In spite of all the bad news in general aviation these days, there are times when you see glimpses of hope, positive energy, and strategies that bode well for the future. Times when you forget about the recession, view sluggish student starts as a temporary glitch, try to forget about the threat of user fees, and remember why you started flying in the first place. A recent visit to France gave me one of those uplifting moments, and made me wonder how that nation’s general aviation scene seemed to foster high levels of enthusiasm and flying activity. Sure, French general aviation pilots face challenges galore, but many forces work in their favor. (...) One is mountain flying. It’s the taildragger Mousquetaires that serve as the macho machines of the ACD. Fitted out with retractable skis, these airplanes land on snow- covered mountaintop landing strips in the colder months, and are used for flying to the nearby paved mountain strips, called “Altiports.” These include L’Alpe d’Huez and its better-known neighbor, Courchevel. To land at either of these places is the experience of a lifetime. Courchevel, for example, is paved, all right— but the runway is a mere 1,700 feet long, with an 18-degree upslope and a less-than even surface. L’Alpe d’Huez is even shorter. Don’t believe me? Google “Courchevel Airport” and behold the videos. MountaIn flyIng AOPA Live Executive Producer Warren Morningstar, photographer Mark Wagner, and I pile into two Mousquetaire skiplanes and head for perhaps the two most unforgiving airports in the world. Go-arounds are impossible, owing to rock walls at the ends of the one-way runways. This kind of flying is not for the faint of heart. Although L’Alpe d’Huez and Courchevel serve ski communities, arriving safely is no party. It calls for very, very precise flying. Our pilots were Jean-Pierre Triques, at the helm of F-BOPT, and John Archer —a British citizen who works at Grenoble’s Institut Laue-Langevin— flying F-BNIF. Archer, who of course belongs to the French Association of Mountain Pilots, said that earning a mountain checkout at ACD is no walk in the park. “I spent 20 hours flying the airplane on wheels, then 30 more hours flying the Mousquetaire on skis. The flight test had me doing six landings a day at each airport, and another two to three landings at airports and landing strips on skis,” he said. A few short minutes after takeoff from Le Versoud, we’re flying around the mountaintops and through the passes. At 8,500 feet it feels very much like nap-of-the earth flying, and all very exciting as the snow-covered terrain slides by. Soon enough, L’Alpe d’Huez comes into view, and Archer descends to 6,700 feet, steering for the entry point to the pattern. “Altimeter errors are common, so we descend and make a pass over the runway at about 100 feet AGL to look over the strip and check for winds,” he says. “After that, it’s a right pattern to Runway 6, at about 6,400 feet. It’s easier to judge your progress to the touchdown point when you fly a lower pattern altitude, so that’s important. “So is flying the approach at 110 km, or about 60 knots, with full flaps. No faster—unless the winds are a factor—and no slower. You must be at 60 knots and you must touch down within the first 100 feet or so. Remember, no go-arounds, so if you land too long or too fast, the only option is to steer the airplane off the runway and accept any damage.” Archer and Triques nail their landings, but it’s what happens immediately afterwards that’s counterintuitive. You apply power —lots of it— so you can climb the steep grade to the ramp, and the chalet serving up coffee. Stories abound of pilots who stopped their airplanes on the grade, only to roll backwards. Then it’s a matter of stopping the airplane and calling for a tow. The Courchevel landings are just as accurate, and before long we’re headed back to Le Versoud. Every once in a while Archer points out a snow-covered landing strip, in the middle of nowhere— indistinguishable to the untrained eye, but evident to those who’ve flown to them during the full skiplane checkout. Back at the airport, there’s a crowd at the fence, and in the restaurant. The WIPS team is firing up and taxiing out for more formation flying. There are smiles all around, and after the WIPS’ performance a raucous review of air-to-air camera footage of the team in action. It may be fashionable for Americans to think of European pilots writhing in agony over user fees and high avgas prices, but here, in surroundings like these, it is quite the opposite.  Reprinted with permission of AOPA Pilot magazine and Thomas A. Horne, photography by Mark Wagner
An American in the Alps...