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Part-Time Pilots, Full-Time Mountains
Mountains Don't Need Practice to Bite You in the Knickers

by Thelma Bullinger
Article reprinted with permission of FAA Aviation News

After many years of flying in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado I can honestly say that each harbors an infinite variety of sporting and recreational opportunities. The Rocky Mountains, stretching for 2,000 miles through the Northwest United States, provides us with the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, which has the highest and most rugged terrain in the mountain range at 14,255 feet. Colorado also gives us the Mesa Verde National Park with Indian cliff dwellings built under sandstone uprisings. In Montana, Glacier National Park gives us about a million acres of mountain scenery with 50 glaciers and 200 lakes. Wyoming is our host when we visit Yellowstone National Park, offering wildlife viewing and the geyser eruptions of Old Faithful. A few miles to the south of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Jackson Hole is home to The Grand Tetons. Rising abruptly from the mountain's floor, Mt. Moran on the north end of the chain climbs to 12,605 feet, and The Grand Teton reaches upward to 13,772 feet. Now folks, those peaks represent a lot of solid granite molecules. The Idaho Wilderness Area is the ONLY place in North America where a pilot can have the thrill of real canyon flying! The Main Salmon and Middle Fork Salmon rivers, along with their tributaries, comprise the second and third deepest canyon networks in North America. Hell's Canyon just to the west is the deepest. There are dozens of airstrips in the bottoms of canyons or on ridges and mountain basins in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and surrounding areas. Any of these areas will offer visitors a once in a lifetime flying experience, but, because of the vastness of these Northwestern states, this article will concentrate on Idaho.

Nestled in the state of Idaho you can find the greatest expanse of wilderness area in the lower 48. It encompasses 2,361,767 acres of Federal land and more than 52 airstrips that provide recreation and emergency access to remote areas for general aviation users. Twenty-four of those strips are located within the Frank Church Wilderness Area, and nine serve as public trailheads, a starting point for backpacking or hiking in the Wilderness Area. Those who visit Idaho and its Wilderness Area fall in love with the beauty and opportunities that the state provides. This is beauty beyond description with whitewater rafting, photography, wildlife viewing, backpacking, hunting, fishing, camping, "getting away from it all peace and quiet," skiing, no freeways-gosh, much of the area doesn't even have a gravel road, let alone a freeway! Want to know how to get there to enjoy these scenic wonders? You can jet boat in on one of the rivers, a few places you can drive by way of a gravel road, but for a great part, the only way in or out is by way of-what else-THE AIRPLANE!

Now that you are ready to pack those bags and head for the great Northwest, there are some things that you need to be prepared for before you embark on this adventure of a lifetime. How long since you have really calculated density altitude? How long since you have really studied winds and wind flow patterns as they travel over the changing contours of a mountain range? Are you knowledgeable on how to "read" those wind patterns? Can you recognize when a rapidly building weather system may put you and your airplane in an inherently dangerous situation? Weather reporting stations are far apart and can't sample the weather between canyons with small runways or between mountain peaks. Pilot reports are the only good sources, and it behooves everyone to participate in reporting and to pay attention.

The Idaho Wilderness Area offers smaller windows of flying opportunities than most areas. For anyone wishing to fly into or out of it you should have a flexible time schedule in order to accommodate those windows of opportunity. We are defining an opportunity as a safe time to fly. Those windows are somewhat predictable, and it is highly advised to choose those times that will offer the greatest degree of opportunity and safety. Simply put, early morning offers the most consistent opportunity. As the day moves on, any wind that is blowing on the tops of the mountains will begin to descend down the canyons. The higher the winds aloft the sooner they will descend. Evenings, when the mosquitoes begin to bite, may offer some degree of consistent opportunity at some airstrips. Very high pressure with forecast winds aloft at mountain top level of light and variable, temperatures below 70', and no addition of moisture in the area will usually afford the most stable air and the best flying into and out of the Idaho Wilderness Area. When pressure starts to drop, temperatures begin to rise, moist and unstable air is added, and the wind starts to blow, the movement of air begins, and you, Mr./Ms. Pilot, have a more difficult time controlling the aircraft. At some point it becomes unsafe, and at another it becomes impossible.

Now, we mentioned there are very few roads to lead you into this vast wonderland of beauty. Did we mention that NAVAIDS for flight are mostly non-existent? GPS may be used when appropriate. But remember, point to point, airport to airport, straight-line tracks frequently do not work safely in the mountains. VOR will be largely unusable because of line of sight limitations. Hmmm, it looks like there are some serious considerations before starting out on this adventure.

There are no words strong enough to emphasize the importance of including adequate training when making your plans to turn your dreams of flying into the Wilderness Area a reality. We have all had the proverbial scenario presented to us, "you have 50 foot tall trees on the approach end of the runway or on the departure end of the runway or both," then you go through the procedures of how to clear those obstructions. Now, let's look at Simonds Runway, with a "field elevation of 5,243 feet, 900 foot gravel runway, located on 6% uphill slope, with 23% side slope above and below runway. Tall trees on approach end, runway surface conditions subject to ongoing deterioration. Special consideration should be given to density altitude, turbulence, and mountain flying proficiency. Caution: When grass is wet, side slope will cause plane to slide during turnaround." (From FLY IDAHO by Galen L. Hanselman, pages A-112 and A-113)

Or are you ready for: "Mile Hi Runway, Field elevation 5,831 feet, 560' X 30' runway, and first 540' of runway unusable for landing with an 18% to 22% upslope on usable end of runway. Caution: On takeoff the runway is not fully visible. Careful alignment is critical. Runway surface conditions subject to ongoing deterioration. Special consideration should be given to density altitude, turbulence, and mountain flying proficiency." (FLY IDAHO, pages A-92 and A-93.)

Mountain Flying Training
Serious preflight preparation is an absolute necessity, and that doesn't mean just the walk-around you do before taking that pilot seat and starting the engine. IT MEANS PREFLIGHTING YOU-THE PILOT-to fly in some very serious mountain conditions.

Well in advance of beginning your trip into the Wilderness Area, avail yourself of the training that is available to help make your trip a grand experience. Many books, guides, and mountain flying clinics are available to you. Flying the Idaho Wilderness Area can be a challenge. However, flying there can also be both fun and safe. Mountain flying seminars are conducted in McCall and Challis, Idaho, during the spring and summer months. Backcountry/Wilderness Area pilots, flight instructors, and the FAA offer a fun and educational introduction to the special type of flying knowledge required to operate safely in this unique environment.

It is the objective of these Wilderness Area pilots and flight instructors to help pilots continue to learn skills and safety concepts that they can use to fly the backcountry, as well as apply to all of their flying

A mountain flying seminar or personal instruction from a local mountain flying instructor is the "cheapest insurance" you can get to ensure the safety of you, your family, and your airplane. When you are looking for a seminar to attend before your anticipated adventure, be sure that it offers general meteorology, canyon meteorology, aircraft performance versus density altitude, loading the aircraft, navigation to include maps and charts, mountain water run off drainages, ridges and passes, canyons, routes, mountain winds, position reporting, traffic patterns, runway conditions, communications, time of day, take-off and landings, winter flying, survival gear, as well as etiquette and courtesies.

Etiquette and courtesies? That's right. Many of these airports are public use, but many are private strips available only by prior permission or for emergency use. You will win far more friends by adhering to the prior permission policy than to drop in unexpectedly and expect a warm handshake from the owner/manager of this pristine wilderness airport-unless, of course, you are using the facility because of an actual emergency.

Operators' Experience
Air taxi operators serve the airstrips, homes, and lodges in the Wilderness Area flying in from various departure points from around the country with most of them coming from points in Idaho. The visitors, who come to share what Idaho has to offer in the way of the recreation, are advised by Scott Patrick of SP Aircraft in Boise that, until you are well acquainted with the Wilderness Area, you should limit your flying to staying over the main river canyons. Avoid the side canyons that quickly begin to all look alike to the inexperienced eye.

Ray Arnold of Arnold Aviation in Cascade, Idaho, delivers the mail in the Wilderness Area. Ray has two mail routes and each route receives mail delivery once a week. Through the radio network the families living in the Wilderness Area call their orders for groceries or other household needs for the coming week to Ray. His company will shop and deliver the ordered items with the mail on the weekly mail run. Ray has held the mail contract with the U.S. Postal Service more than 25 years. When the snow flies, then the skis are put on the Cessna C185, one of three single-engine airplanes Ray operates, and the mail still goes through as long as flight conditions permit. During the peak season of the year, about April to December, it isn't uncommon for Ray to make upwards of 20 landings and takeoffs a day on these remote airstrips. The mail delivery is not without its hazards either. In December of 2000 while on a mail delivery, two deer ran across the runway as Ray was about to touchdown. One deer made it across in front of the airplane, but the second one didn't. Damage to the airplane consisted of a broken propeller hub and a bent blade and the deer was killed. (See photo on page 10) Ray had to make use of the Wilderness Area radio network to call in to his office in Cascade and have another airplane come pick him up so the mail delivery could continue.

Many families live in these mountains. When I visited the area in October 2000, I met the youngest resident of the Idaho Wilderness area. Kayanna Mae Zamora, three-months old, with her mom and dad, Jennifer and John Zamora, met our airplane when we landed. They were there to meet us and to receive their weekly mail delivery and groceries from town. The Zamora family live at Whitewater Ranch, which is a private airstrip. From May through November the family is able to drive to Grangeville, Idaho, two to three hours away or Elk City, Idaho, one hour away. From December to April the first 19 miles are covered by snowmobile, then they travel by automobile the rest of the journey. The Zamora's told me the main disadvantage to living in the Wilderness Area is that it is not easily accessible for family or friends to visit. The advantages? They are so many that FAA Aviation News doesn't have room for me to list them all. However, the peace and quiet and the mountain beauty are usually listed as top reasons for the love the people feel for this being their choice of places to live. There are usually no roads into many of these areas, no electricity, and no telephones. The individual homes and lodges provide their own generators for electrical power. Those living in the Wilderness Area have their own radio system and have contact points in Salmon, Challis, Stanley, Cascade, or McCall, Idaho. Their means of survival here depend on the air taxi operators who service the Wilderness Area from these small towns and from Boise, Idaho.

Mike Dorris at McCall Air Taxi in McCall, Idaho, also has a mail delivery route that he operates throughout the year using a Cessna 185 or Cessna 170. During the winter months retractable skis are put on the airplanes so the mail can continue to be delivered on his routes as weather permits. In addition McCall Air Taxi, through the use of telemetry, tracks wolf recovery as well as bear, wild game, and even small birds and trout from implants or collared radios. McCall Air Taxi operates an Islander and a variety of Cessna single engine aircraft.

Tips On Mountain Flying
Before flying into the Wilderness Area, consider the following information on mountain flying provided by the Idaho Division of Aeronautics. This information is based on years of successful mountain flying by experienced mountain pilots and may be found in various books and publications.

1. Do not consider flying the mountain country until you are proficient in slow flight. A checkout by an experienced mountain-flying instructor is highly recommended.

2. Before flying into mountainous areas, practice short field landings power on, upwind, downwind, and crosswind. Be sure you can land on a fifty-foot spot every time.

3. Carry enough fuel to make a complete round trip plus fifty percent.

4. Know your aircraft. Do not take an aircraft that will not takeoff and land in a minimum distance into mountain terrain. Most airports in this area are substandard in length and width and have associated high-density altitudes. It takes considerable experience to handle a high performance aircraft in the mountain environment.

5. Keep your aircraft weight as light as possible.

6. Know your planned destination airport. Know the altitude, length, condition, and approach/departure procedure at the airport. Many of these fields are one-way, and on some, a go-around is not possible once you have committed to land.

7. Check the weather frequently and stay out of doubtful or bad weather. Mountain weather rapidly changes and unexpectedly.

8. Plan your flight to arrive in the early morning hours. As a rule, the air begins to deteriorate around 10:00 a.m., grows steadily worse until about 4:00 p.m., then gradually improves until dark.

9. Stay out of the mountains if the wind is over 25 knots.

10. Route your trip over valleys whenever possible and study your charts thoroughly. Watch your compass heading to avoid getting lost.

11. Maintain a minimum of 2,000' AGL when overflying the backcountry. Remember: others are in the mountains to enjoy a wilderness experience.

12. Approach all ridges at an angle so you can turn away if you encounter a downdraft. After crossing the ridge, head directly away from it.

13. Expect the wind to be changing constantly in the mountains. Do not rely on cloud shadows for wind direction. If you are unable to gain altitude on one side of a canyon, try the other side. BUT DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, FLY UP A CANYON OR VALLEY WITHOUT SUFFICIENT ALTITUDE AND ROOM TO TURN AROUND. The grade of the canyon may climb faster than your aircraft.

14. Maintain flying speed in downdrafts.

15. Remember, you will not have a horizon to check your aircraft attitude once you begin a let down in the mountains. Watch your airspeed and cross check your instruments.

16. Caution: traffic pattern terrain clearance is not standard at many mountain airports.

17. Above all, fly the aircraft every second; don't let it "fly you." You cannot make mistakes.

In Case Of Emergency
Pilots flying into Wilderness Area airstrips must keep in mind that most of these locations have few, if any, support facilities. Typical resources such as fuel, aircraft maintenance, courtesy cars, telephones, lodging and dining, rest rooms, or even tiedown chains are not available. Because of the fact that these sites are unattended and receive limited maintenance, they are subject to deterioration caused by the weather, wild game, and other aircraft operations. Consider this NOTAM which was issued for an airstrip near the entrance to Yellowstone Park at Gardner, Montana a few years ago, "CAUTION, FROZEN BUFFALO CHIPS MAY BE ON THE RUNWAY." WOW, that could damage your landing gear! Therefore, the airstrip may be rough enough to pose the problem of aircraft damage caused during landing.

"Well, it finally happened. You have just landed at Soldier Bar and blown a tire and you're all what? Flight Service is almost impossible to reach on the ground anywhere in the Wilderness Area. But don't give up on the radio. Stay on 122.9 and try to get a message to a passing airplane. Also try 122.95 and 122.75 as they are often used for aircraft to aircraft conversations and chit chat. It is an unwritten rule of the Wilderness Area-you help someone in need.

"But no one seems to be flying today and you haven't been able to reach anyone on 122.9, what now? It's a good idea to carry IFR enroute charts and try the appropriate Center Frequency for your sector. You won't reach Center, but may contact an airliner flying overhead. How about 121.5? Absolutely! Use it. You may not be in a dire emergency now, but what happens if no one comes to rescue you for several days? What if the battery goes dead and the radios are out of service? This is a great opportunity to use the portable handheld stuffed in the jockey box. You say you opted for the leather bomber jacket instead of the handheld radio? Well, there is still hope. The ELT has its own self-contained battery pack. This may be the time to manually trigger the ELT. But remember that most ELT's are transmitters only and do not receive." (FLY IDAHO, pages I-14 and I-15.)

Camping Etiquette And Courtesies
It's a strange human phenomenon that leads us from our warm shelters with electricity, cooking facilities, hot showers, comfortable beds, refrigeration, satellite TV, and hot tubs to move outdoors and leave all these wonderful conveniences behind. But it happens. Camping is one of America's favorite pastimes. And the airplane is the magic carpet that can lead to the country's finest camping opportunities. People airplane camp for different reasons. While some consider it a challenge to make their camp as comfortable as their home with the use of generators, portable TV's, king size air mattresses, and fully stocked bars complete with blenders, others prefer the simplicity of primitive camping where creature comforts are limited to one's ingenuity.

A frequent pet peeve, while airplane camping, is "Windski" who gets up before sunrise (while frost is still on the wings) and fires up "old wonder bird." He insists on idling his engine until the defroster clears the windscreen and then taxis to the departure end where he faithfully runs the engine up and cycles the prop and then waits for the engine oil temperature to come up to normal before takeoff. The early morning air is so nice, "Windski" decides it is a great time to practice takeoffs and landings. Meanwhile, every other camper is now wide-awake. Two tents were blown over by the prop wash, a cloud of dust hangs over the camp from "Windski" cycling his prop (which now looks like it came off a tug boat going through a gravel bar), and watch out because here he comes to do it all again!

Plan an early morning flight the night before by parking your airplane where the early morning sun will hit it first. So while you are catching a few extra z-z-z's, you are using free solar energy to preheat and deice "old wonder bird." What about a few takeoffs and landings? Don't even consider it! The Wilderness Area is not the place to practice takeoffs and landings. There are some excellent airstrips in the desert where one can practice takeoffs and landings to his or her heart's content without disturbing anyone.

Other Airports And Operators
There are many old stories that seep out through the bark of the forests in the Wilderness Area. Years ago, so the story is told, Mr. Mackay came into what is now "Mackay Bar" and stayed in a government cabin. When he built a fire in the stove, it blew up because of blasting caps that had been left in the stove. The explosion left Mr. Mackay with two broken legs and he was unable to return to Dixie, Idaho, on schedule. His friend in Dixie became worried and rode his horse down to Mackay Bar to check on Mr. Mackay. Mr. Mackay then had to ride horseback for two days to reach Grangeville, Idaho, the nearest hospital, for treatment. He swore he didn't want anyone else to go through what he had, so after healing from his injuries, he returned to Mackay Bar and started the process of clearing the ground to build an airstrip there. Mackay Bar is a beautiful grass strip runway on a bend of the Main Salmon River. A lodge and cabins are as picture postcard as the mountains surrounding the area. Mackay Bar Ranch is a private strip, so do get prior permission before flying in there. They may be contacted at (208) 382-4336 which is Arnold Aviation in Cascade and they can make contact with Alita Arendell, Mackay Bar Ranch Manager, by way of Wilderness Area radio network. Alita says, "Advantages to living here? I love the privacy of the backcountry and the beauty of the river. Disadvantages? No Mall!"

Last year the owner of the Stanley, Idaho, airport property notified the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Idaho that they were now in the position to dispose of that land. The Stanharrah Corporation owned 73 acres at the airport, which included nearly 70% of the landing strip. It was very possible that this property could have been bought by a private developer, homes built, and the airport eliminated. Thanks to the cooperation of Stanharrah Corporation and some very good work by the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Idaho, the property was purchased by the State and will remain as an airport. Whenever you can achieve something that meets local as well as state and federal needs, you truly have a win/win situation. The cutting of the ribbon on October 17, 2000, with the WACO biplane owned by Bob Danner and Dia Terese of Stanley Air Taxi and flown by Bob, the current operator at the Stanley Airport, signaled the guarantee that the land would remain as an airport and not be developed. Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, along with representatives from the Idaho Congressional delegation, the City of Stanley, students from the Stanley school, and many others celebrated the preservation of the Stanley Airport. The grass-covered landing strip is 4,300 feet long and is 6,403 feet above sea level. It is shadowed to the west by the 10,750-foot mountains of the Sawtooth Range of the Rockies. The primary purpose for air travel to Stanley, (population about 100) is for tourism-whitewater rafting, fishing and hunting, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling. LifeFlight helicopters and fixed winged aircraft also use the landing strip to evacuate seriously ill and injured patients.

Bob and Dia's N2269V is a 1989 replica of the original WACO from the 1920's. Bob and Dia's WACO has a 275 HP engine and just may be your answer to the thrill of a lifetime. You may not be interested in doing your own flying into this wonderland; however, Bob flies sightseeing tours of the Sawtooth Range in this open cockpit biplane. Take a step back in time and don leather helmets, goggles, a flight jacket and fly into a by-gone era in Bob and Dia's two passenger open cockpit, WACO biplane. Enjoy an adventure of a lifetime taking a 15, 30, or 60-minute flight over the Sawtooth Valley or the jagged wind-swept spires of the Sawtooth Mountains (often called the American Alps). Sawtooth Aviation, owned by Bob and Dia, also operates a Cessna 182 and a Cessna 206 which are used for transporting passengers into the Wilderness area for the already mentioned outdoor joys.

At Challis, Idaho stop and get acquainted with Middle Fork Aviation owned by Pete and Shiley Nelson. Pete operates an air taxi service out of Challis and carries passengers into any of these Wilderness area strips for all of the previous mentioned recreational and sporting activities. Now, let's just suppose that you are flying your own airplane in that Wilderness Area but now, doggone it, you have a mechanical problem on your airplane. Pete also holds an A&P and IA authorizations for piston-engine aircraft. You can take the airplane to his maintenance shop at the Challis airport, (Hey folks, LOOK, this airport is paved!) and have maintenance completed. Or if by chance you get stuck in the Wilderness Area and need maintenance, Pete can fly parts in and fix your airplane while you enjoy the mountain or river.

At Salmon, Idaho, Salmon Air Taxi operated by Joanne Wolters and Dan Schroeder is a major access carrier into the whitewater rafting river areas of the Wilderness Area. Perhaps a Salmon Air Taxi pilot has picked you up in one of the PA-31 twin engine airplanes they operate when you arrived by commercial air carrier in Boise about 235 miles away and have brought you to Salmon. Now you transfer into one of Salmon Air Taxi's Cessna 206's or an Islander and you are flown into the Wilderness Area where you will meet your outfitter for your beginning river run. The outfitter guides you through the one of many scenic river canyons and Salmon Air will pick you up down river and fly you back to Salmon or the destination of your choice. Dan is a walking encyclopedia of procedures for flying in the Wilderness Area and contributed a great amount of information to help in the preparation of this article. I believe Dan knows exactly where he is at all times when flying in the Wilderness Area by recognizing each individual tree. He knows every drainage, peak, and valley.

We see the beautiful pictures of the snow-packed mountain peaks, a gleaming airplane silhouetted against the mountain, a clear blue sky with maybe a pretty, white poofy cloud in the distance. There are certainly many days that are just like that. But all those beautiful green forested mountains have become that way because of a lot of moisture. It will come in the form of spring and summer rains or winter snow pack. That moisture comes out of thick overcast, mountaintop hugging clouds that may move in and set in an area for several days. Don't be lured into giving it a "try." Either you can or you can't safely make the flight, and any question wondering about it becomes an automatic-NO! WHEN IN DOUBT, WAIT IT OUT.

Perhaps Sparky Imesen stated it best in his book, MOUNTAIN FLYING BIBLE and Flight Operations Handbook. "Flying the mountains demands an attentive pilot, one who is aware of the special conditions that can create hazards. Knowledge and experience, where the pilot develops a wariness that keeps him from becoming trapped, enhance recognition of the potential hazards. At times the pilot will experience apprehension. This is normal; fear is not normal.

"A wariness of mountain flying is good. A true fear of mountain flying means you should not be flying in the mountains. A concern for where you are and what you are doing is healthy; and, as all veteran mountain pilots will expound, you must maintain a constant vigilance of your surroundings and have an escape route in mind should one be needed. Do not fear flying in the mountains. Learning of the dangers that might exist and knowing how to minimize or avoid them replaces fear with knowledge.

"During mountain flying an inexperienced pilot will find himself in situations he has never before encountered. As good as this book is, it is impossible to cover every situation, so employ CAUTION while exercising the privilege of mountain flying."

I could recount many bits of experienced wisdom that I have gathered from the people who live in this haven, those who have been flying the Wilderness Area for years, and from my own mountain flying experience. I spent many years flying the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and the other states of the Great Northwest as a flight instructor, an air taxi pilot, and a corporate pilot based in Billings, Montana. After joining the FAA as an inspector I eventually got to spend a few years in the Boise FSDO and was able to get back into the mountains again. Now I am assigned FAA responsibilities in Washington, DC, and I wanted to share the vast greatness of the Northwest with all of you. There are "mountains" of information available for you, but the Editor of the FAA Aviation News, said this is all the space I get for this article. Instead of reading more of my diatribe, check out those Mountain flying seminars and clinics and avail yourself of some of the good common sense books that will help you "go see for yourself." So until another time-


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