Back Country Lessons

My aspirations to become the ‘back country’ pilot have been put on hold. It was too far of a reach, there were too many missing building blocks to become proficient in just a few hours. The rugged and unforgiving wilds of Utah’s canyon country are no place to be in less you are extremely experienced. The flight service needs a ‘shelf ready’ pilot. That will come, but not now. When I got the call back in March to come on board my first response was “Why not?” Give it a try; put 100% into the effort and all that you gain from such an investment. The challenges weren’t just the terrain, (or lack of it), the winds and the wildness.

My biggest obstacles would be learning to fly planes that I had no experience in. The Cessna 206, 207 and 210s feel like driving a bus around. Their power management, sight lines, geometry of the cockpit was a challenge that was going to take more than a few hours to figure out. I had to have a thick booster seat to get my eyes up and over the cowling and extended engine compartment. But the boost took away my reach necessary to get on the rudders. When you have a load of people in the back you have to make each landing a ‘wheeler’. The nose can’t touch down until the final roll out or you’ll bury the nose gear.

Our destinations were skinny, short, dirt strips, hanging off mesa edges or hidden deep in the rubble of canyon walls. Common approaches would be following a creek or river, deep into a canyon, down to a blind bend, chop and drop the plane onto a patch of sand or gravel to pick up a load of river rafters. They would be dreaming of their first shower and cold beer, you’re dreaming of those lazy days when landings were simple.

Winds howl, they scour the rock into cracks and crevasses lining the ancient, earthen face. From the air the pathways of wind and water look like animal trails etched deep into the history of our planet. The wind is the herd that migrates, stampedes, from a lower resting place to the heights outside the canyon walls. We as back country pilots become familiar with all that this rugged and often wicked flight environment can generate. Flying along picking your way over upheaval, drainage, swell and mesa is a challenge and privilege. There is always something new or a lesson to be gained.

Some days it can be so hot those huge Continental engines refuse to start. The fuel will evaporate before it gets to the cylinder head. There are tricks. Fred Patterson told me before I left “Cindy you have to be the engine”. He was so right! Your hands dance between ignition, fuel pump, mixture controls and throttle. The passengers get edgy wondering if this is the start of another TV series called ‘Canyon Survival”. You coax, you swear, you sweat to get those engines sputtering, coughing, then roaring into life. Engine start up after a 20 minute period to load gear and people can be the worst challenge of the day. I’ve lost liters of sweat in just a few hours.

Redtail Aviation is a wonderful group of pilots, friends and now family. Unfortunately I am not ready to jump on board. Twenty years of flying Pipers across our continent does not equate to the knowledge you need to fly the back country. We decided to put my job on hold until the fall when I can put in some more training and find a comfortable position in their flight line. At first I was crushed, it felt like I had failed to step into these new shoes. Yet what I gained was a HUGE respect for the learning process. It’s not impossible; it will take some time, this I can do.

As a post script… Our chief pilot was lost to a back country flight. A father/son from Texas flew their C-180 out to fly the canyons of Utah. Larry was hired to show them around the area and get them comfortable with the very un-Texas like terrain. No one knows what has happened, there is no NTSB report, other than they crashed into a canyon wall and everything and everyone perished. Larry was a legend in the back country flying community.

It is like loosing Sparky Imeson from the Idaho flying community. All have been humbled by this accident. We still mourn the loss of life. What can we learn? Our lessons never cease.

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