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Tips on Mountain Flying Part 1

by Pat Very

When the geography of the land is irregular, as it is in the mountain and coastal areas, flying can prove to be the most efficient and cost-effective way to travel. The spinoff to this is the feeling that you get looking out over the spectacular beauty and awesome ruggedness of the panorama below. It can be truly breathtaking.

Here are a few tips that I've picked up over the years that you may find helpful when contemplating flight out West, in God's country.

Looking out for Number One... and Your Passengers

The key word when it comes to mountain flying has to be flexibility. You must gear your mind for constant change and be ready and willing to adjust your plans. This is not to say that the trip has to be cancelled if you run into weather, but rather rethought. Maybe the primary route is not such a good idea on that particular day. A good mountain pilot will make that ssessment, adjust his or her routing, notify the

FSS as soon as possible and carry on. Be flexible: have a plan B or C or D...
You must plan to have as many things going for you and your passengers as you possibly can. Filing a flight plan along with any amendments to your route can enhance your chances of survival in the event of a mishap. What is on board will determine how comfortable your stay will be. Always carry appropriate survival gear and clothing for you and your passengers, make sure that you dress for the terrain, and carry a good first-aid kit. Remember that being 10 min. from home in the mountains can put you into country that could severely strain your survival skills. Always let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return, even on short flights. Make sure that your ELT is operational, regardless of the inspection or battery date.

Know your aircraft's performance, especially how much room it takes to turn it around. Practise and become proficient in minimum-radius turns. Turning is part of learning to fly in the mountains

Schedule frequent stops when flying unfamiliar mountain routes. Talk to local pilots; I've usually found them to be friendly, helpful and very knowledgeable. Other benefits of stopovers are enjoying the local topography and becoming familiar with the airport and local services, such as courtesy cars, rentals and proximity to hotels. You never know — on a future trip, when the weather turns sour, you might be spending the night there.

Assessing the Conditions

Visibility is essential when mountain flying. What is marginal on flat land might not be acceptable in the mountains. If you encounter poor visibility en route, slow down, and remember that the radius of the turn increases with speed. Be flexible: consult plan B.

Try to determine the wind direction and strength when entering mountain valleys and passes. Look for clues such as ridge and peak plumes created by compression, forming clouds on the downwind side. On the water, whitecaps will form at about 10 mph. Bear paws, those dark patches on the water, are caused by downbursts of wind, indicating gusty conditions, downdrafts and probably a rough ride. Trees will bend and appear lighter on the upwind side. Cumulus and towering cumulus will often slope downwind at the top, becoming a great wind indicator.

Always check both sides of valleys when they are obscured by cloud. Stratus fractus, the ragged cloud often encountered in moist air masses, clings to the valley walls. The view from one side can give you a totally different perspective than that from the other.

Cumulonimbus clouds are bad news in the mountains and should be avoided like the plague. Visibility can drop to near zero in no time, and downdrafts created by the storm cell can rush out the valleys and over the ridges with a vengeance, generating severe turbulence. They are also, by the way, the cause of many a forest fire in those out-of-the-way valleys. If you come across a fire en route, punch the position into your long-range navigation system (LORAN) or global positioning system (GPS) and pass it on to the nearest FSS as soon as possible.

Outflow winds are a common occurrence at certain times of the year in this area and have to do with pressure differences between the interior and the coast. Air flows out from the interior through valleys and fjords and, as it accelerates in venturi effect, it can reach velocities as high as 70 and 80 mph. The mechanical turbulence generated by these winds can be enough to ruin your day. Surprisingly enough, though, because of the nature of these winds, flying 2000 to 3000 ft. above the range usually puts you in smooth air. That said, you should always be cautious and expect turbulence when surface winds are high.

Next issue — En Route & Mountain Strips

About the Author

Pat Very is a private pilot with a Commercial Licence. He started flying in 1970 on the East Coast, but since moving west in 1978, he has accumulated over 4000 hrs of experience in and around the Rocky Mountains.

Originally Published: ASL 4/1997
Original Article:Tips on Mountain Flying - Part I