June 1, 2011
By Julie Summers Walker
Flying in Idaho’s spectacular backcountry is one of those “bucket list” items for the adventurous pilot. And flying to Wilson Bar—a one-way airstrip with a blind approach and no go-around—represents the essence of Idaho mountain flying.
Wilson Bar is the only public airstrip on the 120-mile stretch of the Middle Fork of the wild Salmon River, the largest free-flowing river in the United States. Also known as the “River of No Return,” the Salmon River flows 425 miles through central Idaho, and the Middle Fork flows directly through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area. It is considered one of the best catch-and-release fly fisheries in the nation.
The airstrip at Wilson Bar has a storied history. In 1937 Howard “Haywire” Wilson arrived with his family at what was then known as Jackson Bar. The Wilson family’s determination to persist in the wild backcountry earned the name change. Haywire was a pilot and he cut through the meadow to create the airstrip. By the 1950s, it was used frequently by charter pilots bringing tourists in for adventure. But then nearby Mackay Bar airstrip was built, and Wilson Bar went into decline. In 1992 the U.S. Forest Service announced Wilson Bar’s closure.
For more information on Wilson Bar and pilot/author Greg Illes' flight into Wilson Bar, see our Pilot Getaways section on AOPA Online. Other featured destinations from Pilot Getaways magazine are also available.
Local pilots weren’t happy. Idahoan Frank Hill flew into Wilson Bar, cut down the trees and brush that had overtaken the airstrip, and forced the Forest Service to reopen the airstrip—albeit with a good deal of relentless letter writing and behind-the-scenes politicking.
Galen Hanselman, author of Fly Idaho, gives Wilson Bar a hazard index of 27 on his scale of 1 to 50 (most airstrips rated above 30 are not suitable for the majority of light aircraft). It is recommended that pilots first overfly Wilson Bar and then fly upstream before making the final approach. Runway 24 is just 1,500 feet long with a slight uphill slope.
Wilson Bar has no amenities—no places to stay besides your tent and nothing to eat except what you catch and cook. It’s simply for relaxing and letting nature soothe your soul.
A half-ton Dodge truck lines up on the centerline. As the pickup accelerates, the floatplane trailered behind it adds power, lifts off, banks left, and departs: just another floatplane launch by Joe Sprague of Cadillac Aircraft Services in Cadillac, Mich.
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