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Fly-Outs: California bush pilots

Windy adventure in the Channel Islands

Windy adventure in the Channel Islands

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Toughest runways

  • The approach down a valley to the private Christy Ranch Strip on Santa Cruz Island hides the runway until you are on short final approach.
  • The Main Ranch Strip on Santa Cruz lies on a steep hillside.

Who to call

channel island aviation

Photo courtesy of Channel Islands Aviation

Are the pilots of Channel Island Aviation in Camarillo, California, really “bush” pilots? Yes, but they’re a different breed. They land in the wilderness by day but return to civilization at night—for better or worse.

You can’t land your airplane on Santa Rosa or San Miguel in the Channel Islands National Park, or on strips owned by the Nature Conservancy on Santa Cruz. Only Channel Islands Aviation (CIA for short—and that brings a lot of comments), based at Camarillo Airport, is allowed to fly out to those islands. The alternative is a long boat ride to the islands.

Next question. Why ride in the back as a fully qualified pilot? One reason is to watch and participate in bush pilot operations. Another is to ride in a 10-seat Britten-Norman Islander, which Chief Pilot Mike Oberman calls a “hoot” to fly. All takeoffs and landings are short-field operations. Sometimes they have only a 1,000-foot runway but face high crosswinds. Mike and his father, CIA owner Mark Oberman, are two of the best bush pilots in California—possibly the only ones, as well. A third reason is to explore Santa Rosa once you arrive. Trails take you to canyons, gorges, and rocky cliffs. Campsites near the Santa Rosa runway come with their own wind breaks; you’ll need those.

The Islander flies like a truck—making ponderous turns rather than crisp ones—and looks a little like one. “Aerodynamics was not the main concern when these aircraft were designed,” Mike Oberman joked. It’s a workhorse, not a show horse.

A day prior to my visit the Obermans flew marine biologists and a park ranger to Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands after their boat cancelled a trip because of
a gale warning.

The next day the gale warning still hadn’t gone into effect, but winds at Santa Rosa were 40 knots, increasing to 50 when we took off 45 minutes later. The Obermans come onto final at a 30-degree angle to the Santa Rosa runway, remaining over the ocean as long as possible to stay away from the island’s turbulence. It took brief bursts of full aileron and, once, full-up elevator, for Mike Oberman to land it.

It may not require the flesh-freezing, glacier-landing, metal-fatiguing bush flying found in Alaska, but a shopping mall and Starbucks await you every evening. Try that in northern Alaska.

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