Flying high is ‘eye-opening’
VAIL – Brooks Johnson is in the market for high-altitude flying lessons.Crashing his Piper aircraft on Vail Pass Aug. 19 was enough to convince him to pursue a few extra hours in the air with an instructor, despite the fact that he’s flown at high altitudes since he received his license seven years ago.”(If) you don’t learn from your mistakes,” Johnson said from Vail Valley Medical Center, “you’ll do it again.”Johnson, who is accustomed to flying between 11,000 and 15,000 feet and flies out of Green River, Wyo., remains at the hospital with a broken back, punctured lung and various other injuries. His passenger, John Clark, sustained minor injuries in crash.
Johnson said he logs more than 150 hours each year in the air and he is well aware of the difficulties of flying above the summit of Vail Pass at 10,600 feet.He said if the aircraft or the pilot isn’t equipped to handle the altitude, “you probably have a minimal chance,” of making it over safe.Still, Johnson said, he and his aircraft were qualified to make the trip over the pass.”(The flight) was nothing unusual for me,” he said.The cause of the crash has yet to be determined but Johnson, who believes he blacked out for most of the incident, guesses the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation will attribute “weather phenomenon” and “some pilot error on my part” to the crash.
Jennifer Kaiser, the investigator in charge of Johnson’s crash, said the “trend tends to be approximately 80 percent of all accidents are attributed to pilot error.” She has not determined a cause of the crash that brought the plane skipping across Interstate 70.Even for a 30-year veteran and employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, Skip Wayman’s first flight in the High Country took him by surprise.”The experience is kind of eye-opening,” said Wayman, an aviation safety inspector in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Denver office. “You notice a big difference when you go up and perform the same maneuvers that you do at lower altitudes. You don’t have nearly as much power available.”The thin air at high altitudes provides less lift for a plane’s wings and demands more runway for takeoff. Even though there are no additional licensing or training requirements for pilots to fly in higher areas such as the Rockies, additional training is strongly recommended, Wayman said.Wayman recommends pilots visiting the Rockies from sea level take some high-altitude training courses, even though his agency does not have an official recommendation.
Tom Schorr has taught high-altitude flying out of the Leadville Airport for 15 years. His class includes several hours on the ground and in the air helping pilots adapt to how their aircraft reacts differently with the altitude.”The performances of the airplane is a lot worse up here than it is at sea level because of the thinner air,” Schorr said. “And there’s also a lot more factors that go into mountain winds … and different weather variables.”Schorr, whose specialty is “teaching flatland pilots how to fly in the mountains,” said most pilots are receptive to the additional training.He’s said he’s seen more than his share of ignorant pilots, too, convinced they know what it takes to land and take off at Leadville Airport’s 9,927 feet – North America’s highest airport.”They come in lots of times thinking because they landed, they can just take off again … they don’t think about it,” Schorr said. “Most of the time you can talk them out of it, or at least give them some hints on how to take off safely.”Vail, Colorado
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