By Peter Conant - Those of us who fly routinely in the east cannot really say we are familiar with flying near mountains. I remember my AirLifeLine flights from Massachusetts to Ohio, how crossing the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania was always a surefire way to fly in moderate turbulence unless I climbed into the oxygen-requiring altitudes. And then how the turbulence suddenly subsided as I looked down on the flatlands of Ohio. John McPhee, in one of his geology books, refers to Ohio as "the stable interior craton", meaning the shield rock which has not moved in hundreds of millions of years. This type of rock, which has never moved, is called autocthonous. But no one can say with certainty why there are long, ropy mountains to the east in Pennsylvania, since they are not near a tectonic plate boundary, but have clearly moved and been moved. There are lots of theories. Mount Katahdin in Maine, the northern terminus of the Applachian Trail, produces some sizeable standing waves from the prevailing winds as they travel from west to east. I've been caught in some of its downdrafts, which have always been a gentle but insistent reminder that the fluid we fly through is greatly affected by the topography hundreds of miles away.
And, to the best of my knowledge, no one is entirely sure why the Rocky Mountains are where they are, "pooched out" of the Great Plains, as one of McPhee's geologist friends puts it. The geologic hot springs in Jackson Hole Wyoming and in Yellowstone National Park may be an indicator of what has gone on under the surface. Flying west, the Great Plains gradually rise to meet the mountain escarpment in a few parts of Wyoming but generally terminate in the Front Range, a line of hogbacks nudged up by whatever lifted the actual Rockies. A thick trap door on a hinge is a pretty good description of how these formations rose and tilted and then cracked off the country rock. McPhee's description of the rising plains is evocative: "The Rocky Mountains are buried up to their hips in their own debris."
My first long trip to Arizona, attending my father-in-law's eightieth birthday in Tucson a dozen years ago, included stopping in Ohio to visit my oldest daughter at Oberlin College, and then on to Greeley Colorado to spend a few days with my sister. From there, flying south along the Front Range to Albuquerque was an absolute delight. The landforms and geology were like nothing else in the world, or at least my world. It looked like spectacular hiking country and I know I will be back some day to explore those washes, canyons and mesas on foot.
But south of Albuquerque things started to deteriorate. The FSS briefer at the airport said "If you're going to Tucson, you'd better get moving." This was in February, by the way, and it was reasonably chilly, with strong winds coming down over the peaks along with a storm moving into Tucson. The airway I chose was south along the Front Range to Lordsburg, New Mexico and then east over mountains into Tucson. A direct route, near Pikes Peak, would have put me on airways where the MEA, minimum enroute altitude, is over 12,500 feet. With a storm moving into Tucson, I wanted to be able to see what I was flying over in case I needed to activate Plan B, or stop short and wait it out. Near Truth or Consequences I flew in and out of snow showers and considered landing, but then the weather cleared and I was VFR into Lordsburg, turning west toward Dragoon Pass and into Tucson.
The closer I got to the pass, the worse things looked. A storm was actually boiling through the mountains ahead of me, the dark grey cumulus rolling and restricting visibility. And then the turbulence started. I was rock and rolling along a major highway and considered turning around to high-tail it back to Lordsburg. But as I checked the VFR sectional I ALWAYS carry with me, I noticed a small unpaved strip near the town of Bowie, Arizona. I cancelled IFR and called their Unicom frequency. Coming in much too fast in my haste to get on the ground resulted in a touch-and-go on the red clay and gravel, followed by a more controlled go around for an uneventful landing. A rancher was sitting near the strip in his pickup and as I taxied off the gravel and got out of the Bonanza, a King Air landed and taxied to the end of the runway. "Are you fellows together?" asked the rancher.
Both of us pilots had made the sensible decision to put down while the weather was still flyable. The King Air pilot was on a ferry flight with only VFR instrumentation. The rancher, one of the most hospitable gentlemen that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, invited us to stay with him and his wife for the night. I asked about motels, but he would hear none of it. Chuck Stutesman was not only a rancher but also ran a crop dusting service and we all talked airplanes and aerial exploits well into the evening. After he and his wife fed us supper, Chuck serenaded us with his guitar under the Arizona sky, put us up in his study, and then fed us breakfast the next morning. Amazing the sort of generous warm-hearted people one can find in the most out of the way places. Chuck said to both of us, "Who knows, maybe you fellows are really angels!"
Chuck was of the opinion that it would be good VFR into Tucson, which was reporting 2,700 broken with light winds. He felt sure I could navigate Dragoon Pass by following the highway. And here was where my common sense deserted me. I knew I was in the presence of a flyer with a lifetime of experience and who knew the territory and the local formations intimately. I knew I could file IFR for the trip but was confident that I was getting the best briefing to be had from this experienced aviator. I should have known better.
The first cloud report in a METAR is always given AGL, above ground level. Dragoon Pass is at elevation 5,300 MSL. Tucson airport is at 2,643 MSL. Add 2,643 and 2,700 and you get 5,343. Did I do the math? Did I even think to check the elevation markings on the sectional? Did I file IFR just to be safe? My wife is always asking me why, on even short flights, I don't just file IFR all the time to avoid the need to air-file or land and file if things go sour. How does one learn to exercise good judgment? From experience. How do you get experience? From exercising bad judgement. I think I should write up this article for "Never Again" or "I Learned About Flying From That".
So I will end on this note: Obtaining local weather and flying tips from autocthonous pilots is one of the best ways to avoid unwanted excitement in your life. But, like relying on controllers for navigation, it is always best to confirm and verify your information on your own.
The continuing saga of my flight into Tucson and the subsequent flight from Tucson to the Texas panhandle a few days later will be continued next week. You won't want to miss it. And if, like me, you think you know mountain flying because you've flown over the Alleghenies, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Green Mountains of Vermont, Or the Great Smokies in North Carolina, believe me: you don't know a blooming thing.
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