Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Backcountry Odyssey


A group of Husky Aircraft takes on the rugged Teton Mountains


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.

The Pilots

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.





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