We're threading our way through the majestic Teton Pass—a flight of four Aviat Husky aircraft and a pristine, Yakovlev Yak-52. The afternoon air is producing thermals that knock us about the 8,000-foot mountains in this corner of the Teton Range, on the border of Wyoming and Idaho. The sharp peaks of the 13,000-foot Grand Tetons are farther away, but look so close I can almost touch them, and a thump of turbulent air jolts me out of my stupor. We're below the peaks, and I can see the other Husky wings flexing in the churning, moist air. The Yak zooms under us, climbing steeply away and doing a slow roll in the distance above the peaks. "That was beautiful, Husky five," crackles on the radio from the flight leader, and each of the five pilots checks in.
We're on a backcountry odyssey, with these pilots introducing me to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. It's not a formal group or mountain flying club; instead, these pilots come together because they share a passion for both the Aviat Husky and the incomparable mountains we're flying through. For several days, I would fly with them and come to know this pristine world they operate in. I don't think I promised to not reveal the fact that this is about the most fun I've ever had flying.
The base of operations for our adventure is Alpine Airpark (www.alpineairpark.com), an idyllic and cozy fly-in community so gorgeous that it makes postcards look mundane. Alpine sits dramatically on the shores of Palisades Reservoir—Wyoming's largest freshwater lake. The Snake, Salt and Greys Rivers all feed into it, and giant mountains surround it like a closely guarded secret. Though other kinds of airplanes are based here, the Husky presence is strongest, and the airpark's mowed-grass strip is usually preferred over its manicured, paved runway—at least by Husky pilots.
Bill Wiemann developed this land. Wiemann is an experienced pilot who has flown everything from warbirds to Cessnas, and decided to become a dealer for Aviat to better serve buyers who needed a tough, capable airplane to operate from the airpark. Wiemann ended up falling in love with the Husky—and its unmatched utility in this part of the rugged West—and unwittingly became something of a magnet for this kind of flying. Airpark buyers quickly became Husky owners, with Wiemann agreeing to train them on backcountry operations. Pretty soon, a community was born, with Alpine becoming its unofficial center. Now, there are some 12 Husky aircraft at the airpark.
I'm here with Stu Horn, president of Aviat Aircraft, though he really prefers not to be identified by that moniker for these kinds of trips. Clearly, Horn is a backcountry pilot first, and his humble, low-key nature finds him enjoying being part of the group, and not "Mr. Aviat," as some have called him. Right now, he's just a skilled Husky pilot with nearly 2,000 hours in the airplane, nearly all of it in the backcountry. He has set up an itinerary of some of his favorite flying spots. Horn has also gathered together some of his frequent flying buddies, and has welcomed me into the fold—a fellow taildragger aficionado with a Jones for stick-and-rudder flying. I would learn a great deal from this bunch.
Before you can understand backcountry flying, you have to learn about the pilots behind it. I have to confess that I held the popular stereotype of backcountry pilots: rough around the edges, risk takers and anti-authoritarian. I couldn't have been more wrong. I learned more from watching these quiet pros than I have from most of my instructors.
Pilot Bruce Redding swings low while running part of the Snake River Canyon with four other Husky aircraft
Bruce Redding has a golden voice. He could have made a fortune in radio with his honey-soaked baritone and clear annunciation. Redding had almost left aviation, simply because, "It just wasn't a challenge anymore." Redding had done it all: raced warbirds at Reno, flown air shows and owned all kinds of airplanes. He met Bill Weimann and never looked back. "Bill introduced me to the Husky and to backcountry flying, and I was hooked," says Redding. Redding's solid piloting led us from Idaho back to Alpine on one memorable flight.
Reade Genzlinger went from earning his private certificate to a partnership in a Cessna 210. From there, he jumped into buying a T-6 on his own, and progressed through the warbird ranks. A highly skilled and precise pilot, Genzlinger flew lead on many of our missions. In addition to the Husky, he also owns the Yak-52TD (tailwheel version). Like the others, Genzlinger only spends part of the year at Alpine flying the backcountry, though it's clearly his passion. "The magnificence of the western topography is hard to beat, and what better way to scope it out than at 65-70 with two notches of flaps?" he says. "Our best day so far was spotting a moose, elk, bear, mule deer and mountain goat in one flight."
Stan Dardis is quiet and unassuming. He keeps a Cirrus and a Husky here at Alpine, but spends nearly all his time in the Husky. "I land the Cirrus here when I arrive, and don't touch it for three months!" His ball cap and easygoing demeanor belie the fact that he retired from the U.S. Air Force as a respected fighter pilot and T-38 instructor pilot. In formation, it's like he's on a rail; a quality I came to appreciate with his wingtip just a few feet from my camera lens as we wound through nameless canyons.
Mike Fjetland is new to aviation. With only a few hundred hours (mostly in Husky aircraft), he's still learning the ropes. Wiemann introduced Fjetland to the Husky, who uses it as a business tool managing farms in several states. Fjetland flew high cover for us, watching for conflicting traffic as we raced low along the Snake River. There were others too, like Jack Schulte, another Husky owner who joined us for a short time during our adventures.
The debriefing includes a discussion of what worked or what needed improvement to maintain safety at all times.
To anybody who has flown in these parts, it becomes obvious that the Husky is just about the perfect airplane for backcountry operations. Backcountry pilots will debate between the Super Cub and the Husky for days, but the fact remains that the Husky is an ideal tool for the mountains. Overbuilt to extraordinary strength, light and powerful, and able to land in postage-stamp-sized clearings, the Husky has endeared itself to those who operate in these unforgiving mountains.
Unlike some of the hardcore bushplanes flying in Alaska, there are fewer modifications made to these Husky aircraft. There are a few variations, including higher horsepower, three-bladed props, different tire configurations and structural components made of composites. Panel capabilities vary widely too, and Aviat equips some of these Husky aircraft with forward-looking infrared and enhanced vision capabilities. But for our adventures, the Husky aircraft were impressively simple and unmodified, with all of them sporting large "tundra" tires.
On our particular Husky (a 2011 A-1C model), Aviat was experimenting with a new type of oil cooler, designed to give pilots control of the oil temperature from the cockpit, allowing operations in widely varying environments. There were other smaller modifications throughout as part of Aviat's constant effort to make a better airplane. These put us—temporarily—in the "experimental" category.
The Snake River winds along U.S. Highway 89. Pilots use the river as a wind indicator when operating in these narrow canyons.
Easily, the greatest strength of the Husky is giving the pilot confidence and options. It was after watching these guys come into strips that were barely wide enough to accommodate our all-terrain vehicle, and shorter than a school play yard, that I started to feel comfortable winging over bottomless canyons, their tops still covered in snow, with nothing but unforgiving pines below me. I knew there was little that would prevent a survivable landing.
A quick peek at a topographical map of the area around Alpine will give you an idea of the terrain we would be covering in the days ahead. Surrounded by peaks with names like "Baldy Mountain" and "Deadhorse Ridge," we would be seeing the best of the Targhee National Forest and the grand mountains of the Teton Range, just a few miles from Yellowstone and its Jurassic monoliths.
In this part of Wyoming, 5 a.m. came quickly, and the summer days stretch well into 11 p.m. Today, we would proceed up the Snake River into Idaho, with its craggy peaks and pastoral meadows. I had expected a quick breakfast and "wheels up" with a loose group of pilots. Instead, I took part in a detailed briefing of every aspect of the flight to come. With military precision, the flight was planned. "This is unforgiving flying," related Horn. "Safety comes first."
After a carefully spaced takeoff and form-up, "Husky Flight" proceeded over the calm of Palisades Lake, its normally blue water colored tan with silt churned up by the extra heavy snowmelt this year. With Husky 5 flying high cover to alert us of any conflicting traffic, we dipped down into the Snake River Canyon, flying formation in trail and spaced in precise intervals.
Tundra tires allow the Husky to operate over much rougher terrain than standard tires, by absorbing the shock of hitting large rocks and debris.
It was suddenly that scene in Star Wars when Luke is flying his fighter in the recesses of the Death Star. The canyon walls were just feet from our wingtips, and the tenacious Snake River frothed with white water just under our bellies. "Husky one over the dam; check in," called flight leader Genzlinger, with each pilot reporting in. Horn and I were the last ship in the group, watching those ahead of us dance through the canyon like the hands of a master conductor during an intense part of the score.
The effect was intoxicating as the open windows let in the mountain air, the sound of our engine echoed off the canyon walls, and the river below glistened to our weaving wings. Up ahead, each Husky moved in a timed dance, choreographed with care, until we reached the end of the canyon, and flew it again, for fun.
I had expected risk, but what I found was precision and safety. I asked flight leader Genzlinger about the tricks of mountain flying. "The difficult part is really no different than any other flight situation—it's being prepared," he explained. "I've taken the McCall backcountry flying course, and understanding the environment, your equipment and the weather are paramount." I wanted to know if mountain flying had come easily to him. "It was a little unnerving at first. Being a flatlander from Pennsylvania did not prepare me for 9,500-foot mountains and the speed at which the weather can change."
I had a try at landing the Husky myself, though everything I had been taught flew out the window. I had but a few hours in the airplane, and Stu Horn showed me everything I had been doing wrong. First, he took 10 mph (the Husky's airspeed indicator is in mph instead of knots) off my speed on final. With full flaps, the extraordinarily slow speed makes for a steep approach with no float on the flare. Horn had me plant it on the ground with no illusion of trying to "grease it." Getting the airplane under control and stopped quickly is paramount. "That's how you land a Husky!" said Horn after a decent try on my part. I could see how this could get addicting.
There was more adventure, including grass strips, dirt runways and venturing through various canyons to lunch in Driggs, Idaho. There, our gaggle of Husky aircraft brought out the folks eating at the airport café, with their cameras and smiles. There's just something about a Husky—and five of them is an event.
Horn and his group of pilots taught me about judging the dangers of wind in the mountains, and how to find updrafts and avoid downdrafts. They talked about landing in tiny spaces and the tricky wind conditions that rob you of lift after the tree line, or shove your wing over on a climbout when you're already dangerously low. Intertwined were conversations about flying T-38s, the nuances of landing a P-51, and how a Husky managed to survive a forced landing caused by treacherous downdrafts and saved its occupants, thanks to its great strength.
With every flight, safety and precision was the order of the day. Instead of a loose bunch of fun-loving pilots, I had found a group of pilots with a deep passion for these mountains and for flying within them safely. With every flight, there was a debriefing and discussion about how to fly it better next time. On my last day, as our Husky turned toward the expansive Star Valley back toward Afton, Wyo., each pilot came on the radio to wish us well. I was proud to be able to call these adventurers my friends. I turned on some music and settled into a view of peaks passing behind my shoulder. Sad, but with our obedient and trusty Husky under wing, we headed home.
Husky On Floats: The Best Of Two Worlds
"You know, this whole state is perfect for floatplane operations," says Bill Wiemann, as he points out the built-in float attachments on all Husky aircraft. "It's kind of a best-kept secret, and there aren't too many people doing it, but there are some great floatplane spots near here."
Wiemann is one of the few pilots actively flying floats in the Wyoming backcountry. In his case, he flies Aviat's Husky A-1Cs, equipped with either a 180 hp or a 200 hp engine. Husky aircraft have become a fixture in the backcountry since they first flew in 1985, and their float capability is making them more popular than ever. While states like Florida and Minnesota are still the most popular destinations for floatplanes and seaplanes (floatplanes are land aircraft fitted with floats, while sea planes are essentially flying hulls), Wyoming and Idaho are growing in popularity, as pilots discover their wide variety of pristine backcountry lakes and reservoirs.
Wiemann operates out of Palisades Reservoir in Alpine, Wyo. "The conditions here are ideal during the spring and summer months," he explains, adding that his Husky on floats is a perfect platform for everything from fly-fishing to camping. "Think about the spots you can only reach in a floatplane," he says. That very afternoon, just a few miles from Alpine, we spotted a Husky on the far corner of Palisades, a tent perched next to the bobbing airplane. It was as far from highways and campsites as you can imagine, and showed the possibilities of floats in this rugged state.
"Most pilots can add a floatplane rating easily," says Wiemann. He tells me that most Husky aircraft operate on PK 2250 amphibious floats, made of aluminum, and so light they add only about 295 pounds, once the gear is removed. They're now certified for the Husky, and flight testing is in progress to boost the Husky's gross weight from 2,200 to 2,400 pounds with the PK floats. At full gross, the Husky lifts off the water in seven seconds. Each float also features a 50-pound-capacity, sealed storage compartment for added convenience.
As far as the issues of floatplane operations in these rugged mountains, Wiemann tells me that the usual caveats still apply. "Docking is the most dangerous part, since you have no reverse and no brakes," he explains. "And you don't want to land in water with the gear down, because it will be much worse than landing on asphalt with the gear up!" But pilots can easily learn the skills for water operations in the backcountry. "We go fishing, camping, hunting, and just splash and go if the lake is nice," Wiemann tells me. "Floatplane flying is a heckuva lot of fun."