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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 4)

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.

Nostalgia of Grass

I routinely refer to the underlying purpose of taking a particular flight, as merely flying for the sake of flying is something that I do a minority of the time. This winter’s almost desert weather has featured a personal exploration into how much pattern and other work I will do for the love of flying, which is still a surprising amount. In any case, what I am doing most of the time is undertaking an adventure of exploration on some level, with the airplane as the primary platform to achieve the objective in mind. Coincident to using the Cub to get somewhere, I get whatever pent up aviation need is lurking satisfied, thinking the sole reason for the flight was the adventure.

In light of the foregoing, I go through an elaborate dance before I decide to go somewhere. After weather and photography conditions are factored, I am usually looking for some angle where I am in pursuit of something, whether it’s an itch to satisfy from staring at Google Maps, or simply a beautiful day that beckons taking flight. On this flight, I struggled as two months had gone by with hazy and unattractive weather, an itch had developed to fly, yet I couldn’t seem to devise somewhere to go. I finally discovered the ruins of an old church, sticking out above the water line in a reservoir, something I found on Google Maps yet was not evident when I flew there when the water level was maxed out two years ago. That, and there was a ridge I wanted to see again, also two years having passed by. With those two in mind, I decided to have some good old backcountry fun and land at two little dirt strips, for the sole reason that its enjoyable.

Exploration of the Pre-Pyrenees turned out to foster a few surprises. By now, I thought I had flown it all so much that there was nothing new, and I found some rock formations that I would have been duly impressed if I saw them in Wyoming or Utah. From there, it was off to Peña Montañesa, a curiously long ridge that reminds me of Cadí-Moixeró, then down to the Mediano reservoir to check out the church steeple in the water, which I did find. I landed at Coscojuelas, a grass strip used as a gyrocopter school, that sticks out on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides.

What I found there surprised me a bit. It is a grass strip as expected, and I have landed there before, though I found myself flooded with memories of flying with my late grandfather in childhood. After thinking about it, this was the first non-asphalt landing surface that I had used since his passing, and it reminded me of his frequent preaching about how landing on grass was better. Any time we landed on asphalt, he’d shake his head when the tires would howl on touchdown, later grimacing as he repeated how turf was far better for a Cub or Super Cub, like it was its natural habitat.

The funny thing is that I find grass filings and all sorts of clippings and dirt in places I’d rather not have it. Greasing the tailwheel, pulling grass from the landing gear and behind the hubcaps….the list goes on where the stuff gets crammed, and yet I still agree that asphalt is somehow unnaturally “hard” on an airplane, logic notwithstanding. I learned on a short grass field, and that will always feel right to me.

From Coscojuelas, it was off to Castejón de Sos, a remarkable little dirt strip in the Valley of Benasque. The field elevation is a hair shy of 3,000’, lower than La Cerdanya, yet tucked prodigiously in towering terrain on all sides. I took a direct route through some impressively steep valleys that would have made the Swiss feel proud, coming upon the field, amazed yet again that the place exists. I landed there in October 2017, having already experienced typical mountain winds with tight quarters, so I knew what it was like, though it was still a treat. While I am sure some Swiss fields could give this place a run for its money, the tightness so far is the most out of any of the airports I have landed at in the USA or Europe.

After takeoff, I did the obligatory circular climb so as not to smack into rock, then explored some rocky cliff sides on the way home, with a big smile on my face, having forgotten all of those “concerns” I had about where to go and if it would have been worth it.

Muntanya d’Adons. Pre-Pyrenees.

Catalunya/Aragon border, Riu Noguera Ribagorçana.

Tozal de Sis.

Southeast of Bacamorta.

Peña Montañesa.

Church steeple sticking out of the water. Mission accomplished.

Coscojuelas airfield.

Peña Montañesa is in the rear background.

Ésera River Valley, on the way to Castejón de Sos.




Castejón de Sos airfield in lower center right (to the right of campground, along the river). The valley is rather tight.

Climbout, after doing a 360 to avoid ramming into terrain.

Pre-Pyrenees texture, on the way back.

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.

Boredomitis

Gethereitis is the most common form of in-flight decision-making disease, though my past exploits cause me to wonder if we should add a new one: boredomitis, the antics resulting in a lack of anything useful to do coupled with a desire and willingness to fly.

I suppose my first exposure to boredomitis was when I was quite young, living in New York next to my grandfather’s grass airstrip. At the time, he was in his 50s, jaded from many things in life, choosing to spend his time rebuilding Cubs in his shop, or taking local flights. While he had gone some distance in his younger years, by the time I came along, he was past the novelty of it all and had his routine: evening flight here, a burger in Great Valley, land at a few pilot’s airfields every now and then and….buzzing. When he would get frisky, he would buzz the snot out of my grandmother, my aunt (who lived nearby), my parents’ house, and other rural-dwelling friends of his. There were war stories (possibly just rumors) of an incident or two where foliage needed to be removed from the landing gear.

At any rate, I enjoyed every second of it my entire youth, and it all unceremoniously stopped about eight months before I started taking lessons on the same field. So I am told, there was a concerted conspiracy, probably led by my aviation-hating mother, to “not set a bad example.” Rest assured that I remembered his methods.

Anyhow, fast forward to the Winter of Discontent 2018-2019 in Spain. I had recently returned from Switzerland, having achieved the pinnacle of my aviation experiences, both figuratively and literally. At first, I had an initial zeal to breathe some energy into my local flying. “Every flight in Switzerland was 2.5 to 3 hours. Why not do the same in Spain, instead of these silly little flights I usually take?” Fresh with optimism, I plunged into the high country of the Pyrenees on a two+ hour flight the day after arriving back, enjoying some early season snows, thinking that this new zeal was wonderful.

Then reality struck, in the form of the weather.

Early season snows disappeared, though wind and the pernicious inversion to the south set in. So, I decided to chase them. First it was the wind, weaseling up into the high peaks in strong waves and moving clouds, deftly doing so without a problem. Another day, it was flying above a cloud deck under a strong NW flow near Pic Carlit, France, getting the snot beat out of me in orographic turbulence. That switched to chasing the inversion below. Instead of it being an aggravation that limited cross country possibilities, I decided to treat it as something beautiful, taking flights right over the rim of it, which was fine assuming the engine kept operating the entire time.

The inversions quit showing up in cloud form, though remained in haze, exacerbated by a small forest fire, which I decided to go flying around. That led to breaking my altitude record in a mountain wave, flying to 19,500’. Not to be deterred, another day I decided I was “finally going to do some aerobatics.” The legality of aerobatics is somewhat murky here. I talked to a French instructor, who said it’s a pain in the rear over the border, so they come to Spain to do it, though I couldn’t tell, as usual, if Spain was regulatorily permissive or just so disorganized so as not to care.

I climbed to altitude in the typical place, did some clearing turns, fired up the GoPro, and was ready to go for my first loop. At thirty degrees nose up, I completely wimped out. “I can’t do this!” I descended and went home, staring at 70-year-old weld joints that hold the airframe together, wondering what I was thinking. Save aerobatics for a newer, properly constructed device.

Then the unthinkable happened: 5 weeks of solid, unforgiving, nonstop blue sky and sun, right in the middle of winter, with some days as high as 72F/22C. Not a shred of snow or rain, mostly sunny from the end of January until the beginning of March. While my fellow compatriots in America will be inclined to give a speech to “count your blessings,” especially given the nature of the foul winter many have had in North America, I must note that it was especially hazy, and the surfaces were quite brown and devoid of snow, with the exception of very high-altitude locations. Cross country flights weren’t appealing given lowland haze, so I resorted to flying in a circle in the valley: touch and goes, spot landings, max performance takeoffs with vortex generators (26mph indicated) to entertain airport restaurant goers, 2000 RPM takeoffs, low approaches, and the like.

Recently, we had a clear day in the mountains, so I went up for flight over Cadí-Moixeró, and on the tediously long descent down, I decided to solve a nagging question I’ve had. When I was a student, I went to 14,000’ in the PA-11 specifically to annoy my father, who had a tizzy I went up to 7,500’ and venomously barked “never to do it again.” I made a point to go as high as I could without oxygen in a statement of teenage rebellion. On the way down to field elevation of 1,284’, I decided to pull the mixture to confirm what I had suspected: the prop still spins, though at a few hundred less RPM. Push it in and off we go.

I had since read about the aeronautics behind engine-out forced landings and the effects of windmilling, and an article made reference to a “dangerous” maneuver to slow the airplane to get the prop to stop, in order to remove the drag of a windmilling propeller. With boredomitis, the mind has a long list of things to probe, so I gave her a whirl descending from Cadí-Moixeró. At 48mph, the prop stops in about 15 seconds without anything special involved. Thankfully, I have a starter. Anyhow, the airplane does glide really quite nicely without any power. For any who think I am a lunatic, I was about a mile above the ground.

Since I rarely suffer from gethereitis as I usually pick sunny days that are good for photos, boredomitis is more likely to show up. I have a few stories of trying to cross the USA under a schedule in the PA-11, and they are filled with typical nonsense gethereitis implies. It is definitely worse to toy with weather to meet an arbitrary goal. Boredom, on the other hand, is a bit of a two-edged sword. It probably is why so many have tried new things and pushed the envelopes of aviation to new places, though could be the source of total stupidity if left unchecked. Fortunately spring is around the corner.

First flight after Switzerland, filled with optimism for the winter. Central Pyrenees, looking west.


First indication of boredom: going above the clouds with strong mountain waves.


Getting knocked around above the cloud layer near Pic Carlit, France.

Making some beauty out of inversions that usually present issues with cross country flights.


This photo appeared in my recent P&E article in the March issue of AOPA Pilot.

Rather windy and turbulent, looking over the edge. If I got sucked over, I likely would have not been able to outclimb the descending wave back into the Pyrenees.

Forest fire.


Lowland inversion presenting as haze instead of clouds. This will stay until April like this.

Going into the Andorran Pyrenees while the waves are in force. At least it prevents boredom!

Wave signature, after getting out without too much of a problem. It was turbulent.

Finally! Some clouds. Who would have thought I’d be so happy to get precipitation?

 

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.

Fighting the Elements

There are days I don’t give enough credit to the fact that day-to-day life can be hard on aviation. I take a belief that not flying much isn’t really an option, and thankfully have the ability to configure things such that I can fly quite regularly. Motivation is usually not a problem; if something gets in the way, I take it as a matter of extreme urgency to get back in the air, if anything just because a good moment might be around the corner.

This winter has proven to be a bit different. A variety of back-to-back unpleasantries that could be summed up as “life” accumulated, and before I knew it, I started referring to the fact that I “used to” fly. Granted, that is quite dramatic, as I think something like 10 days went by, though I found myself struggling to fight uphill against this year’s Spanish winter. Usually when it snows, the wind dies down enough that I can scamper to the airport in glee, shovel in hand, defying snow piled on the runway, and make a run for it before it melts. This year has featured screaming wind during and after each storm.

Staring at the problem long enough builds up a chemical tension that demands satisfaction, so one day after a 10” snowfall, I checked the wind report online at the airport, and it showed 12mph down the runway. This reading was compared to wind gusts in excess of 50mph at the house a few miles away, though winds can be localized in this valley, so I figured I’d plow through the snow and go around the pattern.

The little voice inside knew it was futile, but alas, I went to the airport instead. Wind was far in excess of 12mph. I drove to the edge of the unplowed runway and decided to walk it to feel the snow consistency and depth. While winds were gusting over 30mph, it was down the runway, despite the fact that it was unpleasant and agitating. Walking over 1000 feet of the runway to check for drifts and hidden snow thickness, the wind picked up with such a fury that I had to lean into the wind to walk with zero visibility in blizzard conditions. Ok, forget that. I was remiss that I “technically” could have not had to worry about snow thickness due to wind, though I would have been blown over taxiing.

A few days went by before the next incoming storm, for which the wind blew a lot of snow away. It was starting to snow over terrain, curiously stalled just on the north end of the valley with NW flow, so I battled nasty wind to take off. It was, needless to say, raucous in the air, so I turned around and went back with my tail between my legs.

That storm did produce 8” in the valley, without as much wind afterward. I had a chance to get to the airport to see if I could takeoff with that much on the ground. Granted, the last storm deposited a giant drift in front of the hangar, which was in the shadow of the sun. For this problem, I negotiated with the airport maintenance guy to shove some out of the way with the tractor, as the plow truck unceremoniously died in the parking lot. Now wrangling a brutally heavy airplane parked in front out into the snow, then getting mine out, and warming up, I found that I could taxi, with quite a bit of power. I taxied up and down the whole runway, finding waves of drifted snow in what appeared to be even snow cover. A brief run a full power showed little promise of picking up speed. Since I had tightened the shoulder belts “just in case” she nosed over, I decided to pull the plug on that one as I didn’t like it one bit – if one needs the caution of such safety restraints, then one might wish to restrain the activity at hand. Perhaps some Alaska guys can weigh in on how much snow 8.50×6.00 tires can handle, though I confess 7” is the max I have done.

After some days, the sun came out, and enough snow compressed and melted to blast through it and takeoff, for which winds were still not that pleasant in the air. I was sandwiched between systems, and was angling to see some high terrain before the clouds blew in. They beat me to it, cloaking the mountain ridge ahead of me in unpleasant and overly energetic wind, for which I was forced to abort and scurry from a forming cloud layer.

Finally, high pressure came in some days later. The field was melted, and I took aim for the Central Pyrenees. These continuous storm systems had deposited over 6 feet of snow in parts of the mountains, and I went for the heart of it in the Vall d’Aran, something I realized I hadn’t yet done. In winters past, local snowfall was so shiny and enthralling that I didn’t venture as far to see it. As the photos show, it was a rewarding flight.

I do have to confess that motivation wasn’t the same this winter. Each time I shoveled a pile of snow, yanked a heavy plane over ice, battled wind, and dealt with aggravations associated with winter, I could only look back on a year ago and wonder where all that energy came from. I had unrequited glee to fight what the mountains could throw, whereas this year, well, life sometimes makes it harder. I guess for all those who park their planes and don’t bother to fly in winter in areas with foul climate, maybe this year I get it.


Snow on the north side of the valley, with nasty wind.


The PA-11 with snow jammed in all sorts of places after plowing through and giving up on taking off.

Clouds beat me to the ridge.


Finally! Escaping the confines of winter. Andorra la Vella, Andorra.

Ridge above Andorra la Vella. This rocky feature sneers at me when I go to Starbucks. Now I can return the favor.

Back in Spain, rounding the bend at Parc Natural de l’Alt Pirineu.

Aftermath of an avalanche. Vall d’Aran.

Peculiar snow patterns, which appeared in many places. I suspect it has something to do with the amount of snow that fell.


Avalanche, from source to terminus.

Vall d’Aran, looking west, with France below on the right horizon.

More interesting snow patterns.

Look out below! Avalanche made it down to the river.

Creeping up on Pico Aneto (11,168′), the tallest peak in the Pyrenees.

Pico Aneto. Just below the summit, the smooth sections contain the largest remaining glacier in the Pyrenees.

Aneto ridge, from the west.

On the way home as sunset approaches. Snow depth is less as I depart the Central Pyrenees.

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.

Surfing the Wave

This whole idea started with an online forum discussion, pondering how high a Super Cub can really go. Sure, there is the whole published ceiling that might offer insight, though there was my rather extensive personal experience flying the PA-11 to interesting heights. I exceeded the ceiling once, with a passenger, in Colorado, getting to 16,300’. In France last summer, I came close on a warm day, reaching 16,000’ just over the summit of Mt. Blanc, but still hadn’t broken the record again in almost five years. I had even installed vortex generators since, and it was looking like the published ceiling was about it (16,000’ in the PA-11). I supposed, on engine power alone, a Super Cub would do the same thing: roughly its published limit and not too much more.

Well, that is fine on engine power. Mountain winds are another story. What goes down must have gone up somewhere else, so find the upward wind currents and see how far one can go.

On an innocent morning in the Pyrenees, I told my wife I was going for a flight (without telling her what I was up to), filed a flight plan to talk to ATC, and went to the airport. I talked to the airport manager, who is a renowned glider instructor, and confirmed exactly how to best catch the waves, and asked to borrow a nice oxygen setup.

The thing is, mountain waves are very tranquil…once in them. The transition layers beneath feature plenty of turbulence and rotors, usually enough that when about to enter the wave and have things calm down, a sensible pilot turns back. After all, he and his airplane are getting the snot beat out of it. Why risk more? I had gotten into waves a number of times in Colorado and in the Pyrenees, though it was usually a nominal altitude gain and wasn’t necessarily with the intent to ride them as far as I could go.

As it was a chilly winter morning, climb out was good. By 7,500’, I was beginning to get knocked around. At 9,000’, it got a little interesting. By 12,000’, turbulence was almost gone. At 15,000’ I really hooked the wave and was heading up nicely. At 19,500’, French ATC put an end to the party, as Class A was lurking above, and despite my repeated pleas to continue my fun and go for a better record, they couldn’t issue a variance. You know, airliners going into Toulouse and Barcelona….sigh. It took 43 minutes to get from field elevation of 3,609′ MSL to 19,500′ with full fuel and 100hp.

So that answers the musings of the mind. It was astonishingly cold, though the airplane handled as normal. Mixture was leaned quite a bit to keep the engine running, airspeed was consistent, and nothing was too terribly out of the ordinary. Some descending circles with GPS indicated upper level winds of 58kts in the wave, though I still haven’t broken my wind record. That was done at 13,500’ just east of Yellowstone in 2015 in the Absaroka Mountains.

If it’s not obvious, I’d love to go higher in the Cub.

Statistics from the Climb

Waves in the upper atmosphere from 12,000′.

13,000′. The Pyrenees, looking west from France to Spain and Andorra.

19,000′. Took a photo with the wing to prove I wasn’t faking it in another aircraft. Timberline below is 7,500′, and the highest peaks in the foreground are 9,500′.

19,500′. The highest peak in the Pyrenees is on the horizon at 11,168′.

Cockpit view. I don’t even have a 10,000′ hand on the altimeter, though the altitude from standard altimeter settings on the transponder reads FL192.

18,500′ on the way down, with the Mediterranean on the horizon. The pass beneath is roughly 5,400′.

Getting to more reasonable altitudes at 11,500′.

Note the boats in Barcelona harbor on the extreme left horizon of the image. They are 76 statute miles from the airplane.

 

 

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.

Sentimental Journey

A rather unique opportunity presented itself tied to a trip back to America over Thanksgiving. I would have the chance, if weather held, to fly a 1952 Super Cub from Lock Haven, PA to the Buffalo, NY region, where all of my aviation adventures started. The flight itself turned out to be one day less than exactly three years from my last general aviation flight in the United States.

The irony about Lock Haven is that it’s 108nm from my grandfather’s airfield, which adjoined my parent’s property for my entire youth. Did we ever visit there? Of course not! Here we have a family that is infatuated seemingly solely with aircraft models that would have been produced in Lock Haven before Piper’s relocation to Florida, and yet we didn’t bother to go. It was something of a homecoming to visit the place, considering my current PA-11 left that factory in the 1940s.

The day of the flight in question was Thanksgiving, which was one of the coldest on record in the Northeast. Skies were blue, wind a bit brisk, temps holding at 10 F, and the forecast clear for the flight to Buffalo. My intention was to get it to a nearby airport to where I was staying, tie down overnight, and then position it the next day at its destination for the flight: Perry-Warsaw, NY.

I was a bit cautious as I had only a brief intro flight once around the pattern the day before. While I knew how to fly the airplane, it wasn’t my trusty PA-11, where routines, sounds, and procedures are so well memorized that I don’t have to think that hard. With 36 gallons of fuel, a cruise speed at an astonishing 110mph, and heat, I had to honestly ask what about this flight would be difficult? The airplane had all of the conveniences I lack with the PA-11.

Preflight was simple. Runup was simple. The only thing holding me back was full throttle. I decided to get it over with, gave her full power, and held on. I am astonished at what 135hp can do (with more airframe weight and fuel) that my 100hp cannot. The aircraft is a raging homesick angel. I had previously decided to play it safe and follow roads to I-390 in NY. Seeing the “Pennsylvania Wilds” (the Allegheny Mountains), I turned northwest over the most remote terrain and sped off, enjoying whiplash from the latest in early 1950s technology.

The flight was really unlike any of my flying memories from 18 years of flying in New York. Some of the winter scenery reminded me in many ways of things I had seen in other parts of the world, with textures, patterns, and intriguing little details I hadn’t come close to witnessing. After some thought, I realized a solid foot of snow on the ground meant that the PA-11 was entombed for the winter before I owned it, as nobody cleared the snow off the grass runway. I recall a few flights in February where a few inches of powdery snow fell, though that was it.

As my grandfather had recently passed away, taking the time to fly around Western New York and visit sites in many ways related to aviation was a pleasant experience and a chance to reflect on how much changes in life while much doesn’t change at all.

One may ask how flying in the USA felt after three years in Europe. Well, it felt how it should feel: easy. Departing from Lock Haven wasn’t all that different than leaving from La Cerdanya. It was the cross-country flight, quick ride for a friend in Buffalo, and ground operations at multiple airports that was magnificent and uncomplicated.

The Super Cub before powering up. A delightful machine and a delightful flying day.

Lock Haven, PA Airport – where Cubs were born.

The “Pennsylvania Wilds.”


Allegheny River, not far from the NY border.

Lake effect snow! It wasn’t forecast, though that is the nature of the beast. Somewhere in southern Wyoming County, NY.

This is the first time I got to see features like this in Western NY from the air.

Route 20A. When I was first being taught how to navigate at age 8 by my grandfather, he told me to “use the roads. That’s 20A. You know how to get home, so fly us there.” That first flight was between Perry-Warsaw, NY and his airfield following this highway.

My grandfather’s airstrip, where I soloed in the PA-11 in 1997. It is in the bottom half of the image on a diagonal.

Lake Erie, NY with Canada on the horizon.

Buffalo, NY. Canada is across the Niagara River. For some reason, I didn’t ever overfly downtown after getting my private certificate, even though the airspace is still the same as it was in the late 90s.

Larch trees. I did not know these existed in New York until a few years ago, did not recall ever seeing any of them, and recently paid some homage to them in the Swiss Alps. Oh, the ironies.

Middle falls, Letchworth State Park. This place has two distinct noteworthy events associated with it. The first was my only involuntary spin in my aviation career. My instructor used my uncoordinated practice stall as an object lesson, permitting a Cessna 150 to spin to imprint in my mind that its a poor practice. One minute I was staring at the sky, the next I was staring at this waterfall, spinning as it got closer. Oh, and the second thing. I got married beside this waterfall 4 years after the spin. 

Letchworth State Park in evening light.

Perry-Warsaw, NY airport, the destination of the Super Cub. It also happens to be where I passed my checkride 20 years prior!

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.

Going West

If someone asked me what a version of heaven in an airplane would be, I’d probably choose flying in the Alps in October. October has a majesty to it that I can’t get enough of, and the Alps, well, they’re the Alps.

I had met a new friend who spends part of his time in Gstaad. An American pilot, he loved the Cub, so we arranged that I’d fly over from Sion to Gstaad. From there, we’d head to Interlaken, on to the headwaters of the Rhône River, and then wander along the Bernese Alps before descending into the Bernese Oberland back to Gstaad, where I’d make the quick hop over the ridge (9000’ or so) back to Sion.

On the flight over, I went around the bend, crossing a section of the Oberland that I had not visited before. Upon entering left downwind over a massive piece of rock (Swiss patterns are intriguing), I noted a proliferation of old airplanes on the tarmac. After powering down, I noted a number of L-4s and other old aircraft, a result of some sort of group that happened upon the place. It was quite nice to see a pile of Cubs on a picture-perfect day in the Alps, so I snapped a shot before refueling for the next leg.

The flight over Interlaken is something I hadn’t yet done, even though it had been a dream for a long time. I used to use Google Earth’s “flight simulator” mode, specifically in this neck of the woods in the Alps, flying the F-16 over all sorts of precipitous terrain, stunned at what I saw on my computer screen. How could it be that glaciers spill thousands of feet down, or that proceeding over a mountain ridge, the ground could drop more than a mile? Today would be the day to experience it in real life, 10 years beyond my initial fantasies.

Interlaken was as stunning as expected. We were a bit high owing to the fact a 100 hp airplane doesn’t climb so well when loaded, and I didn’t want to drop down only to lug ourselves back up. Besides, we were heading to a famous Swiss pass, for which I later hoped to get above 12,000’ if we could, to enjoy some of the higher terrain. It’s a debatable presumption in this airplane unless it’s the dead of winter.

Battling a wind funnel that was not in our favor, we finally got over Grimselpass, turned west, and then let the terrain and wind lift us up. Unexpectedly, I got as high as I wanted to go, circling some enormous peaks, overflying those glaciers and mile-deep mountainsides that I had hoped to see. From there, it was a fun ride along where the Oberland and Alps meet, before the descent back into Gstaad for fuel. As the sun was getting low and the Swiss take time quite seriously, I got out of Dodge, went over Pas de Cheville in brilliant evening light, descended over vineyards in autumn color, and landed at Sion. The last in the hangar, the Cub was parked in front of four business jets, leaving me with a feeling that such a flying day is as heavenly as it gets.

Looking back toward Sion before rounding the bend, Rhône River near Martigny.

Not too far before left downwind for Gstaad.

Two other Cubs on the ground at Gstaad. Even better.

Interlaken!

Brienzersee.

Grimselpass.

Rhône Glacier, source of the Rhône River. In summer 2017, the Cub went to where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean.

Schreckhorn.

Top of the Aletschgletscher.

Jungfrau, looking north.

Along the Bernese Alps looking into the Oberland.

Descending toward Gstaad.

Climbing out of Gstaad.

Bernese Alps in evening light before heading over the pass.

Larch trees near timberline in evening light.

Pennine Alps in the distance from the Sion control zone.

PA-11 in Sion, parked as it should be! A perfect flying day….

When I got home, my wife greeted me with: “Your grandfather is dying.”

Before I go any further, this is the grandfather that took me for my first ride in a J-3 at age 2, that began teaching me to fly the Super Cub at age 8, and restored the PA-11 for my flight training at age 16. The airplane I use for this blog is the same plane that I used for my solo flight, and it was done on his grass strip, which was next to my parents’ property. Aside from that, he had a Cub and Super Cub restoration shop on his property, for which I spent most of my youth admiring aircraft in various stages of restoration, watching the process or just hanging out in the shop because that’s where I’d rather be.

He had made it clear for a long time that he was not going to deal with the disabilities and inconveniences of old age. Sure, we all say something like that, though this guy always meant business when he spoke. Within a few hours of arriving back from my flight, he was on the way to hospice, where he died a few hours later at age 87.

In the following days, my sister offered to send over some scanned photos. I thought the idea was silly. Hadn’t I seen them all? Well, “why not” I thought and agreed to it, for which I got a pile of photos and saw the whole story in a different light. Whether it was my late father at age 5 in the 1950s standing next to a Super Cub, or me sitting in the backseat in the 1980s with my sister as a J-3 was being started, or a long series of crashed airplanes that he brought home for repair and restoration, I noticed some things I hadn’t seen before. For one thing, the Cubs and Super Cubs look alike. The Ford pickups in the background are like a lineage of Americana, changing with the times as the airplane in front of it doesn’t change at all. Then there was the matter of my sister, for which the photos seemed to indicate she was quite happy back in the 80s, sitting in the airplane, more so than I remember. We recently talked, and I discovered that she was going to become a pilot twice, and various major life stages got in the way, even though he had taught her how to land the Cub. How can one grow up together and miss such obvious things? At least it puts a smile on my face that I am not the only descendant to take to aviation in the family.

My late father with my grandfather and his Super Cub. 1950s. Note the old pickup.


Advance to the mid 1980s. That’s me sitting with a big smile on my face (it looks the same when I fly today), while my grandfather hand cranks the J-3. The Ford in the background is newer….

And my grandfather.

Now its 1997. I have gotten a lot bigger, and watch puzzled as my grandfather hand cranks the PA11 I now have. He had a relatively new Super Cub with a starter and I wondered why this airplane lacked one (teenagers…). There is yet another newer Ford in the background yet the Cubs are still Cubs.

This was a big part of my youth: my grandfather sourcing crashed airplanes for repair. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

I decided to exercise some caution and hold off on flying for a bit. My wife aptly asked if my first flight could “not be around Mt. Blanc” (15,774’), for which I agreed. As we had to return to Spain due to running out our immigration allowance in Switzerland, I chose to take a flight on a blue-sky day to scope out my feelings, and, well, like my grandfather, flying is a great way to lift the mood. When my father had terminal brain cancer and I visited a decade ago, my grandfather thought that it was a great time to ride in the Bell 47. While conventional wisdom said I shouldn’t have, I too couldn’t resist and hopped in.

My grandmother often said that when I was young, I was a little version of him. It’s hard to describe him in words, as on one hand, he is unassuming, and yet on another, he did whatever he wanted and didn’t let anything stop him. I am quite aware that my inspiration for my present approach to life can be credited to his influence and giving me the gift of aviation. Everything about this paragraph is an understatement.

I had expected him to live into his mid-90s based on his robust health, and therefore hadn’t thought too much how I might feel about aviation once he was gone. There was some concern that my motivational equilibrium might change, and I found myself having to face the question sooner than expected. The flight to Spain from Switzerland was both functional and uneventful, though I have been flying quite a bit since. Each time I get in the plane, I feel alive and it feels like a bit of him is alive, and I think the best answer to how I feel is…..more flying.

My wife at one point said that she felt awful for “ruining such a good flying day,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way, other than to have been in New York instead of 4000 miles away. Whether it was the picture perfect skies, flying the Cub he restored, the litany of old airplanes at Gstaad, fulfilling a dream in the Alps, or the Cub sitting in front of a bunch of business jets, everything about the day was a culmination of so many factors that started when my grandfather saw a Piper Cub advertisement in 1939, drew them in grade school, walked to a gas station to work in his early teens to save up for lessons, and bought his first J-3 in the 1940s. From those early days to the decades that passed into my flying career, it made that day in the Alps possible, and will hopefully lead to more dreams being fulfilled for others in the future, for that is the gift of aviation.


Test flight on a nice day to make sure my equilibrium is kosher. Larch trees in full color. While conflicted, its refreshing to fly.

Over Grenoble, France on the way to Spain.

Wandering around the central Pyrenees.

Another day over Andorra.

And some mountain waves over the convergence of Andorra, France, and Spain. I guess I can say I’m back in the saddle.

 

 

 

 

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.

The Biggest of Many Things

Part of why it took so long to come to the Alps had to do with the expectation that sheer size of the mountains was directly correlated to how dangerous things must be. When I took the flight here from Spain, I expected to get involved with a death-dealing ordeal pushing the limits of me and the airplane. It has turned out that instead of being a thing of brutality, it appears that it is the culmination of years of mountain flying, as it has all gone off without a hitch, and has not been as dangerous as I thought.

I set out to attack a specific goal, which I can happily state that I recently achieved: photographing all 82 peaks over 4000m (13,123’) in the Alps. Similar to my flying bender last summer going at it 83 days in a row, and the 65-hour flying month of September 2015, it has been two months of razor-sharp focus on the high peaks, which meant that I only went flying if I could fly at those altitudes. While it turned out to not be death-defying during every flight, it was a project consisting of a tremendous amount of effort.

Spread from France, to Italy, and almost to the border of Austria, these peaks take about an hour of climbing to get to altitude, leaving 2 hours before I need to be back on the ground. Therefore, flying has been in 3-hour full-tank increments and has also taken me a number of places. With the focus of my project done, I have also had the chance to fly for the sheer fun of it, which has meant visiting some more interesting places.

Switzerland flows pretty smoothly when it comes to aviating. Dare I say it, the “system” here runs fairly close to American aviation, albeit at about three to four times the price. I get my dose of American flying in Spain by simply checking out of the system and doing things the backcountry way, which is both a joy and tiring. Here, it’s a nice mix, as the Swiss restrict airspace near congested areas, leaving the mountains for fun.

In visiting other airports, it has been quite interesting to partake of Swiss traffic patterns. Instead of a standard box pattern, most that I have come across are custom, taking terrain into account. The size of some of the terrain here, wedged inside a traffic pattern, is quite a treat. Even in a Cub, I feel a sense of nervousness, with trees whizzing by one wing, and the runway wedged down below on the other. I couldn’t imagine doing some of these things in a fast aircraft.

The Swiss adventure isn’t quite over yet.

Aletschgletscher, the largest glacier in Europe. It is 14 miles long and is almost 3,000′ deep at some of the upper points.

Roughly 1,000′ above the Aletschgletscher, looking downhill. 

Left-hand downwind for Samedan, Switzerland, airport. At 5,600′ elevation, it is advertised as “Europe’s highest airport,” though the designation may be dubious. Landing here required the completion of an online course and requires carriage of the certificate.

Taxiing at Samedan.

The natural order of things has been restored. I have achieved getting above Mt. Blanc, France (15,774′), the highest peak in the Alps. Previously, I could only get close and the Cub just couldn’t do the rest due to unfavorable winds.

North slope of Mt. Blanc. This kind of thing puts a smile on my face.


Forbidden fruit of Courchevel, France. Located at 6,587′, at a length of 1,761′ and a gradient of 18.6 percent, it is an “altiport” requiring a special signoff. As one can see, it is strictly one way in, and no go around after short final.

Aiguille du Midi (12,604′ – to the left). It is Europe’s steepest gondola. Yes, you can ride a gondola to the rock with a pointy antenna on it.

Glacier d’Argentière, France. My first flight near it was from quite far away. This is a better way to see a glacier.

Megève, France. Note the short, angled airport to the right. It is truly a field with no go around located at 4,840′ elevation. Mt. Blanc lurks to the left.

While Gstaad Airport isn’t overly crazy when it comes to landing, it does evoke a certain sense of being one of the most expensive European destinations available. Landing was a tad over $25 and fuel was market price. Left-hand downwind is over the rocks in the back of the image, which tower to incredible heights.

In the middle of this project, I have birthed Winds of Change: An Aerial Tour of Rocky Mountain Forests, a tour of forests in their varying conditions in the Intermountain West. It was a pleasant project to put together, taking me back quite immersively into my Wyoming flying days.

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.

Getting Used to the Alps

The Alps. What can I say? It had been relegated to the realm of dreams, and now that it is in hand for the time being, it’s hard to put into words. I’ll start with a few of the aeronautical details.

Switzerland has relatively free airspace in the Alps, other than some military activities which require a quick check on a national map issued by the Swiss authorities. Those restrictions come and go and are a lot like TFRs in the US. Flight service is run by private companies, for which the subscription is $50 per year. My navigation software offered the “official” VFR aerodrome charts and documentation for about $45 per year, and I gladly took them up on that offer. Avgas is $10/gallon, depending on exchange rates, a bit cheaper than Spain.

When it comes to landing fees, Sion charges roughly $18 for my aircraft, a combined fee for ATC and landing. That fee will increase by $7 if I land and have to clear customs, as Switzerland is not in the European Union for goods, though they are for Schengen. That means, in an odd arrangement, that customs is only for the airplane and contents, not the pilot or passenger in the event of entering the country from a departure point within Europe.

Noise fees rear their ugly head again, a throwback to my days getting smacked around in Germany. Switzerland has a national classification of make/model/engine configuration, with grades of A through D, and each airport has a matrix of weight and letter grade for applicable landing fees. My model is not listed, so the airport intended to charge $2 more per landing, and I was able to whip out my “noise certificate” and negotiate that the cowling and engine are exactly the same as some PA-18 models (labeled as classification A). The airport quickly assigned my file a grade of A, and I got a credit of $6!

Sion is a Class D towered airport, due to heavy traffic, occasional airliners, and lots of heavy metal coming in with paying passengers. They have a unique requirement where all flights must have a flight plan or avis de vol (flight announcement). The rationale is due to the severity of the Alps and the desire to have an indication of where a pilot was heading in the event of no return. While I like my ideological freedom, I have managed to work all of these requirements into my workflow and stay ahead of them. One thing about the Swiss is that they are very orderly with a relatively common-sense approach to processes. Things flow pretty well.

Other than my stint in Germany based in airspace with mandatory information service, this is the first time I am based for a period at a towered airport. Recall that I got a radio 3 years go for this airplane, so there was a bit of caution as it’s a new environment. In short order, I am pretty sharp with the process. I cannot find any distinguishable differences with Swiss ATC and controllers in the USA. It’s pretty common sense, GA friendly, and everybody works well together to be accommodating on all fronts, considering that there are usually gliders, business jets, helicopters, and general aviation aircraft swirling around most of the time.

When it comes to flying, I have almost exclusively been going to 14,000 feet or more on each flight. There was one where I wandered along Lake Geneva before seeing Mont Blanc in France gleaming in the sun, so up I went to 14,000’ to make a crack at the summit. The rest have been focused on a project of mine: the 82 peaks over 4000 meters (13,120’) in the Alps. It’s an official list published by a well-regarded mountaineering organization. As of today, I have completed 78 of the 82, so it has been some hard work figuring out massive mountains in a brand new area. Once I get the last 4 done, I might go cruising over some Swiss farms and do something easy.

A very strange thing about the Alps is the fact that they tower so high, have a timberline at 7,500’, and yet valleys plummet extremely low. The only place in America such a thing happens is where the Sierra Nevada in California plummets to Death Valley, or some of the massive ranges in Alaska. Otherwise, the Rockies tend to have high elevation valleys, which means someone is truly “in” the Rockies when visiting. My wife noted that “you don’t go in the Alps, you go through them.” To cross from one peak at 14,000’ to another across the valley may require dropping to the valley floor at 5,000’ or less over a very narrow valley. In the case of Sion, I am taking off at 1,582’ while looking at 10,000’ peaks in the Bernese Alps to the north and 7,000’ foothills to the Pennine Alps to the south, which then tower over 15,000’. Every 2,500’ of climbing, the climate zone distinctly changes.

It is a bit Mediterranean in Sion due to a microclimate. Reaching 4,000’, thick deciduous forests cling to the mountainsides. By 6,000’, that has transitioned to towering evergreen and larch, which are deciduous pines. 7,500’ is timberline, which is followed by grassy terrain until roughly 9,000’. Glaciers can begin at 9,500’, with soil noticeably disappearing at this level. On the north faces of mountains at 11,000’ it can be full “ice cap” terrain, which is more than just a glacier – it’s a massive pile of ice hundreds of feet thick that tumbles down in the summer, creating glaciers beneath. When one is flying in the Alps, the question is not only the specific location, it is the altitude and what world one is in.

I am still figuring it out, as the first time around the Matterhorn, I didn’t bring gloves and had such wicked pain holding the camera with bare hands, while also absolutely freezing cold in the cockpit. Then again, why would I bring winter gear in August, when it was 80F at takeoff, 30 miles to the north? Lesson learned….

Competition on the taxiway at Sion.

Airliner ready to takeoff. Makes sense my downwind turn was requested to be completed early.

East end of the runway, looking east down the Rhone River Valley with the Bernese Alps as a backdrop.

Struggling to gain altitude beneath L’Epaule. It would be ideal to have more than 100hp. Altitude: 11,000 feet.

Getting knocked around by wind, trying to corkscrew up in a lee side rotor. On the Italian side at 13,100 feet, looking up at Mt. Blanc, France (15,774′).

Looking eye to eye at the Matterhorn, from Italy toward Switzerland (14,672′).

Bernese Alps, 10,000 feet with Pennine Alps on the horizon and the Rhone River Valley (with Sion Airport) in between.

August snow, south of Interlaken, with the Jungfrau on the far left.

Classic image of the glacier line. 12,200′ altitude, west of Zermatt, Switzerland, looking east.

The Matterhorn playing hard to get in the clouds, south of Zermatt, Switzerland.

Looking up at the terminus of the Hohwänggletscher.

Ice cap, north slope of Dufourspitze (15,203′), the highest peak in Switzerland.

Dufourspitze and a few other peaks from Italy.


North side of Mt. Blanc, France, the highest peak in Alps and in Europe (15,774′)

 

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.

The Alps: From the Pyrenees to Switzerland

Switzerland is a funny thing. On one hand, it has been a dream for longer than I can remember. On another, I have done my best to avoid actually going there or taking the Cub on its maiden voyage in the Alps, despite having installed a Class 1 transponder in 2015 specifically for such things. My bizarre motivation aside, it took a pilot friend who lives near the Alps to see the dream flickering inside and invite (convince) me to finally come up here. With plans arranged, it came time to make the flight from the Pyrenees to the Alps.

I have mastered planning transit flights in advance of ground movements, so I can make go/no-go decisions on the same day. I set a Friday target a week prior based on weather forecasts, and it held up as the best day to go. A heat wave had begun to set in with lots of thunderstorms in Spain day in and day out, with a day appearing to open up. I expected to hit afternoon weather, which is common, in the Alps and wait it out.

The day in question turned out to be better than I had hoped in that bad weather chances were very low, though it would be quite hot and haze would be less than pleasant. I opted for an inland route over the Massif Central of France, an area somewhere between the Adirondacks and Appalachians of North Carolina in height, noteworthy for its effect on weather though forgotten as its sandwiched by bigger things. I had previously taken the Mediterranean route on clearer days. While the famous Tramontane and Mistral would not be blowing, a sea breeze was coming inland, which made haze particularly displeasing.

As the day approached, I got more and more neurotic, to the point that my wife asked why it was such a big deal. “Didn’t you just fly 6 hours the other day across the Pyrenees and back, slightly longer than this flight?” She was right, I flew the highest terrain of the Pyrenees with some weather to dodge, and it was relaxing and no big deal. This flight, equal in length to the Madrid to Cerdanya run, shouldn’t amount to much, yet my stress level was oddly high.

Western Pyrenees on a flight 10 days prior – no stress here, yet a basic cross country is reason for angst?

The flight out of the Pyrenees was uneventful. Haze was oozing in from the Mediterranean, so I stayed high overflying Carcassonne, entering the first terrain of the Massif Central, which turned out to be interesting. Haze gave way to clearer air in about 30 miles, with rich forest scents coming up from the hills below.

Once getting through French military zones, Information Service went quiet and the flight turned into typical Cub flying about 1000 feet above the ground. Terrain started to get more interesting – generally not severe, with a touch of rolling hills of New York and Utah vegetation and rocks. Landing at Mende was a trip sitting a thousand feet above the nearby town on a mesa with pines typical of the Rockies.

Massif Central of France – west of Millau.


Landed at Mende, France for fuel and found a Super Cub parked there. The PA-11 is behind it. I spent my youth flying with my grandfather in PA-18 just like this one.

Taking off to the northeast, I realized I could avoid Information Service as the web of restricted zones allowed a corridor out. There was a reception issue in that neck of the woods, so that problem was averted. I expected to hop on again over the Rhône River to cross a control zone, though I had some time to enjoy myself until then.

The Massif Central remained interesting, with this combination of bucolic farmland and vegetation that reminded me of Mediterranean Spain (or Utah, depending on one’s perspective). I was puzzled until it occurred to me that terrain on the plateau below is the same height as La Cerdanya, elevation being a very significant factor with weather in the Mediterranean region.

As I approached the exit of the Massif Central, some towering cumulus clouds were developing, which is a nice spice to keep flights interesting. Why have completely clear blue sky for the first time into the Alps, when more unknowns can be mixed in? At any rate, the Rhône was clear (though infernally hot), and I had another fuel stop planned at Chambéry, France, with plenty of alternates. I was also happy to discover that I could avoid flight following if I changed course a bit to avoid Grenoble’s control zone.

In so doing, I overflew some vertical rock that I had fantasized about flying near when we first drove from Germany to Spain in 2016. The highway system makes a jog north of Grenoble, presenting the first view of the “Pre Alps,” which like the Pre-Pyrenees are not quite foothills, but rather stark terrain that doesn’t qualify as the actual mountain range itself.

What is a pilot to do if some towering cumulus doesn’t show up? Turns out the weather cooperated.


First sight of the Pre-Alps with rock formations below that I saw from the highway two years prior. North of Grenoble, France.

From there, I turned northeast, requiring a bit to sort out radio reception with a giant piece of rock between me and Chambéry Airport, set inside of a Class D control zone. Cleared to enter via Sierra Whiskey, it was interesting to come over a rather sizeable mountain ridge and descend a few thousand feet down to the airport, with temperatures getting quite hot at 35 C / 96 F on the ground.

There were a number of machinations on the ground typical of the mixed bag of European airports. While Mende featured a self-serve pump that worked, no landing fees, and a snarling waitress who denied access to the only bathroom unless I ate lunch there, Chambéry featured an angry wasp nest on the fuel grounding line, a self-serve pump that needed some love taps from staff, a nearly mile walk to the office to pay fees, 20 minutes of paperwork to calculate and pay a €5.47 fee, air conditioned bathrooms, and a menacing security guard who demanded to see my pilot’s license after urinating, convinced that it was illegitimate. Upon my return to the aircraft, a tow pilot walked over and furnished a lecture that my aircraft was 18 inches from its ideal parking location, and despite an enormous tarmac devoid of any other aircraft, it made taxiing the Pilatus “difficult.” When faced with absurdness, I put on an aura of obsequiousness, which seemed to irritate the guy even more, which made me happier.

I filed a flight plan into Switzerland, took off to the northeast, and climbed to 5,000’ to cross some impressive Pre-Alps. After the engine cooled down to cruise temps from the hot climb, I gave it full power to climb in some ascending air near Megève, getting to 11,000’ without much trouble. From there, the Massif du Mont Blanc was in front of me.

Pre-Alps after Chambéry, France fuel stop. View from 5,300 feet…


And the view from 6,000’….

My typical routine in new mountain areas is to nibble progressively at new things, getting closer and closer to some sort of forbidden fruit like Grand Teton, or in this case, Mt. Blanc, which is the highest peak in the Alps at 15,774’. I made up my mind to skip the melodrama this time and go for it. While I wouldn’t do something silly the first time, I wanted to close the gap from the periphery to the subject, and the weather was cooperating, so I got as close as I could despite a combination of airspace restrictions, cloud bases in places at 12,000’ and terrain. Satisfied with my endeavors, I made a long descent into Sion, Switzerland, my intended destination for a while.

Since arriving now on the ground, I have had a chance to fly once more in the Alps, beginning my process of understanding the vagaries of weather and terrain. The Alps may as well take my adventures to date and multiply them in just about every factor: weather, terrain, altitude, complexity…..There are years of things to do in an airplane, so this extended trip ought to be filled with some intrigue.

Glacier d’Argentière, France




Glacier du Tour

Aiguille du Dru foreground (12,316′), Aiguille de Rochefort (13,127′) background. Mt. Blanc was obscured in clouds and would be off the image to the right.


Why not have a paraglider at 11,000 feet?

Rhône River, Switzerland, just before landing in Sion.

And from my next flight…. Massif du Chablais, Switzerland.

Mt. Blanc, from 2,000′ beneath. The summit (15,774′) still remains obscured, and my measly 100hp struggles this high when its 90F on the ground. Still working on this one.


Glacier du Trient, Switzerland. It is quite steep, which the photo shows poorly.

 

 

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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