Last weekend, jetAVIVA vice president of Phenom Aircraft sales Greg Oswald and I took an adventure tour of the Idaho back country with Pilot Getaways co-founder and editor John Kounis. The purpose of the trip was an introduction to both back country airstrips and to get some flying time in John’s Cessna 185, a capable back country airplane and a style of flying far from the comfort of the Phenom 100.
The 668-nm flight to Idaho entailed six hours of flying over two days. The first leg to Battle Mountain, Nevada, crossed hundreds of miles of barren desert and required a dogleg around the restricted area around Area 51. We did dodge a couple of thunderstorms, but didn’t see any flying saucers.
From Battle Mountain, a slight detour east via Smiley Creek Airport gave us some excellent flight-seeing opportunities. The airport sits in a wide, forested valley, and long deep blue lakes are tucked into just about every glacially carved side canyon; all this scenery is set against the backdrop of the jagged granite peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains. After weaving among the peaks, blue-green alpine lakes, and secluded meadows of the Sawtooths, we left civilization behind and crossed an 8,000-foot pass to drop into the Loon Creek drainage, past Upper Loon Creek USFS airstrip.
When flying deep in the canyons, John explained, flying is not done on airways or even GPS-direct. For eons, the forces of nature have been carving natural flyways through the mountains: these natural flyways are river canyons. Bush pilots are always aware of what drainage they are flying in and especially whether they are flying upstream or downstream—if you’re flying upstream you can usually continue flying until reaching the ocean without ever needing to climb. We learned other tips like why you should fly on the downwind side of the canyon (updrafts and a tighter turning radius if you have to turn around) and the benefits of flying on the sunny side of mountain slopes (updrafts due to the warm air).
Our first back country approach landing was at Johnson Creek Airport, a 3,400-foot airstrip at the bottom of a half-mile wide valley at 4,933 feet elevation. To make the approach, you fly as close to the right side of the canyon on downwind as possible (just not so close as to scrape off the green nav light on tree branches), and then make a short, steep, 5-degree, turning descent between rocks and trees to the wide grass runway. Both Greg and I were impressed with the tightness of the approach—especially when we realized that Johnson Creek is one of Idaho’s easiest back country strips!
The back country “ bible" is Galen Hanselman’s book, Fly Idaho!; in the book, each airstrip is rated on a difficulty scale of 1–50. Johnson Creek is only a 14. During the course of the weekend, the most difficult airstrip where we landed was Wilson Bar USFS Airport. The blind, twisting approach up a narrow river canyon along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the fact that you can’t see the airstrip until you’re less than 1/4 mile away, the lack of a go-around option from short final, and the 1,500-foot length result in a rating of 27 for this challenging airstrip.
We over-flew Fish Lake was a long grass strip in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness beside a clear lake frequented by Moose. We looked for the moose that John promised would be there, but gave up after about 5 minutes since swarms of black flies, biting horse flies, and mosquitoes also had gathered in this idyllic setting for their own getaways.
Fourteen nautical miles away, Moose Creek was 3,000 feet lower and devoid of insects. There are never any moose there, but, unlike Fish Lake, Moose Creek is known for its good fishing. Since we didn’t have fishing gear, we just hiked the half-mile to the junction of the Selway River and Moose Creek, and dipped our toes into the water.
Other high points of the trip included a dinner at the Flying B Ranch, a remote back country lodge accessible only by boat or airplane. The driver who picked us up from the 2,000-foot grass airstrip told us that his pickup truck had been airlifted in by helicopter, and that the 2/3 mile of dirt road between the airstrip and the ranch was the only road in the area. The ranch is completely “off-the-grid”—so much so that they generate their own electricity with a hydroelectric generator on the nearby stream.
The departure out of the Flying B was the most stunning I have ever flown. Winds were out of the north, dictating a takeoff on Runway 34 (otherwise known as the “North Runway”). Since Impassable Canyon that extends for a mile or so north of the airstrip is too narrow to turn around in, we had to wind our way between vertical rock walls down the twisting river canyon for a couple of minutes until we could climb high enough to turn on course.
The weekend left us with an excellent understanding of back country flying and an appreciation of the beauty of the Idaho Rockies. To find out more about fun places to fly, read Pilot Getaways Magazine, which has featured many of these strips, including an article the Flying B Ranch in the last issue.