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Mountain Flying

Flying Techniques, I

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. Studying 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.

Ridge crossings

Ridge Crossing

Ridges or saddles can be best approached with a 45 degrees angle toward the ridge with the ridge to your left. The advantage of this position is a good view over the ridge and a shallow approach angle (which in turn gives a shallow escape angle). This technique will give you the minimum bank angle to turn away should the need arise if turbulence or the sink rate is to high. If you need to escape, choose for a shallow angle downhill and fly downstream. Knife edge ridges have an advantage compared to flat ridges as the time to cross the ridge is greatly reduced.

Approach the ridge in level flight with airspeed below Va and with your hand on the throttle, in anticipation of unexpected wind shear. Which, if present, will occur at the ridge crossing. Make sure that you have adequate terrain clearance. Do not cross in a climbing attitude where low speed means less margin to the stall. Also do not cross in a descending attitude, high speeds can cause structural damage in turbulence (remember VA).

Valley flying

Valley Flying

The recommended procedure to fly through a valley is on the downwind side resulting flight in smoother up drafting air. If a 180 degree turn becomes necessary it will be made into the wind requiring less distance on the ground. Just keep in mind that downdraft could be encountered on the lee side and that the wind strength can and will vary with height in the valley. In high traffic areas is can be wise to fly on the right hand side, if possible. Do maintain a good lookout and give frequent position reports.

Attempting to fly up or down a glacier valley with a cloud layer could prove fatal, the problem being that the clouds often shelves down along the glacier and the slope of the glacier may exceed the performance capabilities of your aircraft.

Entering a valley

On entering a valley double check with your compass to ensure it is the right valley, this simple check could prevent you from flying up the wrong and possibly a narrow or dead-end valley. Know whether the valley climbs and the altitude you need to clear the ridge at the end. The adage: never fly up an valley you haven't flown down, still holds true.


You will need to position your aircraft so that enough room is available to turn, if needed. In narrow valleys, commit to one side or the other preferably the right hand side or downwind. Under no circumstances fly in the middle of the valley where you could have no room to turn. The only exception would be a large wide valley.

Leaving maximum room to turn also means that less bank angle is required and therefore less wing loading and lower stall speed (which increases with bank angle).


When executing the turn do minimize your airspeed, increased speeds will result a larger turn radius. If space is confined, make check turns of 360° to see if the escape route remains open. Another possibility is to make a climbing or descending turn, these also reduce the turn radius. If speed is lost while in the turn and you already have maximum power, lower the nose to convert height to airspeed.

Finally, know which way the river or stream flows. It usually leads out of the valley or to lower terrain. Downstream usually leads to larger rivers, lakes, towns and roads.

Escape routes

One golden rule keeps popping up every time with mountain flying: always have an escape route! Do not ever place yourself or your passengers in a situation where there is not enough room to maneuver, turn back, recover from turbulence or to make a safe forced landing in case the engine should fail.

Murphy's law of mountain flying: Whenever you need to turn back it will be through sink, turbulence and a tailwind. So make sure you have the performance available in your aircraft to do that safely.

Written by EAI.

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