If you're a private pilot, getting to Mammoth by air can save you a ton of traffic and time -- and the Sierra views from 10,000 feet are world class. But for all the obvious reasons like wind, snow, visibility, terrain and turbulence, flying into KMMH can be challenging. I interviewed my favorite pilot tp get his top tips for general aviators. Because I'm me I've taken the editorial liberty of 'extending' his comments. Read on for his advice, my commentary, and more fantastic pics and videos of our Eastern Sierra flying fun.
First, what qualifies you to speak as an expert, other than your obvious good taste in spouses?
Todd: Ugh. Well, I'm a 9,500 hour test pilot, fighter pilot, CFI, Airline Transport Pilot. I've flown over 130 aircraft and hold Single Engine Land & Sea, Multi-engine Land & Sea, Helicopter, Glider, 747-400 and Lear Jet Ratings. I've been lucky to fly probably 1000 hours of low level, fast jet time in the Eastern Sierra. [Me: Fun times.]
What are your top tips for flying from SoCal to Mammoth?
Todd: First, if you aren't experienced and qualified to fly in IFR conditions with weather and terrain, don't attempt to fly to Mammoth. And secondly, minimize turbulence unless you are carrying barfbags and don't mind your passengers using them. [Me: I first threw up on Todd on the morning of our honeymoon, flying to Ft. Lauderdale. He's been a very considerate and turbulence-averse pilot ever since.]
How do you minimize turbulence over the Sierra?
Todd: If winds are from north or east, it's best to plan your route to stay over the Owen's Valley to the east of the Sierras. [Me: Side benefit, there is some cell service as you pass over towns like Big Pine, Lone Pine & Bishop. You can also get flight following from ATC, which I really like.]
Todd: If winds are from south or west, fly up San Joaquin and descend over Mammoth Lakes directly into the airport if you can. [Me: This more western route provides for some amazing views of the Sierra lakes, Whitney and Mammoth Mountain but don't expect to get any cell service during your trip. Flight following is also difficult since comm is limited.]
What airport do you prefer to use?
Todd: In a perfect world, I fly into Mammoth but that isn't always possible with the weather, especially in the winter months. Bishop has a great little county-run general aviation airport that's a good divert option. I've also had to ditch into Lone Pine, and it isn't bad either. [Me: Lots of times I drive and he flies so getting from any airport to Mammoth isn't too much of a struggle for him. There are options for private and public transport from the airports, if you don't have your own transportation. Click here to read about transportation options from Mammoth airport to the mountain or to town. From Lone Pine or Bishop airports you'll need to rely on ESTA. Read about that here.]
What's great about flying in to Mammoth Airport, KMMH?
Todd: Convenience. [Me: You can't beat the convenience of flying in and hitting the lift less than 30 minutes from touchdown. The FBO staff is hospitable and helpful and they never complain about the tons of household junk I usually haul in for the condos. Rugs, TVs, inflatable mattresses, tables, lamps.. you name it, those guys have helped me unload it. Greg or one of the other guys from Hot Creek is always on the ramp, ready to direct us, help us deplane and haul all our junk. Click here for Hot Creek Aviation at Airnav. The ladies at the desk are also great, and keep me entertained while Todd chats up the other pilots.]
What's your least favorite thing about flying in to Mammoth?
Todd: I'm not a fan of paying nearly $6.00 a gallon for gas. [Me: At time of publication, $5.79 for 100LL. Yes, this pilot of mine usually plans stops based on price of gas. Our twin chugs some serious fuel per hour so I can't blame him. That said, HCA will waive the service fee (approx $35) and tie-down (around $35 for a light twin like ours) with a min 30 gallon gas purchase, so that softens the blow.]
What are the challenges of flying in to Mammoth?
Todd: At over 7,100 ft, the elevation and terrain present challenges, particularly in bad weather. There can be persistent, strong winds and icing conditions. Night flying is not recommended unless you're IFR due to the lack of cultural lighting, but the instrument approach (RNAV (GPS) 27) is sporty either way because of the surrounding terrain which isn't well-aligned with the landing runway (1300 & 11/4 to 3 mile minimums dependent on aircraft category). [Me: I'm just gonna say yikes on all that.]
What's great about flying in to Bishop, KBIH?
Todd: The gas is some of the cheapest in California. [Me: At time of publication 3.79 for 100LL.]
Todd: There's a great little restaurant. Weather is almost always good because of the 3,000' lower altitude (4,100'). There are three runways to choose from so even if its windy, I've got lots of options. [Me: Alrighty. I think he summed that up well. I do have one little thing to add, though! Its pretty funny how many times we've left KMMH and found ourselves in a queue of planes taking off from there and landing 10 minutes later at KBIH just for fuel. Ken, the airport manager told me once that its because, since they are gov't-owned, they can't make a profit on the gas. Woohoo!]
What's not great about flying in to Bishop, KBIH?
Todd: Transportation to Mammoth is tough. [Me: Ok, I already said that 99% of the time I pick him up. But if you aren't lucky enough to have your hunny waiting at the airport in her sweet, lifted, 4x4 Jeep, you do have options for public transport which you can read about here. I will also add for the record that if you are a posh person who isn't used to county-run airports, this might not be the place for you. The decor, last time I checked, was 1970s Bachelor Pad.]
What else should we know about Bishop, KBIH?
Todd: They're investing in their infrastructure. They've done a ton of resurfacing and installed new LED lighting across the entire airfield. It will be interesting to see how they leverage those improvements in the next few years.