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Backcountry Flying Revolution

The biggest growth sector in light aviation is wilderness flying. Here’s how this once-niche segment became a movement.

Backcountry Flying Revolutioin
Photographer Andrew Studer captured his striking image of a pair of light planes traversing the dramatic landscape of Oregon’s spectacular Painted Hills.
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Backcountry flying, referred to as bush, outback or off airport flying, is nothing new. It has been around since shortly after the Wrights first flew, though it didn’t become a widespread activity until the era of the barnstormers, when planes got tough enough to take a little abuse. By the 1930s, bush flying was both widespread and an important part of the settlement of the American frontier, especially in Alaska, where roads were few and distances were great—also the case in the Canadian frontier. The first bush pilots were already strutting their off-airport stuff by the 1920s.

If roads were scarce, so, too, were runways. This meant that in many places, pilots had to improvise by landing on dirt roads or suitable clearings, which in many parts of the wilderness can be less common than runways. But what the American and Canadian outback had in plentiful supply were bodies of water, so flying on floats became a dominant segment of the transportation system. To a lesser extent, so did flying on skis.

Backcountry Revolution
A Cubcrafters Cub cruises between layers on a winter day in the Cascades.

Bush flying spread around the world, which isn’t surprising, as the very challenges (a lack of roads and runways along with challenging terrain) that drove the adoption of bush flying in North America did so, too, in South America, Africa and Australia, among other places.

For decades, bush flying was predominantly a commercial activity, and over the years, a number of light aircraft emerged as stars of the outback. These included the de Havilland Beaver, the Piper Super Cub and the Cessna 185, 180 and 206, along with the Maule M-4 series, among others.

When not on floats, what these aircraft had in common were rugged design and a conventional (tailwheel) configuration, with the exception of the 206, which makes up for its nosegear with decent ground clearance up front and great load capacity. The big Cessna piston single is, like the de Havilland Beaver, regularly put to work on floats, straight (non-amphibious) usually, in part because every pound that goes into the additional hardware of amphibs is load reduced, and when a small plane is working for a living, payload is everything.

Rise Of Recreational Bush Flying

It would be silly to say that flying in the wilderness for fun and travel is anything new. It has existed for nearly as long as commercial bush flying. But in the past 25 years, this segment of outback flying, that is, pilots who fly their own planes for the many rewards of the experience, has exploded. At the same time, mods like big tires (some of them really big) and modded engines and kitplanes have become commonplace. And the rise of personal backcountry flying has spread to the Lower 48 in a big way. The stereotype of the gruff old-timer bush pilot, which, like most clichés, exists because there’s a lot of truth to it, has been joined by a whole new demographic.

Backcountry Revolution
Talented filmmaker Geoff Oliver lifts off from the Knik Picnic strip northeast of Anchorage near the Knik Glacier in his Maule.

Especially in Alaska, bush flying has been the Wild West of light aviation. For decades, that often meant mods, like big tires or additional attach points or creative field repairs, that were given reduced FAA scrutiny, along with cargo carrying solutions that were, well, let’s just say creative.

The explosion of kitplanes in the 1980s didn’t initially have a big impact on bush flying. That’s because most of them were used in commercial operations, so they needed conventional Part 23 certification.

Many of today’s wilderness flyers are non-commercial pilots, often younger people, many of them professionals, with a love for extreme flying and the machines associated with it. It’s important to understand that this segment arose at the same time as the explosion of interest in other extreme sports, everything from ultra-marathoning to wilderness skiing, some of which were popularized by ESPN’s X Games.

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It might be tempting to dismiss these flyers as weekend warriors, but it’s simply not the case. These are serious pilots for whom backcountry flying has become nothing short of an all-consuming passion.

With this shift came the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF), founded in 2003. An organization that’s dedicated to the preservation of existing backcountry strips, along with the re-opening of many others, the RAF has helped give recreational flyers a remarkable variety of flying destinations, many of them set in spectacular stretches of wilderness. It has also given the lie to the notion that aircraft are eco-unfriendly in such settings. The truth is that people arriving in the outback via light plane have a far lesser impact on nature than those who arrive by other means.

Social Media’s Turbocharging Effect

It seems bizarre in retrospect, but social media, especially YouTube and Facebook, have fueled the passion for recreational flying, including bringing heaping helpings of internet fame for some pilots who regularly post videos and still images on their pages.

When you think about it, though, it makes perfect sense that this would be the case. Flying small planes is, in most respects and most often, a solitary activity, or at best one you share with just a few other people—your passengers. But with the advent of social media channels that showcase visual storytelling, which has only been a thing for the past 10 or 15 years, flying small planes has become an experience you can share with many thousands of people. Not only are the stories compelling, but their appeal is three-pronged or better. We get the planes, which pilots are crazy about, and the landscape, which is often as spectacular as it is seldom seen from the air. And then there are the pilots, who are living large and loving being the person who’s sharing all the goodness with their friends and fans.

Backcountry Revolution
Brandon Wilson got this impromptu air-to-air shot of a Citabria near Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada, with Matanuska Peak and Lazy Mountain in the background.

Such content has a serious snowball effect, too, with the exploits of some flyers fueling the passion and/or serving as the inspiration for thousands of others.

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The result has been the proliferation of a culture of backcountry flying that’s pushed the activity into the aviation spotlight in a way that few of us imagined until recently.

On top of that, a couple of events have helped shine an even brighter light on the remarkable performance of a new generation of what are often highly modified short takeoff and landing (STOL) planes, including a few that are of the pilot/builders’ own design.

In the spring, up in Alaska, the Valdez Fly-In & Air Show has become a big event. The most eagerly awaited part of the show is the STOL contest, which has been around for 15 years now. Valdez STOL showcases the shortest that the short-takeoff and landing world has to offer. The landing distances are measured in mere feet, with the winning combined distances of both takeoff and landing determining the total score. It’s hard to find historical records, but a few years ago, competitor Frank Knapp in his Lil Cub scored a 25, meaning his combined takeoff run and landing roll were 25 feet. Okay, maybe not helicopter stuff, but pretty darned close. The contest is great, but so, too, is the gathering of like-minded flyers, whose energy and talent have helped raise the bar for this kind of fun flying while also serving as an important gathering spot on the map and calendar for practitioners of STOL flight.

Down in the Lower 48, another event and inventive STOL contest has served to bring people together. The High Sierra Fly In (HSF) is more a bush pilot’s Burning Man than a conventional airshow. The gathering, which has been going on for 11 years, is held on a remote dry lake called Dead Cow in the high desert of Nevada. For hundreds of flyers, HSF has turned into a must-attend fly-in, in very much the same way that Oshkosh is for more conventional flyers.

HSF, which is volunteer-run, and expertly so, is host to a fairly new event, the STOL Drag Race, which pits planes head-to-head in a race from takeoff down a straight-line course to a landing, quick turnaround and landing back at the original takeoff point. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and competitors say it’s even more fun to fly. 

Essential Wilderness

Backcountry flying is not, at heart, about events. It’s about the backcountry. Landing on gravel bars, skiing with big tires on the surface of glassy water, flying into postage-stamp strips keyholed into steep mountain river valleys are all flying challenges that these pilots live for.

Backcountry Revolution
Jim Stevenson got this tight formation shot of Ross Wilke (near) and Dave Lenz after a trip to an orchard strip in Wisconsin, where there were donuts. 

There is inarguably an increased level of risk involved with bush flying. But there is, just as clearly, a greatly enhanced level of reward. The videos and photography show off its beauty, but it is, these pilots will tell you, something that you won’t get until you do it.

And that means learning the ropes, knowing your airplane and your capabilities, and never pushing past your comfort zone, at least not by more than a sliver. The secret of amazing flying exploits is that they don’t seem amazing to the pilots who perform them. It’s carefully honed performance and reaction. Make no mistake. Experienced backcountry pilots are all that and then some.

And never, ever forget the wilderness. It’s what makes this kind of flying possible, and it’s an essential part of what makes it so deeply rewarding. 

For more backcountry flying photos, check out the gallery below!

Piper Pacer by Andy Smith

Piper Pacer by Andy Smith
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Andy Smith’s Piper Pacer in front of spectacular Alaska foliage at the Knik strip.

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