Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Choose Your Own Adventure

A look at the best aircraft for backcountry exploration

So, you just hit the lottery for a half-million bucks (after tax). This sounds like a big deal, except that it’s redundant because your spouse hit it last week for 10 million. So, that measly $500,000 is suddenly fun money, and the aforementioned spouse says you can spend it any way you want. But, what to buy? So many airplanes. So many different uses. So many combinations.

You could, for instance, satisfy your upside-down urges by buying an Extra 300L, which would eat up over $300,000. But then, that wouldn’t give you enough to buy that Aviat Husky ($240,000) you’ve always wanted to go explore the backcountry. So, how about a Pitts S-2C instead of the Extra? If you got a good deal, you could squeeze one of those in with a Husky. On the other hand, you could easily buy the Pitts and an American Champion Scout ($148,900) and have plenty of gas money left over.

Here we are only a few minutes into the conversation, and it becomes obvious that some prioritization is in order because the combinations and permutations of airplane types and costs go all over the place. So, let’s narrow down our personal definition of “adventure” to pick only one and resolve to have enough left of the half-mil to feed our gasoline habit for the rest of our lives.

Our little electronic dictionary defines adventure as “an unusual and exciting experience or activity calling for enterprise and enthusiasm.” Taking that definition a piece at a time and translating it, we come up with “an unusual and exciting experience or activity.” Basically, adventure means doing something out of the ordinary that piques our interest or gets the blood flowing. It’s important to note here that this, too, is open to definition, because what pumps one person up might be ho hum to the next.

Fortunately, the foregoing means adventure can be had in degrees: A 1,800-foot runway in the boondocks will be short to some, and that doesn’t take as much skill or as extreme an airplane as a 900-foot runway does. Even stuck down in a mountain valley at 1,800 feet with lousy approaches can easily be handled by a well-flown 182. An 800-foot runway in the same situation may have us thinking about a Husky, Top Cub or Peterson Katmai.

The same adventure-by-degree thinking can be applied to another of those “unusual and exciting experiences—” aerobatics. If all you want to do is the occasional loop, roll and spin, you don’t need a $350,000 Extra. An American Champion Citabria would suit you just fine. However, if you’re one of these folks who go through life with their hair on fire and enthusiasm as your middle name, then you have no choice but to go for an Aviat S-2C Pitts or an Extra 330SC. And so goes the decision tree. It’s only the rare situation where the decision is black-and-white. Like we said, so many airplanes, so little time.

Exploring The Backcountry
A runway doesn’t have to be 197 feet long, going up the side of a hill, covered with boulders and have 100-foot pines at both ends to qualify as a backcountry field that offers the unique experiences associated with the backcountry. Many states maintain runways out in the toolies that are ideal getaways, and most have four common characteristics: They’re grass or dirt, a little shorter than usual but not wildly so, almost all C-182 accessible, and last, they’re gateways to good camping, hiking or just an out-of-the-way picnic. If you want to find backcountry runways in your area, all you have to do is Google “backcountry runways (insert your state here)” to get started.

If your goal is to fly into much shorter, higher-altitude runways than those above, there are lots of serious backcountry airplanes that can let you do that with safety. All of the so-called “utility” aircraft, as opposed to specially equipped/modified “bush” aircraft, are well-proven designs that take much of the pucker factor out of handling short, rough runways.


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