Have you ever wanted more from lightplane recreational flying than driving from point A to point B for the $200 hamburger? (Well, there’s aerobatics, but that’s another story.) So, instead of thinking of flying from A to Burger, how about A to Backcountry? Before you dismiss this with a “Hey, my airship is a 172, not a Super Cub,” read on. We don’t have to think of backcountry flying as bush flying, like into a 300-foot gravel bar on the Yukon River. Let’s just define a backcountry strip as someplace you can take your ship to pitch a tent, fry your own burgers, take a nature hike, hopefully avoid the crowd and maybe do a little fishing.
The first planning step is to match your airship’s capability with some suitable destinations. Some questions to ask yourself are: Is the strip long enough, considering the expected density altitude and a possible downwind takeoff? Is the strip too rough for the landing gear? Are the approach and landing surface a fair match with my demonstrated skills? At what time of the year should I fly to the destination? What should I take? Am I going for a day trip or a monthlong, multi-destination, full campout safari? How will I communicate if there is a problem? Whom can I contact to get current surface conditions and expected weather?
I’ve been flying my Christen Husky almost exclusively into the backcountry for the past 17 years and almost 6,000 hours. The memories are too many to list, but a few of my best times easily come to mind: the seven-plus echoes off the cliffs at Dirty Devil, Utah, listening to a Mexican music station as the campfire dies and sleep arrives, having a wolf mysteriously appear at my side, then suddenly vanish as I turn away, and, last but not least, the slight adrenaline fix that comes from the first landing at each new place.
The challenging times are even easier to recall and, in some ways, even more pleasant to contemplate: being run out of camp by a bear, dealing with a broken landing gear strut, having problems getting the airplane to start, getting stuck in the mud, sitting in the plane all night long in the wind, rain and cold, being grounded in a tent for days at a time in foul weather, emergency landings at serendipitously appearing deserted strips, and, perhaps the worst of times, setting up camp in 30-plus-knot winds.
Being confident of your airship’s mechanical condition and in your ability to improvise solutions are important elements of backcountry flying. Not being able to start the engine is annoying at the burger strip, but at a serious backcountry strip, it has the potential to bust both your vacation and your wallet. Most starting problems can be overcome if you can safely hand-prop your plane. I encourage anyone flying into the backcountry to get competent instruction and experience in doing this, recognizing that for some airplanes, this isn’t practical. A lesson that I’ve learned here is to carry a spray can of starting fluid. A shot or two of this in the carburetor air inlet will do wonders.
Backcountry flying should be approached with a heightened sense of weather and airport environment awareness. Many backcountry strips don’t have windsocks, and for those that do, be skeptical of its indication. At strips surrounded by ridges and trees, winds can be all over the place. Check the GPS speed on downwind, base and final. If things begin to get weird, abort (if possible) and give it one more try. Do not force it unless you have no choice. If the winds are strong, beware of eddy currents coming off nearby trees, and for strips with a precipice at the approach end, be ready for a strong downdraft on short final. If you’re a stranger at a seldom-used strip with no defined parking area, first check the layout from the air, then, after landing, stop on the strip and scout out where you want to park and camp. Taxiing into very soft ground or putting a wheel in a hole can turn a campout into a workout or worse. For demanding strips, try to take advantage of the cool, calm morning air for both arrival and departure. As you make your arrival, look the area over with an emergency on departure in mind and have a plan for engine failure. Two years ago, my O-360 stuck a valve departing south from Dirty Devil, Utah. Takeoffs here present few emergency options and none are good, but there’s one that’s survivable. When this happens, and it does, now is not the time to be looking around. In my case, I had the pre-planned spot “made” when the engine revived.
The state of Idaho has dozens of backcountry strips to fit skill levels from novice (Johnson Creek and Smiley Creek) to highly experienced (Mile High and Cabin Creek). The problem with places like Johnson Creek and Smiley Creek is that you’ll seldom be alone there, and on a nice summer weekend, it can be like a fly-in. Here are three Western backcountry strips that are suitable for most small airplanes and inexperienced pilots, yet offer beautiful surroundings, camping comfort and at least a fair chance for solitude on weekdays.
1 Benchmark Airport, Mont., (3U7) is a 6,000 x 100-foot paved strip that gets light traffic (probably because it doesn’t look backcountry). It’s adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and has A-plus camping amenities (tables, toilets, water, cut firewood, etc.). The Montana Pilots’ Association maintains the camp area. For details and photos, see the Husky-L Website at www.husky.taildragger.info/strips/strips_main.php.
2 Mineral Canyon, Utah, (no airport ID) is 2,500 feet of hard-packed dirt with a nice camping area, but no amenities. Although you must drop into the 1,000-foot-deep Green River Canyon, the approaches are safe and easy by backcountry standards. Wonderful camping and hiking can be had in the spring and fall. The strip is maintained by the Utah Back Country Pilots (UBCP). One precaution here is to judge the area from an overflight, and if it looks wet, go 25 miles south to Needles Outpost and enjoy the world’s best hamburger! Details on both strips are available on the UBCP Website (see “Backcountry Information” sidebar”) or the Husky-L Website.
3 Sullivan Lake State Airport, Wash., (09S) is 1,900 x 100 feet of hard turf. It has tables, fire rings and water, and is adjacent to a state park campground with toilets. This strip gets lots of visitors on weekends, but on three weekday trips here, I’ve been the only airplane. The Washington Pilots Association helps in maintaining this strip. For more information, visit the Husky-L Website.
Regarding the equipment list, a flare gun is an effective signal device if you hear a nearby plane, but unless the vegetation is quite damp, or you can shoot to positively land in water, you’ll probably start a wildfire. The British SAS Survival Guide is head and shoulders better than anything else I know of; you can find it online at www.amazon.com. The flat metal plate serves as a stove and cooking base, a smooth sleeping area of sticks and stones, plus many other uses. I find a foam mattress cheaper, better and more reliable than an air mattress. I always carry a big and a little tent, which is easier to put up, especially in wind. If you’re rained out for a day or more, you’ll wonder why you didn’t bring the big tent. The Primus stove is a tiny blast furnace that always works. It puts out three times the heat with half the bulk of any canned fuel stove, and in a pinch, it’ll work on avgas. A small Coleman-type lantern is easier to carry than a battery lantern; be sure to have extra mantels. The mover’s blanket is heavy but makes a perfect under-mattress with lots of other uses. Use tarps as ground cloths and to cover up gear from dew and rain. Clothing and footwear should be appropriate to the place. A bug-resistant shirt is needed up north, and you’ll always be glad you brought a pair of sandals. In bear country, you might consider a $40 can of pepper spray (which you must declare if you’re going into Canada). For me, a good AM radio is a required companion. Few backcountry strips have any tiedowns in place. I carry FlyTies, which are a bit heavy at five pounds and not cheap ($100 from Aircraft Spruce, www.aircraftspruce.com), but they do a great job in anything but solid rock. Finally, carry a kit of small tools and spare parts appropriate to your aircraft.
Once you get the backcountry bug, you’ll find yourself looking for places you may have flown over, but never considered before. Sometimes, you’ll drop down, take a close look and even land. There’s one such strip in Wyoming’s Great Basin Desert on the banks of the Sweetwater River that I’ve passed over many times. I promised myself to go there this spring. I’ll have a pleasing campfire, with beans and bacon for dinner, and hope for a calm, starry night with distant lightning and a few howling coyotes. In the morning, I’ll have bacon and flapjacks, take a short hike with my camera and then wake from the dream. Life is how the time goes by.