Mountains have always represented the ultimate nemesis to some pilots. Though I understand the apprehension, I grew up in Alaska and California, so I accepted vertical terrain as normal, perhaps the ultimate and most spectacular manifestation of Earth’s variety.
Learning to fly in Anchorage and Long Beach, I dealt with mountains during practically every flight, watching the clouds pile high off the Chugach or San Bernardino ranges and gauging their effect on winds and weather below.
In Alaska, at age 13, I used to look north after takeoff from Merrill Field and spot the brilliant white dome of Mount McKinley (recently renamed Denali in deference to Alaska’s Athabascan natives), 150 miles away, easily visible jutting above the horizon. To me, mountains were never an adversary to be feared, but a friend to be admired and respected.
I’ve been privileged to operate a variety of aircraft around some of the world’s major mountain ranges, from the Andes of South America and the Alps of Switzerland and Italy to the Sierra Nevada and Rockies of the U.S., and the Alaska Range in the Far North.
For better or worse, America has more than its share of high rocks. The Rockies offer their own brand of splendiferous terrain, including the highest municipal airport in the country, Leadville, Colorado. Leadville is almost exactly 10,000 feet closer to the sky (actual elevation: 9,927 feet MSL), so it represents the true Rocky Mountain high.
...I heard on the ADF that St. Helens had just exploded. I slapped the Piper Seminole I was flying into a hard, 180-degree left turn and watched in amazement as the ash cloud expanded straight up toward the stratosphere.
Years ago, when there was still a Bellanca Aircraft Company, I was flying a new Bellanca Turbo Viking home to California from Alexandria, Minnesota, and I had good reason to feel on top of the world. I’d just finished an editorial visit to the Bellanca plant in Alexandria, and they needed a new T-Viking delivered to San Diego. A former Bellanca owner, I’d bravely volunteered to renew acquaintances with my old friend, and I’d hopped down from Alex to Denver for the overnight.
If the Earth had been flat the next morning, I probably could have seen Hawaii. The Front Range luxuriated in practically hallucinogenic conditions, severe clear farther than even Yeager’s eagle eyes could see. The big Viking rocketed me out of Denver’s Arapahoe County (now Centennial) and on up to 14,500 feet, enough to clear the big rocks and slip into the magnificent pine valley that surrounds Leadville. “High Flight” is more than a poem. No wonder John Denver loved this country.
To me, big Earth is a near-constant joy rather than a source of concern. I treat mountains with respect, and they return the compliment by offering vistas far superior to anything else on Earth. In this case, I’d been into Leadville several times before, but mostly in turbine unimotors such as the Pilatus PC-12 and TBM-700, all relatively immune from density altitude concerns. This was the first piston airplane I’d operated into Colorado’s airport in the sky. It was late June, and the temperature was light jacket cool, far warmer than it should have been at such a lofty height.
No problem, I thought. I’d dealt with high density altitude many times before. After all, I’d conquered Quito, Ecuador, at two miles high, back in a previous century, flying a T-Stationair 207. Certainly shouldn’t be difficult surmounting Leadville in a lightly loaded, 290 hp Turbo Viking. Besides, turbocharging can excuse a multitude of sins.
Problem is, you can turbocharge the engine, but there’s no way to turbocharge the wing. The airfoil knows there’s something not quite right at two miles high. The substance of flight is that air appears to have none at all and less than none up high. That invisible torrent of air ripping across the top of the wing manifests far less authority than at sea level.
Not a problem, as it turned out. Like every Bellanca wing design before or since, Giuseppe Bellanca’s fat, glass-slick airfoil was a compromise between speed and climb, between caroming playfully in the bottom two miles of sky and “slipping the surly bonds of Earth” farther up the stairs, cruising three miles tall.
I climbed up out of Leadville with performance to spare, and a few hours later, I could see the massive granite hulk of Navajo Mountain and the confusion of water known as Lake Powell, a 10-year backflow of the Colorado River created by the Glen Canyon Dam. I’d spent two dozen or so separate days flying many of general aviation’s new models above this section of Monument Valley on photo missions. In one example of pure poetic justice, I’d flown a Piper Navajo C/R over Navajo Mountain in what seemed like endless circles for Paul Bowen’s Canons and Hasselblads.
Navajo isn’t so much tall as it is a giant, round edifice near Lake Powell and the Four Corners area, a VFR beacon standing alone 4,500 feet above the already mile-high desert plain for those in need of guidance through Indian country.
Even farther west, the Volcano Coast (as it’s rarely called) provides one of the most spectacular 800 nm mountain trips that pilots will ever find. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, I used to fly that route regularly, delivering new aircraft to a dealership on Seattle’s Boeing Field. Though Mount Whitney in California’s Owens Valley tops everything in the Southern 48 at 14,505 feet, the beginning of the stand-alone volcano run starts farther north, 50 miles from the Oregon border.
Characteristically dome-shaped Mount Shasta, America’s Mount Fuji, stands more than two miles above the local terrain. I once elected to circumnavigate Shasta in a new A36TC, and unwisely chose the left side first because it was on my course line. Like many big mountains, Shasta generates its own weather, and the lower pressure reminded me that I should have hitched a ride on the east side initially. I gave up the circle when I finally emerged on the north slope.
Next stop on the volcano run are Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens. Hood’s gentle slopes and often remarkable snowfall make it especially popular with climbers, as I discovered on a flight north in a new Mooney MSE. A ribbon of what looked to be at least 50 climbers followed a common route up the side of the rakish alp not far from the peak. Naturally, I couldn’t resist the urge to give them a closer look at the airplane and made an arc by the group, watching some wave and others snap pictures.
What remains of Mount St. Helens has always been fascinating to me. By a happy coincidence, I was there when it blew its top in May 1980. Actually, I was about 40 miles south of the mountain headed for Southern California when I heard on the ADF that St. Helens had just exploded. I slapped the Piper Seminole I was flying into a hard, 180-degree left turn and watched in amazement as the ash cloud expanded straight up toward the stratosphere. I was happy to be headed away from the mountain.
Finally, Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, respectively south and north of Seattle, designate the end of the American volcano run. If the weather is clear, you can turn off all the VORs, ADFs and GPSs and simply fly by volcano-nav.
Sixteen years ago, I spoke before the Alaska Airmen Association, and as thanks, I was offered an opportunity to fly a Cheyenne III from Anchorage to Point Barrow at the top of the North Slope. Flying at 28,000 feet, our route took us straight across the peak of Denali on one of those chamber of commerce days. As we approached the rounded summit, my copilot (the airplane’s owner) commented that he’d never seen the mountain so clear, with absolutely no snow blowing off the top. We both had the same idea, and after he got permission from Anchorage Center, I peeled off and we descended to about 20,500 feet and flew directly across the peak of Denali, 200 feet above the highest mountain in North America.
During a near-50-year career in aviation, hundreds of mountains have guided, lured and seduced me with their beauty. I hope there will be hundreds more.
Everest to go.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged some 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He currently flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at [email protected].