Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Canyonlands By Cherokee

Learning the Utah backcountry

We took a flight over Upheaval Dome at Canyonlands National Park. I’ve seen it from the ground and wasn’t impressed. It’s like the scene in the remake of Godzilla with Matthew Broderick, where they’re standing around saying there’s no sign of a giant lizard, and the camera moves back to reveal them standing in a giant footprint. Upheaval Dome from the air is impressive—a large, round, sunken formation; geologists are still debating what it was exactly.

We learn to fly with practice exercises like stalls and steep turns. We learn instruments, practicing partial-panel and unusual attitudes. We learn precise commercial flying using lazy-eights and chandelles. For my backcountry learning experience, LaVar had me fly half an hour in the Green River canyon, 100 feet over the water, following the twists and turns of the canyon. After 10 minutes or so, I got used to flying with rocks at both wingtips and water just below, to the rhythm of the Green River’s meandering, to controlling my airplane in the backcountry world; and I felt the joy of flying here. Maybe I didn’t “feel the force” like Luke in Star Wars, but I learned to feel my airplane in a new and more precise way.

Hite (UT03) was our last new airport together on our first flight—a short, paved, zigzag runway at the north end of Lake Powell. The trick here isn’t following Lake Powell, which looks obvious, but coming in along the Dirty Devil River from the north and turning left onto the 2,000-foot runway.

On the way back to HVE, LaVar pointed to Angel Point, one of the easier backcountry strips, and suggested I land there on my way back to Canyonlands. I was “signed off for solo” in the backcountry, and I beamed with pride as I did the first time I landed by myself in a Cessna 150. I may have been its most junior member, but I now belonged to the Utah backcountry club.

This was my first time flying here. Since then, I’ve been back to these strips with LaVar, solo and with a passenger. I’ve grown comfortable, but still cautious. This wonderful place demands the best airmanship I can muster. Thanks to LaVar’s introduction and my own attitude, I can fly here.

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