Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Katmais And Cubs: A Desert Adventure

Two superb backcountry aircraft take on the Utah Canyonlands

"Whisky Alpha, you up?" jolts us as we approach Fry Canyon (UT74), with its promise of Indian ruins and cave art. Fry Canyon was another strip put here by a booming uranium industry. When the Cold War wound down, it took uranium with it, leaving many of these places ghost towns. "We're here and have you in sight," we answer, and turn a close base leg to the relatively long but rough airstrip. Our bulbous tires make the washboard surface seem smooth and a little bouncy.

A short hike from the airstrip reveals the ruins of cliff dwellings built here by the Anasazi Indians some 900 years ago. Standing on the opposite ledge, we each admire the ruins across the precipice and wonder who these people were, living in this harsh but breathtaking environment. As quickly as we came, we're off to Monument Valley.

Ambats and I switch places so we can experience both types of aircraft. Peterson graciously hands over the Katmai and teaches me a thing or two about backcountry operations. With 11,000 hours of GA flying to his name, he's humble and greatly skilled. He's also a big fan of the CubCrafters airplanes. "When the time comes that I don't think I'd pass the FAA medical anymore," he laughs, "I'm gonna take a serious look at these Cubs." Meanwhile, he demonstrates the superb handling of the Katmai.

The key to the Katmai conversion is the canard concept. A canard is a small horizontal surface (or "foreplane") attached ahead of the main wing, on the nose. A mini-horizontal stabilizer, the canard has a moveable "elevator" section that deflects seven degrees downward at full aft yoke and roughly one degree up when the yoke is forward. The net effect is super-enhanced pitch authority and stunning slow-speed performance, allowing for nearly flat attitudes at extremely low speeds. It makes getting into and out of these remote strips safer.

With hot midday temperatures, the density altitude at Happy Canyon (elevation 4,934 feet) reached nearly 9,000 feet.
The regal sentinels of Monument Valley come and go as we catch a bite at Goulding's Lodge, deep in Navajo country, then race the sun back toward Moab. The sand-sculpture mesas occasionally give way to stomach-dropping canyons as the afternoon thermals churn the air around us.

I'm filled with a sense of humility as I survey the desert below. Peterson and I discuss the contrast between the hardships the Mormon pioneers faced when settling this land, and how we glide above it, listening to music in comfort, watching the miles tick away at 140 knots. Only in a small aircraft can we experience the contrasts here.

Back at Moab, we park the Katmai with the sun low behind us. We're tired, thirsty and sunburned. Each of us carries the treasures of the day not in our pockets, but in our memories. We haven't so much conquered this land as we've been guests of it; this living desert allowing us a glimpse from a magic carpet that few will ever experience. With all of us smiling through the red dust that covers us, I'm assured that adventure still lives.


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