In my first trip to fly into the back country landing strips of Idaho in my Maule M7-235C airplane, I met a 30,000 hour pilot whose career spanned everything from Constellations to Boeing 727’s to DC-3’s and bush airplanes. He was camped near my son and I at Johnson Creek Airport near Yellow Pine, Idaho. This popular back country airport is filled with tail draggers and bush planes during the summer months as pilots from all over the country fly in to camp, fish, and explore the surrounding wilderness areas.
As my son and I sat around a campfire one night we met this aging pilot – I can no longer remember his name – who was 80+ years old and had flown to Johnson Creek in a stripped down Cessna 170 taildragger with a Venturi-tube airspeed indicator, an altimeter and not much else.
Over dinner we talked about the challenges and skills needed for mountain flying – I was a greenhorn at the time – and he invited us to follow him around to various back country strips and learn a few tricks. His airplane was without any radios so our plan the next morning was to just follow him around, land where he lands, then talk about our next destination and some tips I needed to learn for back country flying.
One of those very valuable tips was how to make what he calls a “mountain turn”. This is used when you fly up a canyon, run out of space, can’t outclimb the terrain, and need to make a quick exit back the way you came.
“A lot of pilots who end up crashing fly up these box canyons, they can’t out climb the terrain, they can’t turn around, they panic and they crash” he explained. “But if you know how to make a mountain turn you can get yourself out of a pickle that you flew into.”
The Mountain Turn
So the secret is what he dubbed the “Mountain Turn”. It basically allows a pilot to turn around at slow speeds, in just about their own wingspan, with very little loss of altitude.
In my Maule – which had plenty of climbing power but still couldn’t out climb some mountain terrain, especially in hot and high conditions – he taught me to have my airspeed at 70 mph (Maule’s show MPH on airspeed indicator) and make a slight pull-up on the nose. Then make a hard knife-edged 90 degree coordinated bank, pull full flaps at basically the same time, rack the plane around in a turn, and drop the nose and raise the flaps as soon as you come out the other side. It is almost one fluid motion, not a series of several steps one after the other.
In other words the mountain turn can be described as:
slight pull up nose-90 degree turn-full flaps
wait, wait, wait as the plane comes around, then
level wings-drop nose-retract flaps
and be thankful you made it out of the pickle you got yourself into.
The move, done properly, only takes about 5-10 seconds and results in about 50′ of altitude loss. The good news is that in my Maule I could just about turn around within my wingspan, allowing me to escape most any canyon I found myself stuck in. I practiced the move several times and have taught it to many other pilots since. The mountain turn takes nerves, good rudder control (nobody wants to slip into a spin when up a dead-end canyon), and practice. While it is best to not fly up a canyon you can’t get out of, sometimes nature has a way of biting us and extra skills as a pilot can turn a dumb mistake into a scary incident and a good story rather than an accident.