Mountain Flying in the Appalachians

Posted on July 11, 2012

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Heading up to the mountains

At the tail end of Technical Orientation we took four aircraft into the heart of the Appalachians to prepare the pilots for the difficult runways they will encounter overseas. No tent, no sleeping bag, no furious organizing of food and backpacking gear. This trip to the mountains was to be much different than what I was used to.

We loaded up the first day, sent a caravan of cars ahead of us and waited for the weather to clear. We waited all day, called it quits and tried again the next day. Only to wait all day and call it quits again. The next day dawned bright and clear blue skies as far as the eye could see. The airplane I was riding in was scheduled to leave last that day spacing us so that we did not interfere with the other aircraft as they maneuvered up through the mountains.

The first aircraft started up, then promptly shut down…not a good sign. In a 24 volt electrical system, 33 volts coursing through the too-small wires is not a good thing. Thanks to quick reflexes, no major damage was done and we quickly isolated the problem, fixed it and were only about an hour behind schedule.

We worked our way through the mountains heading toward the small airport we would be based. As we went I got to see first hand the culminating ‘classes’ of the flight orientation. I watched the pilot put together pieces that he had learned the last three months and add in some mountain specific flying, canyon turns, and ridge crossings. I began to put together a picture of what my pilots are facing.

A new sense of responsibility

I call them ‘my pilots’ because I feel a sense of responsibility toward them. As they make their way through canyons the last thing they want to be thinking about is if the aircraft has been maintained well. They have a lot on their mind: winds, altitude, visibility, where the bad weather might come from, where are they, and where are they going.

Throughout the week, I was on the ground at the runways we had set up for Mountain Week, watching angles, reporting touchdown and take off positions, reporting winds and surface conditions. Over the week I grew in  respect for what my pilots will be dealing with. It was a heavy feeling. I groaned when we showed up in the morning to find mist covering the runway, or the winds coming strongly from the wrong direction. I felt the tension as they came in at the wrong approach angle, willing them to correct to make the landing easier.

I learned a fair bit throughout orientation, but I think the lessons of Mountain Week — lessons not taught in the class, but learned through the agony of decision making and being with my brothers as they wrestled with them —these will stick with me and give me a greater appreciation for the work that they do, and how I can serve them to assure them they will have a solid aircraft to fly.

Taking off from Brown air field (literally cut out of a farmer’s field a few weeks before)

Strawberry Ridge landing
Avery County airport, our home base for Mt Week
Helicopter ride during spaghetti feed put on by several local churches. The young man on the left is interested in becoming a missionary pilot!
Landing at Valhalla, 6% slope but it looks like you are flying into a wall because of the angle.
Landing with nice lens flare, ask me how many shots it took to get that…a lot.
Me getting ready to drop pretend packages out the back of an airplane. It is much more windy up there with no doors!
Air drops with parachute.
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