Safari in Beaver, Husky, and Wookiee Land

 

By Lane Wallace

 

© 2006 Flying Magazine
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, January 2006

"What's the deal on this next strip?"

I look at the marked page in my "Fly Idaho" backcountry flight guide. "Orogrande," I answer. "Elevation 4405. Runway is either one or one-nine, 2900 feet long. Notes say 'New tree growth on sides of runway limit usable width to 50 feet.'" I glance out the window at the long stretch of yellow wing extending into the Idaho mountain air. "What's your wingspan, again?"

Harrison keeps looking straight ahead, eyes on the two Huskies we're following. "Fifty feet," he answers, deadpan.

"Serious?" I ask. It's hard to tell, with him.

He shrugs. "Pretty close," he says. "Better check it in the manual. The military one." He rummages blindly behind his seat with one hand and pulls a flight case out within my reach. "It's in here, somewhere."

I flip open the military operations manual for the De Havilland DH-2 "Beaver" and fumble my way awkwardly through the first section in my haste to find the right page. The strip is just ahead of us, and the Huskies are already in the pattern. Ah. There it is. Diagram and dimensions.

"Wingspan … 48 feet," I report. We both look down at the narrow stripe of grass and exchange a brief glance. "Your call," I say cautiously. Harrison hails the lead Husky, which is already rolling out on the strip.

"Uh, Beaver One, this is Beaver Three. Is that strip as narrow as the book says?"

"It's pretty narrow," Spike reports.

Harrison nods to himself, decision made. "Roger that. Beaver Three is going to stay high. I don't think I need to be flying into a 50-foot strip with a 48-foot wingspan."

I breathe a relieved sigh. I couldn't agree with him more. This is only my first day on this backcountry flying safari, but it's already blazingly clear to me that this is no place for egos or heroes. The Idaho mountain wilderness is an unbelievable wonderland of steep valleys, colorful mountainsides, crystal-clear waterways and rocky canyon vistas. But the consequences for mistakes or trouble here are as breathtakingly awesome as the scenery this kind of flying allows you to experience.

The Backcountry Safari is the informal invention of two pilots named Rich Sugden and Roland Turney. Six years ago, Turney, who had a lot of experience flying into the small, challenging strips in Idaho's "River of No Return" wilderness, took Sugden and a couple of other friends on a four-day flying trip into the backcountry. They had such a good time that they've made the trip an annual event, with a few more planes joining in each time.

"Every one of these strips is unique," Turney says. "They've all got different layouts, hazards, approaches and departures. So the best way to teach people how to do this safely is something like this, where they can fly in with people who've done it before. Rich and I had this idea that this could be a good educational thing as well as a fun trip."

Both Sugden and Turney stress to all the pilots they invite that the trip isn't a flight school, or appropriate for anyone who isn't already pretty comfortable with short-field operations. But, Turney says, "You can take pilots who are experienced, but who haven't done much backcountry flying, and get them experienced pretty quick, doing this kind of trip."

The learning curve, however, better be almost as steep as the slopes that gave this piece of wilderness its name. (Explorers going down the Salmon River here found the terrain along the river too steep and difficult to allow them to return the way they'd come, hence the "River of No Return" moniker.) For there are few landing strips on the itinerary here that would even get an intermediate rating in the world of mountain skiing. This is serious black-diamond country.

We camp at a historic U.S. Forestry strip called Moose Creek, which is only 2,454 feet above sea level, but that's the lowest elevation of any place we explore. And it's not just the elevation. Most strips are pretty short-a 2,500-foot strip at 4,000 feet is considered a long, easy runway in this crowd-and a number of them are neither level nor straight. In addition, many have only one way in and one way out, and a few have no options for a go-around. Oh, yeah. And then there's the matter of the trees. Tall ones. Everywhere you look. Pine forests cloak most of the mountain slopes here with a solid carpet of green that makes the ridgelines look deceptively soft when you look at them from a distance. Contemplate a landing anywhere among them, however, and that illusion pops quicker than a party balloon.

The Safari splits up into different groups for the flying so there won't be too many planes trying to crowd into the same airspace or landing sites. Our little group consists of Harrison Ford in his De Havilland Beaver, Harrison's chief pilot Terry Bender in Ford's Husky, a couple named Hap and Cecelia Perry in another Husky, and Blake Chapman, a crusty rancher and Husky pilot from Wilson, Wyoming who, if one believes the tales, has apparently crashed more airplanes than Jupiter has moons. Blake also achieved a particular kind of notoriety in this group a couple of years ago when a collection of late-night revelers, including Harrison Ford, decided to harass Blake with wolf howls outside his tent. The prank lasted until the group heard the distinctive "Che-CHUNK" of a shotgun round being chambered inside the tent.

Game, set, and match, Blake Chapman.

"Beaver Flight," as we call ourselves, is rounded out by a flight instructor from Driggs, Idaho, named Spike Minczeski, and me, and it is, indeed, a colorful group. Since Spike and I don't have our own planes here, we alternate flying with Harrison and Terry.

For me, flying with Terry Bender is like slipping on a comfortable old glove. He talks his way through challenging flying maneuvers, the same way I do, and we quickly melt into a seamless level of teamwork and ease in the Husky. In between pointing out landmarks and scenery to each other, checking for the others in our flight group, and prepping for each new landing site, I discover that he learned to fly after being in the infantry in Vietnam.

"I looked up from the trenches and saw those guys flying F-4 Phantoms and all, and thought 'they really have the right way to do this,' he says with a quiet laugh. "So when I got home, I learned to fly."

Terry, in turn, taught Harrison Ford to fly, and they are both extremely good pilots. Harrison, in fact, is one of the most focused and serious pilots I've ever flown with. And like some of the characters he's played, he does not tend to suffer fools, superfluous conversation, or co-pilot error gladly. If you're going to fly with Harrison Ford, you'd better be on your game.

And yet, when I'm flying in the Beaver-a beautiful, sweet, harmonized wonder with such graceful and steady handling even in canyon winds and rough airstrips that please, Daddy, can I have one for Christmas-I can't quite reconcile the pilot flying with me and the mega-star I've seen on TV and movie screens. In part, I think it's because the aura of fame requires a little distance. But I also think it has something to do with the great leveling effect of aviation. No matter what roles we may have in other sectors of our lives ... cancer surgeon, car mechanic, writer, or movie actor ... we're not being those things when we fly. We're being pilots. And all the money or status in the world can't help us counter that sink rate, extend our fuel range, or get the airplane stopped before the end of the strip. So the glitter and trappings of society and fame tend to fade into what they should be all along-irrelevant details.

At one point, I make an effort to see if I'm even able to pull the movie hero out of the guy sitting next to me. "Okay, Lane, imagine you're Chewbacca," I say to myself. "You're in the Millennium Falcon, escaping to the City in the Clouds." I get the image firmly in my mind, then look left. BANG! There he is! With a few more seasons on the frame, perhaps, but ohmygod. I really am flying with Han Solo, Indiana Jones, HARRISON FORD. Wow.

The image lasts about 12 seconds. Then Harrison gestures to a ridgeline in front of us. "Exactly how much altitude do we need to clear the saddle at the end of that valley?" he asks. Poof! I'm instantly back with Harrison the pilot, in the Idaho mountains, with work to do. But somehow I like the fact that, flying and camping with him in the backcountry here, I have to work hard to see him as a movie star and can't even hold that image long in my mind.

All told, the Backcountry Safari group spends four days in the wilderness, where our four-ship Beaver Flight works its way through a labyrinth of dramatic canyons, peaks and valleys, one backcountry strip at a time. Since many of the runways are surrounded by rising terrain, quite a few approaches call for dropping down into a valley or canyon some distance from the runway and following a creek or riverbed on a serpentine, blind final where airspeed and timing are absolutely everything. Sometimes we only see the runway a handful of seconds before we flare.

Galen Hanselman's "Fly Idaho" guide, with its aerial photos of each strip and notes on landing directions and hazards, is an incalculable aid. But sometimes it still sounds easier in the book than it looks when you're actually circling overhead. All the pilots I'm flying with are skilled, but no pilot in our group attempts every landing.

At one stop, as we brief the next couple of airstrips we plan to visit, Blake looks at a photo in the guide and says, "I believe I'll stay high on that one." Harrison, who's holding the guide, frowns.

"Now, what exactly is it about this one that you don't like, Blake?" he asks. "It's not that high, fairly open, on the side of a hill, with good approaches."

Blake fixes Harrison with a look that would have stopped Indiana Jones himself in his tracks. "I said, I believe I'll stay high on that one," Blake repeats in his slow, gravelly, rancher drawl. In our collective mind's ear, we all hear the round being chambered in the shotgun. Harrison looks down at the book again, chuckling quietly to himself as he nods his head in surrender.

"And I don't believe I'll be asking you twice," he says.

We all laugh. Laughter, in fact, is as plentiful as the challenges, here-both throughout the day's flying and around the campfire each evening. It's the point of it, really-to have a good time with a few friends while chalking up some valuable flying experience.

If I have a complaint about our travels at all, it's just that we don't get to spend enough time at any of the spectacular places we land. We touch down, go "wow," and then turn around to take off again, so we can visit the maximum number of strips in the minimum amount of time. I finally decide I need to look at the trip as a survey tour; a buffet sampling of places I might just have to return and get to know better someday.

The River of No Return. Whoever named it that, I realize, never imagined we might one day be able to navigate the beauty and mysteries of this place looking down on the river instead of up at the sky.