Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wings In The Wilderness

Flying safely in the backcountry

WildernessThe runway lights are still on at Friedman Memorial Airport (SUN) in Hailey, Idaho, as the Cessna 182 levitates off the pavement, the pink glow of dawn just spilling over the ridgeline of the Wood River Valley. The harsh, pitted lava plain of the Craters of the Moon lay behind us, and ahead, another day of exploring Idaho’s backcountry and its challenging airstrips. Guiding us is the man who literally wrote the book on the subject: Galen Hanselman, author of Fly Idaho!, Air Baja!, Fly the Big Sky! (Montana) and the new two-volume Fly Utah! Hanselman’s books are the ultimate pilot’s guides to the backcountry, providing essential information on the airstrips and airport environment. Yet, they’re also elegant, miniature coffee-table books that brim with beautiful photography and pithy text covering history, local lore and practical information on what to do and where to go at each location.
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WildernessHanselman claims he started collecting material for Fly Idaho! just so he wouldn’t have to explain why he spent so much time flying. “People would ask me, ‘What did you do today?’ ‘I went flying,’ I’d respond. They really didn’t get it, so I started saying, ‘Well, I’m working on a book on flying.’ They could understand that. I started writing and collecting data and assembling it into a book.”

Idaho has its share of forbidding landing spots, but many are well-groomed, have campsites and are easily accessible to novice backcountry pilots. “That’s not the case in Utah,” Hanselman says of the airstrips featured in his new book. “Many are badly overgrown. These strips weren’t designed for the long-term. They were built to get supplies, like beer and paychecks, to uranium miners, and a couple of years later, they were gone.”

Everybody says you become better by getting an instrument rating, but i think you get better by flying the backcountry. you’ve got to do it right every time.

WildernessMost of the more than 140 airstrips covered in Fly Utah! include a cautionary note due to some hazard, either on the field or off. For example, a warning for a place called Robbers Roost reads: “Caution: Isolated, remote, cowboy-outlaw country. Don’t attempt to leave this desert maze by any means other than an airplane.”

To help determine whether a landing spot is prudent for a given pilot, Hanselman developed a Relative Hazard Index (RHI), a three-part scale that weighs hazards associated with the approach and departure, with the airport environment (including elevation, runway length and obstructions) and with hazards associated with the runway surface. Hanselman knows these hazards firsthand. In 2004, while collecting data in Utah with son Mark, he landed at Dark Canyon Plateau, a 2,600-foot dirt strip at an elevation of 6,648 feet that was bumpierand softer than he had expected. It sat on a vast, sloping plateau that distorted the horizon line.

Though he didn’t start flying in the backcountry until his 30s, Galen Hanselman has proven himself as an expert on flying in and out of remote mountain strips.
“I couldn’t discern that one end [of the runway] was higher than the other, so I decided to take off in a direction to use the bumps to get in the air. I hit the first bump and I didn’t have the airspeed I needed,” Hanselman recalls. “You ever have that sick feeling, you’re in the air but not flying? I did my best to drag it on the prop, but I wasn’t getting altitude. Fifteen hundred feet past the runway, the wind switched to a tailwind. It was like a giant hand pushing us down into the juniper trees. The wings, prop and engine absorbed almost all the energy. By the time we flipped upside down, it was a fairly gentle maneuver, relatively speaking.” Father and son walked away uninjured, but not unaffected.

“It did bother me for quite a while,” Hanselman says. “I didn’t handle it very well. I had my one and only son, and to expose somebody who isn’t really aware of the hazards involved to that kind of danger isn’t right.”

But looking back, Hanselman can’t see how he could have averted the accident. “One good thing I learned: I realized pilots need good information to make good decisions,” he says. “It made me realize I had to have exceptionally good descriptions.” Hanselman decided to include a runway elevation profile for every airstrip in the Utah guidebook. He learned how to survey from a civil engineer and gathered data for the precise renderings featured on a fold-down page with each entry.

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