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Mountain Flying

Flying Techniques, II

To become and remain proficient in mountain flying there is no substitute for actual and real life training with an experienced flying instructor or mountain pilot. Reading these pages is just the beginning of that training. Survival training should be part too. Here we discuss the flying techniques that will show you how to do ridge crossings, valley flying and more.

Pilots should, no must, be familiar with density altitudes and its effect on their aircraft. Even human performance will be influenced.

Take Offs, Approach and Landing

Density altitude becomes a factor in the mountains. Performance is going to suffer due to the high altitudes, add high temperature to the mix and low land pilots will be in for a big surprise!


Full power must be maintained after takeoff until a safe altitude is reached. With a down slope runway, rotate the aircraft to a flight level attitude and fly the aircraft off the down sloping runway. If you would rotate to the same attitude as on a normal flat runway it could result in a stall.

Do make it a habit of joining an unfamiliar aerodrome via the overhead procedure. This way it is easy to check for the runway layout, wind direction, traffic and terrain. Follow close to the standard circuit pattern. Make sure you are familiar with the elevation of the field and runway distances.


On approach the airspeed must be held quite accurately, in gusty conditions add a small amount to your approach speed. True air- and ground speed will be higher due to density altitude and be ready for a full approach, do expect a go around. If you are attempting to land on a one-way runway, have the go around decision point well in front of the runway.

Runway Illusions


Landing uphill could be mandatory if surrounding terrain and runway slope is a factor. Be prepared for a visual illusion: the up slope ground is perceived as level. The pilot will believe he is higher that he actually is and the result is a lower approach than necessary. The flare with an uphill landing needs to be exaggerated too, the aircraft needs to flare beyond level attitude for a correct touchdown.

Human Performance

Flight in the mountains usually results in a higher workload, the cause being navigational accuracy, constant lookout for other aircraft and the high altitude (hypoxia). This can result in a reduced mental capacity to make decisions and or handle new tasks or problems. For inexperienced pilots the physical and mental stress can be very severe, eroding the capacity for good judgment and action. And when this pilot arrives at the destination his ability to handle problems is at is lowest while the demand is at is greatest. Careful preflight planning will help to lower stress here.

Using a GPS when flying can help, the new EFIS displays nowadays can show exactly where there is terrain between you and you destination. But do keep you head out of the cockpit as the GPS is a navigation aid to VFR flying. Let it not distract you from flying and make sure to have a sound navigation plan!


The lack of oxygen at higher altitudes can cause hypoxia. During daylight below 10000 feet a normal healthy person should not be affected, at night the limit is 5000 feet as vision will be affected above this altitude which is not detectable during daylight. If the pilot is not feeling well (or a smoker) they will be more susceptible to hypoxia, even at heights of 5000 feet during the day.

The onset of hypoxia is very subtle, one factor is because the brain is not working properly this will not be readily noticed. Symptoms of hypoxia are a general feeling of well being, loss of self assessment and poor judgment, later on you will see blueish lips and fingernails (but hey, you're feeling great so why bother.. ). Keep in mind to just be careful out there.

Make sure to check the regulations when flying above 10000 feet during the day and 5000 feet at night. Some countries require the use of extra oxygen when flying for more than 30 minutes at these altitudes. I would recommend the use of a supplemental oxygen system every time above these altitudes.

Written by EAI.

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