Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Backcountry Odyssey

A group of Husky Aircraft takes on the rugged Teton Mountains

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.

The Flying

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."
Before you can understand backcountry flying, you have to learn about the pilots behind it. I confess I heLd the popular stereotype of backcountry pilots.
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."


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