October 1, 2010
From 1,000 feet above, I watched the Cessna 182 line up for Meadow Creek’s Runway 35—the brilliant white wings a stark contrast to the dark green forest surrounding the grass strip. Minutes later we touched down on the same turf in an equally pristine Cessna 180. Located on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in northwestern Montana, Meadow Creek belongs to the U.S. Forest Service, but, as with many other USFS strips, is maintained by volunteer pilots.
This was my first experience flying into a backcountry strip—an area only accessible by foot, horseback, or airplane. It also allowed me to replace with a colored pin one of only five white pins on the wall map in my office. Montana was one of only five states where I had not yet flown in a general aviation airplane. While, as I reported in this column last year (“ Waypoints: 50 Before 50,” November 2009), I have visited all 50 states, only 45 were via general aviation airplane. White pins now remain in South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, and Hawaii.
The vacation this summer to Montana was meant to be one last traditional family vacation before our oldest daughter, Lauren, began college this fall. Because of tight schedules, it wasn’t practical to fly my Bonanza from Maryland to Montana and back, so we airlined it and rented a car for a trip that made about a three-quarter counterclockwise circle around Glacier National Park from Great Falls to Missoula.
In observing pilots over the past 30 years, I’ve found them to be overwhelmingly decent human beings, always anxious to share their aviation experiences with others. Knowing that, I reached out to some of the pilot contacts I have developed in Montana over the years, including Mike Ferguson, AOPA’s regional representative in the Northwest. Ferguson lives near Helena on an airstrip and owns a S35 Bonanza that he and his wife Jeanie fly all over North America. Shortly after landing in Great Falls, we were retracing parts of the Lewis and Clark Trail down the Missouri River through the Gates of the Mountains region in their boat. The tour gave us a breathtaking view of Montana that we couldn’t see from any other vantage, including an airplane.
John McKenna, president of the Recreational Aviation Foundation, offered up members of the foundation to show us the backcountry from the air. RAF’s mission is to protect, promote, and acquire backcountry strips nationwide while improving safety at those fields. RAF volunteers Chuck Jarecki and Carmine Mowbray showed us some of the work RAF and other Montana pilots have done to protect the state’s many USFS strips.
Lauren and my wife Brenda joined Mowbray in her 182 while Jenna and I climbed aboard Jarecki’s 180 for a quick trip from Glacier International Airport for a pass over Ryan Field, a small strip now jointly owned by RAF and Ben and Butchie Ryan. With RAF’s ownership, the strip will stay protected forever. We continued south down Hungry Horse Reservoir to the Meadow Creek Airstrip. The 2,800-foot strip is surprisingly smooth, especially since Forest Service regulations prohibit the use of most power tools and other mechanical equipment within its lands. No need for mowing the strip; the wildlife takes care of that, said Jarecki. But do be careful when landing that you don’t meet some large critters in an uncomfortable and close-up way.
Meadow Creek is maintained by volunteer pilots, with efforts coordinated by the Montana Pilots Association, RAF, and others. Ferguson, Mowbray, Jarecki, and McKenna are frequent participants in workdays scheduled at the various strips in the region.
As with the boat trip, the flight to Meadow Creek and around the region provided a view of Montana not possible through any other means. Memories and experiences made possible by the fraternity of pilots that exist everywhere, anxious to showcase their region via general aviation aircraft.
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Tom Haines will host “Buying Your First Airplane” at AOPA Aviation Summit on Thursday, November 11. He will also be a featured speaker and will co-host a “Dine Around” event on Thursday.
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