Mountain flying can be some of the most exciting and rewarding flying that a pilot can experience. However, mountain flying can be the most challenging and dangerous type of flying as well, without proper training, planning and preparation. Planning for your mountain flight not only needs to be done prior to getting into the aircraft but also should be done continuously throughout the flight.
There are a number of items that pilots need to take into consideration and be more aware of when flying in the mountains versus flying in non-mountainous terrain at lower altitudes. These items are Flight Preparation, Weather and Flight Safety.
Flight prep for mountain flying is critical during preflight as well as during the flight. As the pilot, it is critical to always think ahead and plan what the next step will be. Prior to the flight, a full-weather briefing is important not only for the departure and arrival airports but for all of the surrounding airports - including NOTAMs. Familiarity with the intended runways is critical, as in many cases certain runways may only be used for landing and departure in one direction because of terrain.
The probability of an airport deviation when flying in mountainous terrain is much more likely. It is highly recommended to use a navigation log listing all courses and routes of flight, distances, winds and when to make position reports. It is critical filing and remembering to open a flight plan. In the event of an emergency landing, not having a filed flight plan could result in days or longer before receiving help. When considering destination and alternate airports, having a rental car location at the field is useful in the event the weather prevents departure or arrival, allowing you to rent a car and drive to your destination.
During the flight, communication can’t be stressed enough. Update your flight plan enroute with Flight Service. Provide position reports, PIREPs and utilize Flight Watch. While enroute, flight preparation continues by reviewing frequencies, monitoring local weather from mountain AWOS, listening to enroute airport ATIS frequencies, locating possible alternates while enroute and always having a continuous escape plan.
Obtaining accurate weather is crucial for mountain flying. It is imperative to get weather forecasts for all possible routes to your destination. In addition to weather forecasts it is beneficial to research the geography and microclimates of the route. Other weather considerations for mountain flying include using mountain passes AWOS for real-time weather, monitoring and communicating with Flight Watch, and obtaining winds aloft for multiple altitudes. This is especially important since the majority of mountain airports are in valleys and lower elevations. Much of this information can be accessed via MyJeppesen.com. With a simple and free sign-up (or by using your current JeppDirect login), you can access Jeppesen’s full-suite of weather products.
There are many weather-related precautions that need to be taken when mountain flying. Winds aloft in the winter months (October –May) can be 45-75 knots or more, conditions unsafe for most general aviation pilots. Pay attention to visual indicators such as lenticular clouds and rotor clouds. These can indicate a strong possibility of mountain waves which should play into the decision of flying into the mountains that day. Pilots need to also be aware of surface winds for both takeoff and landing as there is a greater potential for mechanical turbulence due to trees and structures.
Weather conditions, in addition to density altitude and lower performance due to higher altitudes, require some different flying techniques than required in non-mountainous terrain. Allow for the ability to turn the plane around because of rising terrain or an emergency. This means flying along ridges and not down the middle of mountain valleys, as flying down the middle of a narrow valley reduces your turn radius in half. Pilots should cross over mountain ridges at a 45° angle for the same reason, making it much easier to avoid rising terrain.
When flying in the mountains, be sure to always have a way out. It is highly recommended to file, open and activate your flight plan. There are a number of things that can be done to help ensure the safety of flight when flying in mountainous terrain. It is important to lean the aircraft properly, obtain an ideal fuel/air mixture for best engine performance, calculate density altitude, use takeoff and landing roll charts and continuously be aware of aircraft performance and fuel quantity. There are fewer airports to choose from for refueling in the mountains so if you fail to achieve desired ground speed, refuel more frequently to prevent the chances for fuel exhaustion. It might be required to fly with a lower fuel load or decreased weight to maintain or improve aircraft performance.
In the event of an engine failure over mountainous terrain try to select a landing site at a lowest suitable location. The temperature can fluctuate drastically in a valley compared to the summit of a peak. If possible, it is recommended to make an emergency landing near a road or habitation to increase the response time for help or rescue. If there is no suitable landing area then it is suggested to select a landing location with softer timber such as aspen trees or taller bushes rather than thick pine trees.
Mountain flying can be extremely rewarding and will provide memories of a lifetime when the proper precautions are taken with the proper training. Enjoy the thrill of mountain flying and don’t forget your camera!
About the Author: Bob Brannan is a Portfolio Manager in Jeppesen's Aviation Training Solutions, a flight instructor for over 21 years and a pilot for over 26 years. He is passionate about creating training products that benefit all pilots and continues to provide the high quality that pilots expect from Jeppesen. Bob works closely with the industry and is very active in the aviation community.