Mountain Flying in Montana
August 27, 2008
The reddish-yellow hues of a spectacular Montana autumn landscape consume the yellow Cessna 180 as it banks over the Flathead River.
In his Cessna 180, pilot Chuck Jarecki clears the tops of tall Douglas fir and lodgepole pine, then guides the plane down to Meadow Creek airstrip, a remote landing in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Jarecki steps down out of the cockpit, his eyes focused intently at the ground. He drops to his knees, penknife in hand, and starts digging a plant with purple flowers. "Spotted knapweed," he mutters to himself. This is a weed, a scourge, an enemy of maintaining remote mountain airstrips in Montana. To the pilots who use these mountain byways it's their job to make sure the airstrips
Soon a second aircraft approaches and lands. John McKenna, Chairman of the Montana Pilots Association Recreational Division, flies the chrome-trimmed, red Cessna 185. He emerges from the plane, greets Jarecki and says, "Remind me to dial back my prop when we leave, I want to keep this takeoff as quiet as I can."
These men have a deep respect for the environment they use for recreational flying. These pilots that continued access to wilderness, backcountry and unattended airstrips depends on the effort they put into protecting and improving the resource. And, access means continuous political vigilance and involvement.
"People who fly planes have a right to access the public lands just as other users have," Jarecki says. "To preserve flying opportunities for the future, we need to act now. Otherwise, we may be asking ourselves twenty years down the road, "Why did we just sit back and do nothing in those days?"
Mountain flying has its roots in the commercial aviation history of the West. Pilots were called upon to deliver supplies into remote gold mines of Montana, ferry gas-exploration crews in Utah, or transport hunters and trappers in and out of Alaskan wilderness. All were jobs performed by highly skilled pilots in rugged airplanes.
That tradition continues today in Montana. The remote mountain airstrips of Montana dot the millions of miles of wilderness in Northwest Montana. A quick review of the airstrip log books quickly reveals that pilots come from just across the mountains in Kalispell, or from across the country.
Often, a recreational pilot's flight is simply the first part of a longer trip of hiking, hunting, fishing, photographing, whitewater kayaking, rafting or simply camping under the wing in a picturesque location. Mountain airstrips make that all possible, and they're maintained, for the most part, by the people who use them.
Recreational flying require heightened awareness to unpredictable weather, and extensive low-speed flight experience is a primary requirement for mountain pilots. There are a lot of ways to fly into trouble in the mountains, and help is often a long way off.
Despite the risk, flying into remote airstrips is a way of life, a portal into a world distinctly away from it all. For instance, Spotted Bear airstrip sits just a mountain range and 25 air miles away from Kalispell. You can be kissing your wife goodbye at 6 p.m. and unpacking your raft at the Spotted Bear airstrip by 7 p.m., or unpacking your fly rod and hiking into Spotted Bear Lake, where you can catch lunker cutthroat trout lurk.
Flying into these airstrips wouldn't be possible without the help of volunteer pilots. It is these pilots' efforts on the environmental and political fronts, including airstrip maintenance and participation in extensive bureaucratic planning, that have maintained access to the remote backcountry airstrips.
"We want to maintain access to the landing areas we already use, and regain access to some existing strips that have been abandoned," McKenna says, and says pilots would clear and maintain the airstrips with teams of volunteers."
Predictably, recreational flyers are not without opposition. One spokesperson for those who feel airplanes diminish the 'wildness' experience for others is Bob Decker, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association. This powerful conservation organization wants to protect the natural essence and natural heritage of wilderness. "To do that you don't allow uses that run contrary to protecting that resource," Decker says.
Putting the airstrips in public wildlands or designated areas is a form of recreational elitism, he says. But Jarecki and McKenna are sensitive to criticisms of recreational aviation. One example of their efforts is three days spent by Jarecki at a training session on how to reach concensus on future acceptable uses of the Missouri Breaks National Monument. "We had representatives of the Wilderness Association sitting at the table with all-terrain vehicle guys, and recreational pilots. The goal was to learn how to get along, how to hear each other's issues, how to work out a mutually satisfactory agreement."
All this organization and political participation may seem burdensome, particularly when the real goal is to have a good time in airplanes, and to use the airplanes to get to places to have a good time. But the effort makes perfect sense on a cold October morning. A grass-covered airstrip is shrouded in mist, which begins to lift as the pilots and their guests enjoy a frypan full of eggs and hashbrowns and break camp. Then, as the atmosphere clears and an emerging sun frees the wings of thin skins of ice, the shivering pilots flight-check their planes, load passengers, fire the engines and let them warm.
Takeoff this morning is from a short, grassy strip shadowed by the captivating peaks of Glacier Park, a few hundred yards south of the Canadian border. The planes rise from the ground and climb quickly in the cold air. Over the radio comes a message from one to another. "Look, in the river, moose!"
The moose family foraging in the stream munches breakfast nonchalantly, unperturbed as the airplanes pass overhead, course set for another backcounty airstrip, another night of camping under the wings, or perhaps even in the relative luxury of a wood-heated log cabin.
Chuck Jarecki smiles as his focus shifts from the animals below to the bright mountains ahead. "Yes," he's thinking, "this experience is worth the effort."