Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Common Thread

How mountain flying meshes with primary training

You may not think that “learning to fly” and “mountain flying” fit well in the same sentence, but I urge you to reconsider. As the owner and operator of a flight school that teaches both primary and mountain/canyon flight instruction, I’ve been privileged to teach more than a thousand pilots and participants. In my experience, I’ve seen that there is a common thread that weaves mountain/canyon flight training perfectly into your primary flight lessons.

You might be thinking, “But mountain/canyon flying is an advanced form of flight training. I’m too overloaded with the tasks and requirements of getting my private pilot license to think about flying in the backcountry!” It’s true that you have your hands full as a student pilot, but I encourage you to seek just a few hours of instruction with a qualified mountain flight instructor. Although it’s not necessary to travel to the high country to learn about density altitude, if you do, you’ll be rewarded with unparalleled flying experiences. You’ll never forget the first time you drop below a mountain rim, descend into a canyon, then negotiate a dirt-strip landing along a lazy mountain stream.

A “perfect” landing is the common thread in all flight training. The landing process is a complicated combination of many small decisions. In primary instruction, you focus on the preparation for the landing. As instructors often say, “A good landing is 90% pattern and approach.”

I’ll never forget my first solo trip into the backcountry. I didn’t even have 60 hours of total PIC flight time, but I figured, “No big deal. I live here.” I had learned to fly and received my private pilot certificate in McCall, Idaho, at a field elevation of 5,020 feet. I had just purchased a Cessna 182 and planned to go fishing in the backcountry. I was sure I knew everything as I prepared to fly to Chamberlain Basin Airstrip in the Frank Church Wilderness.

The morning of my trip, I flew in a direct line at about 10,000 feet MSL, using dead reckoning (no GPS back then). I remember being so pleased when I spotted the airstrip. I descended to what seemed like a reasonable traffic-pattern altitude, but after circling multiple times, I realized I was in way over my head. I wasn’t sure about the landing or the aim point, or what speeds to use. I questioned whether I could stop before the end of the runway, and I wondered if I could apply what my instructors called a “go-around” to this landing. And then I wondered about the departure. Where do I go? The questions in my mind kept coming. I made the best decision considering my experience and flew back home. It didn’t take long to find a qualified mountain and canyon flight instructor to give me a few hours of dual.

The first day of instruction was a revelation of things I knew and thought I knew. It consisted of getting to know my aircraft intimately—in every phase of flight. I used that first common thread of airspeed and attitude to develop a speed and configuration worksheet. This later became the basis for the mountain checkout used daily at my school.


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