Ray Arnold, Backcountry Pilot
Ray Arnold comes as close as anyone to having mastered the art of backcountry flying. He's been at it for almost 40 years, most of that time as the mail man for folks living along the Salmon River. It's definitely the most interesting mail route in the lower 48! For people who live hours from the nearest Post Office, Arnold really is their lifeline to the rest of the world.
When the Post Office was attempting to cut costs, it took Idaho's congressional delegation to convince the post master of the importance of Arnold's mail run.
"In 2009 they gave us a four year contract. We can negotiate for another price increase at the end of four years, but we're pretty well locked into the same price, which is kind of scary because the cost of fuel and everything goes up," he said. "I really don't break even as far as the Post Office is concerned, but we haul a lot of freight and a lot of passengers on the mail route.
"The work we do is unique. In the 48 states there is nothing else like it, and we got a lot of people like today riding the mail run; and it's a good opportunity for people to see the back country."
Arnold follows in the footsteps of other legendary mountain pilots who have kept the backcountry supplied with food and equipment, since the 1930's... men like Penn Stohr and Bill Woods. And like them, Arnold has had his share of close calls, too. It does seem to come with the territory. He remembers one in particular.
"I look at that one and I say, there's got to be a reason I'm still alive, because that could have been very bad. It was in a remote area. Actually we came down and took the tops out of a whole bunch of trees and came to a stop. When we came to a stop, we were about 6 inches off the ground. I was lucky. Somebody was watching over me.
"I'm probably a little more conservative now than I was 35 years ago. I was younger and more – what do they say about young people – indestructible? Now I look at it and say you are very well destructible."
Arnold still remembers some of the classic old timers, like "Buckskin Bill," who lived along the Salmon River until his death in 1980.
"He was a good actor," says Arnold. "He'd always be dressed up in his buckskins and stuff and meet people. Yeah, old Buckskin, everybody thinks he was living off the land, but he sure bought groceries like everybody else, and we brought things in for him. He was different.
"When I flew him, I never called him Buckskin Bill or anything like that. I just addressed him as Mr. Hart. He never objected to it. I flew him in from Cascade to Mackay Bar, and a week or two later he got ill. I hope it wasn't from my flying. He passed away very shortly after that last flight."
There's one story that seems to epitomize what Ray Arnold has meant to the backcountry. It was in the winter, before the advent of Life-Flight, and a call comes in that a snowmobiler had missed a curve, flew through the air 60 feet, hit a tree and crashed.
"So we took off with one EMT, and headed to Yellow Pine. We were at the Yellow Pine airstrip before the ambulance. They moved him several miles by snowmobile and they got him there. It was close to 10 o'clock at night before we could get him ready to move. I went out in front of the airplane, shut my eyes, trying to get accustomed to the dark.
"And then I had two snowmobilers go down to the end of the runway and the rest of them spread themselves out over the road going to Yellow Pine. My theory was, if I stayed above those lights which were on the road, I'd be clear of the mountain. So we took off that way, and I brought him back to Cascade, and they took him down to Boise.
"The next day I get a phone call from the FAA and they told me, 'don't you know that under Part 135 for Operation at Night you have to work off of a lighted field?' I said, 'Yeah, but why don't you go and explain that to the guy who's in the hospital, who the doctor said would have died that night if we hadn't gotten him out.' So that was kind of the end of the conversation there."
Now in his seventies, Ray Arnold is finally allowing himself to think about retirement, without the constant responsibilities of the backcountry. "This flying business is kind of like the dairy farmer; you've got to stay around. You're kinda tied to it.
"I enjoy the work but mainly it's because of the people you know. The true thrill of flying isn't there as much as it used to be, but the friendships that we've had over the years and the people we know are still there. I've got friends that I met in '77 that once in a while I'll get a call from, or they'll stop by.
"I tell people if somebody comes and makes me a good offer… But right now I plan on at least finishing up this contract, which will be three more years. That will make me 76. That's old enough to quit."
And does he have any advice for the next generation of wilderness pilots? "Try to avoid some of those problems where I could have killed myself. You gain some wisdom in this over the years."