Dancing with Granite
by Robert Montgomery
My wife and I have a mountain cabin in Pagosa Springs, and we bought our new Piper Archer III 180 HP airplane as a means to get from Dallas to Pagosa quickly and conveniently on our own schedule. But in the 15 months I’ve owned the airplane, I had never flown into Pagosa’s valley airport. Fear of mountain waves, lenticular clouds, and narrow passes kept me in the Texas flatlands. Thus when I read the email announcing a Mountain Flying training expedition into the Colorado Rockies, I knew it was time to spread my wings.
Joe Kuberka runs Blue Goose Aviation out of Colorado Springs. He’s a retired Air Force pilot with 8000 hours in everything from Aircoupe’s and 172’s to KC135 tankers and B52’s. Since retiring from the Air Force, Joe has taught mountain flying by organizing weeklong excursions through the peaks and passes of the Colorado high country. The promotional information described the seven day tour plan as a morning flight from one city to the next, followed by lunch, then an afternoon outing to explore the area, dinner, then an early wake-up to fly to the next destination.
With only 200+ hours logged, I convinced Joe to join me as co-pilot in my Archer airplane. I met up with him and the rest of the assembled group on a bright, CAVU Sunday morning at Colorado Springs Airport KCOS.
There were 5 people and 3 planes. Greg and Lora flew their 230hp Cessna Skylane. The Beech Bonanza was flown solo by Sol, a CFII from New York, and Joe joined me in my 180hp Archer Airplane.
The group had met the day before for a full mountain flying ground school. Weather kept me from making this session, and Joe took special attention to give me the full course over the next few evenings.
We took off from KCOS and headed southwest to Durango. The 2 ½ hour flight took us from KCOS’s 6187 ft elevation up to 12,500 over the Mosca Pass of the Sangre De Cristo range just northeast of Alamosa. From there we crossed through the La Manga pass and made our way into Durango. All along the way Joe offered up advice on approaching the mountain ranges, flying through the passes, and observing the winds and weather.
I had started the trip with a baggage compartment filled with 120 lbs of mountain survival gear. Water, flares, rope, extra clothes, compass, food, and more stuff that I’m too embarrassed to list. Over prepared? Understatement. As a result, it took over 45 minutes to get to 12,500. In Pagosa Springs, while the group took off to enjoy the afternoon, I unloaded my survival gear and trimmed it down to about 20 pounds of essentials.
The next day we all took the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge train ride and enjoyed the afternoon in Silverton, followed by a great dinner back in Durango.
On Tuesday morning our flying party took off for Cortez. This was a short hop, and it allowed time for Joe to instruct me in good high altitude landing techniques at Cortez’s 7200 ft long runway.
With the planes tied down and lunch under our belt, we drove to Mesa Verde National Park and spent the afternoon exploring the ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.
Wednesday morning’s flight took us to Moab, Utah and Canyonlands airport. This was a 90 minute flight over the stunning canyons of southwestern Utah. There’s certainly no better way to see the expansive beauty of these canyons, buttes, and natural sculptures than by air. After a leisurely lunch, Joe snickered a bit as he dropped us off at Moab Mountain Adventures. The four of us climbed into a specially outfitted Hummer and spent the next 2 hours feeling the power of a Humvee challenge the rugged terrain of Moab’s Slickrock Range. Joe rejoined us later that evening, as we took a restful evening boat ride along the calm waters of the Colorado River.
Thursday promised to be the most challenging flight as we planned to head back east to visit Leadville, Colorado. As always, Joe was ahead of us with a full briefing on our route, weather, and scenery to expect. We left Moab’s airspace shortly before 100’s of skydivers took to the air.
This two hour and fifteen minute flight took us up to 12,500 again, but this time I had shed a lot of extra weight, so my trusty Archer III airplane handled it all in stride. We followed West Creek through the western range, then south of Gunnison and through Marshall Pass. Joe had specifically planned this route to avoid Monarch Pass – a treacherous corridor prone to accidents. From there we over flew Buena Vista and headed north into Leadville. At 9927 feet, Leadville is the highest public airport in the country. I was proud of this, for myself, and for my Piper Archer airplane.
The Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville was our afternoon activity. The museum has done an outstanding job of making the history of Colorado mining come alive. We all walked away with a greater appreciation of the courage and determination of Colorado’s miners.
Friday morning was cold. This is the first time I have ever had to remove frost from the wings. Before we departed Leadville, the FBO presented each of us with a certificate to commemorate our flight into the highest airport in North America.
Although the runway is 6400 feet long, Joe briefed us again to reinforce the concepts that horsepower decreases 3% for every 1000 ft elevation. Understanding density altitude is no longer just a textbook exercise – its a critical decision for takeoff from Leadville. With all of this in mind, we decided to let the 300 hp Bonanza carry our luggage. At 10000 feet, my 180hp Archer Airplane became a 125 hp machine. We took off to the north with a 150’ per minute rate of climb, circled around to gain altitude before we headed back south over Buena Vista, then east towards Pikes Peak and home to Colorado Springs.
On Saturday, I left the mountains behind as I flew back to Texas. The trip had promised to be an adventure in mountain flying, and it was all that and more. I had made new friends, taken many great photos, and gained a solid foundation in the unique skills of dancing with granite.