A Theory of Mountain Flying

The safety virtues of multi-modal transportation.

Here is my theory of mountain flying: I don't like it.

This incredible video, from Peru, will give you an idea of the kind of thing I have nightmares about. For me, the most "have to look away" moments are the ten seconds starting around time 1:30, although 0:30 and 0:45 are pretty frightening too.

I don't like mountain flying because it's objectively dangerous and it's subjectively frightening. The winds are often turbulent, so you're bouncing around with all that granite nearby. In the summer you often have thunderstorms, and in the winter you often have ice or snow. You worry about the narrowing gap between how high you have to go to clear the terrain, and how low you have to stay to avoid the clouds. I have taken mountain-flight training, and I've flown across the Rockies several times, in summer and winter, and the Sierra a few times. But ... why?

Thus, as a guide for our current journey, we're using multi-modal travel: fly, then drive. If we have to get to Sun Valley, Idaho? Instead fly to Twin Falls, Idaho -- a great big runway in a big, flat valley -- and drive from there. Atlantic events in Aspen? Fly to Boulder and drive. Right now we are at a meeting in Jackson, Wyoming. There is an airport here, but it involves mountains, and while they're not that ominous the weather is not so great. I'd spend all night worrying before the flight in and the flight out. Instead, fly to Pinedale -- a great big runway in a big, flat (although high, 7000-ft) valley -- and drive from there, as we have done. Hence our route from Rapid City, SD to Pinedale, WY strategically avoiding the high ground of the Black Hills and the Wind River range along the way. The blue is the flying part, the dotted-red is the rental-car driving.

No larger point, except (a) to give a link to the amazing video above and (b) as ongoing real-time chronicle of Aeronautical Decision Making. 

Also: Yesterday, when leaving Rapid City, we had a chance to fly by Mount Rushmore and do a North by Northwest reprise.  Instead I veered off when we were about 10 miles away, too far for any interesting pictures. Rain was building in the area, and the winds were gusty, and several tourist helicopters were reporting turbulence, and I thought, another time. So we will not have our update to the scene below:

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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