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The Ins and Outs of Canyon Flying

A unique course offers hands-on flying in Idaho's backcountry

A variety of sirens lure people to the national forests and wilderness areas that comprise most of central and northern Idaho. Air taxi operators stay busy shuttling whitewater rafters, hikers, fishermen, campers, and hunters to numerous remote backcountry airstrips. Many pilots visit the region to enjoy the same activities, and one more—the challenge of flying over and through spectacular mountains and canyons.

David Rogers, a pilot who lived in Oklahoma before moving to Post Falls, Idaho, wanted to get acquainted with flying Idaho's backcountry.

Rock Swanson of Encinitas, California, sought a local instructor's advice last year before visiting Moose Creek Airport, a 4,100-foot turf strip at 2,454 feet msl, and wanted to learn more about flying in the region.

Brian Elkins of Ketcham, Idaho, had visited many of Idaho's backcountry airstrips as a passenger, and now wanted to get into some of them as a pilot.

Lytle Johnson of Seattle also had done some flying in the area previously and wanted to know more about operating in the area.

They were among 12 pilots who flew into McCall, Idaho, in mid-July for a four-day course presented by McCall Mountain/Canyon Flying Seminars, LLC.

Upon arrival, participants' aircraft are inspected by local mechanics. Because these remote airstrips do not offer services, a minor mechanical problem can strand an aircraft on the ground. A blown tire or faulty brakes at a backcountry strip could be disastrous. Wheel pants should be removed before flying in the backcountry.

The first ground lesson addresses aircraft performance. Slow flight is the key to safe canyon flying—it greatly improves maneuverability in confined spaces. Banking to 30 degrees, an aircraft flying at 130 kt requires a diameter of one mile to make a 180-degree turn. Making the same turn at 70 kt would require only 1,500 feet, or about a quarter of a mile. This concept is demonstrated—dramatically—during the first flight lesson.

Never fly in the middle of a canyon, preach instructors Amy Hoover and Lori MacNichol. If the canyon is narrow, you will not have room to turn around, and the worst turbulence is often encountered in the middle of a canyon. If there is no wind, fly up or down the right side of a canyon. If there is wind or turbulence, fly on the downwind updraft side of the canyon and be aware that oncoming traffic will be on the same side—and use your landing light.

"When you're flying in canyons or across mountains, look for rising air," MacNichol said. "Cross ridges at a 45-degree angle. And leave yourself an out—be able to turn away from the ridge."

When David Rogers lived in Oklahoma he flew a Beech Staggerwing, and took it into mountainous terrain a few times. "The first time I saw pine trees off my wing tip, it scared me to death," he said. "The Staggerwing passed things too quickly."

Rogers sold his Beech and last fall bought a new Aviat Husky. "We're making friends," he explained. "This course has been very good for me. I learned that I really could make a turn in a real small space in a canyon. You learn what the airplane's capable of, and then—with caution—you know you can do it."

The course really boosted his confidence in his mountain- and canyon-flying skills. "It went from moderately frightening to mildly frightening," Rogers quipped.

Because many of the backcountry airports have 50-foot—or taller—trees or other obstructions off their runway ends, climbing at V X (best angle of climb) is recommended. "When you're at this density altitude, that look is a lot different than at sea level. The V X pitch attitude is much flatter," MacNichol explained. "It's really important to know the airplane, and the V X and V Y pitch attitudes for different flap configurations."

On climbout bring the flaps up in increments, making sure that the airplane is stable in climb. You could hit sinking air, she cautioned. "If it looks really bad, turn toward lowering terrain."

And look out for other traffic. The locals curse pilots who fly in over the mountains, and then spiral down to a canyon airstrip—this is a risky maneuver and it disrupts air traffic flowing up and down the canyon.

Rock Swanson flew his turbocharged Cessna 210 from California, and already plans to come back to Idaho—for more instruction and some aircraft camping. "I've been flying for 40 years, and I probably learned more in the past four days," he said.

Swanson said he learned a lot about reading the terrain, and planning ahead for the approach and departure. "We plan ahead in regular flying, but not to this extent," he said, explaining that you must plan your departure before planning your arrival, because you might not be able to take off from the strip that you landed on.

He also appreciated the instructional variety. "I flew with three different instructors, and each brought something different to the table," explained Swanson, who landed at nine backcountry strips during the seminar. "I also flew at different times of day. We got a real good sampling of what's out there. This is like Christmas to a 6-year-old for me."

"Did anybody have elk or deer come along, or run across the runway in front of you?" MacNichol asked during a postflight debriefing. "That's a bigger concern when you're the first pilot of the day going into a strip."

A class participant asked about advice he read to retract the flaps immediately upon touchdown, in order to transfer weight to the wheels more rapidly and maximize braking action. "A good rule of thumb is to leave the flaps alone, so you're not distracted," MacNichol replied. "Minimum distraction, maximum effort."

And be aware of the gradient when parking, she cautioned. "Don't do like I did in my early, early years—I parked on a slope, and when I came back my gas had drained out." Not only is this environmentally unsound, but it could strand you.

Brian Elkins grew up near Priest Lake, in the northwestern corner of Idaho, and started flying so that he could more easily visit friends. He also organizes weekend kayak trips in the wilderness, flying in with friends on air taxis and charters. "The South Fork of the Salmon River is a weekend trip. And Big Creek to Cabin Creek [along Big Creek]—that was a beautiful trip."

As a result, he was familiar with some of the backcountry strips, and knew that he wanted some instruction before trying them himself. "I just wanted to get into some of these strips," said Elkins, who two years ago sold his Cessna Cardinal and bought a "more capable" Cessna 182.

In Elkins' opinion, "Everything I learned the first day was worth the price of admission."

"Density altitude can be your biggest problem operating in these environments," Hoover explained. "You could plant these airplanes anywhere; getting back out is the problem." High density altitude reduces the engine's horsepower, requires longer takeoff and landing rolls, and decreases climb performance. "The climb performance is what people forget about a lot of the time."

McCall's elevation is 5,020 feet, and most of the strips along Big Creek and the South Fork of the Salmon River are between 4,000 and 5,000 feet msl. Stanley is at 6,403, and Cold Meadows is at 7,030 feet. Hot summer temperatures only makes things worse.

"One day we calculated takeoff performance for a Cessna 150 at Sunriver, Oregon [elevation 4,164 feet msl], and determined that it couldn't have anyone in it," Hoover recalled.

"To a sea-level pilot, density altitude is a big deal," said Lytle Johnson, who bases his Cessna 180 in Seattle. "This experience really emphasized just how critical density altitude is and what it does to the performance of the airplane—especially when you don't have a 10,000-foot strip."

Johnson discovered the Cold Meadows airstrip in the 1970s "and I just fell in love with it," he recalled. "It's been good getting to know the other strips—each has its own attractions. From a piloting perspective, they're all very interesting. It's good to fly them with pilots who know the strips. A lot of them are one way in and one way out."

He appreciated the seminar's emphasis on pilotage. "They teach you about drainages and how to tell which way the water is flowing. Those kinds of tips are the things you get from somebody who's been doing it awhile." The staff's concern about the environment also resonated with Johnson. "They do a real good job of making people aware of the fragility of these strips, especially in regard to the political process."

"There are other people using the wilderness," MacNichol reminded the group. "We know it's recommended that we remain above 2,000 feet agl. But if you're going to take off from one airport, fly to another, and land, you can't do that. Still, you need to be considerate of others. I don't advocate getting down in the drainage, 500 feet above the water, just for sightseeing."

Airplanes are the only motorized vehicles allowed in many areas of the 2.4 million-acre region, the largest wilderness area in the continental United States. The U.S. Forest Service periodically attempts to close backcountry airstrips, and MacNichol told the group that quiet, responsible flying can eliminate aircraft noise as a justification for closure.

MacNichol, Hoover, and Lyn Clark started the mountain/canyon flying seminar business in 1996 and hosted their first group of pilots in July 1997. Clark, the chief pilot for McCall Air Taxi, had been teaching backcountry flying for 20 years. "She was the grandma of backcountry flying," MacNichol recalled. "She taught me to fly in the backcountry in 1982." Clark died in a 1997 backcountry plane crash.

MacNichol and Hoover kept the program going, however, and have taught more than 150 students over four years. The course also includes an FAA safety seminar and Wings program, presentations on backcountry survival, a brief history of these airports, and a voluntary density altitude clinic conducted by the Idaho Bureau of Aeronautics. The density altitude exercise compares a pilot's actual takeoff performance to pilot's operating handbook figures. McCall's density altitude was 7,400 feet when the flights were made, and the participating pilots—perhaps sharp after several days of flying around the backcountry—all turned in performances close to the book figures.

Each year an advanced class, consisting only of pilots who have completed the regular course, is held at Sulphur Creek Airport. Individualized instruction is offered by appointment, and the company also functions as a backcountry reporting service, raising the alarm if pilots don't return on schedule. If everybody's out flying, however, you'll have to leave a message.

For more information, write McCall Mountain/Canyon Flying Seminars, LLC, at Post Office Box 1175, McCall, Idaho 83638, telephone 208/634-1344, or visit the Web site ( Links to additional information about Idaho's backcountry and mountain flying may be found on AOPA Online ( E-mail the author at [email protected].

Mike Collins

Mike Collins

Technical Editor
Mike Collins, AOPA technical editor and director of business development, died at age 59 on February 25, 2021. He was an integral part of the AOPA Media team for nearly 30 years, and held many key editorial roles at AOPA Pilot, Flight Training, and AOPA Online. He was a gifted writer, editor, photographer, audio storyteller, and videographer, and was an instrument-rated pilot and drone pilot.

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