Who Needs Mountain Flying Training?

By Jan Rustad and Tim Simmons | June 1, 2005

Understanding how the speed and direction of the wind can change with the shape of the land is a critical first step to flying safely in the mountains.

Turbulence, backlash, mountain illusions, high-density altitude, down-flow--all terms that lead to anxiety and fear. Fear leads to tension, which diminishes both rational decision-making and smooth, accurate pilot control. Not the ideal image of a mountain flying pilot who needs to be cool, calm and collected--minimizing the risks and maximizing the aircraft's capability.

Mountain flying can be just plain dangerous. But do we just accept the additional risks and fumble our way fearfully to the scenic but scary peaks? Certainly not. Pilots tend to be a calculating bunch, and that's exactly how we should approach the business of mountain flying--in a very calculated and precise fashion.


Through appropriate ground schooling and flight training with an experienced mountain-flying instructor, it is possible for a student pilot to develop a healthy knowledge and respect for the mountain winds. Understanding how the speed and direction of the wind can change with the shape of the land is a critical first step to flying safely in the mountains.

We need knowledge. With knowledge we can build experience safely.

Jacques Giard is a Senior Instructor at the Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training. He has been teaching the Mountain Flying Course for 10 years. On the first day of Ground school Giard often likens upflow and downflow to an escalator. "If this escalator is going down, it is like downflow. If you decide to climb up or even remain stationary on the descending escalator it will take more energy."

Pilots can learn that with a precise and disciplined style of flying, and using specific flying techniques, it is possible to safely evaluate the mountain winds. Easily recognizing up-flowing air from down-flowing air is one of the basic necessities. In the early stages of the Canadian Helicopters' Mountain Course, students are introduced to the "Contour Crawl".

The Contour Crawl is carried out in close proximity to the hill at 50 kt. and at a fixed altitude. If the aircraft can be accurately controlled to maintain these parameters, it will show some very obvious flight characteristics, so that the pilot can determine up-flowing air from down-flowing air.

Before launching into the contour crawl itself, we need to know the power setting required to maintain straight and level flight at 50 kt., in air that is neither descending or climbing (i.e. in the middle of a wide valley, not close to any hills). This power setting we call "Baseline Torque". It is our benchmark for determining whether we are in upflow or downflow.

In upflow, the power required to maintain altitude is noticeably less than baseline torque. The air is relatively smooth, unless affected by mechanical turbulence. The aircraft, although perfectly in trim, will crab away from the hill.

In downflow, the power required to maintain altitude is more than baseline torque. There is more turbulence. The airspeed is harder to maintain and the aircraft will crab into the hill.

Aided by an elaborate 18 chapter Mountain Manual, computer PowerPoint presentations and the use of classroom mountain models, the instructors can explain the complexities of mountain flying. But, for the student, the real learning begins in the helicopter.

Understanding the issues and procedures is not the same as being able to put them into practice. One of the key reasons for the difficulty the student will experience at the start of the course is the mountain illusions.

Illusions in the mountains can humble the most experienced pilots. Pieter Koster remembers his Mountain Flying course many years ago. "At the time, I had about 7,000 hr. and was already a check and training pilot." Bill Foote, one of the Senior Penticton Instructors who has since retired, took him to a place affectionately known as "Happy Valley". As they got close to the valley, Bill asked Pieter to maintain 50 kt. and 4,500 ft.

"I was already told in ground school how and why illusions happen, " said Koster, "and armed with this knowledge I was sure I could handle this simple looking valley--after all, I was no novice pilot." As they entered Happy Valley, despite Pieter's efforts, the aircraft lost 20 kt. of airspeed and gained 200 ft. "It was humbling," said Pieter.

There is no cure for illusion. It is not something you become immune to, although you can learn to overcome its effects. Without careful control of airspeed, altitude and trim, you will not be able to gauge the strength or direction of the airflow over the terrain. A pilot needs to overcome the effects of the illusions in order to fly accurately in the mountains.

The Canadian Helicopters School in Penticton, BC, Canada, and its predecessor, Okanagan Helicopters, is considered a pioneer in Mountain Flying Training. The first known formal class was in 1952 when the Canadian Forces sent a few of their military pilots for mountain flying training. Since then thousands of military, police and civilian pilots from around the world have taken the course. Although the basic teachings of airflow and flying techniques have remained the same over the years, the syllabus has been continually refined to stay relevant to today's aircraft and today's missions.

Led by Jan Rustad, the school's Chief Flying Instructor, the six full-time certified instructors average well over 10,000 flight hours each. As a group, their experience in mountain flying is formidable. Jan has 36 years of flying helicopters in the Mountains and over 17,000 hours. Both he and his instructors not only teach flying, but they also remain current as operational pilots in the challenging Canadian charter business. Every summer they are "set free" from the school. Their missions can spread them across Canada. The flying ranges from fire fighting in the mountains of southern British Columbia to exploration work in the fiords of the High Arctic. "It's a chance to put what we teach into practice," said Tim Simmons, an instructor. "Also to continue learning. Learning from other pilots who are operational all year, and learning from our own experiences to fine-tune what we already know."

Pieter Koster has been flying helicopters for over 25 years and instructing for 14. "I flew for quite a few years without a Mountain Course, and although I understood the basics of mountain winds, I couldn't predict with any confidence what was going to happen as I approached the hillside. To be honest, it frightened me. All I could do to stay safe was to substantially reduce my payload." Pieter laughed as he recalls his early days of flying, "and it was still very uncomfortable!"

So who should take a Mountain Course? This question was asked of Kevin Mitchener, also a seasoned Mountain Flying Instructor, originally from Inuvik, Northwest Territories. His answer may surprise some: "Every helicopter pilot can benefit from a Mountain Course." He makes his case with many examples of pilots he has trained who are unlikely to ever see a mountain in their regular flying duties. "The training makes you a better pilot. More disciplined, more accurate, more aware of the wind, better equipped to maximize the aircraft's capabilities, safely."

Kathy Stewart is a pilot for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). She originally took the Mountain Course in Penticton in 1988, but this year she is back for a 5-hr. Mountain Refresher Course. "This refresher course is keeping the mountain flying issues and procedures clear in my head." Kathy is based in Alberta--a province that has both the flattest of prairies on the east side and mountains up to 12,000 ft. on the west side. "I don't get to the mountains every day so when I am dispatched to the high country, it's vital that I know what I'm doing. This refresher course is just an excellent way to fine tune my skills."

Once completed, the course finds the students comfortable with new terminology: demarcation line, boundary layer, crest of the hill, loaded disk, fanning out the approach, to name a few.

Each mountain formation has its own unique airflow, requiring a unique reconnaissance, approach and departure. The different formations include: ridges, crowns, cirques, shoulders, saddles, pinnacles, dead-end valleys, alpine meadows and canyons. Although each potential landing site in the mountains is different, there is a basic framework of procedures that will allow the pilot to remain safe and organized. This procedure is called the Basic Mountain Recce.

The Basic Mountain Recce is designed to assess the landing zone, find the wind and set up the approach. Throughout this procedure an escape route is always maintained. This escape route is commonly known as the drop-off.

Helicopters today are a far cry from those built 40 or 50 years ago, with more powerful engines and more efficient blades. The perception is often that the newer aircraft can overcome anything nature has to offer. This is a dangerous and misguided notion.

Decision-making is key in the mountain flying business. So, how does a pilot decide if it is safe to land? Does the helicopter have enough power to commit to a landing? Is there too much downflow, or too much upflow? Are there other concerns, such as backlash? For pilots to make safe decisions they need a well defined set of guidelines to live by.

In days-gone-by, pilots would make decisions based on their experience and that "seat of the pants" feel of the aircraft. A modern day mountain course teaches decision-making based on torque readings in the helicopter while flying the recce procedure and knowledge of the exact airflow around the landing site. Rustad likes to stress in his ground school presentations that "a mountain flying course is, in essence, the study and science of terrain airflow. It is of paramount importance to each and every helicopter pilot wherever he or she is operating."

He explained, "The airflow is ducted, changed and shaped by the terrain. Pilots with the knowledge provided on the CHL mountain flying course can confidently assess each location, before committing to land."

Wind finding is a major part of any mountain flying course, and Jan sums it up in simple terms: "The helicopter itself is like a weathervane on top of a barn. It always wants to point to the wind, especially in slow speed flight." He added that, "By evaluating the wind speed and direction precisely, it allows the pilot to pick the safest possible approach and departure paths to maximize the use of the wind vectors flowing over the landing zone. The end result is the pilot maximi

Auditors with the U.S. General Accountability Office, in a recent report, said rising costs have made the program "unexecutable." But the fighter's contractors vow they will deliver the aircraft on budget.

"We flat out disagree with the government and the GAO," Tom Burbage, a former navy test pilot who is program director for Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor on the F-35 program. Burbage is among those scheduled to speak at the session that begins at 8 a.m. on June 1. Others on the panel include John C. McKeown, the U.S. Navy's F-35 technical director; Rear Adm. Steven L. Enewold, the Navy's Joint Strike Fighter zing aircraft performance and safety during landings and takeoffs."

So, asking who needs a mountain flying course is like asking who needs insurance. Greg Lester, a senior pilot for the RCMP, had an interesting perspective. "Good training," he said, "is the best insurance you can buy."

Jan Rustad is chief flying instructor at the Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training in Penticton, B.C. Tim Simmons is an instructor at the school.


Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox