Safety: What the Mountains Teach

Mountain flying can be an exhilarating experience, and it also demands special skills. Factors that increase risk, like density altitude, night, weather, and wind, can turn a normal mountain flight into a dangerous trip. The increased risk requires safe mountain pilots to be extra vigilant with regards to flight planning, survival considerations, and proficiency.

Proper flight planning includes careful route selection. In many cases, direct flights aren’t feasible in mountainous areas, and terrain can easily “out-climb” light aircraft. Flying direct also limits your options in the event of an emergency.

When there’s no terrain stopping us from following the magenta line, using the direct route is almost a given. But even without the threat of CFIT, it might not be the best choice. In any flight, and especially in cases of marginal weather, plan to use airports as waypoints: you’ll have an easy out if you need it, whether due to an emergency and changing weather or due to passenger needs. If you’ve planned for the possibility of a diversion, you’ll be much more prepared should you need to execute one, rather than trying on the fly to find a place to land and needlessly task saturating yourself.

In remote mountain flying, it is also common and recommended to fly with survival gear and a personal locator beacon—just in case. If you fly in a metropolitan area, it’s easy to dismiss the need for a survival kit, but even carrying around some extra water, food, and appropriate first aid supplies could improve your situation in the unlikely event of a forced off-airport landing.

Another factor that makes safe mountain flying possible is pilot proficiency. A rusty, barely current mountain pilot is not going to casually hop into the airplane and fly below a canyon rim into a one-way airfield. They practice and make sure they know that their skills and the airplane are up for the challenge before accepting the added risk of flying in the mountains. Challenging yourself to maintain a higher standard of skill, and not allowing those skills to decay once developed, will make you a better, safer pilot. A mere three takeoffs and landings should be looked at not as a free pass to go fly with passengers, but as what it truly is—the bare minimum needed to be legal. Plan to fit in a trip to the practice area or some closed traffic every once and a while to keep all your primary flying skills sharp.

If you dream of mountain flying, seek out a qualified instructor, and consider bundling the experience with a flight review. Treating yourself to further training, especially something as unique as mountain flying, is not just a ton of fun—it will also make you a more capable aviator.

Learn more about the basics of mountain flying here:

AOPA Air Safety Institute staff
AOPA Air Safety Institute Staff members share a deep passion for aviation safety. As compassionate pilots, we bring together safety research, analysis, and knowledge in creative ways to share aviation safety education with you—with the ultimate goal of one day having zero fatal accidents in GA.

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