High mountain flying course: it takes more than a pilot license and a plane

As we turned to the northeast, we flew parallel to the foothills toward Boulder and we planned for a turn to about 220 degrees to cross Rollins Pass (11,671). It had been 44 years since I had roamed these hills and climbed the Flatirons as a college student at the University of Colorado. As a Mechanical Engineering major, my performance was something less than my draft board expected for a 2-S deferment, so I elected to enlist before I received my “Greetings from the President of the United States!” This was the first time I had seen them from this angle, a couple of thousand feet above them. I had spent a fair amount of time spelunking around Rollins Gulch in the early 70s, but this was way different.

Colorado mountains
We’re not in Illinois anymore.

It was Tuesday morning as we rotated off Rocky Mountain Metro Airport (BJC) runway 12L. We turned to the northwest to run the foothills of the front range of the Rockies toward Rollins Pass. Our first stop of the day would be Granby, Colorado (GNB) to visit the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River. This was the first leg of a flight that would demonstrate what I had learned in an eight-hour ground school at Western Air Flight Academy as part of a High Mountain Flying Course. My instructor was Howard McClure and he was sitting right seat. My newly-minted videographer son and his camera rig were in the back seat.

We had flown in from Lake in the Hills, Illinois (3CK) on Saturday, May 21, 2016, in my Piper Cherokee Dakota (235 hp) and spent all day Monday in ground school. Howard was a master at this stuff and, unfortunately for others maybe, spends a lot of his time flying air search and rescue through these mountains looking for people who have not found their way back out.

The ground school covered all kinds of things that I had learned in my private pilot training but, being a flatlander, I had never paid much attention to. Things like density altitude and rates of climb plus all kinds of things that never made much sense before. Neither did leaning for best power prior to takeoff, the 50/70 rule for take-off/abort distance, or preparing for extreme turbulence. We spent a bunch of time learning about orographic lift and mountain waves. I never had to pay much attention to climb power when flying my Dakota in Northern Illinois. Today’s flights would take us to six airports, each with its own challenges and highlights.

The cloud deck at Rollins Ridge was pretty low and we could see the Eldora Glacier ski resort not too far off (Eldora and the Colorado Ski Team were some of my downfalls as a student). As we hit the ridge line that the pass bisects, we got a stiff jolt of turbulence that was to be only a sample of what we would experience before the end of the day. My experience with turbulence to this point in my flying career was thermals off a hot corn field in Northern Illinois.

Once through Rollins Pass, we made a right turn and flew downhill to US 40 and headed northwest out of Winter Park for Granby.

Granby is a nice little airport at 8,207 feet elevation with one 5,000-foot-long runway (09/27) that is right traffic for runway 27. Rumor has it that one of the real challenges for this airport is that there may be an individual who likes to come out and take pot shots at airplanes which they determine are flying too low over their land. So, okay, we can take a hint. That must be the noise-sensitive area described in the Colorado Airport Directory (a must for preparing for and flying this trip.) Approaching from the southeast, we flew a midfield cross over and then entered a 45-degree for right downwind to land.

After a quick pit stop at the friendly FBO, we started walking around to find our sightseeing target. We walked across the road to the north and stepped across the mighty Colorado. So this was the headwaters of the river that cut the Grand Canyon. I did not get the soles of my feet wet.

K20V
McElroy is a flat airport, but there is rising terrain all around.

Once we returned to the plane, the rising terrain to the east and our charts told us that a departure to the west was advised. No problem, as our next planned stop was at McElroy (20V), only about 20 NM as the crow flies. However, nothing is everas the crow flies in the Rockies, flying at less than 13,000 feet. As we lined up on runway 27, we did our runup, pushed the throttle to max power, and then adjusted the mixture. I was really surprised how much we had to lean the mixture to get to max manifold pressure. Really not a surprise at a field elevation of 7,411 MSL. Only one of many learnings for the day.

The arrival into McElroy was uneventful, but the departure was anything but. Less than six miles after wheels up, we flew through a rather sharp gorge with 9,500-foot walls. We were headed for States Bridge on our way to Glenwood Canyon and Glenwood Springs. As we entered a one-mile wide canyon just off McElroy, Howard mentioned that we should stay to the right in case we had someone coming the other way. Great! Like there wasn’t anything else to worry about! Below us, the Colorado snaked its way from a creek to class 4 rapids where international kayaking competitions are held.

We passed over State Bridge and continued to Glenwood Canyon, which is a rather narrow approach to Glenwood Springs. The canyon is over 1,300 feet deep and the bottom is only wide enough for I-70 to be stacked on one side and the Colorado to rush through on the other. It is considered one of the most picturesque canyons in the Rockies. Unfortunately, you couldn’t have proven it by me, as I was white-knuckle flying. Howard’s instruction as we flew over the top of Glenwood Springs was to “fly at that wall till I tell you to turn.” At one point, I remember asking “Where is the airport, anyway?” and Howard replied, “Oh, it’s back over your left shoulder!” Yikes! “Okay, turn left now to 170 degrees.”

Valley in CO
Just enough room for a runway, a highway and a river.

Glenwood Springs airport (GWS) at 5,916 feet elevation is at a point in a canyon south of Glenwood Springs where it widens out so that you can get the Colorado River, Interstate I-70, and the airport side-by-side. North of the airport, the canyon walls start to climb. The downwind to runway 32 has a plateau in the middle of it so a one-mile wide downwind needs to be at about 6,500 feet. That is way narrower than I am used to. The winds were reported as “calm” by the ATIS. But wait, what were those 30-foot-high dust devils doing just before the approach end of runway 32?

When I pulled the power off to idle as I made the left base, the plane would not drop. It took us three tries to get in and, in the end, I widened out my downwind to a more than a mile and 7,200 feet.  This gave me enough time on base to drop in. I would have given up and gone to the next stop except we needed gas. Thank goodness for the big white stripe across the runway at the halfway point. It is meant to tell you to use the 50/70 rule (70% of take-off speed before 50% of the runway), but it sure helped me on one of the approaches to show I was not going to be able to land without overrunning the runway!

We fueled up at the self-serve pump and departed for our next stop – Gunnison/Crested Butte (GUS), 7,680 MSL. The home of Western Colorado State University is only about 62 NM from Glenwood Springs, but our route would take us through Schofield Pass, 10,707 MSL. Our goal was to climb as quickly as we could to get to over 11,000 MSL. We followed Crystal River into some canyons with 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks on either side. This route left a few hundred feet beneath us as we traversed the pass.

As a flatlander, I was always taught that “severe turbulence” meant you had experienced structural deformation of the aircraft. We had trained and briefed the issue of turbulence in training and at virtually every stop, we talked about the fact that if you try to resist severe turbulence, you may bend the airplane. I had carefully calculated my Vto help make sure to stay safe. The area was beautiful, and as we were coming up toward Crested Butte, this phenomenal mountain ski resort comes right up out of East River Canyon.

As we exited Schofield Pass, I happened to be glancing at the VSI (I was diligent as that is the most sensitive indicator of climbing or descending) when the bottom fell out. My VSI pegged at -2,000 fpm. I had the presence of mind to do what I had been taught. Loosen your deathgrip! We flew through this downdraft and out the other side in a couple of seconds but not before all three of us hit the ceiling of the aircraft and went scrambling for our seat belts and the camera rig. Imagine a leaf caught in a wind gust. I am convinced if I had tried to resist the downdraft that we might still be there. We flew around the east side of Crested Butte ski resort and on to Gunnison.

GUC
Gunnison Airport has a mountain in the middle of left downwind.

The challenge at Gunnison is that there is a mountain in the middle of the left downwind and the approach plate says: “turn base when you see the small building.” You lose sight of the runway as you fly around this “hill.” Otherwise this is a great runway 24 – 9,400 ft x 150 ft.

After lunch, we departed for Salida’s Alexander Field (ANK), a beautiful mountain valley airport at the south end of the Arkansas River Valley. We flew through Monarch Pass (11,312 ft road elevation, and the Colorado Airport Directory reports that “Monarch Pass has had a historically high number of crashes.”) and then left downwind to runway 24. This challenge here is a 300+ foot drop off on the approach end of runway 24, so with winds from the west you can expect a 300-400 feet per minute downdraft just as you are preparing to flare. No problem: with a 7,351-foot-long runway, you can just land long. We stopped in at the FBO and bought a great book on mountain flying accidents. Howard knew the author of Flying Colorado Mountain Weather, Margaret W. Lamb.

Our next stop was the infamous Leadville, Colorado (LXV, 9,934 ft) airport. This is the highest commercial airport in North America. The flight from Alexander at 7,523 ft to Leadville (with a pattern altitude of 10,934 ft) is only about 45 nautical miles, but the climb is a real effort for a normally-aspirated engine.

This is where we really practiced orographic lift (think gliders riding thermals). We were flying up the Arkansas River valley with the Collegiate Peaks 10 miles to the west and the Horseshoe Mountains to the east. We tried to stay as close to the eastern ridge as possible to ride the uplift coming up from the valley without getting caught in the rollers over the eastern ridge. We actually were getting almost 1,000 feet per minute at that rate. I had not seen that all day! The landing was planned for a high cros wind but the runway (Rwy 34, 6,400 x 75 ft) is protected by lodgepole pines, so the winds dropped just before flare.

As we sat at the end of runway 34, we looked at the moving-map Garmin, and noticed that our route home through Fremont and Loveland Pass was blocked by weather. Since we were not test pilots, I looked at Howard and asked what was next. Howard said, “That’s okay, I know another way.”

We departed runway 34 and felt like we were hitching it up all the way down the runway. We spent eight minutes performing a U-turn to the south. Howard pointed to a county road that was headed east and said, “Follow that road.” The road headed toward Mosquito Mountain (13,898). Within about two miles of the mountain, the road took a right turn to the south and over Weston Pass (11,960 road elevation.) We cleared this saddle pass at 12,700 feet! From there it was all downhill to KBJC, Broomfield, and dinner. About this time, we looked over our left shoulders to see what my son called a “funnel from heaven.” It was a shaft of rain, snow, and ice about four miles in diameter over Loveland Pass, our originally planned route home. It seemed like a divine monument to the unpredictability of Rocky Mountain flying that we’d been experiencing all day.

Route of flight

As we were relaxing in the remaining flight to Broomfield, talking about kids and cars, it occurred to my son and me that there are probably a lot of flatlander pilots with a PPL and a plane who figure they could just go do this. After a day of mountain flying, I know that’s dead wrong. This was a trip of a lifetime, and I am really happy we had Howard along as instructor.

7 Comments

    • Thanks for the affirmation. As a “flatlander,” I could read all about it but until I experienced it, it was not real.

  • Thanks for the write-up if this course. I took the course in September of 2017 and we flew out of Ft Collins over Eagle ( Vail ) into Aspen and also into Leadville. I would recommend this course for everyone. The instructor I flew with (Jerry) had flown close to a thousand pilots out there! I had complete confidence in his ability. His descriptions of the geography would make for a lesson in itself.

    • Thanks for the comment. This was something I worked up to for a couple of years. I know people from my home airport that just picked up and went and were very lucky to return home safely.

  • I learned to fly at airports on the East Coast with elevations near MSL. After a year or two of flying there, I had an opportunity to do some flying in a rental Cherokee at Boulder Colorado during a business trip. The first mistake I made was during a checkout flight with an instructor. Starting the takeoff roll, I had a mental picture of my pitch angle at rotation speed based on my prior MSL airport experience. At Boulder, the airplane just bounced back onto the runway. Lesson learned was that takeoff at these high elevation airports requires a lower pitch angle and you must expect and plan for a lower fpm climb rate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *