‘It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.’ – Wilbur Wright
Getting up this morning I hoped that things would be better. The forecast for today was better, but you never know what’s going to happen in the mountains. I went down to get some breakfast at the guest house and was greeted by a nice blue sky. Definitely a step in the right direction. A couple eggs and a sausage patty later, it was off to the airport.
Every time I’ve been to Colorado I’ve been surprised by the height of the mountains. Then, a day or two later, I’ve been surprised again when the clouds covering the real mountains dissipate and I can see beyond the foothills that I had been thinking were the mountains. It’s funny, I think I’ve done this three times now. This trip was no exception. I drove to the airport this morning and saw how the mountains I had been admiring yesterday were now dwarfed by their much larger brothers. A bit of perspective, the foothills I was admiring are seven or eight thousand feet above sea level. That’s a good three thousand feet above the airport out of which we flew. Three thousand feet is two Sears Towers stacked on top of each other.
The real mountains peak out another six thousand feet above the foothills. That’s four more Sears Towers stacked on top of the two we already had.
And that was what we intended the fly over.
As pilot in command I did a pre-flight on the plane before we bothered to drag it out of the hanger. Everything seemed to be in place, and I verified the airplane logs yesterday, so it looks like we’re going to go fly. A quick push over the rail that the hanger doors glide on and N370SP is looking pretty in the bright sun.
We load things up. Standard items: Headset, kneeboard, sections, terminal area chart, video camera, mobile phone, wallet. Mountain items: PLB, boots, jackets, energy bars.
Working through the run-up (testing out the running airplane for any issues that you wouldn’t want to fly with) I get my first taste of doing something different. In Chicago we’re approximately a sea level. When we do run-ups one of the things we do is switch between magnetos (little generators that produce the power for the spark plugs) to make sure that both sets are working as expected. In Boulder we had to first set the lean the engine for the airport altitude. Every gasoline powered engine works by exploding a mix of gas and air in a cylinder. The explosion pushes a piston down and that reciprocating motion is turned into a rotating motion to spin the prop. To get the mix right we run the engine at full power and gradually reduce the amount of fuel being injected until the RPMs peak and start to reduce a bit. Once we see the reduction it’s just a quick turn clockwise to add a bit more fuel and we’ve got our mix. Easy peasy.
Today we had 40 gallons of fuel onboard, a bit more than I usually have in this kind of plane. But as I push full throttle and start our takeoff roll, it quickly becomes apparent that the difference in performance is a lot more than just the extra 30 pounds of fuel in the wings. The Boulder airport only has one runway, but it’s quite long. It wasn’t a problem to get in the air, but it did take about 50% more pavement than Chicago to get there.
Once in the air, we started flying our flight plan. Off to the left was Denver. It was a bit hazy though. Not really sure why, the rest of the air seemed quite clear. We headed south until we got down to Shaffers Crossing and then started to head into the meat of the mountains.
I’d be lying if I claimed I wasn’t nervous. At this point we’re only about 15 minutes into the flight, we’re already higher than I’ve ever flow and we just turned west to face mountains that tower above our flight level. I found I was giving myself a bit of a pep talk, “Just take things bite by bite, Rich. It’s not going to help you fly the plane now if your mind is too focused on 15 minutes down the line.”
We headed uphill for a while and then got in position to go through Kenosha Pass. Cruising at 12,500 feet we were above almost everything, and the valley floor was over 2,000 feet below us. Things got a bit bumpy. The winds aloft get pretty mixed up as they go over various ranges with peaks of differing heights.
Once through Kenosha Pass things smoothed out a lot and we turned south again and flew for about 15 minutes over South Park. Yes, that South Park. 15 minutes of relaxed flying was a good break and we got ready for the next mountain range.
We had discussed during the pre-flight the possibility of going further south rather than taking Weston Pass. It’s a narrow pass, with high mountains on each side. Today the winds were pretty much straight down the pass, so we gave it a shot. Because of the well aligned winds we didn’t get bounced around too much and it was slightly easier flying than Kenosha Pass. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case on most days, but today things worked out in our favor.
Through the pass we were in the valley in which Leadville resides. We came through at about 13,000 feet so needed to lose a couple thousand to get down to pattern altitude at 11,000. Pilots in the midwest reading this will love that statement, so lets repeat it. Pattern altitude is 11,000 feet. For non-pilots, the perspective here is that prior to making this trip the highest I had ever flown was 6,500. Too fun!
Spinning around and on short final I noticed a bit of a crosswind and corrected. I was a little fast on final, but the runway is quite long so a little patience was all that was necessary to return to earth.
The FBO has a cool little feature, they’ll print you out a certificate of accomplishment for having successfully landed there. Notable as the highest airport in North America I was happy to indulge my inner winner and get evidence of the fact for my home office. I also managed to help out the local economy a little bit by picking up a t-shirt and hoodie. What can I say, they know their target audience.
Leaving Leadville it was another climbing 360 to gain enough altitude to clear the rocks, a short flight to McElroy for another high altitude landing and takeoff and then we were headed back to Boulder.
Just one more final hurdle, and it was a big one.
Our last pass was Rollins Pass. This is a high one. 11,671 feet. So we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. We finally got up to about 13,500 feet, a comfortable buffer. Flying in the mountains is all about contingency plans, so we flew down to Winter Park and approached Rollins Pass at a 45 degree angle. If the winds weren’t favorable or it turned out we didn’t have enough altitude, this angle positioned us such that we would have much less of a turn to complete to turn away from the pass and be able to fly downhill to safety.
Closer and closer we came and I got the best illustration yet of something I had read about. The author had mentioned that a good thing to keep an eye out for was the terrain behind the mountain you are trying to get over. If you are seeing more and more terrain then you are on course to clear the mountain. If you are seeing less and less then you should turn around.
We kept seeing more and it was really amazing to see the foothills spread out before us as we crested the pass. These mountains, that had been so intimidating only a couple hours prior, now looked tiny and easy to manage from our 13,500 window on the world.
And that, I suppose as much as anything, was the goal of the trip.