Navigating Rocky Mountain highs...and lows
The beautiful and hazardous Montana mountains.
THERE ARE TWO PARTICULARLY MAGICAL times in a pilot’s flying day: the
first few minutes after the sun rises in the morning, and the last golden
hour before the sun sets at night. In those transitional moments of
daylight, the air tends to be smooth, the wind tends to still, and the
land and sky turn cool, with shadows adding texture to the features lit
up by the sun.
That cool, smooth air and newly revealed landscape are the reward
one gets for climbing out of bed at 5 a.m. to go flying on a summer
morning. That and, for pilots flying through the mountains, the even
more compelling reward of missing the winds and thunderstorms that
build as a hot, thermal-filled day moves into the afternoon hours.
Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Sometimes, of course, even sunrise isn’t early enough to avoid the
winds. On my flight from San Francisco to Boston with my boyfriend’s
17-year-old son Connor last summer, we’d fought our way to Twin
Falls, Idaho, through the kind of turbulence and winds that just wears
away all the fun. I’d made the comment, after about a half-hour of
constant pounding, that this kind of turbulence felt a bit like being
dribbled like a basketball across the sky. Connor nodded. After two
more hours of nonstop bumps, he looked at me wearily and said, “I
hate being a basketball!”
It’s true. Rutted-road turbulence isn’t going to bring the airplane
out of the sky; it just wears you down. Especially if you’re new at
One of the goals of my trip with Connor was to get him as much
stick time (or yoke time) as possible. Connor thought he wanted to be
a pilot. This trip was going to give him a better feel for what flying was
all about and, hopefully, a fair amount of flying experience—at least en
route. Not being an instructor, I wasn’t going to attempt to teach him
how to land.
So as soon as we leveled out after our morning departure from
Redmond, Oregon, I gave Connor the controls. Straight and level isn’t
a hard command to execute in smooth air. But without an autopilot,
in jolting, bumpy skies, it’s an act of will you
impose upon the airplane and the air around
it, not something you simply encourage the
airplane to maintain. Within seconds of
taking the yoke, the airplane’s right wing
jolted upward, and we veered off and down to