A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

July 2006

Mountain Flying Lessons

"Improve performance of even a C-150 by using heat and turbulence to your advantage".

Barely 100 feet from the side of the mountain, I held the controls with both hands.   It took both to ride the turbulence. The hot wind was quartering from about my 8 o’clock position, blasting against the rock to the right of the Cessna.   The battle required counter inputs, left aileron, right rudder.

But the lift!   Whoa, what a ride.   Like an elevator.   Twelve, fourteen, even eighteen hundred feet per minute on the VSI. Quite impossible for a 150 at full gross.

In the passenger seat, John was leaning toward me as he stared out the right side at the wall of granite. In his best “cool” voice he remarked “You like to keep it in tight to the mountain don’t you” I think he was a bit concerned.

The departure westbound from the grass at the Hope airport was almost directly into the gale. With a mere 200 feet under the wheels, I swung to the left, and quickly picked up the mechanical lift against the mountain on the downwind.   Predictably, we shot up to a thousand feet in less than thirty seconds, and we kept climbing.

“It makes sense to use the wind and thermals as best I can in this airplane”.   John was listening, but still concentrating his attention on the rock and trees right outside his door.

Flying against the mountains, cruising the tops of ridges and getting under the cumulus clouds is glider pilot mentality. I’ve never flown a glider, but have learned a lot from the people who do. The Vancouver Soaring Association is active at the Hope B.C. airport in summer, and for two seasons, I flew their towplanes, Cessna L-19’s, the bird-dogs. Leftovers from combat duties in Korea and Vietnam, many L-19’s have found retirement with operations such as the VSA. They’re powerful, agile, and tough. Bulletproof tough. Some of us pilots with low tailwheel time can be thankful for that.

Towing gliders takes concentration, and sometimes sheer determined nerve.   Keep the speed at 75, on takeoff, climb and descent. It’s especially critical in the climb with a glider tied on the back. The L-19’s wingspan is about half that of the glider, so don’t expect the poor glider pilot to enjoy the same manoeuvrability.   He also has no control over his speed being at the mercy of the pilot more than 100 feet in front of him. Sometimes over my headphones would come the excited command, “Slow it down would ya!!” Other times it was, “Take it in closer ..... CLOSER!”

Mountain flying was quickly, albeit unofficially, becoming part of my piloting skills, whether I liked it or not.   Flying lessons from the masters of taming the thermals.   Glider pilots always amazed me.   They routinely soared to the flight levels, cruised incredible distances for many hours at a time, then returned to the same 400 feet of turf they started from, all without an engine. Full bladders and empty stomachs more often than not dictated the length of their flights.

As the mechanics of lift and sink began to make sense to me, I experimented with my own aircraft.   My Renegade ultralight with a 53 horsepower engine needed all the help it could get in the climb.  I discovered plenty out there, even following the hawks and seagulls to the best rising air.

A hang glider pilot taught me “ridge running” while flying through the mountains in my 150.    Soon it became second nature to take advantage of what the weather gods provide to improve the performance of the aircraft.   I practice regularly.

My friend John, is quite unaccustomed to reading and flying the thermals.   He has no reason to since his plane has a turbocharged engine, and no shortage of horsepower.   He regularly cruises above 10,000 feet, and has no trouble getting there.   Like so many pilots, myself included before exposure to the glider fraternity, John hadn’t even considered there was help for his horsepower in the thermals and turbulence.   Horsepower rules!   The rule most pilots live by

I’m not ashamed to admit to never having an approved mountain flying lesson.   There are dozens of very competent, well qualified instructors who could show me a thing or two about it.   And maybe someday I’ll step up to that plate.   So far so good though, and I owe much of what I know to the sailplane and hang glider pilots I worked with.   You have to admire guys like that.   They’re guys, and women too, who challenge the laws of gravity, and win.   They put nature to work, controlling the gift of lift that’s there for the taking.   We powered pilots can do it too, just not to the same extent.   Getting a cruise speed of 130 out of a Cessna 150 tickles me right up the ASI.

There’s no sense being in a hurry since my flying is pretty much all for recreational reasons these days.  The journey is the destination. Time spent in the air, flying, is like savouring the chocolate cake or a glass of cold, sweet wine. Why would you want it to end. The trends today are for more horsepower, more speed, more avionics. It all comes with a price, and so far has priced too many people out of flying. Remember when Arlington and Oshkosh were gathering places for simple, experimental, homebuilt, fun aircraft? Today we see only remnants of that era there.   But some of us remain, the diehards, who enjoy and prefer the old ways, the old days. I’ll always be excited about getting more from my Cessna 150. But it’s a bigger kick when it comes free. We just need to follow the simple rules of nature.

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