Leadville or Bust (Part One)

‘Patience and diligence, like faith, remove mountains.’ – William Penn

Yesterday was a bust. Having flown to Denver after work, driven an hour to Boulder and finally gotten some sleep I was up at 6 to talk with my flight instructor about flying. We checked out the current conditions. We looked at the forecast. Both confirmed what we already knew. No flight.

The flight into the mountains was the biggest reason I went to Colorado. I can do book work and explore the world with hanger flying without having to physically transport myself to Colorado. The other reason for coming out was to spend a bit of time with my instructor reviewing flight plans for the western air tour and getting his advice on the route. He liked our conservative approach. He liked the plans I had laid out for some of the more interesting parts of the flight. I think I might even have sold him on the benefits of a PLB.

The best part was after we did the ground school. Turns out this flight school just got a state of the art simulator at the beginning of the year. Since we were stuck sobre el terreno, the sim looked like a pretty good option. It turned out better than expected.

The crew at Specialty Flight and, in particular, my instructor were still getting used to the system. This resulted in some fun and games as we figured out how to tell the sim where in the world we wanted to fly. Our attempts to place the plane relative to an airport ended up being futile, but I’m sure they’ll get that sorted out. As a work around we discovered that we could position relative to a navaid without any trouble. Out came the sectionals and off we went on a virtual tour of a couple of the western air tour flights.

First off was West Yellowstone. We flew the approach that I had sketched out (the magenta line is the route that we’re planning to fly in June). Even in a sim, with the slightly different force feedback you get, it wasn’t too hard to keep things on the rails and fly a successful approach. My instructor suggested that we do a go-around (aborting the landing) on that approach so I could get a feel for how the plane would (or, more to the point, wouldn’t) perform.

A good pilot is always learning, so, even though I can’t imagine putting myself in a position where this would happen, I asked him to take us into instrument conditions on the next approach. It was kind of fun as he figured out the sim and we went from sunny, to rainy, to cloudy, to sunny, to thunderstorm and then, as requested, to IFR. When you are flying visual rules the requirement is to be able to see the ground or the sun (it’s legal to be above the clouds, as long as you aren’t in them) and have some clearance laterally. One of the biggest causes of airplane crashes is VFR pilots stumbling into IFR conditions (a situation that perhaps contributed to JFK, Jr. spiraling in controlled flight till he hit the ground). Doing this in a sim was a great chance for some practice.

On final (straight into the runway) with hills to the left and a bit of a gap on the right, the view suddenly went opaque. Having a good mental image of the terrain, a climbing turn to the right seemed like the right call. This might not always be the right thing to do. A climbing turn in the midwest might drive your plane further into the cloud ceiling into which you just accidentally flew. You won’t hit the ground, but you also might not get back into the VMC (visual meteorological conditions) you just left behind. More often a level 180 degree turn is the right answer. But in the mountains around Yellowstone, a climbing turn seemed like a better bet. Better to remain in the clouds, than hit the terrain. A standard rate turn (360 degrees in two minutes) turned us 180 degrees in about a minute and suddenly (ok, really because my instructor cleared the skies) everything was brilliant.

Next we repositioned near the Grand Canyon. This won’t be quite as challenging an approach. The Colorado Plateau is just that, a plateau. The airport there is at 6,609 feet. So, it’s kind of high, but there isn’t really anything to run into. The most significant nearby feature is a 277 mile ditch. If you miss the airport and go down in the canyon, well, you really haven’t done your job.

So, why fly there? The bulk of the area is a no-flight zone to protect the canyon (well, really, the serenity of the visitors) from airplanes. What I wanted to do was gain some perspective on what the visual cues would be when flying over the canyon. If the sim is anything like real life, we should be all set. There is a cloven hoof of a feature directly below the flight line that was easily recognizable in the sim. From there you make a right turn and fly over the canyon to the longest point you can find, or a 10 degree bearing if you want to crutch yourself with the instruments in your cockpit.

The sim was great fun, but it wasn’t what I came here for, so I left disappointed. I like this area, but spending two days away from home to fly in a simulator wasn’t the plan.

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