07 October 2011

Mountain Flying in the Rockies

Last week, 27-30 September, I took a mountain flying course out of Rocky Mountain Metro Airport (KBJC) taught by John Bowman of Western Air. I had never been to Colorado prior to this trip; it was the first time this flatlander so much as laid eyes on the Rocky Mountains. The experience was life-altering.
On the ramp after landing at Leadville (KLXV)
The terminal building at Leadville, elevation 9,927 feet MSL

My writing skills aren't up to the task of describing the scenery: the aspens in their peak fall colors, the 50+ mile visibility, and the eye-level view of a high altitude lake as we dove through Corona Pass. I didn't take many pictures because I knew they couldn't do justice to what I saw.
Steamboat Springs Airport (KSBS)

I posted the blow-by-blow details of the course in this forum thread. I got to fly in conditions that are the complete opposite of what I'm accustomed: very high density altitude takeoffs and landings, flight close to terrain, flight at near-hypoxic altitudes, and operations at mountain airports with unusual approaches. I also got a taste of the mercurial mountain weather, however benign: at Leadville we landed to calm winds; after a 10-minute bathroom break, the winds were already gusting over 18 knots. Despite the help from the wind, the airplane lumbered into the air during that takeoff after chewing up a surprising amount of runway.

In order to cross the high passes, I flew the Cessna 172 as if it were a sailplane, using the ridge (orographic) lift and thermals to augment the airplane's anemic climb rate. I had never been ridge soaring before, so it was incredible to use the "surf" created by the westerly winds aloft. 

The biggest take-away lesson from the course, though, is that I need to do it better: use smooth control inputs with the goal of making them undetectable to my passengers, work on my crosswind proficiency, strive for perfect coordination without looking at the "ball," and hone my pilotage skills. I've got a lot of growing to do as a birdman.

Last week was one of the coolest experiences of my life, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to do it. John and Kip treated me like family while I was in Colorado. Chief Niwot's curse is true: I'm certain that I'll be back.   

The ramp at Jeffco Airport, looking out to the Front Range


  1. Always wanted to take the course......maybe someday. Thanks for posting!


  2. Was just reading some of your old posts and stumbled across this one. It brought back fond memories of when this flatlander took a mountain course out of BJC (spring, 2008). What an invaluable experience! I learned so much about flying on that trip. Did you encounter "Ted" the airport cat at SBS? He tried to fly back to BJC with us. :-)

  3. Chris,
    Yes, I remember Ted the cat in the office (I didn't know his name until now). I think he was napping while I was there.

    The course was an incredible experience. I am trying to work out a way to knock out my instrument rating with Western Air at BJC.

    Thanks for the comment!