October 21, 2009

Sky High after Mountain Flying Experience

mountainflying1.jpgThis 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:

On Saturday I met Matt Beckman who would be my CFI for this flight experience. Matt has been flying since he was nine years old and grew up flying in the mountains so I knew I would be able to learn a lot from him. We spent more time than usual doing a preflight briefing, discussing some important points for the upcoming flight including density altitude, handling mountain winds, crossing over mountain ridges, emergency maneuvers, radio communications in the mountains and the effects of hypoxia. Many of these topics were well covered in the online courses and articles I had reviewed prior to the flight, but talking to Matt helped me ensure I understood each topic clearly.

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.

mountainflying2.jpgThe 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.

Posted by at October 21, 2009 9:46 PM

Beautiful photos! This is something on my aviation bucket list - I can't wait to get in some mountain flying experience and training.

Posted by: Steve at October 22, 2009 10:05 AM | Reply

Hi Todd,

I've got good friends that live in Buena Vista -- been there many times! And I can tell you some hilarious stories about taking the family station wagon over Leadville and being passed by an Olympic bicyclist :)

Very jealous,

Posted by: Doug Williams at November 3, 2009 11:03 PM | Reply

Flying over the Rockies is wonderful--on a nice day! I flew into Leadville, CO for the first time in August. We we're in a turbine powered Cessna 208 Caravan. Even with all of it's powered, I was amazed at how poorly it climbed at times. I can only imagine the pucker factor was a little higher in a C172!

Posted by: Max Trescott at November 26, 2009 1:17 PM | Reply

My guess is your Turbine Cessna 208 Caravan performed much better in the mountains than that Cessna 172. Flying in the Midwest I had never experienced such a labored and slow climb before. It was an amazing experience!

Posted by: Todd at November 27, 2009 9:37 AM | Reply

Great Pics !!! Cant wait to fly there. Truly looks like heaven.
Annie Bankss
Private Pilot License

Posted by: Annie Bnakss at November 28, 2009 1:20 AM | Reply

Mountain flying is truly an experience in itself. But like Todd points out, getting instruction in dealing with high-density airports and the characteristics/uniqueness of mountain flying is incredibly important.

Know the rules and live.

Nice post Todd. It has been awhile since you have posted. Sure would like to see some more recent posts.



Posted by: FlyCRJ.com at February 1, 2010 7:54 PM | Reply

Wow the views are breath-taking. You got a great post here! It's great that you have overcome the challenge that you long since wanted to undertake.

I would agree with you that one needs to certify himself or get the needed instruction before heading into these kinds of flying. Some people can get too cocky sometimes.

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