Going Over The Edge

The dangers of landing on a mountain top

When flying a small plane there is always a chance of encountering unfavorable weather conditions. In mountainous regions one common risk is downsloping wind, a wind that comes from the top of a mountain and stops you from gaining the required altitude to fly over it. In such a situation, the upslope of the mountain can suddenly appear in front of you and there is often too little space to turn around and save your bacon. You run out of options—quickly. Sometimes the only thing you can do is slow down, pull the nose up and pancake in or, at best, land uphill with the hope of being able to walk away—that is if you’re willing to leave your plane on the side of a mountain, wondering if there will be enough left for salvage. It’s a scenario to avoid, but learning to fly in such weather can save your plane, and, more importantly, your life.

One beautiful, crystal clear day in early March, another fellow and I were out flying in the bush country—I in my Citabria 7GCBC and he in his Scout. The sun was shining brightly, the wind was calm, and the temperature was about 10°F, so we had plenty of lift. We could see for a hundred miles in every direction. Mount McKinley, now officially named Denali, which means “The Great One” in the Athabascan language, stood out like a white giant about eighty miles to the north.

Oh yes, there was another thing that made it a good day. I knew spring was only about four weeks away, and summer flying on floats would soon be the order of the day. I had received my pilot’s license the fall before, and remembered having been admonished by Gary, my flight instructor, when he signed me off as a brand new private pilot, “Now go learn how to fly.” So I had been doing just that, spending the winter practicing flying on skis.

This day we were out flying in the backcountry looking for moose, wolves, caribou, wolverine, and other animals, hoping they also were out enjoying this late winter day. Having seen no animals, the other pilot radioed and suggested we take some time for me to learn the basics of landing uphill should a mountain present itself in front of me someday.

His suggestion was worthwhile. Unless you are flying on some big delta out in Western Alaska or in other flatter regions, chances of confronting a mountain peak are high. Most of my experience had been flying in the Alaska Range, the Chugach and the Kenai Mountains, while also enjoying the wonders of the huge Susitna Valley and the high flat country in Southcentral Alaska. With all that time flying in the mountains it was high time I had a lesson in landing on one.

As we got closer to the mountain on which we were going to practice, he described the procedure we would use for the landing. We flew over the mountain, which appeared to have a very large flat top, made a turn, and came back for the approach. I was going to observe him land first as he described the procedure. I was above and slightly behind him to have full view of all that was happening. I watched as he slowed down and headed straight toward the up slope of the mountain. He then pulled back on the stick at the last second. It looked easy when performed by an experienced pilot.

Not wanting to lose my nerve, I made a tight turn and came in right behind him. Everything seemed to be going well, but when you are flying straight toward a mountain at eighty miles an hour things happen pretty fast. As was recommended, just when I got to what I figured was close enough to the up slope and slowed down to just above a stall, I pulled back on the stick, added some flap and sort of pancaked onto the side of the hill. The impact was fairly light and the airplane was still intact. So far so good. I added enough power to keep forward motion, and was thinking, This is a piece of cake. I would just taxi a little further, climb over the edge and stop on top where the other pilot was waiting.

I now wasn’t feeling so good about all of this. “Not to worry,” he said, “we will just fly off over the edge.”

As I crowned the top of the mountain and started to taxi onto the level surface—before I could even take a breath—I was flying again. What I hadn’t realized was even though there had been no wind on the down slope, there was now about a twenty-knot headwind on the top. The airplane was light, with fuel tanks half full and otherwise empty except for my emergency gear. The engine was turning about fifteen hundred RPM and with the headwind and my flaps still down I lifted straight off the ground just like a helicopter. Not wanting the wind to push me back over the edge, I immediately dropped the engine RPM and my flaps, and settled back on the ground with more than a slight thump. Needless to say, being airborne again had taken me by surprise. My knees were shaking, but it wasn’t cold in the plane.

Well, I was still alive and the plane was still all together. I then remembered what one of my instructors told me after about an hour or two into my student pilot training. NEVER QUIT FLYING THE AIRPLANE UNTIL IT IS IN ITS PARKING PLACE AND TIED DOWN. He certainly had that right. I had become lax, thinking I had “kicked a fat hog in the rear.”

Anyway, upon regaining my composure, I was feeling pretty good about all of this “white scarf” flying. Then the other pilot walked over to me and announced, “We don’t have enough room here on top to do a normal take off.”

I added full power, the skis broke loose from the windswept snow and the plane began to speed up. Just as I had observed of the other plane, I didn’t seem to be going fast enough.

I asked, “What do you mean we can’t do a normal take off?”

“Come here and look over the edge on the other side.”

It was just about straight down several hundred feet. He was right, even with the existing headwind we would not be off the ground before reaching the edge.

I now wasn’t feeling so good about all of this. “Not to worry,” he said, “we will just fly off over the edge.” He said he would go first. That seemed like a good idea to me, until I thought, What if he doesn’t make it? He cranked up, turned directly into the wind, added power, and—still seeming to not be moving very fast, he disappeared over the edge. Shortly he radioed back and said, “That was great, you’re next.”

Funny, the idea of walking forty miles back to town didn’t seem like a bad idea, even in winter, and I was ready to give back my white silk scarf I thought I had so well earned only fifteen minutes earlier. Well, I figured I had gone this far, so here goes. I added full power, the skis broke loose from the windswept snow and the plane began to speed up. Just as I had observed of the other plane, I didn’t seem to be going fast enough. Then I remembered the value of the headwind.

Suddenly the edge and I came to an abrupt meeting. The plane just kind of spilled over the edge and began to sink. I pushed the nose down rather quickly to gain air speed. The airspeed indicator began to climb rapidly, and voila, within a few seconds I pulled the nose up level and there it was once again right out in front of me … “The Great One” in all its glory. It was good to once again be looking straight at that beautiful mountain, the clear blue skies, and the wonder of the snow-covered land of Alaska. It all was just about more than I could handle. Having the honor to live in this remarkable land brought tears to my eyes.

Not many people, even those of us who are blessed with the opportunity to fly, ever get to do so in such a vast beautiful place, let alone have the experience of flying over the edge.

I have since seen on television far more experienced bush pilots do the same thing on glaciers and in other situations far more tenuous than this one. Nevertheless, for a very low-time pilot, the experience was plenty for that day.

Who knows, some of the same feelings and apprehensions I had, to a small degree, may be felt by our U.S. Navy and Marine pilots who fly off of aircraft carriers. Whether those feelings are comparable or not, I decided to keep my silk scarf.

Note: I had taken about five hours of aerobatic training while a student pilot. It helped a lot. I would strongly recommend all private pilots have a few hours of aerobatic training. You will never know until something unusual happens, but those few hours of aerobatics may save your life. When I was getting my license the FAA didn’t even require spin training.

by Jack Gwaltney

Jack Gwaltney is the author of Alaska Air Tales, 45 stories, as told by real pilots. 

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