Backcountry Flying in Idaho

by HPA · May 7, 2014

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

by Sarah Rovner (Commercial Pilot, CFI, CFII & FAASTeam Representative)

In my line of work, it is not often that I get to travel for work. When I got the opportunity to attend job-related training in Idaho Falls, Idaho, I was excited for the opportunity! And of course, I couldn’t go somewhere new without experiencing the general aviation scene in that area. Although my class ended Friday around lunchtime, I decided to stay for the rest of the weekend and leave Sunday afternoon in order to do some general aviation flying. I contacted a local flight school, AvCenter, about doing some mountain training in a Cessna 182P. I was put in contact with a great CFI, Bobby Picker, and we began to plan this great adventure.

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

Friday afternoon is what I would consider a “warm-up” to the fun that was had on Saturday. We spent Friday flying around and taking in the amazing scenery around Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, and Jackson Hole, WY. The views were unmatched and something almost of another world. Our first stop was a little airport in Driggs, Idaho (DIJ) which was just west of the grand Tetons. They had a small warbird museum and an airport café that was open in the summertime for pilots to fly in for food. Seeing the beautiful snow topped mountains out the window was one of the best features of this little restaurant. The air was cool, crisp, and clean compared to the air in Houston. It was a beautiful place.

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

After departing Driggs, we flew over the Teons to Jackson Lake and then south to Jackson Hole, WY where we did a touch and go. Surprisingly, a few ski resorts were still open although it was somewhat late in the season for skiing. We flew along the valleys to our next stop, which was in Alpine, WY (46U). I would describe Alpine asthe place that “heaven met the earth”. It was an absolutely amazing airport community that was surrounded by beautiful mountain and water. The pilot lounge was a nice little shack next to the self-serve pumps that had a heater and furniture inside for visiting pilots. Instead of a courtesy car, the airport features courtesy bicycles which as a nice touch to the atmosphere of the community. This place is now on my list ofplaces Iwould like to retire! After departing Alpine we flew back to Idaho Falls and began making preparations for Saturday’s flying.

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

On Saturday, we began by warming up with a few local gravel airports in the area that needed soft/short field procedures in order to fly safely in and out of them. We flew to Midway (U37), Big Southern Butte (U46) and Hollow Top (0U7) which were in the desert valley just east of the mountain ranges. We got to see the craters of the moon national monument and the miles of lava covered desert floor from a volcanic eruption that happened many years ago.

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

After that, the fun began. Our first airport that we went to was called Antelope Valley (U92), which featured a 3400ft turf runway at 680ft elevation. This one was a bit tricky to land at because of the high terrain surrounding it. By the time we were on final, my heart was racing. It was quite a rush coming into an airport while staring at high terrain just off the nose, thinking that if something went wrong you didn’t have a whole lot of options. My instructor assisted me in getting set up and gave me tips about flying into such airports. We landed uneventfully and took off in the opposite direction where we had more distance to clear terrain. We spiraled up to the top of the terrain and then headed over a ridge to our next airport, which was Copper Basin (0U2). This airport is the highest airport I have ever landed at having a field elevation of 7920ft and a landing distance of 4700ft. It was an absolutely beautiful area of the country and after we landed, we had to get out and take proper pictures. As we stopped the plane and got out, we could hear the wildlife in the distance with not a single bit of white noise or city noise. It was silent, calm, and beautiful – truly a place to be “one with nature”. There was a log cabin nearby but the area did not look like it was inhabited at all. Once again, words cannot describe the beauty of this area.

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

After getting pictures, we took off from Copper Basin and headed north over the mountains to Mackay (U62), which was a paved strip that was near a reservoir and river. Once again, another beautiful place in the mountains that I wish I could never have to leave! After Mackay we flew to Howe (U97) and then back to Idaho Falls. I was so sad when it ended but I know I will definitely be going back!

Backcountry Flying in Idaho

To this day I still think about the beauty in that area and how it is so much different from the city life (both living and aviation). It was an absolutely amazing experience that I encourage every pilot to see for themselves in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. Of course, care needs to be taken as these areas are high in altitude and surrounded by high terrain, but filling the right seat with a good instructor is key to having a fun and safe experience! If you are ever in the Idaho Falls area, I encourage you to seek out AvCenter in Idaho Falls, ID and fly with them to explore and experience the great beauty of Idaho backcountry.

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

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Flying

The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).

Learning

At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/

 

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