Backcountry Flying

McCall Mountain's Canyon Flying Seminar sign

One of the great attractions about flying in Idaho is the millions of acres of wilderness. And sooner or later its siren call will lure you in. This is a different kind of flying. You have to be on your game. Luckily, there are places you can learn about this kind of flying, places like Middle Fork Aviation out of Challis, and the McCall Mountain/Canyon Flying Seminar.

"I decided back in 1996 to put this school together," explains McCall pilot Lori MacNichol. "I had flown many, many hours of air taxi and actually observed a lot of accidents that I thought could have been prevented. I decided to put together a course curriculum that would address and help people operate safely in the back-country."

Lori MacNichol

MacNichol and her staff operate the "McCall Mountain/Canyon Flying Seminar" out of the McCall airport, in central Idaho. But it's the nearby wilderness that draws folks to the four-day event.

"The 4.5 million acres that this wilderness offers and these airstrips that are within it – 50 plus airstrips – this is truly a unique gem," says MacNichol. "It's a national treasure for sure. It's almost a secret."

The strength of the seminar is MacNichol's experienced staff and the ratio of teachers to students. Everything having to do with backcountry flying gets discussed: air speed, turn radius, density altitude, and even pilot etiquette.

Flying instructor Art Lazzarini, 1947–2011

"Most of these people, they are all exceptional pilots," said instructor Art Lazzarini. "Most of them have in excess of 200 hours of flight time and one of these people has 1000 hours; but today he asked some questions that seem to indicate he's going to change a procedure that he had in his flying. That's what we're after. We want to see people look at things differently."

"The airplane is a tool. It's a compromise between gravity and utility. It's strong in a lot of certain ways. It's fragile in certain ways too, and pilot technique has everything to do with whether or not it survives a flight."

Instructor Rich Bush

Dr. Thomas Chopp of Boise explains his interest in the course. "Just like a kayaker in a turbulent stream, you have to be aware of the different currents of the air flow, and you have to adjust for that and be ahead of it. This does not allow you the opportunity to be behind it even once. And so that is why I'm here. As part of the course they teach you about these weather patterns that you have to be aware of that change constantly during the day."

"One of the main reasons I'm here," says Neil Foster of Santa Rosa, California, "is to gain some skills in slow flight, to become really one with the aircraft, to really understand it at all its performance levels."

Instructor Rich Bush explains the importance of slow flight in backcountry flying. "They are flying airplanes that may cruise anywhere from 90 miles per hour to 200 miles per hour, but we teach them in the canyons the importance of slowing the airplane down, because the slower they are, their turn radius is shorter, and we've seen people get into trouble when they are trying to make turns before they slow down, and it's not a pretty sight."

A backcountry airstrip

Bush says many of the accidents he's observed over the years in the Idaho wilderness could have been easily avoided. "Don't fly up the middle of the canyon; fly over on the side so you can turn around. Slow the airplane down. Avoid flying up these drainages that have little or no water. As we've studied these accidents over the years, we've implemented a lot of those things into our courses. Sometimes you just wish you could work with those people for even half a day, and it would make a big difference."

"My experience after 30 years of teaching," says Art Lazzarini, "is what people really like about it is it's similar to golf. You can never learn how to do this perfectly. Every time you get in this airplane you're going to learn something. And the people who don't want to learn any more, they don't stay pilots long, because you can never learn it all. That's really the joy of it, because you can't possibly learn it all."