Flying Yellowstone and ‘The Grand’

Meet the pilots who call this world their home

April 1, 2011

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Fog and rain left behind by storms that delayed my airline flight the previous evening fill the mountain-ringed bowl of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A bus with 30 bicycles on its roof rack pulls under the auto port of Jackson’s Wyoming Inn to pick up Japanese tourists headed 90 minutes north to Yellowstone National Park. To get there, they’ll pass through Grand Teton National Park.

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While June signals summer for flatlanders, it’s still only spring here above 6,000 feet. Flood warnings abound as AOPA Senior Photographer Mike Fizer and I tackle a weather-dependent schedule of glider rides, paraglider photography, balloon rides, and air-to-air photo shoots above Yellowstone and “The Grand,” the name locals give the tallest peak. Fizer and I are here to meet the “pilots of the parks” as a part of our occasional series, “Epic Flights,” but just because we’re here doesn’t mean the weather is going to be on our side.

Good weather is frustratingly close by at Driggs-Reed Memorial Airport in Driggs, Idaho, a 45-minute drive west across the Tetons from Jackson. The airport has fewer fees and less traffic than Jackson Hole Airport, plus rental cars and a Warbirds Café that is the equal of restaurants in Jackson. You can rent an aircraft there, but Spike Minczeski will ask you to take three hours of mountain flying instruction to assure your safety. Other surprises at Teton Aviation, in which the restaurant is located, include a warbird museum off the main lobby and a glider instructor who happens to be an opera star.

You may meet opera singer Kristine Ciesinski (her husband is an opera star, too), should you choose to take Teton Aviation’s spectacular glider ride to the back of The Grand. She is one of the scenic flight pilots who will show you the hidden valleys near the top that tourists will never see. Ciesinski rides along in some of the formations flown by the airport’s warbird pilots. Richard Sugden, owner of many of the warbirds and Teton Aviation, keys the mic as she sings an aria from Madame Butterfly.

The weather is also good at Yellowstone Airport at West Yellowstone, Montana, a gateway airport located a few miles from the Yellowstone National Park. The town has lots of hotels and a live grizzly bear exhibit. Yellowstone Airport is open eight months a year, and is snowed under the rest of the time. The FBO is run by the Moulton family and includes free use of bicycles in a campground restricted to pilots who arrive by personal aircraft. Owners include R.J. Moulton and his wife, Sandy; Jackson attorney and rancher Brad Mead; and Mead’s father, Pete, a former crop duster.

The first attempt at an air-to-air over The Grand using Brad Mead’s Bonanza A36 is thwarted by weather, so he accompanies us to the Jackson Hole Airport tower for an interview with manager Rick Schmidt. Schmidt warns that the airport can be an “inhospitable environment” for those unfamiliar with it. It is in a national park, has no radar, isn’t easy to spot, and has buttes and mountains that assure turbulence on final approach. It’s best to talk to Salt Lake Center while approaching the airport, Schmidt advises, given the eclectic mix of traffic. “If it’s made in the general aviation inventory, it’s here,” Schmidt said. He suggests you call 15 miles out so his controllers can work you into the mix.

Later, Mead offers a few suggestions from his own experience. “The performance of airplanes that are flown by general aviation pilots here won’t match the rate at which terrain climbs. Approaching a ridge or range of mountains at what seems like a reasonable altitude, you can suddenly find yourself lower than you thought. I very, very rarely fly at night in the mountains. The bad weather stuff is all here, too—it just has granite inside of it.”

Continued on "Yellowstone" tab.

Yellowstone clouds

The schedule calls for heading to West Yellowstone to meet with a fellow pilot who happens to be a Yellowstone National Park ranger. Nick Herring of Gardiner, Montana—another gateway to the park for pilots—takes Fizer and me for separate flights above the northeast corner of the park. During the takeoff, I see how his Cessna 172 reacts to high altitudes. The takeoff roll is long and once in the air, the aircraft hangs in ground effect for hundreds of feet before climbing. Once Herring turns toward the park, terrain rises as rapidly as the aircraft climbs.

“Pilots will fly into an airport like West Yellowstone. They’ll top off with fuel. They’ve got [a] full [load of] passengers, and it’s an 85- to 90-degree day. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Herring has removed the back seats from his 172. “It is not a four-place airplane at these kinds of altitudes.” We climb to the recommended 2,000 feet above the park (nearly 9,000 feet msl) and stay a half-mile away from tourist gatherings such as those at Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring.

“Yellowstone is a tremendously diverse place to fly,” Herring says. “Absolutely gorgeous country, not to mention all the thermal basins that are located all over the park. Some of them are quite spectacular from the air. Probably the most well known is the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Old Faithful area. It looks just as gorgeous as it does on the cover of National Geographic.”

Up the mountain

Jackson Hole Paragliding operates from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, a 15-minute drive west of Jackson. Paragliders there think of themselves as pilots. After all, they navigate, carry passengers (one), and have fun.

This particular morning they are taking the newly renovated tram up the Rendezvous Mountain behind the resort where they will launch. You can eat waffles at a small snack bar at 10,450 feet, and buy a T-shirt that says you did it. Scott Harris, owner of Jackson Hole Paragliding, admits fixed-wing pilots can do a few things better. “You can fly the fixed-wing [aircraft] in more conditions. We have to have sun and light wind. But when you’re flying, there’s nothing like flying a paraglider; the silence, the wind in your face, the lines [to the chute] have a light whistle to them.We’re modern-day barnstormers. We have to attract people to fly, we have to talk them into trusting us to fly, and then after we’ve won ’em over and landed them softly in the landing zone here, they say, ‘Come visit us in Florida.’ We’ve won them over. That’s what the barnstormers did in the ’30s and ’40s.”

One thing left undone

All attempts to capture The Grand, or any portion of Grand Teton National Park, are thwarted by weather. Not so for the balloon ride. Breffeilh lets me ride with him and his niece, Margaret, as she works toward her commercial balloon certificate. He is her instructor. She seems torn between remaining at her job as a dance teacher or dumping the stage for the skies.

Now it’s time to go home. We go back to the Gun Barrel Steak and Game House near the Wyoming Inn for one final meal. We’ve neither photographed The Grand nor heard the band, “Steam Powered Airplane”—another lost goal. Perhaps when you go, you can put them on your bucket list for us.

Man the balloons!

The fog lifts just enough to launch three balloons from the Wyoming Balloon Company owned by Andy Breffeilh (pronounced breff’ ul). But photographer Mike Fizer notices the light is not good enough for video and photography, so we stay on the ground and later join Breffeilh for breakfast at Jackson’s Bubba’s Bar-B-Que. Here are a few of the stories the former attorney tells from his years of flights.

Bull elk: “We were hovering over a stand of aspens and could hear the bull elk bugling inside it, but we couldn’t see him. Every time we’d hit the burner, the elk cows would run out and look at us, and then he’d bugle them back inside. Finally, he’d had enough of us and stomped right out in the field, put his head down, and issued us a challenge. One of my passengers said, ‘You’re not thinking of landing here, are you?’”

Champagne: “We don’t serve champagne in the balloon. We serve it after the flight. It is true that the higher you get, the higher you can get.”

Dick Cheney: When then-Vice President Dick Cheney moved to Jackson Hole, restricted airspace around his house included the balloon operating area. It is basically a 3,000-acre ranch west of Jackson and near the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “I was getting close to the vice president’s house but found a wind that was moving me away. It was so slow that it was almost imperceptible from the ground. The tower called me on the aircraft frequency and said, ‘Secret Service requests you vacate the area.’ I said, ‘Roger, vacating to the north at two knots.’”

Geico: “I took a famous billionaire in the balloon. I guess everybody in the balloon was a billionaire. And I was thinking, how can you get a billionaire to sign your liability waiver? So I just walked up to him and said, ‘My insurance carrier, Geico, requires that you sign this.’ He started laughing, because it was his company.”

Supreme Court: “We took a United States Supreme Court justice up in the balloon and landed in a pretty fresh field of cattle. Seeing him having to tiptoe out of the field in his Italian loafers, pulling up his pants legs, was pretty amazing.”

Paragliding

Scott Harris owns Jackson Hole Paragliding. Flights literally jump off a mountain behind the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and float to a meadow near the resort. A tram takes paraglider pilots to the top. Several paragliders fly at one time, filling the sky with color. About a mile to the left of the resort is a ranch where the Wyoming Balloon Company and Elevated Ballooning of Jackson Hole operate early morning flights. Depending on winds, the balloons land near the resort or across the road a half mile in front of the resort.

Jackson Hole Paragliding operates from an office at the base of the tram at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, just across the mountain range from Jackson, Wyoming. You can reach them at 307-690-8726. Tandem flights cost $225 and have a weight limit of 30 pounds to 230 pounds. You’ll need to fly tandem until you get the hang of it. The company offers a beginner package for $950 that includes two tandem flights, and two or more solo flights under instructor supervision; gear is provided. There is a written test. To earn the novice rating, courses cost $1,900 ($1,250 if you take a course early in the season) and include 25 flights using provided gear. There’s another written test required.

Epic Flights | Grand Teton | Yellowstone | Ballooning | Paragliding

schmidtJackson Hole Airport tower manager Rick Schmidt wants you to leave feeling you got great air traffic service—but he also wants you to know you are entering an area of high traffic, high wind, and high altitude

drmaGiven the Jackson traffic, the sometimes hige "handling" fees, and the weather conditions, your best bet is to base your aircraft 45 minutes from Jackson at Driggs, Idaho. Fuel costs are lower, too. The Driggs-Reed Memorial Airport runway has open approaches on both ends, often better weather, rental cars, and impromptu entertainment as warbirds come and go.

drma

herring Pilot Nick Herring is a park ranger at Yellowstone. He’s also the ranger who would receive reports on aircraft that disturb wildlife or the public, but he doesn’t want to turn you in (he flies a Cessna 172).

He wants you to enjoy the park from the air, as he does, but suggests you stay clear of populated areas such as hotels and, in particular, Old Faithful. Mountains in the northeastern sector of the park may be more of a challenge than you want.

There’s plenty of scenery for pilots to enjoy, and if time is limited, aviation may be the best way to enjoy Yellowstone—although the buffalo will look a little small. When you see the traffic backup in the park during summer, you’ll be glad you have an airplane.

schmidtTeton Aviation plans a big summer

For tourists, Jackson, Wyoming, seems like the only choice as headquarters for a visit to Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks. For pilots, it’s more fun at Driggs, Idaho. A lot of activities are planned this summer by Teton Aviation.

The warbirds—there are many based at the airport—will be out in force on July 2 for the Huntsman Springs Airshow featuring the MiG Fury Fighters act, and July 16 for a Young Eagles flying day. The July 2 airshow is part of the area’s Fourth of July celebration.

ciesinskiThe airport restaurant has irregular hours in winter, so call 208-354-2550 for the latest information. Check www.tetonaviation.com for details. There are plans to do increased aerobatic training using an Extra 300 high-performance aircraft, so if you are ready for a high-performance tailwheel aircraft that can do any maneuver in the book, contact Teton Aviation at 208-354-3100.

The runway at Driggs was improved recently to 7,300 feet long by 100 feet wide. In addition, there are plans to complete a grass runway by this summer for tailwheel training. That will make it a true grassroots airport.

mead

Spike Minczeski (above right) is director of warbird operations at Teton Aviation. That means he can fly all the big-iron warbirds and all the military jets. Kristine Ciesinski (right) is an international opera star and may be your pilot for a glider ride to The Grand. Brad Mead (far right) is a Jackson-area rancher and, like his wife, Kate, is a Jackson attorney. Kate is chairman of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, while Brad is a former board member and brother to the state’s governor, Matt Mead.

BreffeilhBallooning

Margaret Breffeilh, the niece of Wyoming Balloon Company owner Andy Breffeilh, earned her commercial balloon certificate and has started her own company, Elevated Ballooning of Jackson Hole. She uses this smaller balloon and plans to buy one of intermediate size. She will work in cooperation with the Wyoming Balloon Company during the summer season. She continues to teach 15 dance classes for small children.

balloonsWyoming Balloon Co.

The Wyoming Balloon Company has flown 20,000 people over 22 years.

The company will operate five balloons during the coming season, but does not fly in winter.

Wyoming Balloon Company owner Andy Breffeilh has 2,000 hours in balloons and 2,000 more in airplanes and gliders.

Breffeilh will self-publish his first novel on Amazon.com soon called The Screaming of Horses, a psychological thriller set in Wyoming.

Breffeilh taught his niece, Margaret, to fly balloons, and now she is starting her own company.

Ballooning is the oldest form of flight. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin witnessed the first manned flight in France on November 21, 1783. When asked, “What good is it,” Franklin replied, “What use is a newborn baby?” It was a common phrase at the time. Originally two condemned prisoners were to ride in the balloon, but two noblemen volunteered.

paraglidingJackson Hole Paragliding operates from an office at the base of the tram at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, just across the mountain range from Jackson, Wyoming. You can reach them at 307-690-8726. Tandem flights cost $225 and have a weight limit of 30 pounds to 230 pounds. You'll need to fly tandem until you get the hang of it. The company offers a beginner package for $950 that includes two tandem flights, and two or more solo flights, and two or more solo flights under instructor supervision; gear is provided. There is a written test. To earn the novice rating, courses cost $1,900 ($1,250 if you take a course early in the season) and include 25 flights using provided gear. There's another written test required.

harrisScott Harris owns Jackson Hole Paragliding. Flights literally jump off a mountain behind the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and float to a meadow near the resort. A tram takes paraglider pilots to the top. Several paragliders fly at one time, filling the sky with color. About a mile to the left of the resort is a ranch where the Wyoming Balloon Company and elevated Ballooning of Jackson Hole operate early morning flights. Depending on winds, the balloons land near the resort or across the road a half mile in front of the resort.

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