A Journey Over The Alps

The automated weather station, straddling a rocky point 800 feet below my left window, is at the top of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. My altimeter tells me I’m leaving 11,000 for 11,500 feet.

Seeing something so close when I’m so high, even in D-EHMB, the C-172 I’ve come to love, is a little disconcerting. That nice man at Innsbruck tower had told me earlier in the day that my planned crossing of the Alps ‘shouldn’t be too hair raising’. But that very term, ‘hair-raising’, was one echoed by several people I spoke with in preparation for my flight – my first across any mountains, let alone Alps.

I am not an Alpine pilot. Flying north at 1100 feet over New YorkE’s Hudson River last summer, I found the need to look up to see the building-tops somewhat alarming. Approaching Prague last October I marvelled at the 1500-foot hilltops to the south of the city, and hoped I didn’t terrify local residents – ATC had instructed me to maintain 2000 MSL (my passengers were still boisterously humming Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries) when I touched down.

The highest point I’d encountered in my flight training, back in Florida, was a tower that stuck up to oh, about 3200 feet or so. I remember thinking as I flew by it about those training videos, in which the presenter folksily, whimsically points out that the top number on the chart is what your altimeter would read if you were to strike the top of the pole, the one on the bottom how far you’d fall to the ground.

Now, in Florida, the top number minus the bottom number usually leaves you with about 12 feet or so. This explains Florida’s colourful history, with occupation by the English, French, Spanish, Mexicans and Americans. Like Poland, Florida was historically the flattest piece of land between battling superpowers.

But here in Germany, where I’ve been flying for over a year, it seems that no self-respecting piece of terrain bothers to get out of bed unless it’s at least 1500 feet above MSL. I have visions of visiting Baltic coast beaches near Hamburg and having to take a cable car down to the water’s edge.

I’d approached the Alps several times, usually while giving friends the requisite air tour of the area. We’d pass over the town of Füssen, on our way, I told them, to view Loony Ludwig’s magnificent Neuschwanstein – the very palace on which Disney based Cinderella’s castle. It’s scenically tucked into the side of an Alpine mountain, and each time I’ve gone near the thing, thoughts of mysterious and deadly downdrafts and horrific mountain wind-shear phenomena have ensured that I either stayed very high (‘No, really, it’s down there. There! Just squint a bit more!’) or safely to the northwest (E’Oh stop whining. There are binoculars in my flightbag’).

But I was determined I was going to learn enough to fly the Alps, and that I was going to do it in style. I wanted a big, Germanic breakfast of heavy breads, crusty rolls and strong coffee cut with steamed milk; a crisp, clear day; a fine, reliable plane and jaw-dropping views as I soared above some of GodE’s most beautiful scenery. Then, after landing in one of earth’s most scenic airports – a runway smack in the middle of one of the world’s most dramatic valleys – I’d have a fabulous Sacher Torte and coffee break at Sacher itself, and then lay down my head for the night in a 13th-century castle.

On the morrow, I’d buzz through more breathtaking scenery, and then overfly the Bavarian capital of Munich on my way back to my home base of Augsburg.

Preparing The Mind
Knowing as I did that mountain flying has rather different rules and procedures than I was used to, the first thing I did was contact my local flight instructor, Tom, who told me that he’d be delighted to help me but he was heading that very day to Las Vegas to teach in a new flight school there. But, he confided, flying the Alps is really fun, and ‘not so hair raising’.

My next stop was the internet, where I did a search for “mountain flying”, and after several missteps came up with Mountainflying.com (http://www.mountainflying.com), a website run by a US mountain pilot, Sparky Imeson. Sparky’s site very thoughtfully contains, free, the most important aspects of mountain flying, his ‘must-know rules’:

The first of these was pretty common sense, but I’d never heard it stated this way:

‘Rule number one: always remain in a position where you can turn toward lowering terrain’. Well now, that seemed straightforward enough.

Rule number two was rather ominous and yet tantalizingly vague: ‘Never fly beyond the point of no return’.

Point of no return? Oh dear. And this is rule Number two? Did I miss something on Rule Number One?

Imeson defines the point of no return to be the spot from where, if your engine quits, you can turn round 180-degrees without impacting the ground. Always a handy rule of thumb to know.

I liked the website so much that I bought Sparky’s book, Mountain Flying, and his video, and while I can wholeheartedly recommend the first, the video was so unfathomably dull that my colicky infant son, Sebastian, actually stopped his mid-day screamfest and sat, mesmerised, staring at the screen. As did I.

But all things considered, I was considerably better prepared for my voyage than I had been when I bought the thing, so hats off to Sparky.

Making The Trip
I spoke with flight instructors, the towers at both Munich and Innsbruck, and with other pilots who flew the area, and all told me the same thing: don’t worry so much, but with a caveat: do not under any circumstances attempt the trip if the winds aloft over the Alps were above 25 knots. And oh, yeah, stay at least 1000 feet above the highest point along the way at all times.

Innsbruck tower advised me that the best route from Augsburg to Innsbruck was to head directly south to the village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and then to follow the valley as it extended to the south. Along this route I would be assured that with the exception of the Zugspitze – which I could stay left or right of – everything else would be under 8000 feet MSL, or well within my limits if I maintained the maximum 9500 feet required by German VFR rules.

Innsbruck tower advised me of their rigid and somewhat disorganised approach pattern, which requires (when approaching from the west) leaving the Alps, descending to 5000 feet MSL, and turning east but ensuring that you stay to the west of the city of Telfs before getting cleared for final.

It gets confusing, we were to find on the actual approach, because once they clear you into the main control zone, the tower can say … well, the darndest things (“…and if you appreciate, on your way to [checkpoint] Whisky, you may continue with climb, and until passing with three thousand.” Huh? AH: Don’t turn left towards Oscar till you reach 3000 feet. I appreciate!). I went out and bought the latest Jeppesen and Deutsche Flugsicherung charts to the region, and I was ready.

Well, not quite.

Alps Under My WingI had to wait for the infamous German weather to cooperate. I’d been grounded for much of the winter by miserable rainstorm after lamentable cold front after wretched sleet and snow, and my trip kept getting pushed back. Add to this the fact that on my first foray into the mountains I was determined to take an experienced pilot along with me, if not a flight instructor, and scheduling became a problem.

Then, serendipitously, there was a break in the weather on the same day that my friend Kees, a CFI, was visiting from Holland. I told him that instead of coming to the house, I’d pick him up at Munich airport and drive directly to our plane at Augsburg, and we’d be off.

All was going perfectly, and even the weather was cooperating. Kees and I approached the south. There was Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and that extra large thing right there would be the Zugspitze! We came in as planned, and despite the assurances of the tower – and despite Kees telling me I was being, shall we say, less than stoic – I didn’t like my proximity to the peaks, and I called in to Innsbruck.

I’d been cleared to 9,500 feet by Innsbruck Approach, but I got a bit nervous. I thought of getting a bit higher…

‘Innsbruck Tower, Cessna Delta Echo Hotel Mike Bravo with a request’

“Mike Bravo, go ahead’

‘Uh, I’d like to have permission to take it up to 11,500 to put a bit of distance between myself and these very large things beneath me…I’m a low-time mountain pilot.’

‘Mike Bravo, you’re cleared to climb to 11,500 feet’.


Once we started climbing I realised that up till then I hadn’t even taken the time to look out the window at anything non-safety related, so I took a moment to see what it was I was climbing over.

What it was was Heaven on earth.

As far as I could see were snow-capped mountains, rising dramatically, almost tumultuously from the ground, separated by lusciously green and fertile valleys; if they’d put this scene in Gone With The Wind audiences would have thought it too perfect not to be a painted backdrop; mountainsides dotted with houses and hidden valleys peppered with tiny, sparkling clear Alpine lakes.

The view was so enchantingly everything I had hoped it would be that I almost forgot to start taking photographs, and cursing the perspective of the camera for not being able to do this magnificent canvas anything close to justice. We circled a bit to the east for some pictures, and then entered the Valley of the River Inn and made the left turn towards Innsbruck.

The approach to Innsbruck from the west is a little, shall we say, democratic: controllers seem to point everyone towards the field and then ask people to circle just west of it until cleared for final. It was such a magnificent day that I didn’t mind at all staying up for a bit, but I hadn’t had much experience in pulling 360s in the middle of a canyon – nor ever really given much thought to my turning radius in a Cessna!

“Can we make a 360?” I asked Kees, who looked at me with total disbelief in his eyes.

“Yeah, you’ve got room. I was just noticing that little Piper back there below us!”

But Innsbruck had us stacked perfectly, and everyone was safe. Their idea of ‘separation’ might be slightly different from what I’m used to, but it works pretty well.

Nick By The Plane
I was cleared for landing on runway 08 with wind 010 at 8 kts, about as perfect a welcome as I could have wanted. Here’s when I learned one of the perks of being PIC – you can demand you be the one to land, even if the guy next to you has a commercial ticket!

Heart of the Tirol
Innsbruck sits in the heart of the Tirol region, which is known far and wide as having an abundance of outdoor activities. There are possibilities for all levels and ranges of hiking, climbing, skiing, swimming, trekking, tramping, snowshoeing and snowboarding, as well as fishing in the multitudinous rivers and streams. And as kayakers and white water rafters whizz by on the rivers, paragliders, hang gliders, and hot air balloons float through the sky.

Don’t worry, more traditional, less bone-crunching attractions will keep you cheerfully occupied: stunningly opulent Rococo architecture, the dramatic views from atop the Hungerburg, which you ascend by cable-car in stomach-tingling delight. Innsbruck’s royal Kaiserliche Hofburg and jaw-dropping Goldenes Dachl are must sees. The early 18th century saw what amounted to a Baroquing contest, drawing artisans from across Europe, including the brothers Asam, to bedazzle the region’s churches.

The stunning views stem from Innsbruck’s fortuitous location in the valley of the Inn River (the town grew originally around the “bruck” that crossed it), nestled perfectly between the Karwendel and the Tuxer Vorberge. This location means that only a fool will escape without beautiful photographs of dramatic cliffs of the nearby mountains.

Our first stop, after speaking with the preternaturally friendly staff at the airport about fees (quite reasonable actually) and tie down, was the Innsbruck branch of Vienna’s Cafe Sacher, where we sampled the famous Torte (as good as rumored) with a steaming milchkaffee in suitably decadent surroundings. Then we had a look around.

Right near Sacher, the tourists were all cricking their necks back to see the shining Goldenes Dachl, or ‘Little Golden Roof’: once a royal residence, the building’s balustrade is swarming with reliefs and busts of royalty, including Maximillian, and coats of arms of Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria and Hungary. The top of this is smothered with more than 3000 golden-colored tiles.

Just behind the Goldenes Dachl is the fabulous, newly renovated and almost hysterically Baroque Dom St Jakob, constructed by Johann Jakob Herkommer and decorated, it’s said, by the brothers Asam. Note the portrait of the Madonna on the high altar, the Mariahilfbild, by Lukas Chranach the Elder, painted in 1530.

Another must-see attraction just southeast of the city center is the looming Schloss Ambras, which Archduke Ferdinand II began expanding in the late 1500s. The Renaissance palace holds the Ambras Collection – art, armor, portraits, medieval sculpture and, not as uncommon as you’d expect in these parts, the royal collection of bizarre curiosities. The grand Spanischer Saal ballroom is another highlight.

Sleep In A Castle
Using Innsbruck as a base to explore the surrounding region has its advantages, but using the surrounding region to explore Innsbruck might have more. And, when you have the opportunity to spend a couple of nights in a 12th century castle for about €125 a double, you should snag it.

Schloss Matzen, now owned by an American couple (Margaret and Chris Kump), is about a half hour drive east of Innsbruck, nestled in the heart of the Tirolean Alps, near Wurgl.

Margaret and Chris, who inherited the castle in 1995 (it had been in the family since 1957), have renovated up a storm over the last several years (the New York Times profiled them as having a money pit) and the cheerful castle now has 11 rooms open to visitors, all with private bathrooms and central heating.

Right nearby are heaps of activities, like walking, cross-country and downhill skiing, rock climbing, biking and, in summer, river rafting and swimming.

The guests tend to be expatriates or the well-traveled, including lots of visitors returning to the region for further exploration, and the B&B is open May to October and from Christmas to mid-February. There’s an Austrian Wine hour daily, when they bring out tonnes of the stuff, and breakfast is made of fabulous fresh-baked goods, assorted cheeses, yogurt, quark, fruit, and hot entrees like french toast and scrambled eggs.

Then Do it All Again!
We had been planning a return flight that would take us around the eastern end of the Alps, flying due east along the Inn River Valley to Salzburg, where I thought I’d shop for a bit, then over the shockingly picturesque eastern Bavarian area of the Berchtesgaden National Forest (and incidentally, at Kehlsstein, Hitler’s former mountain retreat, the Eagle’s Nest) on the way back to Augsburg. But a weather front swooping in from the east threatened our route, and when we checked at 6 am the next day, that way to go was looking ominous indeed.

But at least halfway to Salzburg it was still clear and beautiful, so Kees and I decided we’d take what we could, and flew east as far as we could.

That brought us right back over tiny St Johann airport, the closest to Schloss Matzen, and we were able to wave from 3000 feet at Margaret and Chris, who heard us circling above their castle.

Kees and I flew east until we saw a spectacular break in the mountains just to our north. There on the other side of the range was Chiemsee, a treasured favorite lake for Muncheners. On Herreninsel in the center of Chiemsee in the 1870s, Ludwig began but never finished the Neues Königschloss, an attempt to top the splendour of Versailles.

Kees and I crossed through the gap in the mountains, and then cut west, just to the south of Munich, and then northwest across the Starnberg Lake and Ammer Lake, and finally a beeline straight back into the traffic pattern at Augsburg.

Augsburg’s traffic pattern is rather strict; from our approach from the east, we needed to call in five minutes before our arrival at checkpoint Sierra, about 10 miles east of the field, and enter the checkpoint at 3000. We had decided that because I’d landed at Innsbruck Kees would land at Augsburg, and at this point Kees decided to demonstrate to me one of his little flight instructor tricks.

We’d been told to maintain 3000 and stay on the north side of the Munich-Stuttgart Autobahn, and I reported that we would. The second my finger left the mike key, I was able to verify quite comfortably and certainly that we were indeed just to the north of the road: Kees treated me to a straight-down view of the road by flipping our little Skyhawk 90 degrees on its left side while maintaining course, heading and altitude for about 10 seconds, before gently rolling back to a normal position.

I was glad that large Germanic breakfast had been 24 hours earlier! “North side of the road, confirmed” I said to Kees as we rolled back to normal.

That got me thinking. For all the planning, the anticipation and my personal nervousness about this flight, that little stomach-twirler of a maneuver was the most, yes, hair raising part of the entire trip.

I’d addressed my fears, gotten the information I needed to make good, safe decisions, spoken with the towers and local pilots, and taken along a more experienced pilot on an exciting and challenging adventure. My preparation all paid off, and I safely and thrillingly conquered my fears of the unknown, by using the resources easily at my disposal to improve my skills and become a better pilot.

And along the way, I took a trip that will always be one of my most vividly memorable journeys.