Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Katmais And Cubs: A Desert Adventure

Two superb backcountry aircraft take on the Utah Canyonlands

Happy Canyon is short, narrow, rutty and dominated by a massive canyon face. There are no go-arounds here. I'm in the Cub with Warren, who puts us down in an impossible 200 feet. Peterson is close behind, sticking the Katmai like a seasoned pro, with Ambats riding right seat. We shut down and break the deafening silence with our footsteps. A crumbling mining shack remains, standing as a testament to the hardiness of those who labored here. They must have felt like outcasts on an asteroid. Inside, timber shelves are still stocked with bottles of liniments and tinctures, long dried out, and companions to rusted cans of beans and empty jugs of whiskey. We've stepped back in time (the Utah Back Country Pilots Association has asked that items at these strips be left untouched).

Takeoff from Happy Canyon is an adrenaline-pumping affair as the density altitude reaches toward 9,000 feet. For the Carbon Cub, it's a moderate task, even loaded heavily as we are. Our takeoff roll is 150 feet, and we climb at 1,500 fpm. Todd Petersen knows his Katmai and calculates a takeoff roll of 600 to 700 feet on the 1,200-foot strip. With his 300 hp IO-550 blaring out its characteristic mid-pitch snarl, and his 29-inch bush tires absorbing the rocks and bumps, he's off in about 600 feet. Below us, the tattered and faded windsock hangs still, a limp gatekeeper to another era.

Remote And Rugged
Some in the group opt for Mineral Canyon or one of many other strips that dot this Martian landscape. Each offers its own story and challenge. General aviation was made for exploring these canyons, and I consider how fortunate I am as we float above a sliding tapestry woven in burnt sienna and ochre. Flying with Warren in the Carbon Cub, our talk turns to emergencies.

"It's all about margins," Warren says as we pass low over the chiseled canyons. "You have to leave yourself an out." He's confident we can find a spot for the Cub if we had to. "But what looks smooth from up here is deceiving," he adds. Flying alone here isn't recommended, and we're reassured by the banter between our group on 130.30, our chosen air-to-air frequency. They'd be our first call in a pinch.

An indispensable tool here is Galen Hanselman's Fly Utah! handbook. Filled with specifications, advice and lore, it's the expert guide for pilots flying these canyons. Hanselman, who's obsessed with accuracy and honesty, lists each strip along with reams of everything you need to know to launch—and get the most from—an adventure here.

Like the blue dart frog of the Amazon, as beautiful as this land is, it can kill you quickly. Water is everything here, and I go through nearly half gallon of it just flying around in the blast furnace heat. We're near the spot where Aron Ralston had to cut off his own arm to survive after falling into a slot canyon.

Smart pilots carry a gallon of water, a PLB (personal locator beacon), survival tools, first aid kit, food and a sleeping bag. It's evident that a search-and- rescue operation here would be like finding a grain of salt on a beach. For 100 miles, we see no structures, roads or any sign of human civilization.


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