July 30, 2008

Dr. Collins: Mountain Flying — Minimize the Risk, Reap the Rewards

As a physician concerned about injuries, avoiding these accidents involving airplanes in mountainous terrain is more important than discussing how to treat them. For Lester, it is about returning to the basics of flying and making good decisions.

Here are some tips for keeping pilots, passengers and airplanes safe in mountainous regions:


What is your training and how much experience do you have? If you have to think about this, then consider getting some additional training.

There are several places to go for specific training, and a great place to start is talking to other pilots.

There are good online sources as well, such as ShortField.com, that can help you learn about the requirements at various airports. You also might want to check mountaincanyonflying.com.

The goal is to become a proficient pilot before you focus on airplane performance.


One of the biggest differences is that in the backcountry you are almost always flying in a canyon, where the weather often gets "compressed."

Another important consideration at this time of year is density altitude at high temperatures and how it affects airplane performance.

Pilots often talk about how poorly their airplanes perform during the summer. If they were to consider the density altitude, however, it would be no surprise.


Take a few minutes to look at your plane's manual and review performance issues and settings. At the altitude of the airport you will be visiting, what can you expect from your airplane? Factor in density altitude.

Next, do a complete pre-flight. Is that air filter dirty? How about the tire pressures? Any fuel or oil leaks? Adequate is not good enough in the backcountry.

A common issue is "stuff" in the airplane. Go through all the things you are carrying and be critical about why each one of them is there. Remember, every ounce in the airplane steals performance. Safety gear is more important than an extra quart of oil. As you load the airplane, make sure you remain within the weight and balance limits.

Factor in the effects of fuel burn since you can't fill up at these airstrips.

Speaking of safety gear, review what you have and what you want to take. This issue is personal and often based on experience, but make sure your passengers know where the safety gear is and what is there. They may be the ones using it.


Plan for the environment you will be flying in. Next, brief your passengers about the flight and what to expect, and answer their questions.

An unasked or unanswered question can cause a lot of stress for passengers. Keep them comfortable physically and mentally.

File a flight plan of some sort, either with the FAA or with family and friends. Do not expect someone to figure out that you changed your flight from Johnson Creek and headed to Moose Creek unless you tell them.

Use 122.90 to communicate with other pilots in the area. Call out your plans for the airport where you are landing and avoid unexpected encounters with other airplanes.

Know the usual approaches and flight paths specific for each airstrip, such as the "figure-of-eight" at Cabin Creek. Surprises in a canyon are no fun. After you arrive, remember to tie down the airplane well because afternoon wind is common along the rivers. Many of the airports do not have established tie-downs.

Make sure your fuel tank is not leaking fuel. If you are going camping, leave a note letting other pilots know what your plans are and when to expect you back.

Proper planning coupled with experience and training will make the flight into a fishing place or a hike just part of the fun. Being careful will keep it that way.


(Paul Collins, M.D. is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Orthopedic Health Care in Boise, Idaho. Collins is an avid participant in many outdoor activities. Please send your sports medicine questions to [email protected] or at The Idaho Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.)


(c) 2008, The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho).

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