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Mountain flying poses hazards

Dan Foscalina

“Aviation, in itself, is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

– Anonymous

Ask any pilot and they’ll tell you flying in the mountains is tough.

More than 20 people have died or been injured in aircraft-related accidents since 1991 in the Truckee-North Lake Tahoe area of the Sierra. From thinner air, unpredictable winds and mountainous terrain to aircraft centers of gravity, fuel loads and weight capacities, flying at higher elevations can be a pilot’s worst nightmare. It is, however, possible to juggle these components and alleviate danger.

“Flying in the mountains is not dangerous or difficult, but when four or five things gang up on you, that’s when you get in trouble,” said Michael Johnson, flight instructor at Truckee-Tahoe Airport-based Todd Aero. “It tends to be a little less forgiving in the mountains.”

Johnson said density altitude – the amount of oxygen in the air – plays an important part. At higher elevations the air is thinner, causing the wings to create less lift, the propeller to create less thrust and the engine to create less horsepower, he said.

“Basically, all these things work against you.”

Couple the lack of air density with unpredictable wind patterns, such as thermals and roters, and the mixture for turbulent flights can become worse.

As wind currents gust over mountains they create waves that can force an aircraft up or down according to its position relative to the wind direction. A plane trying to cross a summit traveling into the wind will need to increase elevation in order to avoid being pushed down from the force of the wind. Conversely, flying with the wind over a mountain will create lift for the pilot.

Truckee pilot and former Truckee-Tahoe Airport District board member Dick Studer agreed with the density altitude example posed by Johnson and likened flying in the mountains to driving a car at higher elevations. At higher altitudes a car engine loses power because of the lack of oxygen, he said.

“You are flying a weak airplane with a weak engine,” Studer said.

Studer also said the type of plane and its mass are critical elements when flying in the Sierra, as well as what he calls “nebulas granitus” – the granite mountains.

“And all of this is on top of density altitude,” Studer said.

Truckee-Tahoe Airport Maintenance and Operations Supervisor Phred Stoner agreed with Studer and Johnson in that density altitude and mountainous terrain can wreak havoc on a pilot’s flight plan.

“You don’t have to go but a mile and a half before you hit something that is higher than you,” Stoner said, adding the mountains leave few options for escape for a pilot in trouble.

All three, however, agreed flying in the mountains is safe, it is just a matter of being prepared and aware of surroundings.

“It is also a matter of discretion,” Studer said. “You look at where (the mountains) are and you don’t go there.”


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