Mountain flying requires extraordinary skills


Flying in the Lake Tahoe Basin can be as dangerous to someone from the Bay Area as it would be for a local to fly west and all of a sudden be faced with massive amounts of air traffic.

Although we will not know for months what the exact cause of Monday’s double-fatal plane crash was, it will not change the fact that a couple returning to Concord from a trip to the basin died.

Even the most experienced pilots can have trouble flying in and out of Lake Tahoe Airport. There are different wind conditions in the mountains than at sea level. And they are constantly changing, swirling and at times coming from every direction at once. There are many books available about mountain flying that pilots can study. The airport is even considering offering a mountain flying course.

Planes at our airport would not be grounded because of wind conditions. According to airport Manager Mike Dikun, the pilot needs to know the limitation of the aircraft and themselves. Planes are certified to perform in certain types of wind conditions. The responsibility issue would be the same as a driver needing to know the road conditions and making the decision to forge ahead or not.

A clear day does not automatically equate to a perfect day to fly. People who took off before the doomed plane did report being bounced around. There is the issue of density altitude that pilots must contend with. Wind currents work similar to river currents — strong and unpredictable. The airport is at about 6,300 feet, but a plane may respond as though it is about 2,000 feet higher. The plane is reacting like our bodies react when we run at sea level and then try to do the same thing here in the mountains — the air intake is less.

Most private pilots do not file flight plans, which can confound the problem when there is an accident. A visual flight plan can be filed. This would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to alert facilities of an overdue craft if the plane does not arrive at its destination on time. If you are flying under instruments, for hire or commercially, then a flight plan is required. In this week’s crash no flight plan was filed.

The only time a local airport is involved in a crash is if the accident would occur on its property. In Monday’s case, the plane was down nine miles south of the airport. Lake Tahoe Airport has jurisdiction of planes within 5 nautical miles. Once a plane has clearance for takeoff, they do not have to have further contact with the tower. Such was the case Monday. The tower received no distress call.

It is a tragedy that two people had to die in our back yard. If there is a lesson to be learned, hopefully those unfamiliar with flying in and around a mountainous area like Lake Tahoe will take the time to become proficient in this type of flying before risking their lives and the lives of others.

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