The Liberty Gazettte
May 29, 2012Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: One of my favorite photos of those I’ve taken myself is of a yellow Piper Cub snuggled up to a tent along a grass runway in the misty morning sunrise. I took that photo at the first annual Ranger Fly-In, one of several very popular Fly-in/Camp-outs.
Mike: Being a backpacker and climber accustomed to carrying a load on my back, I find that this kind of camping fits well with the camping-by-airplane mentality. Weight is always a consideration – though I did dream about converting the DeHavilland Twin Otter I used to fly into what I called a "Winged Winnebago" complete with car in tow. The Twin Otter has such great short take-off and landing capabilities that it could be shoehorned into the shortest of strips, with a huge cabin and payload to boot. I find it an interesting concept that still begs for development.
Payson, Arizona, right below the Mogollon Rim (otherwise known as the Tonto Rim if you read Zane Grey novels), has a fly-in campground at the local airport. Its 12 campsites take advantage of some of the prettiest country I’ve ever seen. California’s Kern Valley Airport and Lake Isabella in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains are a couple of other scenic areas catering to the flying camper. The historic town of Columbia, in California’s famous Gold Country has a camping area on its airport within walking distance of the old, picturesque downtown district. Or, for "roughing it" the Idaho back country offers some great spots to fly into and camp.
Linda: They say it was a starlit evening about a decade ago when a small group of Montana pilots sitting around a campfire on a backcountry airstrip shared their concerns about the future of these little airfield gems. One of them, John McKenna, wrote that this group had experienced "the rare opportunity to enjoy the combination of flying and stopping off in places that have little in the way of conventional aviation facilities." No FBO, no nearby motel, "not even the old Buick courtesy car," says McKenna. "But there was the smell of pine trees, cowboy coffee, wood smoke, the distant howl of a coyote and the flicker of fire light." They knew these places were special and that someone needed to protect them. They formed the Recreational Aviation Foundation – hard workers committed to the cause, without room in their vocabulary for the words "You can’t do it." I appreciate that.
Mike: Back country airstrips are recognized as an appropriate use of National Forest System lands. Other recreational facilities require hundreds of miles of roadways, but airstrips are low impact requiring minimal disturbance of the natural landscape, while serving as internal trailheads for remote areas. In 2009 the U. S. Forest Service signed a directive acknowledging the history of aviation use and airstrips on forest service lands, began inventorying landing facilities and dedicating efforts to maintain them in support of aviation. Earlier this month, the governors of Minnesota and Vermont signed bills adding aviation to their respective state recreational use statutes, becoming the 15th and 16th states to do so, thanks to the efforts of the Recreational Aviation Foundation.
As summer approaches, the largest airplane camping event is on the horizon. AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin will host thousands of fly-in visitors and campers as it does every year, showing how campgrounds at publicly owned airports offer another way for communities to draw business to them using their airport.