Planning A Cross-country Flight
Any cross-country flight requires careful preparation, but a mountain cross-country trip deserves even greater attention to detail.
A clear understanding of the weather conditions is essential for a safe flight into mountainous terrain. However, weather reporting stations in the mountains are sparse and getting a good briefing just from hourly weather service observations is difficult. You may need to phone some of the airports over which you will be flying to get current conditions. Pilot reports are also very helpful and you should give them as you fly along your route.
Mountain route selection is much more than drawing a straight line between your departure and destination airports and filing "direct". A better route is usually found by following highways, river drainages, and valleys. These routes will usually be lower and offer better emergency landing sites. Also, you should check with local experienced pilots if you are planning a trip into an unfamiliar area to get recommendations on routes to use.
Flight Plans and Logs
Your trip into the mountains will usually be VFR, dictating pilotage and dead reckoning navigation. To plan for this type of flight, you will need to prepare a log with times and heading to fly between checkpoints. This may seem like a nuisance to be used by student pilots, but it will keep you from fumbling with charts and guessing once in flight, possibly leading to disorientation and getting lost.
As you plan your desired route, also consider what alternate routes or airports may be available in the event of an emergency. If the weather is marginal, make sure you have a clearly defined alternative if it deteriorates to the point that you cannot continue to your destination.
Once you've planned your flight, you should also file (and then activate once airborne) a flight plan with the local flight service station. If, for some reason, you must make an off airport landing, having a flight plan activated will get search crews out looking for you quickly and improve your chances of survival. If for some reason you must change your planned route, be sure to update your flight plan with flight service.
When planning your flight, study the VFR charts for the frequencies and locations to use for making position reports and getting weather updates. In many mountainous areas, Flight Watch will not be usable, so you will need alternatives. In most places, you will be able to reach a flight service station through an RCO or VOR site. Have these frequencies written on your flight log for ready reference when you need them.
Winter operations as mountain airports may present some things that you aren't normally faced with in the flatlands. Check the NOTAMs carefully for any unusual runway conditions due to snow, ice, or other hazards. If you will need engine prehead services or de-ice services, call ahead since some smaller airports do not have these available. Finally, if your destination is a popular ski country airport, you may find parking space limited or simply not available. Again, a call ahead my save a change in plans.