Mountain Flying Adventure

A backcountry experience like no other

April 1, 2009

“Caution! Terrain ahead! Pull up! Pull up!”

The stark aural warning from the Garmin GNS 430 would normally bring instant action—but not this time. Stu Horn, president of Aviat Aircraft, had heard the GPS’s automated voice so many times flying a Husky A1-C through the towering canyons of central Idaho that the alarms became the accompanying soundtrack to the epic scenery passing by outside.

“I haven’t figured out a way to disable those warnings,” Horn said. “After a while, you learn to ignore them.”

Horn, along with about 45 people in 25 general aviation aircraft, was taking part in an annual autumn pilgrimage to the Idaho backcountry for a week of camping, camaraderie, and spectacular flying in Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness Area—a remote, ruggedly beautiful, and geographically diverse 3.3-million-acre expanse that includes deserts, forests, canyons, rivers, and jagged, snow-capped mountain peaks.

Backcountry flying is an increasingly popular discipline among general aviation pilots—and many learn the specialized craft at Mountain and Canyon Flying Seminars in nearby McCall, Idaho; the River of No Return Mountain Flying Clinic in Challis, Idaho; or other flight schools in the mountain west. Books such as Galen Hanselman’s Fly Idaho!, Fly Utah!, and Fly the Big Sky have made some remote destinations well known, even to flatland pilots who reside hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Top 10 challenging mountain airports

AOPA members were asked in an informal survey to name the most challenging mountain airports they have flown into, with the stipulation that the airports in question had to be public use with paved runways. That eliminates those Idaho bush strips located on the side of a mountain.

1. Telluride, Colorado (TEX)

Telluride Regional Airport, the nation’s highest airport with airline service, is a problem for pilots who don’t calculate density altitude in summer. Obviously, any airport at 9,078 feet msl requires awareness of density altitude even on barely warm days. The runway length is 6,870. (The runway is being rebuilt, requiring the airport to close from April to November 2009.) High terrain next to the airport generates rotor clouds on windy days. Runway operations are mostly one way, and one end has a 1,000-foot dropoff. One-way operations mean departing traffic may be coming at you as you approach this non-towered airport. (See “America’s Airports: Landing on a Mesa,” February AOPA Pilot.)

2. Aspen, Colorado (ASE)

When approaching the 7,000-foot long runway at Aspen Pitkin County/Sardy Field, at 7,820 feet msl, from the west pilots must begin the descent and configure for landing before the airport is visible.

“Outbounds turn to the right until above the inbounds, then turn left over them and fly down the valley, climbing until they clear the rocks and head for wherever they’re going,” says Wayne Bower of Dallas.

The approach at Aspen is challenging when flying visually, and has challenging instrument approaches as well with steep climb requirements, says aviation columnist Bruce Chien of Peoria, Illinois.

3. Leadville, Colorado (LXV)

Lake County Airport is North America’s highest elevation public-use airport. “It’s not the approach itself—it’s in a wide valley—but it’s the sheer altitude of 9,927 feet msl that requires a modified technique,” warns Denver-area flight instructor Mark Kolber of Midlife Flight. The traffic pattern altitude is 10,700 feet msl, and the runway is 6,400 feet long.

“I was going to take a mountain flying class there last summer and because of a heat wave [creating high density altitudes], I couldn’t fly,” recalls W.R. “Gig” Giacona of El Dorado, Arkansas. One of the topics that class covers is, “What we can do when performance charts do not include our operating altitudes.”

4. Glenwood Springs, Colorado (GWS)

Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport at 5,916 feet msl comes with lots of challenges, according to Denver flight instructor Kolber. The runway is 3,300 feet long with trees at each end. A narrow and twisting canyon guards it, and like so many Colorado mountain airports, weather and winds sometimes demand one-way runway operations. “It’s an airport in a canyon with outcroppings along the canyon walls. There are limited opportunities for go-arounds, and departing traffic is coming the other way,” Kolber said.

The airport manager there, Dick Weinberg, is a former FAA employee with 5,000 hours of experience in the mountains. He flew his Piper Cherokee 235 to Leadville, Colorado, in November 2008 and reports a takeoff run on that cold day of 4,000 feet. Glenwood Springs’ runway is 3,300 feet long by 50 feet wide, and the airport can often have density altitudes of 9,000 to 10,000 feet. “A lot of people call me chicken,” he said. At least Weinberg is still alive to hear their taunts.

AOPA Air Safety Foundation accident reports indicate unpredictable winds were the culprit in a 2008 landing accident at Glenwood Springs. A Colorado Department of Transportation aviation Web site indicates there are “frequent high winds.”

5. Angel Fire, New Mexico (AXX)

Also nominated by Kolber is Angel Fire, New Mexico, which sits at 8,322 feet msl in a narrow valley. The runway is 8,900 feet long. “The valley is narrower, but the real challenge here is that the runway is oriented north/south while the prevailing winds are from the west. That, combined with the surrounding terrain, means that the wind is almost always a crosswind and is usually pretty strong,” Kolber said.

Harvey Wright, manager of Ross Aviation at Angel Fire, notes that the airport is in a valley one mile wide between 10,800-foot mountains—with crosswinds. Predominately west winds can reach 55 knots, so there is usually turbulence in the valley, he said. At the time he was interviewed, the runway lights were under a seven-foot snowbank. Turboprop and jet aircraft rarely have a problem, but single-engine piston aircraft should leave on Runway 35. There is a 2,500-acre lake in that direction where aircraft can circle to climb. AOPA’s Airport Directory notes, “Mountains in all directions.”

6. Ruidoso, New Mexico (SRR)

Sierra Blanca Regional Airport, near Ruidoso, New Mexico, at 6,814 feet msl is on a mesa and serves a ski destination. The main runway is 8,099 feet long. “It lies in the shadow of the nearly 12,000-foot peak that hosts the Ski Apache area. Very squirrelly winds there, but a beautiful destination in the Lincoln National Forest,” says Jonathan Rudolf of Farmington, New Mexico.

Airport Fire Chief Russell Shearer said seasonal winds used to be the problem, but lately winds have occasionally been high throughout the year. In December 2008, for example, winds there made the news when they reached 74 knots. In previous years, winds like those occurred mostly in the spring. Density altitude sometimes hits 11,000 feet msl in summer. “Leaving is the problem,” Shearer said. “Sometimes, when a pilot asks for fuel, we’ll ask if density altitude has been checked.”

7. Morgan, Utah (42U)

John Leavitt of Heber, Utah, suggested Morgan County Airport, Utah, at 5,020 feet msl as an airport pilots might find challenging. The runway is 3,900 feet long and very close to terrain. “You have to take off to the west and make a turn before you hit the mountain. If you take off to the east you will have a hard time climbing out,” Leavitt said.

Airport Manager Joe Garfield said there is 75-foot-high terrain 100 yards from the runway. “It’s not an FAA-approved runway because of that. We have a hard time getting funding and keeping the airport open,” he said. In addition, hangars are 100 feet from the runway centerline. “Better land on the numbers on Runway 21,” he said. “There’s a seven-foot drop from that end of the runway to the opposite end.” Pilots arriving with too much speed find the runway dropping from under them as they attempt to touch down, and may have to go around. It’s not uncommon to find deer and elk crossing the runway.

8. Sedona, Arizona (SEZ)

Sedona Airport at 4,830 feet msl has high terrain near the airport. It is located on top of a mesa. Paul Perlman of Orchard Park, New York, noted that when taking off on a hot day, it could be difficult to outclimb the terrain.

The mesa is 600 feet higher than the city, and the 5,132-foot runway starts and ends near the edge of the mesa. A few pilots have landed too fast and then jammed on the brakes, blowing tires. “If you undershoot, you’re in trouble, and if you overshoot, you’re in trouble. You can’t land on the numbers, but you can’t wait too long after that,” said an airport official.

9. West Dover, Vermont (4V8)

One of our members nominated the ski resort airport in West Dover, Vermont, as among the most challenging. AOPA’s Airport Directory warns that mountains surround the Mount Snow Airport and that crosswinds are common. “Use extreme caution,” the directory warns. It has an elevation of 1,953 feet msl and a runway length of only 2,650 feet. Brush up on short-field operations.

The airport is now owned by a group headed by airshow performer Mike Mancuso. Mancuso said if there is any wind at all, it feels to the pilot like the wind is blowing at double the actual speed. It is almost always a crosswind. He has cleared some trees on the approaches to the runway, but the airport is unattended.

10. Thermopolis, Wyoming (THP)

Jim Wolper of Pocatello, Idaho, nominated Hot Springs County/Thermopolis Municipal Airport as a challenge because of its high terrain and the “bizarre runway slope” of its 4,800-foot runway. But the airport manager and flight instructor, Ray Arey, disagrees.

“I’ll admit when I first came here it was a little intimidating,” Arey said. The runway has an average 2.5-degree slope. Normal procedure at this airport, elevation 4,592 feet, is to land uphill on Runway 19 and take off downhill on Runway 1, assuming winds do not favor landing on Runway 1. If you have to land downhill, Runway 1 slopes away from you at about the same angle as your glide angle. There is a 115-foot differential in elevation between the two ends of the single runway.

AOPA’s Airport Directory says night operations are not recommended because of terrain. The directory states, “Hills all sides.”

Lori MacNichol, founder of Mountain and Canyon Flying Seminars, said GA pilots looking for new challenges comprise the bulk of the 140 pilots who attend her introductory, four-day backcountry courses each summer. “They may fly jets or turboprops and have logged thousands of hours flying kerosene burners,” she said. “But they’re looking to reconnect with the fun of flying. They get a rag-wing airplane and take it to a place where they can bring a family member or friend fishing or hiking—and they get mountain flight training because they want to do it well and safely.”

The Idaho Aeronautics Board doesn’t keep exact figures, but Mike Pape, the state’s flight operations director, said aerial activity at Idaho’s roughly 60 backcountry strips increased in 2008 despite the national downturn in GA flying. He credits the rise to the increased popularity of mountain flying; continued production of capable aircraft such as Aviat’s Husky, American Champion’s Scout, and refurbished Super Cubs; and a benign fire season.

Preserve your options

Johnson Creek (3U2), a wide grass strip with hot showers and campgrounds, served as our base camp during four days of flying routes that stretched from the Snake River on the Oregon border to western Montana.

Rich Sugden, a physician and aviation adventurer from Jackson, Wyoming, organized this year’s informal “Backcountry Safari” as he has done the previous eight summers. The Cessna 180/185 Club, Super Cubs, and others put together even larger gatherings in the Idaho wilderness each year. The flying season generally begins around May 1 and ends just after Labor Day.

About half of the airplanes were purpose-built for backcountry flying, and they included Aviat Huskies, Cessna 185s, and de Havilland Beavers. Others such as Cessna 206s and 182s had been modified for short takeoffs and landings with oversized tires, engine and prop upgrades, and even a few canards. But the group also included stock Cessna 172s and 182s and a Piper Cherokee Six that landed at all but a few of the shortest, rockiest, and most remote landing areas.

Fliers included astronaut Bill Anders, several physicians, investment bankers and commodity traders, developers, contractors, business owners, aircraft dealers, and several retired airline pilots—a group so diverse that only aviation could have brought them together. Each morning, they split up into five or six groups of about four airplanes each. They divided their destinations into three general geographic areas and coordinated radio frequencies and times of arrival at different locations to avoid airspace conflicts. Each group flew to a different area each day, so three days of flying would allow every airplane to cover all three.

All pilots were asked to monitor the emergency radio frequency 121.5 MHz, and some carried extra provisions and first-aid kits that could be parachute dropped to people in distress on the ground. Idaho officials say mountain flying mishaps have accounted for about 20 percent of the state’s total aviation accidents during the last 10 years.

“There’s a serious lack of understanding among some pilots about the effects of density altitude on aircraft performance,” said Frank Lester, safety and education coordinator for the Idaho Aeronautics Division. “Training, preflight planning, and precise altitude and airspeed control are critical in the backcountry.”

A density altitude of 7,000 feet, for example, doubles an aircraft’s sea-level takeoff distance. And a rule of thumb for mountain pilots is that they must abort takeoffs unless they have at least 70 percent of their takeoff speed by the halfway point in their takeoff runs.

All pilots are asked to observe the rules of the road for backcountry flying: stay on the right sides of canyons, leave landing lights on, announce intentions on multicom (122.9 MHz), and roll to the end of each runway on landing to leave room for airplanes that may be following close behind.

“The basic premise of mountain flying is to preserve your options,” said Sparky Imeson, a backcountry flight instructor and author based in Helena, Montana. “Always be in a place where you can turn toward lower terrain, and recognize the performance limitations of your aircraft.” (See “Flying in the Mountains? Get Prepared,” below.)

Sheer joy of flying

The days began with a pilot briefing about 9 a.m. when, over coffee, the groups would choose their leaders, destinations, and discrete radio frequencies. Then the pilots in each group would meet to discuss matters that were particular to them and their passengers.

Pilots of Cessna 180s and 185s tended to fly with similar airplanes because their speeds, ranges, and landing distance requirements were closely matched, and Huskies tended to fly with other Huskies—but not exclusively. Pilots also grouped themselves according to experience levels, and some sought out the most demanding strips while others chose to avoid them.

Some of the best known and most difficult strips are located within a few minutes’ flying time from Johnson Creek, and pilots typically sought them out early each day when winds were light and the air was cool.

Places with names such as Mile Hi, Soldier Bar, and Wilson Bar were within 50 nautical miles along the deep, rock-walled valleys carved by the Salmon River. But the pleasant names revealed nothing of their true character. Taking off and landing at each strip required flying an exacting approach through a maze of canyon walls, at speeds a few knots above VSO, and committing to land as little as a few seconds after the runway came into view. Some strips in dead-end canyons offer no possibility for go-arounds.

And simply spotting the strips can be a challenge because they look nothing like the paved, painted, lighted airports most GA pilots are accustomed to. Backcountry strips are often curvy, undulating pieces of rock-strewn ground with steep slopes, gravel, rocks, tall grass, and abrupt drops at either, or both, ends.

Spike Minczeski, director of operations for Teton Aviation and a backcountry flight instructor, said such strips—along with high density altitudes, shifting winds, and rapidly changing weather—present unique and constantly changing potential hazards to mountain fliers. “Flying in the backcountry requires a higher skill level,” he said. “You have to be more precise, you have to make good decisions, and you have to know your limits and not push them. But for the sheer joy of flying, there’s nothing that can compare to it.”

Although Johnson Creek is the largest and busiest of the backcountry strips, camping there hardly felt like staying at an airport. All flying ceased as dusk approached, and familiar airport sounds gave way to exotic wildlife: shrill calls from hawks and eagles above, the bugling of elk, the clash of antlers, and the distant howls of wolves.

Lonely is a state of mind

Gene Hargett, 80, is the low-key caretaker at Johnson Creek. A former civilian flight test engineer at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, he was hired 13 years ago and relocated with his wife to a nearby town. The couple also owns a bed-and-breakfast inn, but Hargett spends most of the flying season in a small, furnished house at Johnson Creek.

More than half the funding for maintaining the airport at Johnson Creek comes from pilot donations. The airport gets no federal funds. “The pilots that come here are real generous,” Hargett said. “They treat it as their airport because, really, it is their airport. And they want it to be in good shape when they come back.”

Hargett said the number of visitors ebbs and flows each season—and it’s not uncommon for days to go by with no takeoffs or landings. When rain or fog sets in, Hargett can be alone at the strip for days at a time.

“I don’t really get lonely,” he said. “Lonely is a state of mind. I’m never short of things to do. There’s always mowing or irrigating to be done.”

Bill Anders, the former astronaut, flew a de Havilland Beaver to Johnson Creek and beyond, the first time he had been to the area. While most campers had no alternative to thin-walled tents on rainy or frosty nights, Anders lifted his airplane’s tailwheel onto a tall stack of rocks so that the fuselage was level, and he slept inside the stout, Canadian-built airplane.

“It’s a lot more comfortable than Apollo 8,” he said. “I actually sleep pretty well in the airplane. I don’t think I slept more than a few hours during that entire [week-long] mission.”

Anders said he was drawn to the challenge of flying in and out of strips that “wouldn’t even have been considered as emergency landing sites” for the supersonic jets he flew at NASA and in the military. He said the natural beauty of the landscape and its vastness were awe inspiring, too. “I’ve been to Yellowstone and I’ve been to the Tetons, but I had no idea that this beautiful country was here,” said Anders. “Not many Americans know it exists. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of flying here and the beauty of the surroundings.”

From an airplane, the geographic variation in this rugged portion of the country is astounding. In less than two hours, even a slow-flying STOL airplane can make it from the rim of Hell’s Canyon, a massive, curving gorge carved over the eons by the Snake River, across a farm-dotted prairie to heavily forested, snowy mountains and glacial valleys.

Much of the land has been deeply scarred by recent wildfires that charred hundreds of thousands of acres and blackened many mountainsides. Trunks of fallen trees are scattered for miles like so many matchsticks. But the crazy-quilt pattern of scorched hillsides and green forests is dotted with bursts of yellow aspens, red underbrush, and dazzling new growth. Deer were visible in a few meadows, and another pilot pointed out a group of four white mountain goats clustered on a rocky ridge about 9,000 feet msl.

I hardly look at the ASI

John French, a former Marine F-4 Phantom pilot, likens approaches and landings at short mountain strips to aircraft carrier landings.

“In carrier landings, the mantra is ‘meatball, line-up, and angle of attack,’” he said, referring to checking glide path, alignment, and attitude. “Here, you pick your aim point, set your attitude, and adjust power for rate of descent. You want to hit your aiming point and not float.”

Kari Cameron of Ashland, Oregon, had been on two previous backcountry trips to Johnson Creek with her boyfriend. But this year, business commitments kept him away, and Cameron decided to attend by herself and fly her STOL 182.

“We always did this together, and I was concerned about having to handle everything by myself,” she said. “I was confident in my ability to handle the flying. But what if an alternator goes out, or the number-three cylinder? You can’t just call the FBO out here. There is no FBO. I’ve got to be prepared to handle whatever comes up.”

Along with a load of camping gear, Cameron carried a SPOT personal locator that constantly updated her position. That way, her boyfriend could monitor her progress via personal computer and see the airports she was visiting.

Several airplanes were equipped with angle-of-attack indicators designed to help pilots safely make approaches at critically low airspeeds. Since a wing always stalls at the same angle of attack, the indicators help pilots fly close to that angle despite varying payloads and density altitudes.

“The AOA indicator takes the guesswork out of it,” said Dick Laumeyer, a retired airline pilot who owns and flies a Cessna 185. “I used to add a couple knots for the kids and add a few more for the cargo—and I was usually too fast. Now, I hardly look at the airspeed indicator anymore.”

A very fortunate group

Kif Brown, a former corporate pilot who moved to remote Yellow Pine, Idaho, to start a business with his wife, Dawn, that caters to backcountry fliers, said he welcomes the increasing popularity of wilderness flying.

“Flying out here is a way to become good stewards of the backcountry and take advantage of the fact that places like this are here and available to us,” said Brown, co-owner of Backcountry Adventures. “The best way to realize the greatness of this country is to get out here and see it. You can read about places like this all you want. But it’s not the same as being here.”

Brown said the best way to ensure the survival of remote airstrips is for pilots to use them regularly. State officials in Idaho monitor aerial activity at remote facilities. “The FAA and the Forest Service have a real propensity to want to shut things down and lock people out,” Brown said.

“Thank God people come out here to fly because that’s the only way to keep these strips open.”

Geoff Lynes, general manager for Northwest Husky in Driggs, Idaho, said the stunning scenes available to backcountry pilots still amaze and humble him.

“As pilots, we know we’re part of a small and very fortunate group,” he said. “But even among pilots, very few get to do this type of flying. Before each takeoff, I take a moment to sit back, close my eyes, and say a little thanks for the opportunity to be here and fly in such a magnificent place.”

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Flying in the mountains? Get prepared

Mountain flying resources guide

You take off on a hot day at a high-elevation airport. The terrain is rising to meet you. Can you beat its rate of climb?

Too many pilots find they can’t outrun the terrain because they haven’t properly prepared for taking off from a high-elevation airport. Don’t be one of them. If you plan to fly in the mountains this year, get smart and get prepared.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s popular Mountain Flying online course gives you a great introduction to the special skills required for mountain flying. The free course was recently revamped with new graphics and content. Supplement it with AOPA’s Guide to Mountain Flying, a compilation of ASF resources and articles from AOPA Pilot.

There have been entire books written about flying in the mountains, and with good reason. Terrain, weather, density altitude, and aircraft performance combine to make flying in high elevations unlike any type of flying most pilots have done.

Sparky Imeson has written several books on the subject. Of these, his Mountain Flying Bible probably is best known. You can purchase it at his Web site, where you’ll also find free articles discussing everything from advice to novice pilots to the psychology of mountain flying, which Imeson has dubbed mountology.

You can read pilots’ experiences flying into remote airstrips at Backcountry Pilot’s discussion board.

Books, DVDs, and online courses give you a good foundation, but they are no substitute for training with instructor pilots who fly in these conditions day in and day out. Michael Shannon, chief flight instructor for the Aspen Flying Club at Centennial Airport in Englewood, Colorado, ticked off a long list of things that can trap an unwary flatlander. Besides the density altitude, there’s the weather. “The mountains actually generate their own weather systems, and without an understanding of that, it can be very dangerous,” he said. Navigation in the mountains is more difficult, and every approach to every airport in the mountains is nonstandard. “Typically you’re not able to fly a typical downwind base to final. Even a straight-in approach is very difficult at times,” he said.

Numerous flight schools in the higher elevations offer special mountain-flying courses or checkouts. They vary in price, length, and structure. Aspen Flying Club offers a Rocky Mountain Flying Adventure that lets the pilot choose one of three routes: to Steamboat Springs, Telluride, or Gunnison-Crested Butte.

For a multi-day trip, consider McCall Mountain/Canyon Flying Seminars. “What I remember most vividly is my first ‘canyon turn,’” said AOPA Pilot Editor Mike Collins, who flew one such adventure in 2000. “Slow flight really is one of the basics for safe canyon flying. It’s amazing how much tighter a turn you can make at 70 knots, compared to 120 or 130 knots.” —Jill W. Tallman

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.