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Feature Article 1

FEATURE ARTICLE

Matt Debski, Aircraft Owner WVFC tdebber@alum.mit.edu

Mammoth Ski Trip

I enjoy going on adventures while flying.  My coworker's suggestion that we fly to Mammoth Mountain for a weekend of skiing was an adventure opportunity.  It was something that could only reasonably done with general aviation: a less than two hour flight to Mammoth instead of an at least six and a half hour drive.

When my buddy first proposed the flight, we planned to go in the middle of February.  As you probably recall, it was raining and snowing what seemed like most of the winter.  By the time we had to purchase lodging, I figured we were more likely to have a flyable weekend at the end of March than in mid-February.  We pushed the trip to the end of March.  As it happened, when the February weekend rolled around, it was perfect flying weather and would have been pretty good for skiing.  Oh well, when planning trips you've got to make the best decision you can with the information available at the time.

So, the March weekend got close and I began looking at the weather a week out.  Again the deadline to cancel lodging was approaching.  With seven days before the trip, it looked as if a storm would move in for a good chunk of the ski weekend.  Because plans had already been made to take off work, we contemplated just changing the trip to head to Tahoe instead.  Not the same as Mammoth, since our backup plan would be to drive.  But, at least driving would be an option if the weather was not good enough for flying over the mountains.  As the week wore on, the forecast turned unambiguously positive for the flight over to Mammoth and we pressed forward.  Three different storm systems would go through over the next several days, but the ski weekend was forecast to be bookended with clear weather between storms.

When Thursday dawned, the weatherman had been correct.  The flight over Yosemite and the High Sierra was gorgeous.  The snowcapped peaks were unobscured by clouds.  We enjoyed flying over the closed Tioga Pass road that might not open until sometime in June. 

Upon arrival at the Mammoth Lake airport, the lineman was wearing just a light fleece.  There was little snow anywhere near the airport.  But, as snow was expected to fall over the next few days, I made sure to have a phone number to ask the crew to move the plane to a hangar if heavy snow seemed possible.

As I woke up the next day, snow was already beginning to fall in Mammoth Lakes.  I did not want the plane to be covered by snow, then have it melt a little, then freeze overnight onto the wings and other surfaces.  I called the airport and asked them to move the plane into a hangar.  This would cost on the order of $35 a night which is why I did not arrange for it the first night.  With snow starting to fall and several inches predicted, though, it now seemed the prudent course.

The first day of skiing was good.  This was my first time at Mammoth.  Due to high winds and blustery and blowing snow, the upper mountain was closed.  But, it's an enormous resort with plenty of terrain to check out.

After the lifts closed, it was time to start looking to see if we'd need to leave at the end of skiing the next day, Saturday, or stay the night and leave the following morning, Sunday.  My preference was to stay the night to enjoy the full day of skiing and another evening in Mammoth Lakes, but if the weather was not going to cooperate for a departure Sunday morning, I didn't want to be stuck in Mammoth an extra day or longer.  The weather briefing at that point, about twenty-four hours in advance, was inconclusive.  It looked as if cloudy weather with a freezing level of around 5000 feet would be possible for Sunday morning.  That would argue for a Saturday afternoon departure.  The weather briefing on Saturday morning also didn't make the decision clear.  We resolved to check at lunch on Saturday and make a decision.

By lunchtime, the forecast had become clear.  A flight on Saturday afternoon would have been inadvisable, given the windy conditions over the ridges and low clouds.  Additionally, the clouds and wet weather originally predicted for Sunday morning had been pushed back to around 3pm on Sunday.  We were able to enjoy a full day of skiing with the mountain open top to bottom. 

On Sunday morning, I called the airport and asked them to pull the plane out of the hangar.  Additionally, because the weather had been well below freezing overnight, the hangar unheated, and the outside temperature just now beginning to rise above freezing, I asked the lineman for preheat.  Starting a cold-soaked engine can do as much wear as 500 hours of flying at cruise.  Given the cost of the preheat at $65, this was the right thing to do.  After the preheat and a thorough preflight, we were off.  The flight home was marked by thin overcast clouds around 14,000 feet, winds aloft around 15 knots, and beautiful scenery above the wilderness west of Mammoth.  Tioga Pass and the mountains over Yosemite were obscured by clouds, making this other trans-Sierra route the preferred option.

This first foray into flying into Mammoth for a weekend of skiing was a success and a lot of fun.  Nevertheless, because it involved mountain flying in winter, I had to assess and reassess the weather and the forecasts as they changed both prior to and during the trip.  The two nights in the hangar and the preheat added a little bit of extra expense, but not having done those could have greatly reduced the life of the engine or been a hassle to clear off the airframe.  I look forward to the chance to spend another ski weekend in Mammoth, made possible by General Aviation.

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