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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 5)

An Evolving Theory of Mountain Flying Safety

One subject that I have grappled with over the years is the disparity between mountain flying being “dangerous” versus a pleasant flight on a sunny day. The reality is, actual mountain flying can be either, or a grade of both. It is not accurate to unilaterally state that it is nothing but dangerous; yet, a cavalier attitude has gotten many in trouble. I started, in my ignorance, subscribing to the danger model, then flirted with the idea that it’s not that big of an idea at all, and now have settled into a new thought paradigm.

It took a recent experience crossing a shallow glaciated saddle at 10,000 feet for the concept to crystallize. Nothing bad happened on the crossing, though at my most vulnerable moment, it suddenly occurred to me that I had not factored one input related to wind. If I was proven to be incorrect in my initial assumption, I would suddenly find myself in a wind shear situation, 300 feet above a glacier, with an engine capable of putting out 70 horsepower at that altitude. The chance of descending onto the shallow glacier (or coming terrifyingly close), would have been unacceptably high.

The good news is that I was correct about the wind, there was no wind shear, and the crossing of the saddle and two glaciers was pleasant and uneventful. What did occur to me in the cockpit was how, if I was at 800’ AGL at the saddle instead of 300’ AGL, the thought wouldn’t have crossed my mind at all. I asked myself why that was the case, and it led to an answer which I think balances conflicting concepts of mountain flying terror and nonchalance.

Every aircraft, day, pilot, and mountain range combined produces a combination of factors where, based on each unique situation, there is a boundary between a safe flight configuration and an unsafe one in each geographic locale. That, I think, is relatively black and white. The result is that certain flight paths can be entirely uneventful, whereas others are extremely risky.

The reality is mixed with many variables. Note how I mentioned that I wouldn’t have given the saddle any thought at 800’ AGL, yet 300’ gave me waves of angst. That tells me that the boundary between safe and unsafe was somewhere in between. Yet, that boundary would be different if winds weren’t the same, if I was loaded with a passenger, if I had more horsepower, if I was flying a spam can, if there was a cloud layer…the list of variable inputs to the equation seems endless, though the boundary of safe versus unsafe flight in the mountains is not.

If there was a visual of how this plays out, I would imagine a landscape mountain scene with red shaded areas demonstrating danger. Box valleys where turning radius is too wide, strongly turbulent areas in the lee of ridges, formation of orographic clouds, low altitudes in valleys where terrain ascends faster than aircraft rate of climb…these would all be shaded red reflecting their danger. Areas that had plenty of altitude, wide enough valleys, and a lack of deleterious winds, well, those are wonderful places to fly and enjoy oneself in the mountains.

To revert back to the technical nature of my sudden concern, there is a 5-minute video of the crossing and below I will walk through some images, explaining what I knew and didn’t know, and where I was when I figured it out.

After passing Les Haudères, Glacier d’Arolla comes into view in the distance.

My options were to head left, right, or turn around. 

While I wanted to turn right over the Col de Charmotane, I wasn’t high enough. Snuggling with the glacier made it clear that winds were coming down the glacier, which made sense as wind reports were out of the south.

I went back to the left option, which took me to Haut Glacier d’Arolla. Winds were not evident here. It is interesting how fast terrain below seems to come up toward the airplane, and what seems like adequate room suddenly feels like it isn’t. Since there are no trees or buildings and the scene is clearly majestic, one can wrongly assume that things are bigger than they seem.

On the way out from the left option, which puts the valley into perspective. Even though the glacier is descending from this angle, the valley now looks quite tight.

Back to the saddle that I would like to get over. The issue with high pressure days is that pressure differences build up on both sides of the Alps. With daytime heating, even in winter, winds begin to pick up, though they are not prevailing in the whole region as one would expect. Instead, they blow through valleys, passes, and openings various ranges, often blowing in a variety of directions. Therefore, I can presume, but not be certain, what the wind is doing. I knew it was coming off this glacier and heading down below me. My presumption was that it was blowing down the glacier in the middle left, and up the glacier on the right, both meeting and descending below.


By the time I got to the saddle, I had a sudden thought that I might have it wrong. What if the glacier to my left, which was blowing down into the valley I came, turned and was blowing forward in this image? I’d have some unpleasant wind shear. I also couldn’t tell how high above the glacier I was, as the snow was one giant soft pillow.

Looking to the left of the saddle, where I was now wondering if the winds were heading out behind me, or if they would bend to the right. It turns out my original theory was correct, and other than getting knocked a bit by wind, it was uneventful.

 

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

An Overdue Rant

The discussion started with my wife’s innocent commentary on France’s coronavirus lockdown requirements. “Can you believe that the French have to carry a piece of paper to leave the house?” Before she could say another word and to the surprise of both of us, I erupted with a diatribe: “Excuse me? So, they need a piece of paper to leave the house? How about the fact that I need to file an avis de vol or PPR prior to every flight in Switzerland, that a flight plan is needed for any border crossing inside of the “border free” European Union, or that I am required to have my Mode S transponder on, broadcasting to the world a precise track of all of my activities? If French health rules are going to be presumed to signify the dawn of authoritarianism, then try being a pilot in the free world.”

Aside from the tantrumesque nature of my fusillade, I have been brewing (ahem, repressing) an argument for a while in my mind that private aviation is treated rather unfairly compared to automobile transport, if one considers the underlying principles behind reasons for regulation of both. What works for cars focuses on safety and respects freedom, yet pilots and aircraft seem willing to put up with an overbearing and disproportionate excess of rules compared to ground transportation. It took the inconvenience of a health crisis to synthesize the argument in my mind.

The most poignant case stems from Switzerland regarding airport hours. For those who read my rantings from Germany years ago, “operating hours” rear their ugly head again, something that thankfully Spain doesn’t seem to care about. I’ll digress a moment to remind everyone that operating hours and information service requirements in Germany stemmed from the Nazi era. At present, uttering the slightest Nazi phrase in Germany can result in job loss and arrest, whereas Germans will admit that the genesis of information service requirements is from the Third Reich, and its completely ok to practice that restrictive Nazi tradition (against pilots) in modern Germany, whereas everything else has been eviscerated from their culture.

Ok, so back to Switzerland. Local communes “come to an agreement” with airports (i.e., tell them) what hours the airport can be open. Most in Switzerland are sunrise to sunset, capped at 8PM in summer. Some go to sunset in summer, others allow only takeoffs until 8PM and landings until sunset. A few allow some basic night VFR on occasion. The rule springs from noise concerns. The commune basically determines when they want to hear airplanes fly. I failed to mention that some airports have restrictions on Sunday, at lunch time, and if a funeral is occurring at a local church.

As with most things in Switzerland, they at least have a traceable origin and make a shred of sense. At the same token, when I compare to automobile traffic, I can’t help but grimace at the disparity. I personally loathe, with a vehement passion, noises from cars and refuse to live anywhere near a road, which is how I solve my personal preference regarding the ever-present miserable hum of car traffic. While I would love if local towns would regulate car noise out of my life, it is a concept that simply never crosses my mind. Yet, when it comes to aviation, occasional air traffic after 8PM is deemed excessive, while cars and trains continue to make a racket in Swiss villages, free to do so whenever they please. To me, it boggles the mind that the differential in treatment is not questioned.

Another matter, that is more prevalent in Europe, arises with regard to insurance. If an aircraft is out of annual or if the pilot has anything but a current license and medical for the flight in question, then there is no coverage, even if those matters had nothing to do with it. I have never toyed with the matter, though I would presume the same condition exists in the USA. Yet, if an automobile is out of inspection, or if maintenance was done not in accord with manufacturer recommendations, would coverage be denied for an automobile accident? Of course not! I am unsure of the situation with an expired license and insurance with a car in the US.

The irony with insurance is that “breaking any regulation” can result in the loss of coverage in Europe. I believe, though do not quote me, that causality with aviation insurance in the US is more of a factor than Europe, and may be US state specific. At any rate, are not most automobile accidents the result of breaking a regulation? Yet, “that is what insurance is for.” In the case of aviation, good faith piloting with an error in complying with a mountain of rules carries incredible weight.

For that matter, I have seared into my mind the deleterious horror of as much as being on the ramp near an airplane without one’s pilot certificate, medical, and state-issued photo identification in my possession. Fines are in the thousands of dollars, in the US, in the event of a ramp check – not if one attempts to enter and fly an aircraft being a non-pilot – but if the person left the documents at home. In a car, the police furnish a limited period to return to the police station with the driver’s license and do not squabble as much about issues as to whether it is in one’s possession.

I could go on and on, though I think the point is made that pilots face far higher requirements on all fronts, and far worse consequences. Some might argue that “aviation is different,” and I would be inclined to agree with regard to commercial and transport operations (more people, more speed, more weight, more fuel, more boom). There are strong requirements, they result in very low accident rates, and those are not in question. Yet, for a small aircraft that weighs less than a car carrying the same amount of people as a sedan, I think the corollaries are more profound than we think.

The issue with aviation is protecting the general public mostly, and passengers second. The same rule applies with cars. In fact, if an airplane crashes, the chance of it hitting a bystander or building on the ground is much less than if a car endures a crash. The amount of pedestrian deaths or, for that matter, deaths of occupants of other vehicles not at fault, is staggering in the United States. Cars routinely travel within 5 to 10 feet of opposing traffic, pedestrians, and sometimes buildings. The condition of automobile maintenance in the US can be staggeringly disregarding of the value of life, yet we culturally think it’s fine to careen down the road in vehicles weighing one to three tons with a fraction of the training, licensure, and maintenance regimentation than a private aircraft. The results speak for themselves: cars kill at an astonishing rate.

One has to ask where the root of the problem lies. Regulation is a product ultimately of democracy, which derives of looking after the interest of the majority. It is rather simple and obvious that more people drive than fly; thus, the incentive is to arrive at an equilibrium that the average citizen agrees with regarding automobiles. When it comes to airplanes, there is little reward for a non-pilot to have any sort of non-airline aviation; thus, fear and disinterest in aviation inconveniences (noise, funding local airstrips, etc.) abounds. AOPA in the US is a fantastic example of banding together as pilots and pushing back against the inevitable monster that would be the general public’s disinterest in aviation, whereas AOPA membership and therefore power in Europe is miniscule comparatively. A smaller percentage of pilots in Europe join their local AOPA, rendering the final lobbying outcome far more anemic. The results are evident with byzantine and nonsensical regulation imposed upon pilots by a web of public ignorance.

It is further interesting to analyze differences with American and European automobile training and licensure. Europe has requirements for extensive schooling, compared to the US where parents teach their [unenviable] driving habits to their children. Automobile inspections, while nothing like an aircraft annual, are far more rigorous, such that the sight of a “rust bucket” on the road is virtually non-existent. The results are clear: road deaths are significantly less in Europe, so much so that I have seen three total accidents in four years of European travels, including on packed roads that are far tighter than anything in America. As one can tell, I support the European approach to driving.

Yet, there is still a paradigm that holds true with roads in Europe, despite significant differences in training and maintenance: rules make sense. Road engineering, speed limits, and other posted signs and restrictions follow the same basic concept that exists in America: people want to get from point A to B as fast as they can without killing themselves or others. This reality is a perfect example of how precise, targeted, and effective increases in regulation can create a required investment of training, maintenance, and operating practice that pays tangible dividends for everyone involved. Many of the aviation regulations in Europe that I rail against produce no tangible dividend, other than a Byzantium of nonsense that needs to be tracked, for a purpose few probably even remember.

I illustrate the prior paragraph to demonstrate that quantity of regulation is not the sole barometer of restrictions to freedom. There is much more to do and keep track of on the roads in Europe, yet the outcome is still relatively equivalent to America, despite higher regulatory burden. Higher European regulations in aviation, on the other hand, just annoy pilots, operators, and maintenance professionals. That further cements my democratic and lobbying argument: the general public, even in Europe, would not tolerate mountains of stupidity in driving regulation, as there would be a groundswell of public rage at the prospect. Since aviation here has small numbers and its political influence is not weighty, non-pilots often devise the rules, with no feedback cycle to their lack of sense. In fact, in a recent article I posited the basis that some European aviation rules have been relaxed, due to the squashing of GA experience. It was my theory that, if rules squeezed off the pipeline of pilots to airline cockpits, then the general public couldn’t go on vacation, which is an example of democracy at work.

This rant could go on ad infinitum. I will mention, on a positive note, rules and coronavirus restrictions notwithstanding, that flying is still a tremendous unbridled joy, even during this crisis, and I treasure whatever I am allowed to do in these crazy times even if, for reasons I do not understand, some coronavirus related restrictions require enhanced fire services, thus reducing airport operating hours….

 

 

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

A Curious Lack of Crosswinds

There is an old adage about mountain flying, that “the windsock points in three different directions” at mountain airports. The prospect is appropriately disconcerting to a pilot that has not flown in mountains before, as a decade and a half of flatland flying in the East Coast taught me that, if the general wind for a region is from a certain direction, well, one can easily presume that it is blowing the same direction down the runway. Any mental gymnastics as to what could be going on to create swirling winds was not necessary at the time, and therefore was relegated to the age-old heap of reasons to be afraid of mountains.

My first landing in Leadville, Colorado, after crossing Tennessee Pass in snow showers was as advertised. Winds were in three directions as foretold, so I picked something just over the numbers, did the stick and rudder dance, and got the airplane on the runway as though death was the only other option. Then I had to taxi a half mile, noting that the wind really wasn’t that bad.

A few hundred hours of flying in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana confirmed the maxim that the wind is “always” in three different directions. The US West features high valleys, open spaces, and lots of afternoon wind in summer, which is thermally driven. With such vertical winds, localized chinook action, and some orographic wind funnels, it seemed to be the norm to expect something on the wild side, generally not in line with a thing called a “forecast,” and I grew to deal with it.

Fast forward to Spain and La Cerdanya, which featured more hundreds of hours of flying, and it only partially validated this maxim. With an ambient north wind, enormous waves would set up, with a wind funneling out of the Val du Carol in France, before making a turn and working themselves out over the Pre-Pyrenees. On south wind days, a small wave would set up over our house, with slamming doors and windows, bent trees, and afternoon fury, with a light breeze two miles away at the airport. As one would expect, in flight the valley was interesting as the vertical ripples sorted themselves out and found a way to transit the range, though they were predictable. I wrote the experience off as “that’s mountain flying” whereas in retrospect, I would peg the winds as about half as complex as the US West.

Now enter the Alps. A rational presumption, due to the height, severity, and density of terrain would be to expect sheer carnage, with death-dealing winds swirling undetectably around phantom summits, ensnaring pilots that dare enter the range. I can attest that I thought such a thing, and within a short period of my initial adventures in Switzerland, my illusions of sheer terror were replaced with a feline skepticism of nearly everything I saw. Now that the on and off again Swiss adventures have piled up some decent experience, I can attest that presumptions about wind that work in the Rockies are not analogous here, at least when it comes to windsocks on the field.

I arrived at these conclusions by doing one of my “its dark, I’m playing with my computer, and I can’t go flying” exercises, tallying up total landings at various home base airports. When I added up my experiences at three different Swiss “home” base airports, I came up with some very interesting conclusions:

Sion – 16 landings – 100% on runway 25
Bex – 21 landings – 100% on runway 33
Saanen – 33 landings – 91% on runway 26
Samedan – 3 landings – 100% on runway 21

In deeper consideration, I can’t recall a “crosswind” of more than 20 degrees at any of these airports on any of these 73 landings!

One has to ask, if “the windsocks are blowing in three different directions in the mountains,” how the wind is always in one direction? In the Alps, the answer is pretty simple: aside from the reality that windsocks usually are in agreement, terrain is so steep and with such vertical relief that wind channels are formed in terrain. A prevailing crosswind can be blowing at an upper level; however, with a valley a mile or less wide yet 20 miles long, with a mile or more of steep terrain acting like walls, is it really going to rush down 5000 feet, cross the runway, rush up another 5000 feet, and keep going? Winds tend to form channels that find the path of least resistance, turning left and right down steep and long valleys until reaching a pass or relief point, where the pressure can equalize by having the wind roar over a small area to the other side. In fact, passes with towering terrain often have the strongest wind, with more relaxed breezes blowing on summits above the pass. This means that sometimes the wind turns 90 degrees or more relative to general flow down in the valleys, while maintaining a single direction above the summits.

I encountered this reality a bit in the Tetons. Instead of arcing over the Tetons with a resounding fury, rancorous rotors, and a slew of mystery, the wind most of the time just blew around them. In Glacier National Park, with 30 knots of winds at summit level, the same thing happened: winds funneled like the Alps, left and right as they found channels to get to the other side. While there are similarities, I can attest that my limited experiences of the sort in the US were nowhere near as pronounced as the uniqueness of the Alps.

Here are some photos of airports to demonstrate how terrain works:

Bex, Switzerland – The airport is halfway to the horizon. One can understand why the winds are virtually always blowing from the north (toward me in the image). Below is Martigny, which is typically quite raucous as three major wind currents converge and head east to Sion.

Just north of Sion, looking east. The previous image was taken 10 miles behind me. The Rhône Valley continues for another 30 miles, meaning that winds blow most of the time west to east down the valley.

Saanen, taken north of the field, looking west. Terrain to my right, out of the image, is about as high as the left, meaning that winds blow down the valley 91% of the time (at least for me), favoring 26 unless there is a strong post-frontal northeast wind event, for which the reverse occurs.

Samedan. What is evident at this point is that I don’t have good shots of the whole airport of any of these places. That likely has to do with the fact that I do not turn the airplane 90 degrees on final to get a wide photo of what is going on. Nonetheless, the terrain that is on the other side of the airport is mirrored just behind me as I am painfully close to the trees on the right while on downwind. This valley configuration is at least 20 miles long, meaning relatively consistent wind patterns.


In separate news, book #23 is published: Mountain Texture: Glaciers of the Alps. Like my three prior aerial texture works, it features close up perspectives of the many textures and details of glaciers found in Italy, France, and Switzerland.

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.

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.
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