Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Common Thread

How mountain flying meshes with primary training

The work goes something like this: We climb to an altitude that simulates a density altitude we want. We test different configurations and flap settings in slow flight, level flight, descents and turns. We note power settings, rates of descent and speeds. We expand this to include imminent and actual stalls, noting and recording the indicated speeds in these phases of flight. Then we test the stall information while turning, descending and climbing. This gives us enough information to configure the aircraft in a steep, stabilized approach of an approximately 4.5-degree glideslope. This is a surprisingly big descent rate, but it gives excellent energy-management control.

These scribbles and notations of speed and flap settings are similar to the information used by student pilots when they first learn to fly. At my school, we clarify words that seem to apply better to the mountains. For example, we call our downwind entry speed “canyon speed.” We replace the go-around point on the runway with a more descriptive idea called “abort point.” Is it beginning to sound similar to what you’ve already learned? The final key to success in the mountains is the ability to control your speed. Aim point on the runway also is an important part of the landing. You must be the master of airspeed control and aim point. We expect control of attitude within two knots of a targeted airspeed. Yes, two knots.

After my introduction to mountain/canyon flight instruction in 1982, I remember thinking, “Why wasn’t I taught this during my primary flight training?” It was apparent how important concepts like the steep, stabilized approach were to controlling the outcome of a flight. Picking and holding the aim point opened a new approach to landings. I knew my power setting for every phase of the flight, and I could fly a steep approach to a precise aim point, which also gave me the ability to land closer to my aim point and took away the float down the runway. I had learned what my aircraft could do for me, and more important, I could make it do what I wanted it to do. I took my C-182 back to the Chamberlain airstrip with my new tools and new speeds. I had acquired the skills and confidence to gauge the outcome of the landing and takeoff. This training changed my flying forever.

When we fly with students, we provide them with a method that will allow them to find the appropriate speeds and power settings; fly steep, stabilized approaches; and pick an aim point and land successfully. That’s possible in just the first’s day’s flight lesson. If you can take it further and fly a few more times, then you’re in for the next flight-training treat. We stretch the common thread to drainage navigation, canyon turns and emergency canyon turns. As most pilots know, there’s a pure joy and pleasure in designing approaches and departures in the challenging environment of new and confined areas.

I encourage you to get some mountain/canyon flight instruction. It will forever change the way you fly and look at an airstrip. Next thing you know, you’ll find yourself landing in the backcountry to meet fellow pilots for camping, fishing and flying. You’ll be confident and comfortable that you’re equipped to meet the challenges of a demanding and advanced flight environment.

Lori MacNichol, ATP, CFII, CFIMEII and SES, is the founder of Mountain/Canyon Flying Seminars. Visit


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