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Advice for the Novice

"An expert is someone who brings confusion to simplicity." Often, and certainly in aviation, this is true. Talking with some experts can be frustrating as heck because of their "opinionated ignorance." They develop a "tunnel vision" that blocks their common sense approach to a subject.

So I hesitate to think of myself as an expert concerning mountain flying. I gain more insight all the time about the problems, the hazards and the techniques of this specialty flying.

There are two primary means by which I gain additional wisdom in addition to reading. First is talking with people at seminars and seeing how their questions relate to my presentation (or lack thereof). Second is the actual flying with students. The students have no way of incorporating what was presented to them in lecture form until they fly in the mountains. So I encourage the novice pilot to obtain the services of a knowledgeable mountain pilot and go fly the mountains.

The objective of flying with someone experienced in mountain flying is to learn to fly the mountains safely. Some of my most memorable and productive lessons have been with mountain pilots who do not hold a flight instructor certificate; although they imparted plenty of knowledge.

I have on occasion, during a break in my presentation, overheard some people say, "This guy is crazy. The only way to fly in the mountains is to fly over them." I have no problem with this approach to mountain flying. For this reason, I have broken down mountain flying into four designations.

  • The first classification is a flight from flat land departure to a flat land destination with mountains between. The novice pilot might be well advised to climb to an altitude 2,000 feet above the highest terrain.

  • Next is a departure from a flat land airport to a mountain airport.

  • A third type is the mountain airport departure to a flat land destination.

  • Finally there is contour, drainage or terrain flying that we simply call mountain flying.

Mountain flying safety requires that you fly within the limits of your qualifications. It is necessary to establish some personal safety standards about mountain flying such as weather, density altitude, night flying, minimum runway lengths and aircraft loading. Once you have established these standards, only experience will allow you to expand them. Don't let a passenger, especially if he knows nothing about flying, pressure you into compromising these standards.

The same thing applies to equipment. The most qualified pilot in the world can get into trouble trying to push an aircraft beyond its limitations. If the available equipment is not suitable for the flight, change the flight profile or change the airplane.

When I travel throughout the U.S. to talk about mountain flying, the topics of concern to most pilots are mountain flying techniques (flying in canyons, crossing ridges, visualizing updrafts, downdrafts and turbulence), mountain wave (hazards and flying techniques), visual illusions (technique to avoid), and mountain airstrip operations.

In discussing these basic techniques and providing certain techniques, I find that some of them tax the skills of the novice pilot. For someone who has never flown in the mountains, the visual aspects are deceiving. We can talk until we are blue in the face, but until you do it, you cannot visualize what it is really like. Read the books, study the techniques, but practice with a professional. Until you find out what you can and cannot do, what you should and should not do, this professional will keep you out of trouble.

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