The flight training process:
The mountains under SoCal Skies aren’t too threatening. San Gorgonio, north and east of LA is 11,503 feet. San Jacinto, overlooking Palm Springs, tops out at around 10,800 feet. Compared to the Rockies, they’re not very imposing. Heck, the tallest peak in San Diego County, Hot Springs, is just over sixty-five hundred feet.
Nevertheless, despite their non-majestic size, combine any terrain with wind and you’ll find a recipe for disaster. Back in the late 1990’s I had the privilege of taking the late Cliff Carlburg’s Mountain Flying Course. Cliff was a dear and sweet man who was the mountain flying guru of San Diego. He flew L19 Bird Dogs for the Army in Korea; he flew mercy missions for a church group in the Philippines, in Brazil and in Mexico. He regularly conducted seminars on mountain flying techniques at safety seminars in San Diego.
His course consisted of some basic ground training, then four lessons designed to teach techniques useful to a region with lumpy terrain. His course was a great confidence booster and I honor his memory by continuing to teach it.
The first lesson starts with a basic flying refresher: slow flight, stalls, steep turns and an engine out maneuver. We progress to demonstrating rate and radius of turn scenarios, making turns at cruising speed, maneuvering speed and slow speed to find out how much real estate each turn consumes. Then comes the fun part: a basic canyon flying session where we drop into El Capitan Reservoir to discover how close we can fly to the canyon walls, and how tightly we can turn inside them. It’s a thrill.
The next lesson is all about crossing ridges – how to safely cross a ridge and how to determine the strength of the wind, look for potential downdrafts, and how to be able to turn away from the ridge if a sudden downdraft occurs.
In the next we learn how to drag a strip that we might have to use in an emergency to detect hidden rocks and other impediments to a successful landing. Then we cross the Laguna Mountains, drop down into the desert to learn how to negotiate landing at an airport with a mountain in the traffic pattern, and how to land with a tailwind. We follow that with a trip back by hugging the terrain.
Finally, the course concludes with a trip to Big Bear Airport to get a better grip on all the factors involved in landing and taking off from an airport at high elevation – all the while dealing with density altitude and the dangerous winds that are sometimes associated with high elevation destination.
One of my students called this course the greatest confidence builder he could imagine. In the process you learn that flying in mountainous terrain is never something to take casually, but it can be rewarding when you have the knowledge to fly there successfully.