You don’t have to be a pilot to realize that the Cascades is one of the most marvelous spectacles Earth has to offer. Thousands of hikers climb its peaks, skiers race down its ski tracks, and millions of drivers enjoy the scenery of route 20, Stephens Pass, and Snoqualmie. With several volcanic peaks, glaciers, and deep blue mountain lakes within reach of an engineless aircraft, we are indeed very lucky to have all of this available to us for the price of a tow. Unfortunately, for many, the cost of admission is not the $50 tow, but rather overcoming fear, uncertainty and doubt about flying beyond the reach of our homebase in Arlington. While each individual is different, most of us see the North Cascades’ rugged terrain as an area inhospitable to the inexperienced pilot. But what if you’ve worked hard to get your FAA ticket and already spent hours circling around the airport, admiring the scenery from afar? How does one get to appreciate the beauty of what lays beyond Jordan Ridge? In this article, while memories are still fresh, I am sharing my personal experience graduating from aspirational mountain pilot to flying my first 250 km mountain flight from Arlington to Glacier Peak and Mount Baker. I hope that by sharing lessons learnt from the pros at the French Alps’ mountain soaring school in St Auban, time spent in the front seat of “TW” with Fred Hermanspann in the back, and my own experience (good and bad), others find inspiration to go explore beyond Jordan Ridge.
Human evolution has taught us the “Crawl, Walk, Run” methodology. In soaring you finish crawling when you fly solo – a time when most of us say “thank you and goodbye” to our CFIG and move on to playing around the airport until time has come to pass the checkride. With a glider pilot’s license in hand, you have earned the right to walk: from buying your own glider to venturing out from the local airport with nothing but friendly terrain under the hull. While flying along cloud streets in 5kt thermals with a 12,000 ft cloud base may get you that first 300+ point flight on OLC, it does not necessarily mean you’ve met the bar for safe flight in the mountains. In the following sections I cover the fundamental skills I had to acquire to transition to the mountains.
Stick and Rudder Skills: The basics of coordinated flight need to be second nature. You don’t want to be thinking about hand/foot coordination while flying in the mountains. When close to terrain, there’s little margin for error. Too much rudder with a slow turn in a gust may throw you into the side of a mountain. You want to get really good at maintaining a steady attitude with the jaw string well aligned. You may be tempted to chase a constant airspeed but this is counterproductive in the turbulent air you’ll find along ridges and in the mountain’s narrow thermals. Instead of staring at the instrument panel, you need to practise keeping your eyes outside the cockpit, using the horizon and glider’s sound as your airspeed reference – briefly glimpsing at the ASI as you constantly observe your surroundings. Keeping your eyes outside the cockpit is not only important for safety, but also critical for situational awareness. You have to monitor the behavior of the wind, position of the sun in relation to the slopes, formation of clouds, and presence of birds and other gliders nearby, to make good decisions about where to fly next. Maintaining a steady attitude is also more challenging as the flatland horizon is replaced by uneven or close terrain, which obstructs the horizon as a reference point. Instead, you have to envision an artificial horizon as the mental model for fixing the glider’s position in the sky.
You can develop these skills by flying on the mediocre days when cloud base is low and at varying heights. Turn off the audio vario and try to fly the glider using your senses (ears, hands, seat-of-the-pants), completing nice even circles with only brief glances at the instrument panel. You also need to recognize the signs of an impeding stall to quickly initiate corrective actions. Before you take a new glider type to the mountains, you want to practice quick recovery for both straight and turning stalls at a safe altitude near the airport. Finally, use any landing as an opportunity to practice precision landings. You want to maintain a steady approach speed with half airbrakes out to come to a complete stop without the use of the wheel brake and the wing touching the ground after you have come to a complete stop.
Thermalling Skills: Mountain thermals can be more challenging than flat land thermals. They tend to be narrower, stronger, and more turbulent (especially on blue days). In a big fat thermal, you are taught to wait a second or two before turning into the thermal, with the vario indicating a positive climb by the time you turn. In the mountains, your body’s senses need to be ahead of the vario. You feel the thermal, turn into the thermal, and confirm with a positive vario (or quickly abandon if the seat-of-the-pants cheated you). You also want to refine your centering skills to fully explore the mountains’ potential. Given the strong and narrow core, you need to be comfortable banking steeply (35-55 degrees) while retaining the appropriate speed throughout the turn. You don’t want to be dancing in a thermal with your glider’s nose wobbling up and down. Instead, you’re aiming for a steady turn with a nice constant vario. On days with the wind blowing you need to correct for wind drift, or you’ll risk losing the thermal after the first turn.
To sharpen my thermaling skills, I’ve made it a point to come fly on the marginal days, when cloud base is at 3,000 to 4,000 ft. These days demand high concentration with little margin for error. While I have gotten pretty good at flying on marginal days, I was still surprised by how steeply Fred banked to recover from a thermal I lost near Sauk Mtn. Keep in mind that on a marginal day you won’t be banking as steeply, given the weaker updrafts. However, marginal days help perfect centering skills and teach you to concentrate on flying well coordinated regular turns. Without great thermalling skills, your journey into the mountains will quickly end with a landing.
Situational Awareness: Over flat land, with landable fields in sight, getting lost may be nothing more than an inconvenience. In a mountainous setting, a lost glider can end up in a tree (or lake at best). Therefore, it is important to always retain good situation awareness, even with a GPS onboard. A GPS can – and will – let you down. It happened to me on 4/19 near Spada Lake when my GPS lost signal for 15 minutes. At 6,000 ft this was not the time to start fiddling around with a device. Therefore it is critical to always know exactly where you are, what options are available for a safe landing, and how much altitude is required to reach a landable location. So before you get too comfortable with a GPS, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the area you’ll be flying in. The best way to do this is by pulling out a map and sitting down with an experienced mountain pilot, followed by an orientation flight. During your orientation flight, you should actively try to follow your flight path on the map, calling out key landmarks such as peaks, lakes, and landout fields.
Keep in mind that both FAA maps and GPS waypoint files can be out of date or erroneous. For example, some of the waypoint files in use in our area have landout fields marked on them which have never actually been used or should only be used as a last resort. For example, on May 1th I had the honors of baptising the “Horse Racetrack,” which was listed in my waypoint database as a landout field but had actually never been used. Therefore you should carefully read your waypoints’ description field, when available, as this may include important additional information. To avoid further surprises, I reviewed my waypoint database with several experienced pilots to get the most up-to-date insights. I also prefixed “regular” field names with “LO” and “emergency” fields with “LOE” to make it easy to identify the type of landout site without having to pull up the waypoint detailed description. Also, note that the FAA’s official Seattle Sectional chart may not be a reliable aid to navigation. Its low resolution is not ideal for glider pilots, obfuscating many important details. Charts may also contain outdated information so they require a scrub with an experienced pilot. During an area briefing you should note seasonal airfield conditions, retrieve options, and whether glider pilots are well received (e.g. Fall City is not glider friendly). Good supplements to your GPS database and FAA chart are Google Earth and DeLorme’s Washington Atlas & Gazetteer.
During flight training you learn about drawing circles around airports to quickly determine the altitude required to make it to the field. These circles are a great aid to navigation but are not sufficient when using a map as your primary (or backup) navigation aid. There are many fields around Arlington; drawing circles around all of those would quickly become a mess. Circles also don’t tell you what altitude is required to traverse a valley. In the French Alps, I was taught a neat trick to quickly perform calculations, using your fingers as a glide computer. A finger’s width is about 5 nautical miles on a sectional chart (adjust to your finger’s thickness). A nautical mile is about 6,000ft. The recommended safety L/D is for a modern glider is 1:20, so you’d divide 6,000 by 20 to get the required safe altitude of 3,000ft above arrival height. So let’s assume you want to quickly calculate the required altitude to reach Arlington from Mt Pilchuck. I can place three fingers between Mt Pilchuck and Arlington. Assuming a 1/40 glider, flying at a 50% safety margin, I need (15*6)/2 = 45 *100ft = 4,500 ft. Adding 1,140 ft of pattern height (1,000ft + airfield elevation) gets us a minimal altitude of 5,600ft to make it back safely to the airport. Similarly, you can now quickly determine the altitude required at Three Fingers to arrive above Pugh Mtn’s peak. 2.5 fingers = 12.5 miles. 12.5*6 = 75. 75/2=37.5. 37.5*100=3,750ft. 3,750ft + 7,200ft (Pugh Mtn altitude) = 11,000ft.
After you had a few orientation flights with an experienced mountain pilot, and you’ve decided to go explore on your own, you want to maintain radio contact with other pilots in the area. I would not recommend making your first solo exploration without the company of others in the air. In the Alps, the habit is to announce your location and intentions every 20 minutes, or whenever your intentions change. An example announcement for our area: “Glider niner-lima, 8,000ft over Goat Flats, heading east towards Mt Pugh.” Other pilots will not only be aware of your position, but will often also help you navigate the area. For example, on June 13, I fell off the ridge near Mt Higgins. Dan Housler directed me towards Gold Mtn, where I was able to hang on for a little while longer, but unfortunately the wind was weak, so I ended my flight at Darrington airport. All this time, Dan kept an eye on me, providing valuable advice, and also called the tow plane once I landed at Darrington.
Landing Out. In many parts of the world, you won’t be allowed to fly solo in the mountains without prior landout experience. The pilot’s workload is much higher in the complex terrain of a mountainous region: you’ve spent hours navigating complex terrain, made a last ditch effort to recover from low altitude, and finally committed to a landing. This is not the time to figure out where the land out field is located or which way the wind is blowing. In some cases you may be close to an airport, with a mountain standing in between. Turning around the mountain would put you right at pattern altitude of your destination airfield. You want to be in a tranquil and focused state-of-mind when you approach your landing. While an off-field landing (or any landing for that matter) never gets routine, you want to prepare yourself well for the inevitable outlanding. Whenever possible, you should participate in an encampment at nearby airfields (Darrington, Concrete, Green Valley). However, this is no equivalent for the actual landout experience at an unfamiliar field. So you can either wait for the day you’re put in a situation forcing you to land out, or – like I did in 2014 – you can decide ahead of time to land out. On May 30, 2014, after waiting until the late afternoon for a bad weather front to clear Ephrata, I decided to take a tow for some local soaring. Surprisingly, I was able to work my way up to 11,000 ft MSL after a save from 1,000 ft AGL. With Mansfield in reach but little chance of making it back with the sun lowering towards the horizon, I decided to get the most out of the day by getting my first outlanding experience. I pointed my nose towards Mansfield and flew as far north as I could. At 5pm, after a 3 hour flight, I squeezed the last out of the sky and put the L-33 on Mansfield’s runway.
With both feet on the ground, I learned about the importance of proper landout planning. While my phone was still charged, I did not have any reception. I also forgot to write down the Ephrata clubhouse’s phone number and had no cash on hand to pay for my phone call at the local grocery store. Luckily the owner was kind enough to tolerate a number of back-and-forth calls to let me sort out the retrieve. A couple of hours later, I was on my way back to Ephrata. This gentle landout experience was a great mental preparation for my first real landout experience, which took place under more challenging conditions.
On my way to Monroe, on May 1, I noted lots of power traffic while overflying the city’s airfield. I made a mental note and continued east towards the foothills to try to work my way back to Arlington. What looked like a nice cloudstreet, quickly deteriorated in a stream of sinking air. I was still within reach of Monroe and, at 2,000 ft, started looking at other landout options nearby. I noted a big stretch of grass in the middle of a horse racetrack and decided to take one more shot at circling my way out of the sinkhole. No luck. At this point I could technically scrape my way back to Monroe, but having never landed there before and with power traffic all around, I decided to go for the horse racetrack. I carefully observed the field again and noted a couple of horses on the west corner of the field, eating their dinner behind a cabin. In deciding which way to approach the field, I evaluated the wind direction, field slope, and obstacles, but also the position of the horses. Wind was not a factor, so I decided to approach the field facing the horses’ back, with the cabin in between myself and the horses. My plan was to sneak in like an invisible bird. When turning from downwind to base, I noted that I had come in too high and had to extend my baseleg with an S-turn to bleed off additional altitude. Apparently the terrain under my downwind leg was a good 150ft higher than the field I’d land in, something that didn’t become apparent until I turned to base. Clearing the wires on the south end, I safely touched down in the middle of the field, far away from the horses. The horses only saw me after I got out of my cockpit and welcomed me along with their friendly caretakers. That day I was happy to have good control of my glider, with my head outside the cockpit to observe the field, and mentally prepared for an unexpected landing. Ron kept an eye on me from above (almost getting sucked into the same hole), and radioed Fred, who, along with Kathleen, brought the trailer over for a retrieve.
While it’s important to have the logistics ready for an outlanding (retrieve option, tie-down gear, phone numbers, etc.), mental preparation is equally – if not more – important for a safe cross country flight. Before you even get in the cockpit, you want to accept that you may be landing elsewhere. It’s a fundamental part of serious soaring and it should not be a barrier for pushing farther. In the Alps, I was told to keep moving forward, switching my mind from the field behind me towards a new one on the path to our destination. I like the analogy (albeit a bit dramatic) of a Samurai’s mental preparation for battle: Dying before going to battle. Japanese Samurai imagined losing the battle before the start of the battle, which allowed them to unconditionally commit to success in battle without worrying about survival. Similarly, as a cross-country pilot you want to mentally prepare for the possibility of a land-out so that land-out anxiety doesn’t become a distraction to your decision making ability and safety.
The Theory of Mountain Safety. A lot has been written about mountain safety – advice I won’t repeat here. While I’ve read most books on the subject, I found that the theory doesn’t really sink in until you end up in one of the situations described in these books. It was not until I flew dozens of hours with an experienced mountain soaring instructor that I uncovered an unsafe habit, which snuck up on my unnoticed. I had a tendency to turn too close to the ridge. As my instructor warned me: “This will work a hundred times, but the 101th time …” I was taught how to turn safely near ridge height by first confirming a positive vario near the ridge, flying at a safe margin over approach speed, and only then complete a full turn near the ridge. If you’re new to this, you should follow the books’ advice and not turn anywhere near a ridge – unless you fly figure eights away from the ridge. The concept of the 101th time keeps me open to critical evaluation of my flights, peer feedback, and regular flights with an instructor or mentor. To remind myself of the principles of safe mountain soaring, I’ve made it a habit to read “Safety in mountain flying” before the start of every season. I also give myself a critical self-debriefing after each flight, imagining what an instructor might have told me if he’d flown with me.
Understanding Mountain Weather. This topic merits an article in its own right. Weather around Arlington is rather complex. We enjoy foothill soaring during the early part of the year, followed by booming conditions around May, to then shift towards stable conditions around the airport with great flights still possible by taking a long-tow further east. During fall and winter months we typically get to enjoy a couple of days of ridge or wave soaring near Mt Pilchuck. This variety is fertile learning ground for aspiring mountain pilots and meteorologists. It takes some experience to recognize the different weather patterns. A deeper study of meteorology is rewarded with better chances of hitting the good days while giving you a strategic advantage in flight planning. While developing this knowledge is not a prerequisite to mountain soaring, you should have a good grasp of the basics of local weather patterns. You need to understand the various heat sources and triggers for thermals. It is also important to know how local winds flow around valleys, mountains, and ridges. A good starting point for the study of mountain weather is “Understanding the Sky” by Dennis Pagen. At a minimum you should remember that you want to look for thermals on the sunny side of the hill, and fly along the top of the ridge to catch updrafts flowing up its side. The lee-side of the hill should be avoided. You also need to be on the lookout for overdevelopment, which can put you in a tight spot.
While I’ve only scratched the surface of mountain soaring, I hope you can apply some of my personal learnings to your own journey as an aspiring mountain pilot. I plan to post additional articles as I learn more. Until then, I welcome your feedback and comments below.