A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.


November 2011   

 Flying Through the Rocky Mountains

It was a fine, sunny August afternoon as I touched down at a small Alberta airport in the foothills of the Rockies. The temperature was typically hot but a cool breeze came in from the west, the same breeze that was my tailwind across the mountains rising sharply just a few miles back. Departure from Kamloops, B.C. had been under similar conditions earlier in the morning. A big high-pressure system over Western Canada was stable, offering good flying weather that pilots could not ignore. Final destination that day was Edmonton.

Photo by Ken Barry

Outside the flying club facility, a couple of local pilots sat, enjoying the early afternoon heat. Normal greetings were exchanged, and they asked where I had flown in from. The conversation suddenly got interesting to them when Kamloops was mentioned.

“We don’t go in there as a rule” one stated, referring to the mountains. These fellows were purely flatland flyers, not unlike many others I’ve met on the prairies.

There are pilots who avoid congested Class C airspace, and those that avoid mountains. They seem to attach a certain mystery to mountain flying. And with good reason! There are uncounted wrecks and plenty of aluminum sitting on the rocks of the Rockies, unfortunate results of inexperience, bad weather, bad decisions, and pilots getting lost. Living in close proximity to them, undoubtedly the stories are talked about a lot around the airports and flying clubs of the foothills.

I’d have to say my own mountain-flying experience is quite extensive. I learned from some of the best while working as a tow pilot launching sailplanes. At my age, it’s probably been good decision making (fear) rather than great skill that’s kept me out of trouble. There have been times when it would have been a whole lot safer to be on the ground than caught in some of the bad weather I’ve been in.

Several times, pilots have asked what the best way through the Rockies would be if flying from Alberta over into British Columbia. I always say you can’t go wrong with the route westbound from Jasper to Valemount, then south following the Thompson River through the towns of Blue River, Clearwater, then Kamloops. When I was in my teens, I lived in the Alberta town of Hinton, located on the Yellowhead Highway between Edmonton and Jasper. Just 15 miles from the first range in the Rocky Mountains and about 40 miles from Jasper town site, the highway through there was familiar to me. That was before becoming a pilot, and one reason the road existed right through to British Columbia was because it was a natural corridor. No point on that highway between Kamloops and Edmonton is higher than 3,500 ft. ASL. And oddly enough, that point is well outside the mountains, almost 40 miles east at a site called Obed Lake. The land surrounding Obed is relatively low foothills. Through the mountains, the average elevation of the highway is between 1,200 and 1,700 ft. ASL.

Years later when I obtained a private pilot license in B.C., I never though twice about flying off to Edmonton or any other Alberta destination. It just seemed natural to take a C-150 or 172 through that route. You don’t need to be higher than 4,000 ft, which is usually below most weather in there.

Only once was I caught by the weather, and that was at Blue River, where the valley narrows down and a lot of cloud can plug things up. It was late in the afternoon when I left Edson, Alberta for Kamloops, B.C. with a planned fuel stop in Valemount. After departing Valemount, it was suddenly darker than expected, mainly because the overcast was thickening and getting lower at the same time. Soon it was pelting rain, and I almost had to turn back with just five miles left to get to Blue River. However, flying just above the highway and because the area was quite familiar, I was able to fly straight in to Blue River. Relieved and happy to be on the ground, I stayed the night.

The downside of that route is the unreliable weather forecasting. The mountains throw off a lot of localized wind and cloud that just doesn’t register with FSS predictions. Calling ahead to a helicopter operator in Valemount gave me some good information one time. Just getting a reliable report from someone on the ground was helpful in a go or no-go decision. There is fuel available at Valemount, but none in Blue River unless you have a jerry can, can burn mogas and don’t mind a one-mile walk into town. If you’re east bound, the next fuel can be bought at the Hinton-Entrance strip, but call ahead and someone from the flying club will meet you. Edson has fuel as well.

There are several other routes which VFR pilots can take to get across the rocks. From Kamloops to points such as Red Deer means flying much higher in spots, through Revelstoke, over the Rogers Pass and into Golden. Most of the route is over the Trans Canada Highway. But at Golden, you can leave the highway and fly north through the valley of the Blackberry River. That little departure from the security of a highway below, is a short hop of only about 30 miles, and will bring the VFR pilot to the Jasper-Banff highway at Saskatchewan River Crossing. The valley is steep and quite narrow, but the floor is only around 2,000 to 3,000 feet ASL most of the way through. Several peaks and glaciers rise to near 11,000 feet on both sides of that valley.

Once through there, you’re in Alberta, and eventually you will exit the mountains near Rocky Mountain House. For any mountain flying, it is best in the early morning hours. Plan to get through before the mid-day turbulence kicks up and usually you’re fine.

There are instructors who can offer specialized training for mountain flying. It’s a good idea to be briefed on the basics of the unique situations you can find yourself in when flying to unfamiliar territory. Personally, I stay close to the VFR routes, best over highways, and wait for good-weather days, Maybe there were higher risks than I understood when I started flying in the mountains. Most problems you will run in to involve wind and weather. A good briefing and good judgment will help to keep you out of trouble. The rewards include the fantastic scenery viewed by very few privileged pilots and their passengers.  

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