Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Down & dirty in the spectacular Utah Canyonlands
This is unreal. How can he land coming in like that?
True, the reddish, sandy dirt strip is 1,400-feet long. But a good bit is brushy, rocky or too soft. Most pilots would say, "Pass," unless they fly a jeep with wings, a super bushwhacker like a Husky...or this plane, the King Katmai.
Massive sediment-layered buttes, burnished to rich maroon-gold by the morning sun, vault 1,000 feet into the clear, calm blue all around me. But the austere beauty doesn't change reality: This strip, called Happy Canyon, is one unforgiving desert scratch in the desert.
Yet Todd and Jo Peterson's Cessna 182-on-steroids is about to touch down, one way or another, from a dramatically unusual approach. Near the end of a base leg flown just eight feet above ground, he banks left now at almost 30 degrees into a ridiculously short final, straight toward me.
Airspeed's around 50 knots; his inside wingtip anchors the turn, a foot or two above the scrub brush. What's strange is the way the airplane isn't nose-high, hanging on the prop like most planes shooting a near-stall, short-field approach.
This is the beating heart of the Katmai: You can hold a steep bank and watch the wingtip just skim above the brush with complete confidence.No, it's level, nose to tail, as if in a cruising turn at altitude. Very cool. Weird, but cool.
I raise the camera and fire away, wondering how long it will take to walk out of this Butch and Sundance outlaw terrain if he prangs in. A long time, pardner. A real long time.
The Katmai deftly rounds the corner...holds the turn, clean and smooth...the inside main drops lower...lower...then its big 29-inch balloon tire drags up some dirt precisely as the 182 comes into line with the "runway" and drops briskly onto the other main. The nosewheel settles firmly, and the plane rumbles by to stop 200 feet down the strip.
Whew. You've got to see one of these to believe it. This is a Wichita Tin cruiser? Only in appearance, brother.
Todd Peterson built this STOL-bred King Katmai precisely to enable such thread-the-needle landings. But this is a tricycle-gear airplane, not a taildragger. A Skylane, for Peterson's sake. How does he get it to perform like that?
I trot past the sun-blackened old miner's cabin and hop in. Once, this Utah badlands region sheltered outlaws and ancient Indians from posses, hostile tribes and the elements. Now, as we arc up and away, I'm having my own High Noon moment. For the next dirt-strip landing, at Angel Point, I'll be at the controls.
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