Glacier National Park: Part 1

Friday – Cool Down in the Mountains

Sitting next to my best friend at 11,000 feet on a sunny day with blue skies, cool temperatures, smooth air, and beautiful views of mountains dotted with lakes is a great way to start my birthday. The 15-knot tailwind was a nice bonus too.

We’re on our way to Glacier National Park near Kalispell, Montana to celebrate Phil’s birthday and get some relief from the 100-degree temperatures in Boise. This is our second trip to Kalispell. Our first was in 1998 (just a few months after buying into the Mooney partnership), and we were excited to see the area again with a little more time to explore. The 1998 trip was a very quick weekend; fly in on Saturday, hike around that day and return on Sunday.

The blue line is our track for the round-trip

Flight Planning

Rather than flying the straight line to Glacier Park International (KFCA), we diverted the course slightly west to fly over Mullan Pass to give us more emergency landing options should the need arise. This slight detour added only 6 minutes to our time enroute but was a much safer option than just flying the straight line to Kalispell. We were significantly closer to lower terrain this way, and lots of good alternate airports (Lewiston, Pullman, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene) were just minutes away to the west. If the weather was marginal, I had already planned an even more conservative route (flying over Lewiston before Mullan Pass) that kept us over lower terrain for a longer period of time.

Hey! Take a Picture of That!

We always take scenic pictures during our trips hoping that one or two will actually convey the beauty of experiencing the flight. I captured a few views from the right seat and then it was Phil’s turn to catch the view from the left. He asked me to fly the airplane and pass him the camera while he opened the small pilot window to get a clear shot of some mountain lakes that we were about to fly past.

After Nancy handed me the camera and confirmed she was flying the airplane, I held the camera up to the opened pilot window for some pictures. There’s a placard on the window stating “DO NOT OPEN ABOVE 130 KNOTS.” We were only indicating 124 knots, so it was no big deal to open the window at this point. You will soon find out why Phil is telling you these seemingly meaningless details on airspeeds and limitations. I wanted the pilot’s window open so the airplane’s glass wouldn’t distort the view in the picture. In the past I’ve been somewhat disappointed with our in-flight pictures, mainly due the distortion from the glass. The picture below was one of the ones I took through the open pilot’s window.

When I got done taking pictures through the window, I was hoping that Nancy wouldn’t notice that the two-foot nylon camera string (this camera came with a thin nylon cord for a strap, rather than the more traditional neck strap) had snuck its way outside through the window and was streaming out in the open air. Oh, I noticed that alright and I was starting to get pretty uncomfortable with the whole open window picture taking idea — especially with *my* camera.

Parts Breaking Off The Airplane

Mountain Lakes. Here’s one of the lakes Phil really wanted to get a picture of.

I thought I was so smooth as I reeled the camera string back inside, and then closed the window, still half-convinced that Nancy didn’t see that the camera string was flowing out in the air instead of being around my wrist. What I hadn’t noticed while the window was open was that the small plastic tab which sits above the window and secures it when it is closed had moved. The defenseless plastic tab was hanging down in the path of the window which was closing rather rapidly due to the lower air pressure outside the airplane. The edge of the window acted like a guillotine and cleanly chopped off the part of the plastic tab that was now in its path.

My eyes grew wide as I realized what happened and I watched the little white tab trace a gentle arc up and back before falling down and littering the area of those pristine mountain lakes. Due to the lower outside air pressure, the window stayed firmly closed even without the tab to secure it.

Phil points to the newly trimmed plastic tab. The round thing below his sunglasses is the oxygen cannula.

I recall Phil saying some cool pilot phrase along the lines of, “uh oh” which matched the surprised look on his face. After assessing that there was no safety concern with the plastic tab gone, and knowing that this story would be on the web he decided to take the above pictures of the airspeed indicator and the window label to defend himself. We had enough pictures with the window open for now. We did take a few more pictures along the way, but kept the window closed for the rest of them. None of the pictures do justice to the magnificent views of mountains, lakes and rivers we saw.

Arrival at Glacier Park International

Although the weather was picture perfect, I decided to file an IFR flight plan for this trip. I find it’s much easier to arrive at an unfamiliar airport while IFR, plus I’ve been doing so much VFR flying recently I thought it would be good to be “in the system” again. Shortly after we made the turn at Mullan Pass, Seattle Center handed us off to Salt Lake Center. Salt Lake cleared us to descend to 9,000 and to “maintain maximum speed, you are number one for the airport, jet traffic to follow, expect the visual approach to Glacier International.” Keeping speed up in a long descent is not too hard — just push the nose forward a bit and re-adjust the trim. The GPS said our groundspeed was just over 190 knots now. We could see the long runway at Glacier International from about 20 miles out. Salt Lake Center cleared us for the visual approach and allowed us to resume normal speed. Our little burst of speed in the descent was enough to put us well ahead of the jet that was on its way into Glacier. The tower controller at Glacier sounded pretty relaxed, “Report midfield right downwind for runway 20 Glacier.” I had to do some work to get us slowed up to our 130 knot gear extension speed, and then down to the 3,800 foot traffic pattern altitude. After reporting as requested, we got our landing clearance. Remember how the lower air pressure outside was holding the pilot’s window closed? Just before touchdown, our airspeed was slow enough that the inside and outside pressures equalized and the window popped open. It was actually nice to get a little unexpected breeze, but it did kind of catch me by surprise. If the window popping open surprised Phil, he didn’t show it. As usual, his landing was a gentle arrival back to the Earth.

On the right downwind for runway 20, Glacier Park International.

Nancy had already reserved a rental car for pickup at Edwards Jet Center. Their “follow me” cart was waiting as we exited the runway and the driver escorted us to a tie-down spot and quickly asked if he could help with fuel or transportation. He went to check on our rental car while we secured the plane and unpacked our stuff. Our car wasn’t ready, but would arrive shortly. We were happy to wait while we got everything unloaded. We thanked him for his help with a tip. Within minutes, the line guy drove our car right up to the plane. He had taken the initiative to go and get the car so we wouldn’t have to wait. We signed the paperwork and that was it. We didn’t even have to go inside the FBO. That was a tip well spent. Our next task was to find the hotel and get some lunch.

When we made this trip in 1998, we didn’t have a portable oxygen system like we do now. Although FAA regulations don’t require oxygen use until above 12,500 feet, our experience is that the flight is much more comfortable with oxygen above 10,000 feet. We’ll even use oxygen as low as 8,000 feet if we’ll be at that altitude for more than 3 hours. After flying a long trip without oxygen, we’d usually both be tired and I’d have a slight headache. After today’s 2.3 hour flight with oxygen, we were both feeling quite good and ready to start exploring.

The town of Kalispell is south of the airport and very spread out. There are casinos on every corner and restaurants are hard to spot. We found our hotel, checked in, got some lunch and then we were off to the park to get hiking maps and plan our route for tomorrow.

Series NavigationGlacier National Park: Part 2 >>

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