June 1, 2012
By Craig L. Fuller
After about three weeks of nonstop travel, I found myself in Billings, Montana, with a friend’s Aviat Husky A–1B and a very experienced backcountry pilot, Jeanne MacPherson. My “day off” proved to be a beautiful Tuesday with light winds, blue sky, and a whole day to practice flying in canyons and landing on grass strips.
It proved to be a day full of fun and great experiences, not to mention a good deal of time spent refining skills. Jeanne runs Mountain Airdance, and after a career of flying throughout Montana and other western states, she has turned her attention to helping pilots build and improve their mountain and backcountry flying skills.
I have spent the past year getting more comfortable flying a Husky, and the entire journey has been pure joy. As much as I enjoy each departure and the remarkable visibility tandem seating provides, each flight also provides a test of the skills necessary to land a tailwheel aircraft at a precise point on the ground. Happily, increasing proficiency comes with experience.
My day with Jeanne started with a comprehensive briefing of just where we would be flying. We would navigate the old-fashioned way, with a variety of maps showing us the topography. Finding our way to Red Lodge meant looking for roads and reservoirs—no victor airways for us!
I’ve come to enjoy the language associated with this kind of flying.
We discussed flying low over grass strips to chase off any animals. At the same time, we would look for the rise or dropoff of the grass strip. In light winds, landing uphill and departing downhill is a real advantage. Speaking about wind, with no windsock and nobody within 50 miles or more of the landing strip, we’ve got to figure out just what the wind is doing—not to mention, we have to look for any obstacles we need to clear on final approach. We also need to figure out just where we can turn around to set up for our departure.
We also gave the aircraft and our knowledge a good going over. Before you launch on this kind of flying, you want to pay special attention to things such as the condition of your brakes, tires, landing gear, and brake lines. You also want to be sure you know all the key operating speeds and how density altitude is going to affect your particular aircraft.
With a thorough briefing and preflight completed, Jeanne set out the plan. Before we go in search of grass strips, we do some canyon flying. It’s a beautiful day with rather light winds near Red Lodge, Montana. Into the canyon we go, keeping close to the right side of the canyon. The key is to be able to turn (which the Husky does really well) and fly toward lower terrain. We slowed and worked our way up a canyon, always with an exit strategy. We were rewarded with a beautiful view of sheer, rocky cliffs before we turned around and moved to the other side of the canyon.
After a lunch break at a fine airport in Columbus, Montana, where we were joined by friends and the mayor, we headed back for some work on the grass strips. These landings provided plenty of shake, rattle, and roll; but with each approach and touchdown my skill and comfort with the precession necessary for backcountry flying was growing. There was talk of “one ways”—airstrips so far into the backcountry that there is just one way in and the other way out, and a missed approach is not really an option. I’ll leave those for the future and work on achieving greater precision with every landing.
The chance to spend a day with a very accomplished backcountry pilot was a real treat. Among the many things that Jeanne shared is the fact that when she gets to a new area, she likes to get a local instructor to go up and teach her the nuances of an area she may not be familiar with. This impressed me. Despite her remarkable skills, she is always learning!
Honestly, this has been the best part of my Husky experience. I feel I am learning with each and every flight. Finding so many experienced people who enjoy sharing their skills and knowledge has been a big part of what’s made the learning process so wonderful.
As we move into some of the best months to enjoy our aircraft, I hope all of us will commit to learning how to improve our proficiency. To do so rewards us with safer, more enjoyable flying—and, often, with some great new friends.
Email AOPA President Craig Fuller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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