Mountain flying represents a real challenge for most flatland pilots. At the same time the rewards are tremendous, offering very spectacular sceneries and views. It also means that the pilot needs training, develop skills and knowledge to fly safely in such an environment. We provide some basic knowledge on this subject, but this is no substitute for real training in the actual environment.
Make sure that you receive thorough training with a qualified instructor or experienced mountain pilot. Flying in mountain areas leaves little room for error. Effects of density altitude and degraded performance needs to be recognized. Get a good demonstration of soft, short field takeoff and landings. Practice minimum radius turns, just in case you need one. We are discussing the mountain preflight phase on this page.
Plan mountain flying early in the day, before the sun heats up the air and creates turbulence which can be really dangerous. Late in the afternoon (after peak heating) should be no problem after turbulence dies out. Gather all pertinent information about the runways you wish to use: surface type, length, slope and condition. Check for any recent snow or rainfall which would prevent the use of the runway or taxiways. You should know the departure and arrival procedures at the destination. Call the airport before the flight. Inquire about go around possibilities and or difficulties.
In addition to the normal aircraft preflight procedure, it is wise to avoid unnecessary payload; this will make sure that you have maximum performance from your aircraft. If there is any payload, make sure it is adequately stored as turbulence in the mountains can be stronger than expected. And do not forget to clean the aircraft windows!
Before takeoff, do set your personal limits. Check the winds aloft, cloud base and visibility limits and determine your escape options, just in case the weather turns bad. Check the latest time you can depart in order to arrive with enough daylight left and have you completed the "I'm safe checklist"?
The terrain can be very impressive and the size and scale difficult to appreciate. The aircraft is a very small dot in the landscape. Make sure to study current charts during preflight. Make a mental picture of your route and the land you will fly over. If the weather goes bad, you must know if a certain pass will take you to lower terrain. An adage comes to mind: do not fly up an valley you have not previously flown down.
Another valley danger presents itself in the form of high voltage wires. These hang across and over ridges into the valley, so be careful when flying below the ridge line. Plan your route according to terrain, following ridges and in up flowing air whenever possible. If in doubt: get instruction from someone familiar and in low and high level navigation in mountains before venturing off solo.
Setup your route according to the terrain and wind, it may not be a straight line. Be prepared to follow mountain ridges, ranges or valleys. Fly on the upwind side in the valley, this gives maximum room to turn if needed.
Flying at low level in a valley or at high level above the mountains gives a complete different view. Make sure to get instruction from an experienced local instructor. Navigation can be a real challenge and when the weather turns poor the workload could be too high to handle.
Not all mountain airports have an adequate fuel supply, make sure that you have enough onboard to return. Some even do not have places to sleep or lack food. Be prepared to carry food and lightweight camping gear if an overnight stay is needed. Carry a flashlight (the LED types are very good) and even a portable strobe light in your flight bag with fresh batteries. Lightweight warm clothing is also recommended. Visit an outdoor shop and get some proper advise on outdoor activities, plus they have really good equipment for an unexpected overnight stay under the wing.
Flight training only prepares you for the forced landing, but what next? If you fly regularly over sparse areas then a survival course is definitely a must! It will prepare you physically and changes your mental attitude which greatly enhances your changes for survival. A medical emergency course is also very recommended.
Other items to think about:
Note: This is only small summary and in no case a full fledged replacement for a real survival course or training!