bells are going off in his mind, palms are sweaty holding the yoke, and the pilot gets panicky, the situation has now escalated, with the possible introduction of multiple successions of decisions that could lead to a smoldering crater.

I am an advocate of a “warn and mitigate” theory of instruction for mountain flying. Standard warnings should be issued just like they are now. However, they would be followed up with a series of relatively standard scenarios that could occur in the mountains outside of standard warnings, with some basic information on what to do. While it wouldn’t be a course in advanced mountain flying, it would be some very basic mitigation tactics to increase survival chances, which would, aside from conveying wisdom, arm the pilot with emotional reassurance that the situation is not doomed. In the end, it boils down to not overstress the airframe or smack into granite.

In the Valais, La Catogne (8,523′) in the foreground. Winds were brisk, channeling right to left, with a down sloping component. 


Combin de Valsorey (13,724′) with a bit of a breeze.

Petit Vélan (10,505′) hiding in the clouds. Now at the ridge where clouds are on the windward side and cap.

Valle d’Aosta, Italy under some clouds. 

Grandes Jorasses (13,806′) sticking out into the wind. Val Ferrat, Italy below.

Coming around the bend hoping to see Mt. Blanc. Picco Luigi Amedeo (14,662′) visible.

Picco Luigi Amedeo again. No turbulence due to being upwind.

Above Aiguille du Bionnassay, France (13,294′) looking northwest. “Haze” in the lower left is orographic snowfall from the ridge. It was a common occurrence in the Pyrenees while hiking along similar ridges: screaming wind, biting cold, and a light snow shower with sunshine.

Mt. Blanc from the northwest.


Mt. Blanc from the west.

Aiguille Verte, France (13,524′). Some turbulence showed up here as the flight path had to eventually cross the lee side of Mt. Blanc, albeit at a distance.

Swiss-French border. Original flight path in the rear left that went around the ridge in the front.

Its hard to believe that I would say it, as at the time I was convinced that Yellowstone in the Cub was excessively windy, here is a subject with less wind and biting cold. Book #21 is out, Flying Yellowstone. It differs from my ‘hot springs’ book as it documents landscapes and other features of the park.

 

 

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.

Chasing Alpine Autumn

I have a whimsical illusion from my flight training days in New York that I apparently used to spend untold weeks flying every evening while the sun began to go down and the countryside was bathed in autumnal glory. While some autumn flights probably happened more than once, I know better than to think autumn near the Canadian border lasts that long. Usually it was one resplendent weekend with a maximum of two weeks that could count for anything spectacularly colorful, and that was that. Nonetheless, this mental image of putting the Cub away after a fall flight seared its way into my mind as something ideal.

It wasn’t until 2013, when we had moved to Summit County, Colorado, that I had a chance to revisit this idea. While the Cub had been stationed in North Carolina, nothing could seem to approach the glories of New York, despite the Blue Ridge and its apparently famous colors. I had expected a few aspen trees to show up elsewhere in the state of Colorado, and largely thought I had sworn off autumn in exchange for life in the Rockies.

That was until a fateful drive over a pass, where I was greeted with a colorful display of aspens that rivaled New York, and it was mid-September. I positively went on a tear, mostly on the ground, though also in the Cub, photographing what I saw and enjoying it greatly. Those flights in the Cub were challenging, as I had just positioned the airplane in the Rockies a month before and knew next to nothing about mountain flying. I was still able to get some iconic scenery of the Gore Range and parts of the areas around Summit county before autumn came to an abrupt end.

Since that autumn, I have fantasized about recreating its glories. For every single year since then, it hasn’t worked for varying reasons. 2014 I was able to get one flight with some color up in the Blue Ridge. 2015 I was in Wyoming, and while one would assume the West would explode with cottonwoods and aspens, even the locals complained how poor a year it was for color despite my persistent attempts to find it in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. 2016 and 2017 I was able to see some color in the Pyrenees, though concentration is an issue in that neck of the woods, where autumnal displays tend to accent scenery as oppose to compose the subject. Ironically, the Pyrenees put on a blanket of flowers in the spring that exceed the colors of fall. 2018 I actually expected almost nothing, as the Alps consist of rocks, snow, ice, and pine trees. “Perhaps there is some color down near Zürich,” I thought to myself, and let it be. A death in the family happened just before the larches began to turn color (interrupting flying), and in my final Swiss flight before leaving, I was greeted with an explosive display of color that I won’t forget.

Which leads me to 2019. Armed with information about larch trees – pines that change color and drop their needles – coupled with last year’s display, I expected a northeastern style explosion of color if I could time it right. Therefore, I made room to attack with it an appropriate level of viciousness. Instead of a repeat of last year, where the entirety of larch trees change color all at once, this year they have varied greatly by geographic area and elevation, with progressive change as the season progresses. I got lots of flying in before the weather turned impossible, which I am told is also normal.

Late September flight. Apparently some sort of low-growing plants turn red first. On the way to the St. Bernard Pass.

Same flight, two valleys over. Apparently not all grasses provide color. Fouly, Switzerland.


Val Ferret, Italy. Yet here the red shows up again.

Apparently its low bushes which change one at time.


October and now some early color above Trieste, Switzerland. It is a famous turbulent wind funnel and it was living up to it on this flight.


I thought colors would improve around the bend. Not exactly, though I could add a glacier in. One can see larches which are lime tone set against normal evergreens, which remain dark green.


Beneath Grand Combin. Still just a tad of color.


Yet on the same flight, I finally find some orange pine trees. This is as Swiss as it gets: mountain waves, larches, snow, glaciers, and large peaks in one image.


Next flight and I am left wondering if I will find color. Above Leukerbad, Switzerland.


Apparently I will. Above Brig, Switzerland.

Beneath Simplon Pass. Winds here had the subtlety of riding a bronco.

Next flight. Now we’re getting somewhere. NE of Martigny, beneath the Dents du Morcles.


Val d’Hérémence, Switzerland. A tad of snow mixed with larches. 

A box canyon with larches at the end. Pointe de Vouasson. Maneuvering is a tad tight with even the Cub in here.

The valley to Zermatt.


Larches mixed with regular trees,


One larch in the sun. Zermatt, Switzerland. Flight hazard to worry about: cable car wires. 


Just over the border into France at the Col du Forclaz.


Next flight. I did not imagine I would find a cloud layer mixed with larches. South of Nendaz, Switzerland.

More box canyon. The Valais is filled with them. Zinal, Switzerland. Flight altitude 7,600 feet.


Down the valley from Blatten, Switzerland.

This flight was the coup de grace. On the way to an overnight at St. Moritz. Approaching Passo della Novena. Normal pilots on a cross country would cruise at 10,000′ or more to stay above terrain. I wanted to see the trees, so I plotted a circuitous path weaving down various valleys.

Just over Maloja Pass. 

Taxiing at Engadin Airport, the “highest airport in Europe” at 5,600′.

In the air again before nightfall. A few colorful trees here before the Italian border. It reminds me of Montana and Colorado.

South Tyrol, Italy – the section where German is spoken.


Reschen Pass. Austria on the other side. One apparent challenge at sunset in the Alps is sharp shadows, particularly when flying into the sun in a tight valley.

Round the bend after my first foray into Austria. 9th country for the Cub! Austria left, Italy horizon center, Switzerland foreground.

Back in the Engadine before sunset, where my camera unceremoniously died.

Don’t worry, I have another one. Morning climb out toward St. Moritz, on the way home. 


If you made this far without giving up, my magnum opus has arrived, a book chronicling the pursuit of the 82 highest peaks of the Alps. “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 4000ers of the Alps” is now available.

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.

Challenging the Weather in the Alps

From the very first conversation with a European pilot to each ensuing one thereafter, I have been warned about the “Föhn.” The word is a fancy German equivalent to “Chinook,” which implies what is ultimately a simple witch’s brew of meteorological malfeasance: mountains and wind. While Europeans tend not to be as cowboyish about these subjects, the gist was to be careful, as the Föhn is a nasty beast that will devour me and my airplane.

The Pyrenees enter into the picture. With no such warnings, I plunged into the mountain range and got beat up on the first time, a sunny September day. I would then learn that the Pyrenees are a mountain wave factory, with its own Föhn. Surely, I had mastered the skill, because a Föhn is a Föhn, no matter where it happens? Oh, how little the foreigner knows! Pilots continued to warn me about the Alps Föhn, even though I was living in a factory of mountain turbulence.

The thing is, nobody gave me specific warnings about said Föhn, it was just that “it’s there” and it can’t be good. I appropriately decided to make my initial forays into the Alps with significant caution, leaving wind out of it. It did not help that there were three fatal crashes in the week of my first trip here in 2018, and there have been many since. While I read to the extent I can in depth about crashes to learn from them, the fact with most of them was some other issue was in play. Surely the Föhn didn’t cause a midair collision?

As I got a bit friskier in the later part of the 2018 trip, I found that I was bereft of deadly wind, even if I wanted to find it. Curious. The weather actually seems to be structurally good in the Alps for quite a number of days. Now fast forward to 2019, and I found a similar situation…. the wind seems not to blow so fiercely on nice days.

Bit by bit, I have been toying with more upper level wind, and have come to find that it differs little from comparable speeds when in other mountain ranges. Updrafts, downdrafts, rotors, and turbulence have the same effect on an aircraft. The secret sauce is in figuring out what invisible air is doing, navigating accordingly. I decided to translate Rockies and Pyrenees knowledge here, and it seems like it’s working well. In fact, the Alps feature something that the aforementioned ranges lack: low valleys and passes. On days with stiff upper level winds and soaring mountain wave clouds, Swiss pilots are regularly flying at the lower levels of the atmosphere, avoiding the worst of it.

I decided to catalog some of the change of seasons and meteorological exploits from the past month. It starts out with the first snow in early September.

Second week of September. First snowfall! West of Zermatt, looking southeast.


Southeast side of the Weisshorn (4505m / 14,780′). It has enjoyed morning sun, so snow is beginning to melt.


North side of Wildhorn (3248m / 10,656′) with Mt. Blanc sneering from behind. Sheer white areas to the left are a glacier.

Enough of the snow. A few days later, most of it had melted. The lesson here is the clouds. At 5:30PM, the extent of clouds is as in this photo. Spitzhorn (2807m / 9,209′).

50 minutes later, Glacier du Mont Miné. No real clouds to worry about.


Back to the Bernese Alps, and some interesting formations over the Plane Morte Glacier, but not anywhere else.


Hmmm….

Southeast of Gstaad. What is this? 50% cloud cover that was not forecasted, nor was there when I took off two hours before. I’d like to understand how this works.

A couple of days later, I discovered Switzerland’s illustrious network of webcams. There is one 5,000 feet above the house on the hill behind us, so I checked to see if the stratus layer had a top. The webcam was above it, so after 30 minutes of curvy mountain roads and a 20 min jog up a trail, I was above the clouds. Dent du Jaman (left) and Massif du Chablais (horizon right). I had left the webcam open on my computer and when I returned it showed what I thought was impossible: the entire Bernese Oberland, in the direction of the airport, was suddenly socked in overcast! In a matter of 20 minutes, the whole thing clouded over. I checked Gstaad Airport webcam, and other than a few holes, socked. I emailed a bunch of people and they basically said, “yeah, that can happen in the evening.” Note to self: carry more fuel. I would rather not return to base above a solid stratus deck.


Next flight: Simplon Pass, with Italy about 5 miles away. Now the south side of the Alps gets the cloud deck, whereas the north side is entirely clear, with no mysterious clouding over upon my return.

I know I whined for quite a while about the inversion in Spain. I take it back now! I never expected a glacier, mountains, and a glorious inversion. Still in Switzerland, with Italy as the farthest island in the sky.

Next flight. I needed to move the plane before the runway was closed for a bit. It was windier than I liked, though I could stay low if I wanted and avoid it. A high-time pilot seemed nonplussed (“There is no point flying backwards”), other than to indicate that “its usually rough over Martigny.” So I went there on the way to Mt. Blanc. Over the pass to France, I broke my record for the slowest groundspeed yet: 35kt with 39kt winds. It was smooth over the pass and upwind of terrain. Before someone gets too carried away with my apparent silliness, I got passed while in the pass (aircraft in the image below). There was a lot of air traffic for a windy day.

Blowing snow on north slope of Mt. Blanc. Just don’t get close…..or downwind of it.

Next flight. Third snow of the season. Climbing out over Dent du Morcles.

Mt. Blanc (4809m / 15,777′). Highest in the Alps. Note blowing snow below. Winds at 15,000′ were 50kt over Grenoble and 20kt over Turin. I came across another airplane and a helicopter here, all of us intelligently upwind. The wave was perfectly smooth, giving climb rates above 12,000 feet in excess of engine power at 4,000 feet. 

Grandes Jorasses (4000m+). Italy right rear, Switzerland left rear, France foreground).

This flight was the coup de grace! Massif du Chablais below (10,686′) with Mt Blanc on the horizon).

Dent du Géant rear left (4013m / 13,166′) with Aiguille du Midi below. I had dreamt of wave clouds like this since the first flight over Mt. Blanc.

While I’d like to believe that’s blowing snow on the summit of Mt. Blanc, I think part of it is orographic cloud formation. 

Above the wave, sloped to the left above the Aiguille Verte (4122m / 13,524′). It was an illustrious flight.


I have now released book #19 “Mountain Texture: The Pyrenees from the Sky.”

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.

Hunting for glaciers

I have a personal protocol that seems to have developed over time. When I must move the PA-11 to a new location, I put my “cross country” hat on, even if that means flight literally crossing into other countries, pick a good day, avail myself of planning and resources, and execute a point A to B flight, with some photos taken merely to augment the transportation narrative taking place. Once I get to a new location, I then start “nibbling,” taking progressive flights of increased perception of danger, visiting peaks and terrain in a growing radius from the new home base.

I have often found this concept somewhat odd. When the “cross country” hat is on, I will seemingly valiantly fly grand distances into unknown areas, relying merely on my flight calculations as a basis for making it happen. When safely settled in a new area, I then see nothing but danger, and take a more iterative approach, even though I am closer to resources, my home base, comfort zones, and the like. I later came to understand that this protocol applies to mountainous home bases. For the occasions where I have based on the coast, I tend to be less cautious and just go flying.

Nonetheless, I decided to turn this approach on its head when I came to Switzerland last year. No longer would I valiantly plunge into the heart of the Alps on my first flight, only to recoil and treat every successive flight as though it was the working of some miracle. I decided to attack an accepted list of the highest peaks in the Alps first, and then nibble at lesser-known things later. I seem to have failed to take into account that I waited until basing in the highest, most vertical, most glaciated mountain range that I had ever flown in to turn caution upside down. What is the human mind but a thing of irony?

Well, that project is done, which left me searching for motivators. I took two flights that defaulted to my protocol of basically covering ground and seeing an area, for the sake of exploring what is there. I wandered over to Geneva and in areas visible from the chalet, and that just wasn’t cutting it. Then a switch went off in my mind: “You like glaciers, and summer is the time to see them without annual snowfall.” How many ways can I emphasize “duh?” I had this information last year, and it didn’t seem to sink in.

That set off a full-on assault. I elected to restrict my wanderings to the Bernese Alps, as they are the closest to the current base, happen to be mind-blowingly vertical and tall, and happen to have the largest glacier in Europe, along with the most glaciated section of the Alps. In examining in greater detail what I could find on satellite images, I noticed that I missed quite a few massive glaciers in the eastern Bernese Alps, as they were covered by annual snowfall in the image, and I failed to appropriately zoom in to notice glaciated texture.

What I found in the last month was an overwhelming playground of glaciers upon glaciers spilling down from towering peaks, hiding in shadows, or hiding in plain sight. When one thinks that everything has been seen in an area, just fly around the bend or over the next ridge, and another basin or cathedral opens, filled with jaw-dropping scenery. I also bothered to read the Swiss VFR Manual, and found that one key restricted area is subject to activation, which means that it’s not restricted most of the time (I had been avoiding it altogether). That contained another treasure trove, some of which appears in a video below.

The weather turned already, with temperatures down at 2,000 feet msl down in the 50s Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) for a high, with brooding Pacific Northwest skies and rain. Webcams indicate snowfall almost down to timberline, so perhaps summer glacier flying is over, or maybe it will warm back up and I’ll be back at it.

I seem to have figured out how to get a successful HD video from the Cub. It has been a year of tinkering and aggravation, though I think the output is worth it.

Saanen, Switzerland, along the north side of the Alps to the Triftgletscher, Rhône Glacier, Uri Alps glaciers, then the eastern large glaciers of the Bernese Alps. 43 min HD, glaciers begin at 11 minutes.

Saanen, Switzerland, south to the Bernese Alps, east to the Aletschgletscher (largest in Europe), and west along the Alps. 27 min HD.

And some photos for good measure…..

Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, from the northwest. White “snow” in the distance are moderate-sized glaciers. Much larger ones lurk on the other side of the peaks.

Blechgletscher


Series of glaciers beneath Nesthorn. It was slightly vertical in here.

Gauligletscher, one of them classically “hiding” under snowpack satellite shots.

Rosenlauigletscher

Triftgletscher—flows to the Rhine.

Rhône Glacier—over the pass from Triftgletscher. To the left are the headwaters to the Rhône River, which terminates in the Mediterranean. 


Bietschhorn. The glaciers beneath this peak are so dwarfed by nearby ice masses that the mind determines it is not even worth noting when looking at satellite shots.


Unders Mönschjoch, at the top of the Ewigschneefäld, which feeds the Aletschgletscher. 

Äbeni-Flue, looking toward the Oberland and Swiss Plateau. Flight altitude is 12,500 feet, with a nearly vertical drop off in excess of 6,000 feet on the other side.


The aforementioned dropoff….


Aletschhorn with clouds from a low pressure zone over northern Italy.

Tschingelgletscher

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.

Errands at 15,000 Feet

To understand this flight, it becomes necessary to dial things back to last summer spent in Switzerland. I had a very specific list of things I wanted to fly to: the 82 peaks over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) in the Alps, located in France, Italy, and Switzerland. I thought I had successfully completed the task, except when I went to work on writing the book, I noted that two were missing, and a third clump of peaks would be better suited with different photographs. How could I have come this far, photographed everything large I saw, and missed two? Well, I did that in Colorado back in 2014 when I chased the 58 fourteeners; I missed one and fortunately was able to get it before moving the airplane to North Carolina (it happened to be the closest one to the airport). The nefarious peaks in question in the Alps shared a characteristic of the lone peak of Colorado: They were some of the smallest on the list, thus appearing inconsequential when surrounded by their larger brethren.

I concocted the brilliant idea to get all three in one flight. The Aiguilles du Diable in France (4,074 meters/13,366 feet), Punta Giordani in Italy (4,046 meters/13,274 feet), and the Dürrenhorn in Switzerland (4,035 meters/13,238 feet). It should have been doable in theory, except there was this pernicious reality called an overcast over the Oberland. I figured it would be touch and go to get back to Saanen, so I planned on fueling in Sion if things delayed and that I’d sort it out if the overcast didn’t lessen as planned.

When I got to Gstaad Airport, there were plenty of airplanes flying around, including a PC-24 doing touch and goes. Given that it’s a VFR-only field, there must have been some egress out of the Oberland. I took off, planning to go west via Les Mosses, though there was a business jet up to something I wasn’t sure of, so I turned south over Gstaad, continuing to Gsteig, where a tiny hole in the overcast appeared. It was far too amorphous to climb through, so I continued west over the pass to Ormont-Dessus, then Leysin toward my escape to the sunny Rhône valley. From there it was a full power climb all the way to the Mont Blanc Massif, then eastbound past Grand Combin (4,314 meters/14,154 feet). Clouds were 40 percent coverage over the high peaks, requiring flying around them at 13,500 feet, with relatively clear skies elsewhere, meaning that they were orographic summer lift. I had originally hoped to blast straight to the Dürrenhorn from Saanen, except I now had to reverse the plan.

I came across the Matterhorn (4,478 meters/14,692 feet) in its illustrious cloud-forming glory, then had some angst that the Monte Rosa Massif appeared to be covered in clouds on the south side where Punta Giordani was hiding. It then occurred to me that there were clouds the other handful of times I swung by, and I probably didn’t notice this smaller peak because it was hidden. Thankfully, the clouds parted for a minute on the Italian side of the ridge, so I got my photo and moved on.

From there I went north back into Switzerland toward the Mischabel Group, in pursuit of the Dürrenhorn. Yet again clouds were billowing up, with Dom visible, though not Dürrenhorn below. Perhaps again the same thing happened? Well, no, upon recollection it was completely clear when I flew here last. The problem is the Dürrenhorn is not exciting compared to massive ice caps nearby.

I went over the ridge between two peaks shrouded in clouds, distracted a bit by the beauty of the scene, hoping I could come around the north side and swoop down to get the peak. Fortunately, the clouds were clear from the angle of the Nadelhorn, so after some fancy footwork around moving clouds, I got a shot and moved on.

Rhône Valley, clear of clouds. Altitude roughly 8,000 feet.

Massif du Chablais (10,686 feet). I showed my [nonpilot] wife this photo, and it might as well have been an image of an airplane crash.

Aiguilles du Diable, France (foreground), Mt. Blanc (ice cap-covered background). One can understand why, when I spent my time above the highest summit, that I didn’t notice these rocks below.

The Matterhorn (14,692 feet), from Italy.

Punta Giordani, Italy, yet again below. Signalkuppe (14,940 feet) was above and behind me.

Dom, Switzerland (14,911 feet) in the clouds, a pleasant surprise.

That meant Dürrenhorn (13,238 feet – how piddling) would be at risk of being shrouded. Fortunately it was clear enough to sneak a view.

Now that my errands were done, I had to figure out what I was going to do about getting back to base. I could see that the entire Oberland and Swiss Plateau were socked in from above, with no holes. I decided then that I’d burn off my excessive altitude by cruising west along the Bernese Alps and land at Sion. I requested permission to cross the TMA, which was granted, and then my ability to transmit stopped working.

I did the whole triple radio battery swap. No change. Tried other frequencies. No change. I could hear, just not speak. If I did the squawk 7600 routine, I’d be let into Sion, though likely not out until the radio was fixed. What a bother! I thought a bit about trying to make a go at Les Mosses and land at Saanen, where a radio was not needed. If the pass was open and no further problems developed, it would work, though that’s it, with no buffer for fuel. That was as dumb of an idea as it sounded, so I opted for Bex, a short grass strip which technically requires prior permission. I landed without incident and found that the radio problem was the mic connection dislodged lightly.

For the flight back into the Oberland, it was evident Les Mosses was open, as well was the overcast in the process of clearing. Since I know little about the vagaries of poor weather in Switzerland, I wasn’t going to play with all the things that could go wrong in high, steep terrain with overcast. At any rate, after almost four hours of technically challenging, ice cold, unpredictable flying, I decided that the flight was a silly idea. Did I really need to hit them all up in one binge session? “There is no reason this needs to be difficult. The next flight I am going to make enjoyable, period.”

Is this idiot whining about flying in the Alps? No, just disapproving of my own unrealistic ambitions. The mere fact that I have flown to these peaks in the past doesn’t make them easy in the future.

The view from 12,500 feet of the Oberland. Home base is in the distant right. 

Approaching the Rhône valley for landing at Bex, 9,000 feet below the cloud deck. Bernese Alps, Switzerland in the foreground, Mont Blanc, France (15,774 feet) in the background.

Les Mosses pass, flight altitude 5,600 feet.

I definitely lived up to my decision on the next flight five days later. Münster is a small field located high in the Goms Valley of eastern Valais (known as the “Texas of Switzerland”). It is open for June through August and is located at 4,400 feet in a deep valley. I contacted the airport manager, got permission (once I described my mountain experience), confirmed fuel, and set off.

Weather was uncharacteristically dry. There were almost no clouds or haze in the Oberland, which is unusual, with glorious blue skies. I had a rough idea of where I might go, though was only constrained by arriving at my destination before the fuel ran out. In flight, I saw that terrain on the northern edge of the Alps was completely clear, so I hung out at 7,700 feet and photographed major terrain from below, as I had hoped to do for last month’s post (and ended up above the clouds at 13,500 feet instead).

The flight was positively glorious.

I continued east over the Sustenpass, south to Andermatt, west to Furkapass, then down the Goms Valley, eventually to land at Münster once the glider traffic jam cleared up. Münster is practically heaven. Scenery was exquisite, with the sound of the turquoise rushing Rhône River alongside the airport, blue sky, remaining snow from last winter on a few peaks, and illustrious green trees and grass. If the airport was open year-round, I would have moved to that valley.

The airport manager asked where I was from, and when I said Upstate New York, he said he has relatives in Rochester. I pointed to the Cub and told him that “I soloed that airplane 45 minutes from Rochester.” Another pilot came over and we chatted for over 20 minutes. He did some training in Cubs in the Swiss military when he was young and was raving about how wonderful the airplane was. Some advice he was taught: “Make sure you come at a peak with the proper altitude in advance, as the airplane does not have the power to climb.”

He articulated his surprise that I showed up. “Who would imagine a Piper from America, here in Münster?” Well, I concur! I never imagined that this Piper would end up in the Valais, either.

I was going to head west and figure out a way to get over the Bernese Alps on the way back to Saanen. The problem was that there were a few orographic clouds, and wind was bumpy over the passes. I wasn’t sure about how to get over without getting beat up, so I decided on climb out to head over the Grimselpass. That was the right call as there was a fair amount of wind per the lakes at the pass, though no bumps. I then descended down to 1,000 feet agl over the Brienzersee, cruising right over Interlaken, then back into the Oberland for landing before the 8 p.m. deadline.

I had some time at the airport afterward, as I needed to change the oil and there were some aggravations to sort out, typical of being in a new place. That afforded a classic hour in evening light after a long day of flying. I was the happiest I have been since I can remember after a flight, rating it probably in the top ten of all time. I suppose the difference is merely perspective.

Golitschepass (7,148 feet) in the foreground in the Oberland, Bernese Alps in the background.

Oeschinensee (5,177 feet surface elevation). I am usually 6,000 feet or more above it after a Jungfrau binge.


Lauterbrunnen (below) with Mittelhorn, Schreckhorn, Eiger, Mönch, and the Jungfrau (left to right). Flight path was a bit right, straight ahead, then left beneath the peaks in the back.

Jungfrau (13,641 feet) from 7,700 feet altitude. To get a wide angle vertical of something so high above a high-wing airplane, it is necessary to bank 50 to 60 degrees to the left.

Across from Grindelwald, I came across an interesting opening in the mountain range.

So I went into it and found a veritable cathedral. 

Ischmeer, with Grosses Fiescherhorn (13,280 feet) in the rear. A bit of katabatic wind off the glacier, which is normal apparently when I get that close and they are that big. Still figuring that part out.

Ober Ischmeer. This was a very tight situation, even for a Cub. I could not discern my agl visually, as there were no trees, people, or buildings, so everything is subjective. Looking at Google Maps on terrain mode later, I figured out I was 500 feet above the glacier. 

Out of the cathedral. Rather vertical rock above Grindelwald, continuing east.

Three layers of mountains in the foreground. The valley to the Grimselpass eventually opens to the right. Winds got frisky in here.

Andermatt.

Grimselpass, from the south.

Münster, looking south. I was nearly scraping the trees on the other side of the airplane. It’s a Swiss thing….

Münster, looking north, scraping the trees behind me again.

Climbing out uphill…slowly. Goms Valley.

More altitude…still in the Goms Valley, with the Rhône River below and its headwaters on the horizon.

Grimselpass. A forced landing would be better suited with floats.

Interlaken, looking back up toward Jungfrau.

Climbing into the Oberland.

Gstaad, about to enter the circuit. 

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.

Switzerland

We decided to head to Switzerland again for the summer, which presented the obligation of flying the Cub there. The first weekend I chose had the unfortunate reality of being infernal heatwave in Europe, where temperatures in France reached 113F and 102F in Cerdanya, exceeding the previous high that I had experienced in the Pyrenees of 95F. It is generally a temperate place without extremes, so this was pretty warm. After my punishing trip to Texas in the heat, humidity, and thermals of an early Southern heatwave a month prior, I wasn’t in the mood to repeat myself, so I delayed.

A window showed up to go a week later, with sunny weather in the Pyrenees, France, and the western Alps, so I took my chances, even though it was supposed to be warm.

As the day approached and I undertook flight planning exercises, I noted a trepidation brewing, which caused me initially to do a thorough check of the airplane a couple of days before leaving. Was this some sort of deep intuition about a problem that I was ignoring? On careful examination, it occurred to me that I had pause crossing France, which I didn’t understand, as I had done it five times in the past. One factor is that, each time, I insist upon going a slightly different way, as the southern half of France features a wide variety of things to see in a narrow band of 75 miles. That adds technical burden to the flight, some of which I forget about each time, inclusive of a French fuel card, special military zones to be checked, flight plans, a byzantine web of restricted areas unlike anything in America, fuel status of airports, landing and handling fees, language restrictions, and a flight plan for customs clearance into Switzerland.

Now I knew what my problem was: crossing France is a tremendous amount of work where lots can go wrong. One could easily find himself marooned at an airport with no ability to fuel and not enough fuel to make an alternate, meaning an early night in a hotel.

The departure out of the Pyrenees was interesting, as a morning inversion developed, which I could clear easily, only to plunge into MVFR Saharan dust that was in a layer 6,000 feet and higher, a first where the haze is only at high altitude. At one point I was concerned it would go IFR, and then it suddenly cleared to a hot and hazy summer day over the French foothills. Proceeding north, it was quite hot, so I stayed up at 5,000 feet, descending slowly once I got past some Mediterranean hills. As I approached a control zone, I asked for clearance from flight following to get through it (something they usually will relay). I was handed to Rodez Info, who told me there “is a strike today in Clermont-Ferrand, so there will be no Info service.” I tried calling the tower and was too far away, so I ducked under the cake, now tossed around in heat and thermals.

This went on awhile as I approached the highlands of the Massif Central near the Cantal Mountains. It is a dormant stratovolcano which has partially eroded away, creating some interesting faux above timberline terrain. Since Info service was on strike, I couldn’t get status of the restricted area, which meant I couldn’t quite see the peak I wanted to overfly. Hot and sweaty after my low altitude jaunt around Rodez, bumped by thermals, wishing I was at my destination, I began to lose faith in the gospel of aviation that ‘more flying is better.’

Fuel was at Saint-Flour, then off to the eastern Massif Central timberlands, down to the Rhône River for my ceremonial crossing, a reflection of past stories while sneaking by Grenoble’s airspace, glancing at fertile farmlands that I recall distinctly from the flight down from Germany in 2016.

Cantal Mountains, France. Maximum elevation 6,086′.

Timberlands in eastern Massif Central. Trees look quite healthy and there is some logging activity.


Crossing the Rhône River.

Farmland in the Rhône River valley.

Fuel was a GA airport outside of Chambéry, choosing a non-controlled field to avoid the mile walk required to pay a 5 euro landing fee at the larger airport north of town. Instead the field was a “French only” airport, a reality one must contend with in places in France, where all radio communication is strictly in French. It was a poor day to arrive, as gliders were swarming like gnats. I waited until traffic subsided, slipped in for fuel, noticing a very specific indifference by individuals on the ground, and after 15 minutes of glider winch activity and landings, found a window to takeoff for the final leg into Switzerland.

My questions about whether I was enjoying myself went away once I began cruising in the Pre-Alps a few minutes later. It is technically a separate mountain range that looks like the foothills of the Alps. Elevations tend to top out in the 4,000’ to 8,000’ range, with thick pine forests, exposed rock, and occasional ridges that look like the Alps.

The Pre-Alps gave way to the Chablais Alps at the border of Switzerland, and my disposition went from fatigue to pure joy. Vertical spires of rocks, small glaciers, remaining June snow, and thunderous waterfalls abounded. I climbed to about 8,000 feet to swing by the Massif du Chablais, a ridge that taunts us from the chalet in Switzerland, and from there swung by Les Diablerets and made my cruise into the Bernese Oberland, to land at Gstaad Airport, where the airplane will spend the summer.

Col de Bornette in the French Pre-Alps. I came from the left and crossed this same pass when flying to Switzerland last year.

Mont Fleuri, France, still in the Pre-Alps (8238′ / 2511m).

Mont Blanc in the background.


Switzerland, how I love you.  Les Dents Blanches (8533′ to 9042′ / 2601m to 2756m).


Massif du Chablais.

Bernese Oberland.

I was extremely content with my choice of location, and after literally “planes, trains, and automobiles,” I was back in Cerdanya the next day, and we drove to Switzerand the day after that. A few days after arriving a nice day was forecast, at least with respect to the fact it is sunny. I am still trying to figure out why one front means clear air, or another means a sunny day with incredible haze, or it means haze in one elevation or area, yet not in another.

Anyhow, I hoped to photograph Lake Geneva in summer light angles, though the morning showed sunny skies with horrific haze. I decided to go up anyway and “swing by the Jungfrau but at an altitude that isn’t 14,000 feet.” Given that it was to be sunny, I figured I could get some angles that never really made sense to try while based in Sion, as terrain is something quite severe and takes a lot of fuel to climb Sion over the Alps, back down to where humans live, then back up over the Alps, and quickly back down to normal elevations.

It didn’t take long in the air to decide I needed to clear the clouds over the Oberland, which I did in a hole over a massive waterfall in Adelboden. From there, the clouds were 50% coverage and clearly went to 11,000 feet, so I’d have to clear them. I wanted to see the Jungfrau, and it would be even better if it was sticking out above the clouds. Snaking east, I climbed as I went, hugging terrain, avoiding clouds, and thoroughly enjoying myself. Eventually I popped out at 12,000’ north of a sizable glacier, noting that the clouds were effectively piling up on the north side of the Bernese Alps and getting pushed to higher altitude, drying out on the south side. I finally did get to see the Jungfrau, after climbing to 13,500’, staying on the north side due to a stiff breeze. The air at altitude had perfect visibility, and stunning views.

On the way back west along the ridge, I noted that the clouds had thickened significantly, with less holes and higher heights. It was still clear to the south via the passes, and north out of the Oberland. Eventually I found a hole between Adelboden and Frutigen and corkscrewed down 3,000’ and popped over the pass towark Lenk-Simmental. Humidity and haze had increased greatly under the cloud deck causing carb ice at cruise RPM, though it was restricted to where it piled up against the Alps, indeed an interesting microclimate, as things were dry on the other side in the Rhône valley near Sion and drier 10 miles north of the base of the Bernese Alps. Anyhow, I cruised along the menacing looking ridge before slaloming around Oberland peaks and finally joining the circuit over a rather vertical rock just north of the airport.

While the first flight was one of technical requirement, to get from one point to another, it turned out to be the best and the worst at the same time. I think I can, at this point, finally declare that I do not like cruising at low altitude in thermals on hot summer days (it has taken long enough to cement that preference) yet alongside that displeasure I find the utter transcendental bliss of flight above glaciers well above 10,000 feet, which is simply the most enjoyable thing I have ever done in an airplane.

Rüwlispass (5636′ / 1718m).

Waterfalls above Adelboden.

Gemmipass (7447′ / 2270m).

Hockenhorn, hiding in the clouds (10803′ / 3293m). I gave up trying to climb over it, went to the right in the lee of the pass, and climbed above the clouds in the distance.


Et voila! Üsser Talgletscher. 

Same glacier, looking the other way.

Eiger (13024′ / 3970m). So much for the plan to “photo from below on a clear day.” Its not like I find this disagreeable.

Jungfrau (13642′ / 4158m).

Bernese Alps with clouds backed against them to the north.

And down through the hole above Adelboden.

Cruising along the ridge, where my O-200 turned into an ice machine.

CFIT poster.

Beneath Les Diablerets.

Entering the pattern for Saanen. Standard procedures call for flying above an enormous rock, then making a square pattern around Gstaad. Its a wild airport.

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 brief flirtation with another aircraft

If one wishes to make sense out of the present series of flights, then it becomes necessary to dial things back to 2010. My father had recently passed away, and despite taking ownership of the PA-11 that I now fly, I found it necessary to express my emotions by taking up the ancestral mantle of buying Cub and Super Cub insurance wrecks. I purchased a J-3 that had what I deemed to be minor damage (in light of the carnage that regularly rolled in to my grandfather’s shop) and set my mind to get it flying again. I did, except it took years and was a money losing operation, though I became something of an intriguing individual, being the only person in the neighborhood to have a 1940s airplane literally in his garage.

Apparently, I am incapable of learning from past mistakes. The Super Cub that I flew for my “Sentimental Journey” blog post last fall was another yellow, Ceconite-covered Piper taildragger, continuing this model of processing the evolution of life and death with airplane purchases, as my grandfather had died two months prior. In this case, the airplane was substantially perfect, which offered an illusion that it was in no way a repeat of the process earlier in the decade.

When I made the purchase of the Super Cub last year, it was a 2-hour flight to the region where I grew up, and the weather happened to be ideal in that direction, which virtually never happens in that time of year. I tried to rationalize that it was the luck of the draw that I put the Super Cub at the airport where I took my checkride, which happened to be the same airport that, at age eight, my grandfather let me take control of his [bright yellow Ceconite-covered] Super Cub for the first time, telling me to fly home via a road that I was familiar with. I think it’s less likely that I was following the weather and more likely that the obvious is true: there was a processing of a lifelong history of aviation with my grandfather, and this was a way of working through some of it.

Now that winter had come and gone, and a pile of life-altering events unrelated to aviation had changed many of the original plans as to how I was going to use the plane in the USA, I had a need to visit clients in various locations while also making my mind up about the Super Cub. I hatched a plan to use the Super Cub to traverse the country, enjoying myself while figuring out what to do next.

Weather cooperated for my incoming flight from Europe, so I was off from Perry-Warsaw, NY late in the evening heading south, with Charlotte, NC in mind. Since it was 7:10PM at takeoff, I wasn’t going to get far, though I still hadn’t formulated where I’d end up exactly. My wife usually plays the role of travel agent by text, finding hotels, and in this case, it was past midnight for her, so I was on my own. I initially in my mind set out for Williamsport PA, though as I was in flight, I got the sensation that University Park Airport in State College PA would have more hotels. Given that school was out and it’s a big college town, there would likely be tons of hungry hoteliers.

Crossing the Pennsylvania Wilds again, this time at dusk, I was struck how utterly desolate the place is, and few seem to know of it, even having grown up 100 miles north. Anyhow, the sun set and the night lights went on, something I do not have on the PA-11. I was a little nervous with the haze and the fact that the Wilds have zero inhabitants, though I got some civilization to make out a horizon before twilight ended, then came in for a landing at State College, my first at night in over 5 years. Of all of my flight experience, less than one percent is at night.

Silver Lake, NY – not long after departing Perry-Warsaw.

Southern Tier of NY, east of Wellsville.

Pennsylvania Wilds. Indeed one can choose between a tree, rock, or river as a forced landing location.

I pulled up to a very nice FBO, which had a hotel arrangement, a hotel shuttle, and they tied down the plane for me with no landing fees. I had to resist yelling “I LOVE AMERICA!” at the top of my lungs. In the matter of a 90 minute flight, I was deep into another state, changed destination (while getting NOTAMS and AF/D data in flight on my iPad), and landed at a place next to jets where they clearly want to do business and make things as easy as possible. It is hard to describe, though suffice it to say that diversion to a different destination in Europe is only done out of flight urgency and not some illusion that one place is better than another based on in-flight mental musings.

The next day, ceilings would be an issue in the morning and angry warm front thunderstorms in the afternoon. The heavens parted like the Red Sea as soon as I arrived at the airport, and I was off heading straight south in hot and humid air, pretty much certain I would pass the frontal boundary in northern VA before anything got going.

Thirty minutes into the flight, the oil pressure gauge started acting up. While I had only owned the airplane now for 6 flying hours, it had consistently stayed at a PSI setting and moved only slightly and slowly. Now she was bouncing in 6 psi increments, though staying in the green. Curious. Instead of flying VFR on top over a cloud-covered ridge, I turned to follow one of those ubiquitous Pennsylvania valleys that goes for 100 miles, just in case.

“Ridge and Valley” geographic province, south of Pennsylvania. This feature goes on from New York to Tennessee. 

Oil pressures slid about 7 PSI (still well into the green), though temps came up and stabilized at a new high, given it was the hottest OATs yet. If they kept rising, the conclusion would have been obvious, though they sat proportionally at a temp consistent with how hot it was outside, so I kept going, until I could see that the average of the gauge wobbling was going down. Still in the green, I had to choose between Potomac, MD or Hagerstown, MD. Potomac looked to be a continuation of a valley with cloud cover, and I couldn’t get a METAR or AWOS to determine ceilings. Hagerstown, a towered field, had AWOS and I could get a broadcast at 23nm. Sky clear. I diverted direct and by the time I was in the pattern, oil pressure was heading toward the top of the yellow.

After landing, it became evident 4 of the 7 quarts I had at takeoff had decided to go overboard via a leak. Sigh. After extensive phone calls and what not, I left it at a repair station for review the next day and drove to Charlotte, NC in a rental car. Yet again, America is the Promised Land of aviation, as the FBO had a deal with a local car rental agency, so life was easy, absent the ill-timed lack of oil.

The trip took a setback with a bad case of the flu, so a week later, I was back to resume the flight, not sure if I’d make it to California as I had planned. As I am very neurotic about post-maintenance safety (I find that maintenance puts other equilibriums at risk under the cowling), I did a few landings to confirm no leaks, tied down for the night, and left the next morning.

It was a beautiful flight down the Shenandoah Valley, from Hagerstown, MD, all the way to Virginia Highlands Airport near Abingdon, VA on the border with Tennessee. From there, the flight called for following the Tennessee River Valley southwest in East Tennessee, except it was hot as blazes and quite hazy. There is a bit of terrain to the west that tops out just below 4000’ north of Oak Ridge, long on my list that I didn’t ever see from the PA-11 when I lived in North Carolina, so I flew over the windmills on the ridges, then kept going to 8,000’ above the puffy clouds to cool off a bit.

Outside of Front Royal, Virginia.


North of Roanoke, Virginia. Old habits die hard. Even with a transponder and radio, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to Roanoke Approach.

“Mountain Empire” area of Virginia not far from I-77. This area is a famous weather boundary in winter, with IFR to the right and illustrious sun to the left. This was one of the ranges my grandfather long viewed as nothing short of an airplane graveyard. I see it as a knoll.

Cherokee Reservoir, Tennessee.


At this point, I departed the Great Appalachian Valley (which runs from Quebec to Alabama), having flown about half of it, and continued southwest while the Valley turns more southerly. Landing at Tullahoma, TN, I realized something profound: despite the fact that this thing is a 135hp Super Cub with all of the glories a PA-11 doesn’t have, I am so hot its nauseating, sunburn is a problem as I slathered with lotion while flying into the sun for hours, my rear end hurt, my knees hurt due to lack of mobility in the cockpit, and the thermals are just brutal. This has become a test of endurance just like every time I crossed the country in the PA-11, enduring the same discomforts, just at a slower speed in that aircraft.

Employing a trick I figured out flying to Colorado in 2013, with 105F ground temps in western Kansas, I soaked my shirt with water to cool down, and sure enough, 95F wind in the cockpit left me dry within 30 minutes, yet much happier.

Just north of Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, the terrain that tempted me staring at maps while in Charlotte, NC.

Up to 8,000 feet to cool off. 

Normandy Lake, Tullahoma, Tennessee, while doing a 360 to give somebody else room for a long final.

One more impromptu stop at Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the evening, as my tolerance for anything like a full bladder had waned, and then it was an hour into Tupelo, Mississippi after sunset, making another landing at a towered field with the lights on. The FBO tossed me the keys to the courtesy car for the night, and it was off to a hotel. God bless America and the glories of her general aviation.

Wilson Lake/Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

My initial plans were to fly to Los Angeles then either return to Texas to show the plane to an internet friend who had expressed interest in purchasing it or fly it back east to North Carolina to sell it on the open market or take it to Europe from there. An opportunity emerged that would have allowed its importation into Europe without tariff or tax, so the result could have gone three ways. This flight was a last hurrah in America, at least for me with regard to this airplane, so the outcome was open ended.

It took a long day of flying to let a few things sink in: the same discomforts of a PA-11 exist in a PA-18, and while the PA-18 is faster and has a few other features, the PA-11 is inadvertently a downright amazing aerial photography ship, a reality I encountered really by pure coincidence, as my grandfather had restored it and basically told me I would be taking lessons in it, and not his Super Cub, which was his “pride and joy” and he didn’t want me or anyone else touching it. One can now understand my inclination toward the superiority of a PA-18 and the philosophical conundrum that I did not have the chance in life to research and choose the make and model of plane I wanted to fly; I have been carrying on a family legacy, at times wondering what I would have done had it been incumbent on me to carry the full load of getting involved in aviation without any help. Would I have found Cubs on my own? Probably.

In any case, the PA-18 poses some technical issues with photography as thermals are tougher to manage, photo subjects go whizzing by many times faster than I can orient the camera, wind is so much stronger that it pushes the camera lens to undesirable zoom positions, and wind coming in the entry door, if opened, is an unholy fury which requires quite some work to coax the door shut, if anything weighing less than 5lbs hasn’t blown out in the process. All of this would require some thought, though it did formulate the decision to aim for Texas instead of Los Angeles. The flight was taking much longer than expected, my endurance was waning, and I had lost a week to illness.

I took off the next morning in heat and humidity that puts the Deep South in a realm of its own. Ten years in North Carolina cannot prepare someone for what one encounters in Mississippi….and it was still late May. Thankfully, I encountered a few rain showers, products of morning IFR clouds that had lifted to VFR, which was enough to cool things down and also keep the temps from rising.

I crossed the Mississippi River in full flood stage, now my fourth crossing, where three of four times the river is nearly bursting its banks. After departing the river delta in Arkansas, I entered a thicket of a forest that I would not escape until Texas with the exception of a brief respite in northwest Louisiana.

Mississippi River Delta, Mississippi.

Mississippi River.

Google Maps does not prepare one for the mass of foliage that covers this part of Arkansas, Louisiana, and eastern Texas. It is practically nothing but trees, with swamps and bayous, something I discovered as I was using an infrared camera, and water showed up black between the trees. If the engine quit, I’d be gator food and nobody would ever have found the wreckage! At first I flew direct, thinking that some of these swamps and forests were errantly thick and things would become human again. I then realized it was nonstop and began following roads.

Ouachita River, Arkansas with Louisiana in the background. Great places to land. 

The not-so-ironically Red River north of Shreveport, Louisiana.

I finally made my destination for the day in the rurals of Texas southeast of Dallas, an airpark with a grass strip. In talking with some local pilots, many of whom have taken long trips, I heard a few times that this flight of mine was something quite ambitious and quite a distance in a Super Cub. The odd thing is that I seem not to see things that way. If a plane can be flown a certain distance in a day, then why should it not be? My longest flying day was 13 hours in the PA-11 (Nebraska to North Carolina), and I only begin to understand that this could be excessive when every single body part hurts and I am nearly worn to the bone. An irony is that I have no clue where this mentality came from. I often point to my grandfather as an influence for many things, yet the man didn’t like flying near hills in excess of 500 feet, and his longest Cub or Super Cub flight was from Wisconsin to New York, taken in the 1960s. Since I began flying with him, he didn’t leave New York State in his Super Cub in a 20 year period, yet I got this Indiana Jones idea about Cubs and Super Cubs from somewhere, and its only when I am fed up with 12 hours of angry thermals do I step back and reconsider the plan (only to do it again later).

Texas, south of Tyler.

I came to a conclusion that I did not need two airplanes in Europe. If I was living in America, I’d probably have kept it, as most everything is easier. Really for many reasons, I came to the conclusion that the PA-11 is just fine, and that my Super Cub infatuation probably had to do with the fact that my grandfather had an apparently superior airplane the entire time I had been flying, so it was something I thought I should aspire to. I missed the memo when he said quite clearly, after half a century flying every fabric Piper product from an E-2 to a PA-22, that a “PA-11 is the best one.” The deal was done in Texas and the plane was sold to someone who had his own specific history with the Super Cub Special (of which this airplane was, with only 300 or so made), so it was a nice feeling that it was going to the kind of place where it would be appreciated. I must also mention that the Super Cub Special was initially used in Air Force affiliated training, and it felt wrong to take the airplane out of America for its historical value. It belonged home and it sits now a few hundred miles from the Air Force base that it first was used as a trainer in 1952.

I completed my activities in the USA by commercial airline and returned to Spain. The day after getting here, I hopped in the PA-11. As soon as I sat in the seat, it felt right. I love this airplane. When I started it up, I noticed how quiet the O-200 is compared to the O-290-D2. On takeoff, it was so quiet that I wondered if someone replaced the engine with a desk fan. When I was very young, roughly 5 years of age, my grandfather had a yellow J-3 and a blue and white PA-18, and he would often ask which one I wanted a ride in. It was always the J-3, and my rationale was that it was “quieter.” It’s funny, decades later, the same holds true. Throttling back to 2000RPM cruise, the engine purred like a kitten and I said to myself, “I like it quiet.” She’s slow…and that’s just fine.

Back in Spain, flying slow with an airplane powered by a hair dryer.

 

 

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.

On the Matter of Mountain Flying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Pedraforca with light May snowfall.

Spring in the valley.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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