By Brian Schober
As of late, there is a renewed interest in backcountry flying, Short Take Off/Landing (STOL) practices, and the excitement this type of flying brings. The STOL drags at the High Sierra Fly In, Sun-N-Fun, and Oshkosh are drawing some much needed life into general aviation. APA sponsors and maintains several backcountry strips and hosts multiple events each year, and I participate in as many as time and budget will allow. Recently, more than one of my non-pilot friends has asked me something similar to, “Isn’t landing on a dirt strip dangerous?” The questions made me think. Adding to this, a couple of high-profile incidents brought some risks to the forefront. In both of cases that I am thinking about, squirrely and gusty winds were present at the time of the incident. Fortunately, all walked away from each aircraft relatively unharmed. Unfortunately, the aircraft were lost.
So, is it riskier? Yes. Is it dangerous? No, at least not when appropriately planned and executed. Far more dangerous are accidents involving fuel starvation, flight into terrain, or flight into icing conditions. These issues are amplified due to the lack of standard resources at backcountry destinations. Additional planning and sound decision-making skills can effectively mitigate these risks to make it no less safe than any other flight.
Weather can be tricky for backcountry strips. These aren’t typically located on prime aviation-friendly plots of land, and there are often nearby canyons, bluffs, mountains, or tree lines that drastically affect wind patterns, and sometimes even precipitation. If a torn windsock is considered a weather report, you’ll be lucky. This makes calculating density altitude, winds, and cloud cover a bit more complicated. Weather risks can be mitigated by performing a deeper dive on the surrounding airports’ weather forecasts and reporting equipment. Backcountry flying websites often include pilot reports. Aviation organizations typically publish prevailing weather conditions online. Thorough research into the weather, paired with maintaining an objective mind to simply cancel the trip if something doesn’t seem right, can often reduce this risk to merely a challenge.
Runway conditions are another significant risk factor. Backcountry strips are typically much shorter, narrower, and more sloped than other airports. Your airplane will handle and brake differently, the runway often appears nonstandard from an optical illusion perspective, and takeoff acceleration is impeded by the rough surface. This issue can be mitigated with experience. Work with an instructor to enhance your short-field/soft-field techniques in the airplane you plan to fly. Though touch-and-goes and flight training aren’t allowed at our backcountry strips, having an instructor onboard as you fly in to the backcountry strips will help you gain the experience needed to safely manage this risk. It’s also always a good idea to have another pilot and aircraft accompany you into the backcountry. This allows for one aircraft to land while another aircraft remains aloft, able to beckon for help, or hopefully offer assistance, or a way back out if damage occurs to the first aircraft, and visa-versa should the second aircraft suffer any mishap on landing. It’s also a good idea to be certain all aircraft can be started before leaving a sole aircraft on the ground and out of radio contact with at least the second to last aircraft departing, you being the last aircraft departing! We had one aviator stranded for several hours on a backcountry airstrip after that pilot waited several hours after his buddies had left to start up, only to find his battery dead!
Risk management is a huge part of flying, and flying the backcountry is no different. Learning to recognize risks and effectively mitigate them helps us continue to enjoy flying without incident. Backcountry flying requires additional risk mitigation through planning, and it certainly requires additional training and currency. At the same time, it is also some of the most rewarding flying I do. Fly safe and enjoy yourself out there!