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Backcountry for the rest of the country

Hangouts and hot spots to try east of the Rockies

Backcountry pilots out West have all the fun. Mountains, challenging strips, and raging rivers make for great flying adventures. But if you break down the essence of what the backcountry is all about, you can find it almost anywhere.

The Trigger Gap Airport near Bentonville, Arkansas, offers camping, and is one of many popular backcountry destinations in the Ozarks. Photo by Mike Fizer.

Most of what we see of backcountry flying online is impossibly challenging runways surrounded by tall mountains. That sort of flying can be thrilling, but it’s also extremely demanding and takes lots of practice. When you consider the other elements of backcountry flying, you see it’s often social, usually includes stops at a series of airports, generally involves camping or staying in a lodge, and most often occurs at a grass or gravel runway.

With those criteria in mind there are literally hundreds of places east of the Rockies where pilots can experience the same joy, camaraderie, and even some of the same basic challenges that their flying brothers and sisters do out West. Here are eight places and events to try.

Mt Toberfest
Waterbury Airport, Plymouth, Connecticut

Join up for the third annual Mt Toberfest October 21 to 23, held at picturesque Waterbury Airport. There will be three contests: STOL, spot landing, and a pumpkin dropping contest. Or just come to camp, eat, and watch others do the flying.

Hallettsville Eighth Annual Fly-In and Whole Hog Roast
Hallettsville Municipal Airport, Hallettsville, Texas

OK, so yes the runway at Hallettsville Municipal Airport is paved, and at 3,200 feet it’s not particularly challenging for most light general aviation airplanes. But what the strip lacks in true backcountry cred the event makes up for in food. Fly in and camp Friday night and stay on Saturday for the pig roast. The event kicks off September 30.

Tailwheel barbecue and camp out
Owasco Airfield, Moravia, New York

A short grass strip, Owasco Airfield has what pilots are looking for in terms of a fun and challenging runway. Add in some barbecue and an adjacent RV park, and you’ve got it all. The airport is hosting a fly-in and camping event the weekend of October 15.

Byrd’s Backcountry Airstrip and Byrd’s Adventure Center, Ozark, Arkansas

Quickly becoming a fixture of the nationwide STOL craze, ArkanSTOL and the Ozark Backwoods Challenge is a great competition in a beautiful part of the state. This year the fun begins on September 28 and wraps up October 2. Byrd’s Backcountry Airstrip is a tight strip, so visit the ArkanSTOL website to prepare well in advance.

Fly Oz
Bentonville Municipal/Louise M Thaden Field, Bentonville, Arkansas, ‘Gateway to the Ozarks

A network of bike trails, airstrips, and a training base in Bentonville, Arkansas, featured in the September 2021 issue of AOPA Pilot offers training and other resources for pilots seeking to sample the Ozarks.

Lake Ridge Aero Park Fall Fly-In
Lake Ridge Aero Park, Durham, North Carolina

The flyer says it all. “BYOB, self-serve fuel, camping, cornhole, chili.” What more could you want from a fly-in? This year’s fall event is being held October 21 to 23 at the historic airport. If you can’t make it, check out the spring event, usually held in April.

Creighton Island Fly-in
Creighton Island Airstrip near Townsend, Georgia

Just north of St. Simons Island you’ll find Creighton Island, a nearly untouched island with a little more than 2,300 feet of turf and some bunkhouses. The Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) volunteers are hosting a fly-in October 29 to 31. Bring your own food, and get some true East Coast backcountry experience.

Cheat River Island Fly-In
Cheat River Island near Rowlesburg, West Virginia

Mountains on nearly all sides, approaches down river valleys, and landing on an island with a little more than 1,800 feet of grass? Cheat River Island ticks all the boxes. For experienced backcountry pilots, head to the island on October 8 for a fly-in. Come for the free lunch between noon and 4 p.m., or camp the entire weekend.

Backcountry opportunities are everywhere if you know where to look. The RAF has a fantastic database of great strips, and SocialFlight is a good stop for event listings.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.
Topics: U.S. Travel, Backcountry

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