Learning About Mountain Weather, Part 3

The large elevation differences during gondola rides provide a great opportunity to observe temperature and wind variations during the ascent. Changes in the winds during these rides bring a lively discussion about the challenges of rescuing passengers with pararescue specialists suspended from helicopters. Photo credit: Kimberly Henneman

This is the final part in our series on mountain weather. In Part 2 we learned about rapidly changing localized weather and micro-climates.

The examples cited from hikes on Swiss peaks in this article were part of a formal Global Engagement college course in May 2019. The primary focus for the aviation students included visits to international aviation organizations, famed aviation operators, aircraft manufacturing factories and aviation museums. After these site visits, we took advantage of the wonderful gondolas to examine the meteorological and human factors challenges of aviation operations in the alpine environment.

Clearly it isn’t necessary to go to Swiss peaks to conduct lessons. Students are invited on field trips throughout the year to the high-altitude locations within miles of their campus. These field trips are voluntary and the only cost is the purchase of a gondola pass (most of these students have heavily discounted passes through the college). The only limitation is that these field trips have a limited enrollment to avoid creating undesirable crowding on these mountaintop pavilions.

One aspect that makes these Global Engagement field trips especially effective is the ability to sit in a comfortable (read: SAFE!) and scenic location to observe these conditions without the multitude of stresses and challenges associated with flying an aircraft in this high-threat environment. From these mountaintop locations there is plenty of time to have insightful discussions with the students.

The enthusiastic contributions by experts from mountain rescue organizations add immeasurably to these discussions. Air Zermatt and Rega provided fabulous tours of their facilities. Cadre of the Utah Avalanche Center and Wasatch Backcountry Rescue have sponsored classes with components directly related to mountain meteorology that go far beyond textbook learning, as well as sessions supplemented by senior ski patrollers and avalanche control specialists who have spent 20-plus years atop these peaks ensuring safe ski conditions for the public.

The field trips complement the curriculums for academic classes, ground schools and flight training. The undergraduate aviation students are simultaneously taking flight lessons at airports located in nearby mountains with peaks soaring above 12,000 ft., and airport elevations exceeding 5,000 ft.

The field trips are offered throughout the year to expose attendees to the widest possible spectrum of conditions. Students will see different mountain meteorology phenomena in the summer and winter, or during fast-moving frontal activity versus stagnant conditions caused by high pressure ridges. Many of these outings last for most of the day so students can observe changes in mountain meteorology caused by weather fronts as well as changes in the sun’s movement.

The academic sessions and field trips include discussions of both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. These include a wide variety of missions such as aerial firefighting, EMS, business jets, aerial tours and heli-skiing, as well as military operations. Correlating the perspectives between fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft leads to a deeper overall understanding of the interplay between mountain meteorology, aircraft performance and handling, human factors and aeronautical decision making.

Another key aspect of this method is that the students are tasked to perform at higher levels of learning. Rather than merely quoting some rote memorization, student outcomes are assessed in assignments with key words such as “compose, create, design, modify, plan, or compare and contrast” in scenario-based questions. These tasks are assigned as group projects, which further emphasizes the importance of teamwork in the real world.

The premise of this article has focused on providing an effective learning environment that is low risk to help develop aeronautical decision-making in mountain operations. What started as simple requests from a few students long ago to learn more about the mountain weather environment has turned into regular outings with motivated students who relish and immerse themselves in these learning adventures. Perhaps the best feedback from these field trips is watching the next generation of aviation professionals develop a passion for a lifetime of learning.