The Liberty Gazette
September 27, 2011Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: I watched, fascinated as ancient volcanic rock and dirt dotted by an occasional tree passed by my window and the Cessna T206 Turbo Stationaire that was my chariot was now soaring down in the canyon well below the ridges. The sun glistened off the rippling and often white swirling water of the river below us. We bounced around a bit in the bumpy air and suddenly the pilot announced, “We’re on base now.” I’d been looking out the window but saw no airstrip, not even see a patch of open flat ground; nothing but a “V” shaped canyon that seemed to dead-end.
The pilot eased off on the power a bit and my seat shifted as he began to lower the flaps. I still couldn’t see a place to land. Flaps down a little more, the airplane slowed and we descended further into the canyon. I was too young and too excited to be nervous or scared. As we rolled into a bank toward the rock wall, its jagged edge dropped behind us as the river made a large sweeping curve as though it were leading our way. Trees swept by our wingtips and instantly there was a small clearing in front of us. Thump! Thump! Thump! We bumped over the rough field, my teeth rattling in my head, as we came to a stop at the end of the clearing. The pilot made the airplane pirouette on its left tire and stopped facing the direction we came. To our right were heavy, green bear-proof boxes.
We quickly unloaded the airplane of packages and mail and climbed back in. The pilot cranked up the engine, pushed the throttle forward while standing on the brakes, releasing them once we had full power. My teeth repeated the rattling and those trees at the end of the runway looked awfully tall. I wondered, would we clear them? We did, and with a bit more clearance than we had upon landing. Retracing our route down river we found a junction that made the canyon wide enough for a U-turn, continuing on what the local pilots in McCall, Idaho call the “Salmon River Run.”
Linda: A friend of ours recently made a trip to Idaho in his Beechcraft Bonanza with a group of people who were learning the techniques of back country flying. A big part of that training is developing good judgment, including which strips are safe for landing in whatever particular airplane one is flying.
The State of Idaho Department of Aeronautics and the U.S. Forest Service maintain several back country airstrips for the purpose of getting support personnel into the isolated areas and most are open for recreational use as well. Additionally there are a number of private strips where a pilot can land with prior permission. Idaho is such a great place to learn these skills that Mission Aviation Fellowship, an aerial support ministry does much of their training on these back country strips. MAF was handing out DVDs at Oshkosh this year with lots of video clips of landings in tight places that make pilots go “ooo” and “ahhh”.
Mike: I’ve returned many times since that first experience over 35 years ago to learn from those old hands at back country flying – quite useful skills they’ve given me.