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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

and 'F' is for Flying...

If you are ever offered an adventurous flight in an airplane take it. Such opportunities don't stick around for ever. So it was for a few months with East Coast Airlines, based at Virginia Airport (FAVG) in Durban, South Africa. This little delight of an airport boasts all the charm of a rural strip but is barely 10km from the heart of one of Southern Africa's most vibrant port cities. A seaward circuit promises that all your approaches and departures will be over one of the finest strips of golden-beached coasts in the world and South African aviation safety standards will get you in and out every time safely. So, for a while there was an exciting opportunity for aviation enthusiasts to get a cheap trip and equally cheap thrill by booking a seat up to Oliver Tambo (FAJS) International in Johannesburg with East Coast Airlines. Their Cessna 414 flew up to Joburg at 21h00 each evening to collect a load of newspapers for Durban circulation the next day and for about $20 you could fly up in the empty plane. The trick was to get into the plane first and then lean over into the open pilots' cabin and gazing lovingly at the blinking lights, ask all those questions that have been burning in your crazed airplane loving brain. I well recall my first flight. Every now and again the pilot would whip out a torch and shine it on the wings, checking for ice. At one stage we were informed that we had to choose between freezing or a longer flight as we had to choose an altitude to accommodate the faulty cabin heater. But the most memorable was our aero-surfing experience. As we flew in the downwind of the Drakensberg Mountains (12000ftASL) the pilot told us how the wind coming off the mountains would often form wavelike ripples and if we flew into them we could actually surf the airwaves! Sure enough it happened and, as a surfer myself, I was delivered a double whammy of delight. So it is that this blog is dedicated to mountain flying, the joy and the real dangers therein. By understanding the physics of high altitude mountain flying and equipping yourself with the necessary skills this vista of flight opens a compelling door to all who should seek to push their envelope......and be sure to stay alive to inspire others. After all, who said that safe has to be boring?

The wonderful world of aviation is blurred into 3 distinct areas: Those who do the real thing, those who dream of doing the real thing; and those who simulate doing the real thing. Clearly there is a huge crossover as many a dedicated virtual pilot or air traffic controller turns out to have just got back from his/her real job as a fighter pilot or ATC jockey. Such is the level of complexity and reality of today's simulation software that we are seeing these packages being used increasingly as components in real life training. US navy airmen are provided with a well-known Flight Sim package as part of their kit.
What the simulated world does very well is IFR (instrument navigation). What it does not do well is giving the ergonomic experience of actually flying a plane. It was in search of this experience that lead me to take real world flying lessons at my home base.....FAVG, no less. What I discovered was that the experience of getting into a Cessna 152 is extraordinarily close to doing it on a well set up simulator (in my case Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004). I was able to replicate almost all the lessons I had in ZS-MPG on my laptop at home, including the spin training which I REALLY enjoyed! For the unitiated, a spin in an aircraft is something quite extraordinary and you either hate or love it. It goes like this: You pull back on the yoke (the stick thing that makes the plane go up or down, left or right) without increasing the throttle. The nose comes up and eventually the plane starts to stall. This is not like a car stalling. In an aircraft, an aerodynamic surface is said to stall, when the air that is moving relative to it's surface is no longer fast enough to create lift and the surface (normally a wing) drops. One would recover from this stall by putting the nose down, regaining airspeed and then climbing back to level flight once the wings have recovered their lift. With a spin, as the stall begins, you kick in left or right rudder, the plane yaws and one wing loses its lift earlier. The plane plunges to the left (or right) and after a few balletic aerodynamics, settles into a nose down spinning tumble. From the pilot's POV all you see is the earth below you rotating. If you have done your homework you will then instinctively initiate P.A.R.E. Power out! Ailerons neutralized Rudder opposite direction to spin elevator slowly up to recover and pull out the dive. I will not tell you about the time I forgot the 'P' part. All I know is that I am alive today because of a very sharp instructress....
So, while us simming pilots are great at getting around in pitch dark and misty weather, we have mostly developed the bad habit of flying by our instruments when we should be watching outside of the plane. Mountain flying is thus a very good re-educational ground for simmers. If you go by your instruments alone you will probably come to a dead end.
For real world fliers who may read this blog, treat this as a reminder of the real responsibility that you have to fully prepare yourself for the unseen challenges of flight in mountainous areas. South Africa, like the US, has magnificent mountain ranges presenting awesome flying opportunities. Next time you go to the Drakensberg and you watch the tourist helicopters buzzing around their business, have respect, have respect!
A great guide to Mountain Flying has been produced by the FAA and can be dowloaded or viewed from this URL: The file is called 'Mountain Flying.pdf'
and now......join me for some mountain flying, dreaming or simming!
Close your eyes....imagine the sounds of a busy international airport, cold winter weather and the excitement of an impending adventure! You are at Denver International Airport, Colorado, USA having just flown in from well.....wherever you flew in from! Go and get a hot cuppa coffee and a good healthy bite because for the next flying hour or so, you won't want to waste a moment on doing anything other than taking in the panoply below that is your gentle introduction of things to come. We will fly a high altitude turboprop plane from Denver to the regional airport, Alamosa Bergman Field (KALS) altitude 7539 ft. Alamosa is slap bang in the middle of a valley surrounded by walls of high mountains. This gives us the opportunity to get used to high altitude flying without the added challenge of excessive mountain walls and winds. It is here that we will change planes for a single engine, normally aspirated aircraft which will be our constant companion for the next 450nm. Within 15 minutes flying time we have Mount Blanca, a 14, 345 foot mountain and Crestone Peak at 14,294 feet. Once we have built up our confidence and skills within sight of Alamosa we then (after a good night's sleep), head for tha' hills!

Day 1: We head north, following the main roads, which enter the mountains in a tongue at the top of the lowlands. From here we will encounter several peaks with elevations exceeding 14,000 feet. Navigation will be VFR all the way, so weather is critical. Be prepared to turn back! As long as we can see the roads and the towns we should be fine. We will pass Villa Grove, Buena Vista and Twin Lakes on the left. The towering Mt Elbert (14443ft) on our left next is confirmation that we will soon be in sight of Leadville Airfield (KLXV), the highest strip in the US (9927 feet) and third highest in the World. Near Leadville is Mount Elbert, the highest point in Colorado at 14,443 feet. It is here that we will test our new knowledge in mountain flying. In the middle of a summer's day, taking off from Leadville could be equivalent to taking off from the top of Mt Elbert in Autumn. Knowing that would you attempth the departure? The higher temperatures of summer days effectively increase the density altitude at Leadville to over 14,000 feet, and if you do manage to get off the ground there is still trees and higher ground to clear.
This is why the uniques challenges of mountain flying are stressed. The rules are simply not the same as down in the thick air where most GA pilots have learnt their habits.From Leadville we head almost due west over the ridge to Aspen (KASE) elevation 7,820 feet. If the terrain is too daunting then we can again hug the valleys and follow the roads. Departing Aspen to the Southwest, we overfly several daunting ridges and canyons enroute to Gunnison, Colorado (GUC) elevation 7,673. The Black Canyon close by is in the top five scenic areas of Colorado. From Gunnison we head Southeast over North Pass (elevation 10,149 feet) back to Alamosa. This is in total about 5 hours of flying. It is well advised to do some training with the expert mountain instructors based at Alamosa. The cost for the instructor is $395.00 per day. Rental cost for the airplane is $99.00 per hour. We should put aside at least 1 day for this.
The total distance is in the region of 500nm. If you feel up to some more, we can do some low altitude flying after getting back into our turboprops and head off south to Albuquerque. This is a good place to get back on our commercial flight. An added bonus is that we can refuel or stopover in Los Alamos. This is especially useful for those of us whose planes are nuclear powered!
I have all the requisite topo maps etc and below is a beta flight plan. The VORs are not attached to the fields but are close enough to be a safety backup. Have fun! Read the FAA document, and get some sleep.
See you in the thin air!

# Type: Name: Frequency: Course: Dist.: Time:
Depart: Denver Intl [KDEN] ATC: 134.02 0 nm 00:00
Arrive: Albuquerque Intl Sunport [KABQ] ATC: n.a. 616 nm 04:20
Aircraft: Cessna C182RG Skylane
Cruise: 120 kts
1 Depart: Denver Intl [KDEN] ATC : 134.02 0 nm 00:00
--> Climb to 12000 feet.
3 Waypoint: ALAMOSA [ALS] VOR : 113.90 189° 160 nm 01:08
4 Waypoint: San Luis Valley Regl/Bergman [KALS] APT 324° 6 nm 00:02
5 Waypoint: Lake Co [KLXV] APT 337° 109 nm 00:45
6 Waypoint: RED TABLE (EAGLE) [DBL] VOR : 113.00 284° 30 nm 00:12
7 Waypoint: Aspen-Pitkin Co/Sardy [KASE] APT 163° 13 nm 00:05
8 Waypoint: BLUE MESA (GUNNISON) [HBU] VOR : 114.90 178° 47 nm 00:19
9 Waypoint: Gunnison Co [KGUC] APT 33° 7 nm 00:02
10 Waypoint: San Luis Valley Regl/Bergman [KALS] APT 131° 83 nm 00:34
12 Waypoint: ALBUQUERQUE [ABQ] VOR : 113.20 187° 151 nm 01:03
13 Arrive: Albuquerque Intl Sunport [KABQ] ATC : n.a. 80° 10 nm 00:04
Airport altitude 5354 ft
Total: (296 Gal fuel required) 616 nm 04:20

Special thanks to the crew at Leadville Airport for the inspiration behind this blog. See

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