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June/July 2000

Table of Contents
Camping with your Airplane
Flying the Backcountry
Establishing Recreational Airports
The Call of the Wild
The new Aviat Husky
The $100 Hamburger
McGehee's Catfish Restaurant, Oklahoma
Back To Basics
Flying Safely to Remote Airstrips
Hangar Flying:
The Choir
SWAV News Update

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SW Aviator Magazine
3909 Central NE
Albuquerque, NM 87108
Phone: 505.256.7031
Fax: 505.256.3172
by Steve Durtschi photos by Mark Swint

It is darker than the inside of a cow when we arrive at the airport. The air is so still that sound seems to carry much further than usual and for some odd reason, we speak in almost whispers. As I roll back the steel hangar doors, I feel like I’m waking up the neighbors a mile away. My two passengers are still a little bleary-eyed, but they know we must get an early start if we are to enjoy the nicest part of the flying day in the mountains. Getting up early is a small price to pay this morning. We are visiting the back country!

The airplane was fueled last night on the way home from work. The anticipation of a back country trip always makes this part fun for me. I enjoy carefully inspecting every detail. Sometimes I get out the spray lube and with surgical precision place one drop on every hinge point of each control surface. For weeks after I wipe off the black streaky residue after every flight. Gear is carefully stacked next to the airplane in the order that I anticipate loading it. How nice. A place for everything and everything in its place. Never mind that tomorrow with the addition of my friends gear in the dark hangar that loading will be pure pandemonium. Finally, every window is cleaned with Lemon Pledge and a new soft cloth. All that’s left to do in the morning is drain the fuel sumps.

Plastic coolers and gear are carefully loaded and I’m making a mental note of the distributed weight. Hmm, more stuff than I thought. Better leave that heavy hammer home this time. We can use a rock to pound in the tie down stakes. Why do I always forget to put those bulky lawn chairs in first? And that stupid fishing pole on top always sticks into the headliner. Oh well, it’s not a show plane, I try to console myself.

It’s a little tougher to push it out of the hangar this time. We’ve got a lot of stuff in there, but I estimate we are still a few hundred pounds under gross weight. The Cessna Skywagon is a marvelous machine. Seat belts checked and doors locked. The two passengers are fumbling for head sets and yanking wires here and there in a sort of a cramped frenzy. I’ve noticed new passengers sometimes seem to think if they don’t have their aviation headsets on before the engine starts something real bad will happen.

Boost pump on… needle to 12 gph… switch to start. I love the sound of the Continental starter and the way the injected engine seems to burst into life. The idling propeller reflects the first tiny burst of rising sunlight. C-I-G-A-R T-I-P. Everybody ready? Let’s let it warm up just a minute. OK, here we go.

My mentor used to say don’t move anything in that cockpit faster than the second hand of your watch. I think about that as I slowly push the power up and nudge the friction lock to keep it there. Quick glance at the gauges: oil pressure, good, manifold pressure 25 inches (all we’ll get at our elevation), fuel flow 22 gph, good. I elect to continue the take off. Tail wheel two inches off the ground. Whoa, not too much. That’s better, hold that pitch attitude. Perfect. As the airplane breaks ground, I glance at the airspeed indicator. Sixty-five, seventy-five. Flaps coming up. Re-trim. Power back to 24 inches and 2500 rpm. Trim again. Mixture back to the top of the green arc. We are on our way.

The sun is well above the horizon by the time we reach the mountains. I have slowly descended so that we could fly inside the canyon by the time we get there. The air is crisp and still. My passengers had passed the time to this point by sleeping, but now both are wide awake, noses and fingers pushed against the windows. I mumble something to myself about having just cleaned them. We are now 1000 feet above the Middle Fork of the Salmon in the Frank Church River-of-No-Return Wilderness, following it downstream. I have long since switched the radio to 122.9 – the back country frequency – and now the radio occasionally comes alive with position and landing reports. We fly on the right side of the canyon. Opposite traffic is expected to do the same and the canyon becomes a highway of safely flowing traffic. I hear several airplanes converging on Sulfur Creek, a popular lodge open to the public for breakfast. Another air taxi Cessna 206 is delivering boaters to Indian Creek where they will float the river to the confluence of the main Salmon. “Skywagon eight five Juliet is Morgan Ranch, downstream.” Position reports are encouraged to enhance safety. We pass over several groups of rafters. Some are just breaking camp at a popular hot spring, and the last vestige of their breakfast campfire sends a whiff of smoke straight up into the air. I’m relieved that the wind is still calm.

After a tour of the Middle Fork Country we turn north toward the Selway-Bitter Root Wilderness. Our destination is – hands down, my favorite back country destination – Fish Lake. About 10 miles out now and power is back to 17 inches. My goal is to arrive over the strip at pattern altitude just as the airspeed indicator slips into the white arc. Ah, this is nice. There’s the strip. From a distance it always looks really small but it is actually over 2000 feet long and beautiful grass.

“Skywagon eight five Juliet is in-bound Fish Lake from 5 miles south, six thousand five hundred.” We arrive at mid-field. One notch of flaps go out along with an imperceptible push on the yoke. Re-trim. The passengers only hear the flap handle engage as the airplane starts to slow. I know from my pilot training that for every altitude above the ground there is a corresponding air speed that when the airplane is banked will cause it to appear to pivot around any point that the lowered wing is pointed to. I had calculated the air speed required for “pivotal altitude” the night before and as we cross over the field, I note the indicated air speed is correct and roll into a thirty degree bank, pointing the wing at the wind sock. It’s as if an invisible tractor beam connects us to the sock and it remains in view for the full circle. I study it intently. The sock is my most important information source right now. It appears to hang limp, but I do notice an occasional jitter: the wind is picking up slightly, moving down the canyon. I estimate it at less than five miles per hour. We’ll have a slight tail wind which I judge to be acceptable. I know the wind will continue to pick up as the morning progresses, and I’m glad we arrived when we did. Professional pilots bringing paying outdoorsmen to Fish Lake will continue to come and go almost regardless of the weather, but they will work a lot harder at it in the next few hours. Not me. I have my limitations and do not intend to exceed them. We feel a few slight bumps as we cross the ridges.

“Skywagon eight five Juliet is maneuvering overhead at Fish Lake. Circle to land.” The strip is nestled in a small box canyon and goes slightly up hill. It is useable only one way in and out. I widen my circle out now and concentrate on the air strip itself. Looks like two airplanes parked at the west end. Good. I like the camping area at the east end. The strip looks like it was mowed recently. It hasn’t rained so I’m not concerned about it being soft. Don’t see any animals . . “hey, are we going to land or just circle until we run outta gas,” my passenger interrupts. He has some flying experience and knows what I’m doing and can’t resist ribbing me. “I’ll land when I’ve got this figured out and not until,” I snap in a serious tone. I quickly catch myself and look over and smile.

We turn away from the strip now and descend over the small lake. A conventional pattern is not possible. I memorize the field elevation and start noting my altimeter. As I descend I will keep track of how high I am above the field, which will help in establishing the approach as I will not see the runway again until short base to final. Power back to 15 inches. “Hey, why doncha just pull her back to idle, fly down wind and...” I reach over and switch the intercom to pilot isolate. This is no time for a committee discussion. Another notch of flaps. We’re 600 feet high. Five hundred feet. The strip is coming into view now. G-U-M-P. The propeller sags off its setting of 2350 rpm and I push the control full forward. We are rigged for a go-around.

I make the last descending turn over the lake and have just a second to glance out of the side window. Yup, they’re there. Two or three moose are wading out in the shallow lake. A small bull lifts his head out of the water momentarily and shakes vigorously head to tail just like a bird dog. (On the ground we love to hear their ears flap as they do this.) He glances unconcerned at us and plunges under water again to nibble on the sweet moss. The passengers have ceased all conversation and are mesmerized.

Now a critical decision: continue any further and a go-around is no longer an option, as the terrain rises too steeply in every direction. I move one hand at a time from the yoke to the fresh air vent and back. The passengers think I’m adjusting the air, but I’m drying my hands. I don’t tell them anything different and silently elect to continue. The approach is stable; altitude is good and air speed is perfect. With the air speed nailed, I need only adjust my altitude with slight throttle movements. The last notch of flaps comes in. We are in a steep, power-on approach. We will not attempt to go-around regardless of what happens from here on out.

All of my attention is centered on the runway environment. We slide down over the lake still carrying power. Airspeed is unchanged. None of this five extra knots for the wife and kids stuff. I know the speed that works and nail it, period. Don’t concentrate on one spot. Don’t hunt for the runway. Let it come down, arrest the rate of decent and drive it on to the ground. Words that have been hammered into me repeat over and over.

The edge of the runway slips by. Power coming back. There’s the stall horn, and bump – we’re rolling. The tail was low and settles quickly. Yoke all the way back. No need to use the brakes as the airplane rolls to a stop with half the runway ahead of us.

When I daydream, this is what they are made of. Flying to a distant remote location is a magic and grand adventure. The airplane offers unimaginable opportunities to visit some of the most scenic areas of the Country. There are dozens of locations far from the nearest road. Here you will find no cigarette butts or SUVs parked end to end.

Idaho has some two dozen landing strips in wilderness areas alone. These offer the aviator access to beautiful unspoiled campgrounds, lakes, and fishing streams. There is a landing strip to match any airplane of medium or better performance. Pilots should be trained to a standard a cut above the average. Galen Hanselman’s book “Fly Idaho!” has become the standard reference for the Idaho back country, and I recommend it as a starting point for anyone wishing to visit this area. It has at least two beautiful photos of each landing strip as well as intriguing history of the area.

Utah is my home and has its share of back country landing strips. The sensitive canyon country of southeast Utah is accessed by several remote landing fields and the airplane is a very environmentally friendly way to visit this area. The “Utah Backcountry Pilots” is an organization working to preserve these strips and has developed a database free for the asking. Contact them at 792 South 150 West, Centerville, Utah 84014.

My imaginary flight this time took us to Fish Lake, a remote Idaho wilderness air strip. At the key board, I did everything right and we had a great time. It’s easy at the key board – you can back space errors. We know things are different in the air and the back country can be as sinister as it is rewarding. With proper instruction and good common sense, this type of flying can be safely accomplished. In my book, nothing matches the satisfaction of a perfectly flown approach and landing at a strip that will test your skills like Fish Lake. I hope pilots everywhere have the opportunity to visit a remote landing strip or two. You’ll be glad you did.

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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publishing, Inc. and the staff neither assume any responsibilty for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising out of it. Fly safe.