Mountain flying instructor Joe Kuberka drew one of the largest groups of the week for his Alaska presentation at this year’s SUN ’n FUN fly-in. The turnout for his session about flying from the Lower 48 to Alaska topped 75 aviators.
With good humor and a lively photo presentation, Kuberka did not disappoint, honing in on safety and offering common sense suggestions for backcountry and Alaska-bound aviators.
“The number one thing I go over is density altitude and aircraft performance,” said Kuberka, a former U.S. Air Force pilot with a wealth of mountain flying experience.
“I fly some out of Colorado Springs,” he continued. “Field elevation there is 6,880 feet. When it gets to 86°, it is 10,000 feet density altitude. The horsepower you lose in a Cessna 172 at that density altitude is 30%, the same as putting an 0-200 engine on your 172 at sea level. Most pilots would not put four people in a C-172 at sea level with an 0-200 engine in it, but some try to fly a C-172 fully loaded at altitude in Colorado.”
Kuberka flew B-52s and KC-135 tankers in the Air Force during a 20-year career, but it was his work at the U.S. Air Force Academy that honed his mountain flying and backcountry teaching expertise. Kuberka taught the mountain flying course to Air Force Academy instructor pilots.
He retired from active duty in 2003 and now operates Blue Goose Aviation at Polson, Mont. The firm offers mountain flying instruction plus guided outdoor adventure self-flying air tours. One of the tours is a 21-day trip from Cut Bank, Mont. to Alaska. He also leads air tours to the Bahamas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah and conducts a three-day mountain flying seminar in Colorado.
Kuberka notes that aviators need to be aware of turn radius and practice their turning skills.
“If you turn into a blind box canyon, how are you going to turn around?” he asked the pilots at SUN ‘n FUN. “You practice what we call a mountain turn. It’s half a lazy eight combined with flaps, slowing the airplane down and turning it around. A lot of people tell me afterwards that it’s a lot like a chandelle, which they learned in commercial maneuvers. Of course, as well-known flying instructor Sparky Imeson said in his book, Mountain Flying Bible, you always want to have lower terrain ahead of you and always be in a position to turn around.”
Weather is critically important in backcountry and mountain flying, Kuberka said.
“There is no marginal VFR in the mountains,” he continued. “You are either IFR or VFR. While flying to Alaska there are many areas where weather is not available. They do have web cameras at certain passes or you may just have to call someone in the local area and ask how the weather is in that area.”
“In the backcountry you have to watch your weather extremely closely,” he added. “In Alaska there are destinations where there is no weather report between where you are and where you’re going. Don’t push the weather too much. Get used to the webcams in Canada and Alaska before the trip. Start looking at them well before your trip. Ask yourself, if I saw what I’m looking at now, would I go or would I not go?”
WEIGHT AND BALANCE
“Weight and balance is another hot topic,” Kuberka said. “I remind pilots who come up to the mountains and fly with me that at home they were mostly flying by themselves with nobody else in the aircraft. Then, they want to go into the backcountry and the plane is loaded to the max. You should load the aircraft up at home so you can get used to it at sea level before bringing it out to the mountains. It’s going to take a lot more rudder, especially if you have a tailwheel aircraft.”
For flying in the backcountry, Kuberka says stable approaches are extremely important.
“A lot of your patterns are not normal patterns,” he said. “Try for a nice stable approach and be prepared for whatever happens, such as an animal running out in front of you on the runway.”
Carrying the proper survival equipment on every flight is another critical element of backcountry and mountain flying, Kuberka reminded.
“Some of the stuff I carry is a little different and better than the required,” he said. “I carry a hunter’s chain saw. It looks like the chain on a chain saw and it has rope handles on the end. It will fit in a shoe polish can. It is very light. Some people carrying those little small braided chains think that will work, but you cut through one 2-inch log and it’s broken.”
“I also take some sort of stove,” he continued. “For myself, I use a little pellet stove. If I have three people I carry a small backpacker’s stove that runs off of white gas. I carry a filter straw to try and eliminate the giardia virus as much as possible. I carry a good knife with me and I carry a small hatchet. For fire starting, I carry both matches and a flint and steel. I have a small first aid kit and I always carry a sleeping bag in my airplane.”
He also carries military style ready to eat meals, as well as two steel cans of water for each person on the airplane.
“I also carry a very lightweight tarp and those reflector blankets,” he reported. “I carry my gear in small backpacks. If there are two of us, I throw two backpacks in. In the winter time, I’ll add snowshoes with much bigger boots and heavier clothing that can be layered.”
Another essential is bear spray in a sealed container. “In Alaska I carry a small shotgun for survival hunting,” he added. “Also in Alaska I carry one of those flare guns with six flares.”
In recent years, he added a personal locator beacon in his survival gear “as extra insurance.”
Want to know more? Kuberka said he enjoys talking with pilots interested in learning more about mountain flying. He can be reached at Blue Goose Aviation via telephone at 719-393-5550 or online at BlueGooseAviation.com.