October 21, 2009
This past weekend I had an wonderful opportunity to fly over and through the Rocky Mountain Region west of Denver. Since all of my flight time to date has been over the relatively safe landscape of the Midwest I contacted some local experts at the Aspen Flying Club to give me an overview on Mountain Flying.
Prior to the flight I took advantage of a variety of resources online to learn more about the challenges of Mountain Flying. I encourage anyone interested in flying over mountainous terrain to check out some of these great resources:
- AOPA Air Safety Foundation Mountain Flying Interactive Course
- The Pilot's Guide to Mountain Flying
- Sporty's Mountain Flying Air Facts Video
We filled our flight plan then fired up the G1000 Cessna 172 and took off for an amazing flight over the Rocky Mountains. Flying in the Midwest, there is almost always a safe place to set the plane down if you encounter an engine failure. Fifteen minutes into this flight we crossed over our first mountain ridge and finding suitable places to land started to become a serious challenge. During our flight we were continuously looking for and calling out our next suitable place to land should an emergency arise.
Often the G1000 flat panels are blamed for keeping pilots' eyes inside the cockpit looking at the pretty monitors. That was definitely not the case on this flight where the mountains provided a majestic backdrop that was hard to keep your eyes off of.
The altitude in Denver is 5280 (also the name of their beautifully designed city magazine) after departing Centennial we needed to stay underneath the Denver International Airport airspace for the first few miles before then climbing up to 10,500 feet to clear the Tarryall & Kenosha mountains of Pike National Forest that ranged in height from 8,000 to 11,000 feet. After clearing the first ridge we flew over a valley enroute to Buena Vista and Central Colorado Regional Airport (KAEJ). We made two landings here including one in which we simulated a short field landing.
From there we departed northward up a valley that would lead us to Leadville, CO home of North America's highest airport, Lake County Airport (KLXV), with an altitude of 9,927. It is strange to look at your altimeter and see 10,900 as you are entering downwind for landing. Even odder for Midwest pilot was the sluggish climb we made out of Leadville as the plane labored to produce lift as we rolled down the runway at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
The FAA requires that all pilots flying aircraft above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes must use supplemental oxygen. This is to prevent the effects of hypoxia. However to climb over many of the mountains in the area we needed to climb above 12,500 to 13,500 feet. We watched the clock to ensure we were not above the 12.5K mark for more than thirty minutes. Even at 13,500 feet there were a few mountain peaks that were higher than we were flying which was an amazing sight.
After crossing over a large mountain range we descended back down under 10,000 feet so we could practice a simulated emergency turn to avoid a terrain collision. I pointed the plane at a mountain and as we approached I pitched back to climb. On this cooler day we likely could have climbed over the mountain but for practice initiated the turn. I pulled power and set the flaps to full then turned at a 30° bank and let the nose roll over a bit allowing the plane to make a tight 180° turn banking us away from the danger.
After that we turned East and headed out of the mountains and back to the safety of flatland below. Although the plane descended, my spirits remained sky high from this amazing experience. I would strongly encourage any pilot to enjoy applying their flying skills to this challenging and beautiful area. If you are in the Denver area reach out the folks at The Aspen Flying Club and tell them I sent you.
The video below was shot with a cockpit mounted video camera and a hand held camera. In addition to the video I shot some photos which can be seen on Flickr.