Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

There’s Something About Mountains

Far from menacing monsters, mountains can be your best friends

Once, 25 years ago during a bright chamber-of-commerce September morning, I was flying a Cheyenne II from Anchorage to Pt. Barrow. Looking down in air as clear as a chablis and as smooth as a sable. Denali was looking back, benign and spectacular, with no telltale plume of snow blowing off the top, suggesting light winds at the peak.

I couldn't resist the temptation, so I asked the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center if I could drop down and skim across the muscular, snow-capped peak. Never mind all the regulations about IFR and VFR and positive control airspace, what I thought was an original idea was apparently old hat to the controller, as he immediately approved my deviation in the most bored voice possible.

The air was dead calm as I leveled at 20,500 feet, 200 feet above the summit. It wasn't Everest, and I didn't imagine I was Col. Robert Scott of the Flying Tigers, buzzing the world's tallest mountain in 1942, but it was still a thrill. (For details, read Scott's book, God Is My Co-Pilot.)

In the Southwestern U.S., Navajo Mountain, a huge, bulbous hillock of rock east of Page, Ariz., also serves as a waypoint for pilots. It's only about 10,300 feet tall, but it stands all alone at the north end of the Painted Desert, 5,000 feet above local terrain. You can spot it from any direction for 100 miles.

Traveling along the West Coast in clear conditions, you can fly north with a series of huge mountains as guideposts. In northern California, there's Mt. Shasta; then, the Three Sisters and Mt. Hood in Oregon; Mount St. Helens and Mt. Rainier in Washington pointing the way to Seattle and finally Mt. Baker on the Canadian border near Vancouver. I've only seen the full panoply of volcanos two or three times in 40 years of flying, but it's nothing short of splendiferous.

On this day in December, my passage across the Andes is anticlimactic, if that's even possible amidst such a magnificent display of topography. I clear the pass into Argentina without incident, following the advice of my friends, the condors. They soar effortlessly above me and watch my loud, comparatively ugly, awkward metal beast struggling to match their simple grace.

Overloaded and almost tapped out of climb, my Cessna finally skims a few hundred feet above the lonely metal Chilean research station built directly on the nadir of the pass, and I fly out into the huge valley above Mendoza, Argentina, with the Patagonian Desert to my right. How could anyone not love mountains?

These days, the mountains' value as navigation waypoints has been diminished. Pilotage has become a lost art, and dead reckoning is now automatic with a $500 GPS. The satellites have relegated the art of navigation to a few keystrokes, but mountains can still highlight a route and provide comfort to help you recognize the hills of home.


Add Comment