Flying over Mt. Rainier and Mt. St.Helens

Among the most famous sights in Washington State, these two mountains are aligned along an ideal north-south line developing from Seattle down towards the Oregon border. Similarly to most of the West Coast, the area is a section of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Actually, Mt. St.Helens did explode with a spectacular eruption in 1980, revealing its real deadly nature. What may be worrying is the similarity between the isolated peak of Mt. St.Helens and some other mountains in the area, like Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and the highest and most prominent of all, Mt. Rainier. It is likely these – and other – formations around the areas of Seattle and Vancouver may turn out to be ‘privileged points’ for an eruption some day…

In the meanwhile, they are very characteristic spots in the beautiful, uncontaminated landscape surrounding the nice area of greater Seattle.

Being fascinated with the natural beauties of this area, and also with aviation – as you might guess from this website of mine! – we set off in a party of three with the idea of exploring Mt. Rainier and Mt. St.Helens from above.

Surfing the web I noticed there are several companies offering tours of the area in front of Seattle. Actually, the region is a small ‘angle of paradise’ for those with a thing for general aviation and small-scale air transport, especially seaplanes. Kenmore Air is one of the few remaining commercial companies offering regular services from downtown Seattle to the islands around with some good old De Havilland one-engined, propeller-driven seaplanes!

Being interested not just in taking off and making a couple of circles around downtown Seattle, I had to dig something more, making sure to avoid some always-present tourist traps – being a pilot myself, I knew a bit of the likely cost of the flight I was looking for, so I could easily spot traps. I finally found a very good solution with Fly Seattle Scenic (website here).

I contacted Rick Dominy, a certified commercial pilot and a nice guy operating his beautiful Cessna 210 Turbo Centurion for that company, and we met directly at Renton airport – the quarters of this small company are to the west of the airfield, besides the general aviation apron. We agreed on the flight plan, which would go to Mt. Rainier eastern side, Mt. St.Helens, with multiple circles over the crater, and back to Renton passing to the western side of Mt. Rainier.

We paid and boarded the aircraft. Turbo 210 is a 310 hp beast of a Cessna, not the usual 150 or 172 training aircraft, despite some basic similarities with the latter in the layout. Rick’s exemplar is in perfect shape. The cabin is very roomy and clean, we were all given intercom headphones, I was seated in the co-pilot seat – just in case… – and having a high wing with no lift strut below and a retractable landing gear, unlike more basic Cessnas the view to the side and downwards is absolutely unobstructed – perfect for enjoying the view and taking photographs!

Here follow some photos of this flight (August 2012).

Sights

First a look to the aircraft and around Renton, just a few miles south of downtown Seattle, close to Tacoma Airport. Renton is where another branch of Boeing has its hangars. You can see many brand new 737s, still unfinished. This branch is pretty large. The airport at Renton is also a base for general aviation activity, like Fly Seattle Scenic.

Following takeoff we turned south towards Mt. Rainier, which could be already seen in the distance, about 35 miles South. While climbing we could enjoy the beautiful landscape of Washington State, with an embarrassing high number of small airports around.

Mt. Rainier is about 14400 ft, and the top part of it is surrounded by several distinct glaciers. We approached from north and we passed by the eastern side of the mountain. The bottom part is very nice with woods and small mountain lakes.

Among the ice rifts on the eastern side of the peak we could spot two huts, with ‘ant-people’ moving along trails on the icy surface. We flew over the large parking by the trailhead for some of the trails climbing to the top of Mt. Rainier.

Leaving Mt. Rainier towards the south we could already spot Mt. St.Helens, some 50 miles away. Between these two isolated peaks, again a nice wild landscape, mostly pine woods. The crater of Mt. St.Helens is not symmetrical, cause the volcano exploded towards the northern side of the mountain. Approaching from north, we could see inside the crater very well. The scenery is very different from around Mt. Rainier, with almost no vegetation even at lower altitudes were the eruption hit more violently. All trees were wiped out and the soil became too acid for regrowth.

Still today, many of the trunks of the trees pushed away by the eruption are floating on a lake at the bottom of the peak. Approaching the southern rim of the crater we spotted more ‘ant-people’, taking a rest after reaching the top of the volcano.

The rocky dome in the middle of the crater is still exuding some worrying vapors… The summit is about 8300 ft, so there are snow and small glaciers also here.

After some circles over the lake and crater, we set our course again for Mt. Rainier, first overflying the valley of Hoffstadt Creek, where the snow which was melted by the volcano generated a flood at the time of the eruption, which somewhat reshaped parts of the valley. Today some dams regulate the flow of the creek.

The western side of Mt. Rainier appears to be the steepest, again with various glaciers perfectly visible. They are much larger than they might seem in the photographs!

Past Mt. Rainier we descended rapidly towards sea level, heading for our home base. The landing was perfect. Just before it, we had a glance at SeaTac and downtown Seattle from the distance.

This was an unforgettable experience I recommend for everybody in the area. The flight takes about 2 hours. We were definitely very lucky with the weather – Rick told us we had selected for our visit one of the two weeks of good weather people from the area are allowed per year! If you are similarly lucky, don’t miss this wonderful attraction!

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