Want to start a fight at a gathering of pilots? Just innocently ask, “Hey, what’s the best backcountry airplane?” Go hide. Then come back in 10 minutes and watch the chairs flying.
Backcountry flying and the airplanes designed for it have powerful allure that, combined with the adrenaline factor of STOL operations, often causes any sense of objectivity on the subject or airplane selection to vanish. Nevertheless, after flying a cross section of Part 23 (and CAR 3) certificated airplanes that are routinely found at backcountry airports and interviewing several pilots and CFIs who go into those strips, we’re going to dig into the subject. After all, being able to fly into remote airstrips allows pilots to spend time in some of the most beautiful places on the planet.
The first advice we received from the old hands was perhaps the hardest to follow—look past the shiny stuff, the YouTube videos of STOL contests, advertisements claiming postage stamp takeoff distances, the cool-looking airplane with the huge tires sitting on the ramp, and decide just what it is that you want to do.
Is your goal to go into the backcountry for a stay for a while and fish, hike, or camp with maybe a friend or two or do you want to hop from challenging strip to strip to test your mettle? Are you seriously planning to land on gravel bars in rivers or what are runways in name only where there’s a tiny margin for error or would you prefer strips where there is some grass on the dirt and enough maintenance that the gopher holes are probably going to be filled before a pilot finds one with a gear leg?
With a little thought and planning, it’s simply not necessary to spend a fortune on specialized airplanes and/or modifications to safely and enjoyably visit the majority of backcountry strips. It’s a bell-curve thing—a single-engine general aviation airplane with a good rate of climb, flown by a trained backcountry pilot, can be operated into the majority of the backcountry airstrips (unless it’s hot). It’s when you want to go into the places that approach the far end of the curve—short, high altitude, steep, with obstacles—that you need an airplane that is also at the far end of the curve—with the big engine, the reduce-the-stall-speed mods and oversize tires.
What Will You Carry?
With the above thoughts in mind, when you’re thinking about the right bush airplane, it’s time for the number-one rule for backcountry ops: “It’s all about weight.” That came from Dave Parker, proprietor of Northern Air, the farthest north FBO in Idaho. His sentiments were echoed by all of the backcountry pilots and instructors with whom we spoke. We especially liked the comment from the late Walt Atkinson: “Weight rally matters—if you’re carrying fresh peaches, get rid of the pits.”
We can’t emphasize weight too much. POHs give takeoff distances on level pavement—some give correction factors for grass, but nowhere have we ever seen what kind of grass was used for that calculation. We can’t help but suspect that it was a fairway on a golf course. The rule of thumb for weight is that for every 10 percent weight is increased, takeoff distance increases 20 percent. (That also applies to landing.)
For almost all airplanes, the reality of bush operation is that you’re not going to be able to load the airplane to gross weight. That’s something that should be sobering to the vast majority of pilots who are used to regularly loading their airplanes to gross, plus a little/large fudge factor.
Frankly, for virtually all two-seat airplanes you’ll need to plan on flying them solo. Four-place airplanes become two-place, three at most.
Before we look at individual airplanes, we’ll look at the attributes that make a good backcountry airplane.
- Power. Lots of it. When things fall apart power often means the difference between an “Oh $%@#” moment and a bent flying machine. Experienced backcountry pilot Kasey Linday once told us, “The airplane has to be able to climb like a rocket and come out of the sky like a piano.”
- Landing gear that can take punishment—bush landings are rarely delicate events—with brake lines that are protected from hazards that might puncture/break them.
- Landing gear geometry that is not prone to putting the airplane on its nose with heavy braking. We’ll get into the nosewheel versus tailwheel discussion later. Suffice to say that the vast majority of backcountry accidents involve loss of control after touchdown on landing. In addition, the Husky has a disturbing propensity to come to a stop inverted—see the June 2021 issue of Aviation Consumer.
- Excellent control response at low speeds.
- Good prop clearance.
- Good pitch stability on approach—you should be able to hold airspeed within plus or minus 2 knots without breaking a sweat.
- Able to slip steeply with no funky handling entering, in, and exiting a slip.
- High-drag flaps that allow steep descents as well as rapid deceleration to minimize floating if the pilot messes up and is fast on final approach.
- Easy to use flap control.
- Easy to use, fast-acting trim— especially important on airplanes that have major pitch changes on a go-around from low speed.
- Good visibility over the nose.
- Good visibility when maneuvering, particularly in a steep turn as well as looking down and aft.
- A good mix between STOL capability and cruise speed so you don’t run out of fuel getting to or from that great, short strip.
- Tires that will spread the aircraft’s weight for soft, rough or rutted surfaces and increase prop clearance on nosewheel airplanes.
While pilots didn’t mention it outright, some saying that it went without saying, all agreed that the airplane should have a high wing to clear brush and “stuff that sticks up on and around airstrips.”
Ready for the next fight? The purists insist that backcountry airplanes have to have a tailwheel, not one of those sissy nosewheels. The performance numbers for pure STOL ability don’t agree. CubCrafters’ nosewheel NXCub gets off and on shorter than its tailwheel XCub (although the numbers are so startlingly short overall that pilot ability plays a big role)—see the July 2021 issue of Aviation Consumer. In addition, the King Katmai canard mod to the nosewheel Cessna 182 reduces its stall speed to where its takeoff and landing distances are shorter than the Maule series, Super Cub, American Champion Scout and the Aviat Husky.
The nosewheel also means you can lock up the brakes on landing on a grass strip and come to a short stop without worrying about doing the first half of an outside loop. Adding an Airglas (www.airglas.com) beefed-up nosewheel fork to a trigear Cessna means reducing the worry about a fragile nosewheel in the backcountry, and allows installing a larger tire for prop clearance. Bigger tires also allow nosewheels to handle ruts as well as or better than tailwheels—which can break off in a rut. Ask us how we know.
However, prop clearance is almost always better on a tailwheel airplane, something that’s important in everything from tall grass to potholed strips and parking areas. We also recognize that when it comes to airplanes suitable for the bush, tailwheels are usually better looking and have a much higher cool factor. Although, there are some seriously ugly tailwheel bush airplanes—the Pilatus PC-6 Porter comes to mind—it has ugly where other airplanes don’t have places.
And, yes, we recognize that it takes serious work to learn to fly tailwheel airplanes and have long felt that tailwheel pilots, on average, are better stick-and-rudder pilots than nosewheel pilots—because they have to be. The trouble is that, even though they are more accomplished, pilots flying tailwheel airplanes tear them up on landing at a rate nearly three times higher than pilots flying nosewheel airplanes. As pilots age and insurance premiums increase, that’s something we think must be taken into consideration.
Frankly, in our opinion, there’s a certain foolish macho attitude in the bush flying world that results in all of us paying more for insurance than we’d probably have to if pilots were better risk evaluators. We say that from the perspective of flying and instructing in tailwheel airplanes for over 45 years.
While unmodified airplanes have been using many of the backcountry airstrips safely for years, we think that a mod that reduces stall speed is worth its price for the increased level of safety overall and capability for shorter strips.
Our bottom line on STOL kits is that they work. The technology isn’t new. We’ve reviewed a number of them over the years. The only caution we have is reports of issues of poor roll control at low speeds and scraped wingtips on crosswind landings on some of the kits that droop the ailerons with the flaps, notably on the Cessna 185. Our suggestion is to fly before you buy.
Vortex generators are also a proven technology—they’ve been in use since the 1930s. They reduce stall speed and improve low-speed control response while adding very little weight. Our most recent review of VGs was in the March 2019 issue of Aviation Consumer.
If you are trying to decide between VGs and a STOL kit, our general recommendation is to go with VGs because of cost, weight and the fact that they are usually also installed on the vertical stabilizer to improve rudder effectiveness at low speed and in crosswinds. On some airplanes, they are also installed on the underside of the horizontal stabilizer to improve elevator effectiveness at low speed.
If you are going for the STOLest installation, our tests on a Cessna 182J showed that putting VGs on a STOL kit does further reduce stall speeds, but not by the same amount provided by either a STOL kit or VGs added to a stock airplane.
We’re limiting our scan to production FAR Part 23/CAR Part 3 certificated airplanes—we don’t have the bandwidth to delve into the wide world of homebuilts and antique machines.
CubCrafters (www.cubcrafters.com) has been changing the two-place airplane backcountry world with its XCub and soon to be certificated, nosewheel NXCub because of their ability to carry a load. While weight is indeed everything, and we earlier said that two-seat airplanes are single-place machines in the bush, the CubCrafters production airplanes are the exception. For example, the NXCub will carry full fuel and some 600 pounds in the cabin—that’s what we expect to see in a Cessna 182, not in a two-seat airplane.
Until CubCrafters muscled its way into the bush world, the argument over the best two-place airplane was between the Aviat Husky (www.aviataircraft.com), American Champion (www.americanchampionaircraft.com) Scout, Piper Super Cub and 150-HP Citabrias. They are popular because of their capabilities and generally good handling, although all have significant adverse aileron yaw requiring sharp skills when flying slowly and maneuvering. All, save the biggest engine Scout, have horizontal stabilizers with no camber—flat—which enhances the airplanes’ tendency to roll and pitch down aggressively in a cross-control stall, which has killed a lot of pilots and passengers.
There are various engine sizes for most of the airplanes and useful load varies widely. Check before you buy because the useful load on some models is lousy.
If we had to choose one, we’d go with the Scout, especially the Denali version, for its handling, ease of entry and larger cabin; however, it’s a near thing and personal preference plays a huge role—our interviews elicited some very strong opinions.
We see Cessna 120s and 140s with big engine conversions and tundra tires. Their good handling makes them attractive.
The PA-12 Super Cruiser is a three-place airplane, but we’ll lump it in here. We suspect that the series has the highest number of STCs ever issued. With a big engine and STOL mod, the relatively large cabin and good useful load makes them excellent in the bush.
We’ll start with what we consider to be the best of the four-place backcountry airplanes, the 300-HP and canard modifications to the Cessna 182 by Peterson’s Performance Plus (www.katmai-kenai.com) known as the King Katmai. We reviewed it in the January 2013 issue. The 31-knot stall speed helps make it one of the most capable STOL airplanes available and the lifting surface canard means that the airplane is in a nearly level attitude when flying near the stall. The nose does not block the view directly forward on landing and climbout—something we consider very valuable.
Why buy a Super Cub, Scout or Husky when for the same price you can buy one of the Maule (www.mauleairinc.com) series and take more people or stuff into the bush and land or take off just as short? With doors that open to expose the entire right side of the cabin, the Maule series was designed for pilots who want to go into the backcountry with enough gear to stay awhile.
Since 1960 Maule has been turning out on purpose-built bush airplanes with power ranging from 145 to 260 HP. There are some nosewheel versions out there, but in the main, Maules have tailwheels, a robust airframe and excellent STOL capabilities. The most recent can seat five people although you need to watch weight and balance.
There is an aileron-rudder interconnect that takes a little getting used to, but otherwise handling at all speeds is without vice. They have the same high landing accident rate associated with tailwheel airplanes, although we consider them to be among the more docile of tailwheel machines. We last reviewed them in our November 2020 issue.
The four-place tailwheel Cessnas—170, 180 and 185 (a 185 may have four or six seats)—have been solid performers in the bush since the first model 170 appeared in 1948. All regularly receive mods including bigger engines, STOL kits, VGs and tundra tires that enhance their already strong capabilities.
One of the longtime favorites of knowledgeable bush pilots is the relatively rare Aeronca Sedan. They treat it as a two-place airplane that will carry a great deal of gear. Because it can be maneuvered aggressively at 60 MPH, it’s valued for its ability to handle tight spaces.
We were interested to hear many backcountry pilots tout the stock Cessna 182 as an all-around good bush machine. Alaska and Idaho pilot Johannes Snyder spoke of its ability to get in and out of 2000-foot strips without breaking a sweat and how much he preferred its wider cabin to the 180 and 185 for day-to-day operations.
Not surprisingly, the Cessna 206 tops this list because of its combination of decent short-field ability, especially with VGs and/or a STOL kit, and the capability to carry almost—emphasis on almost—anything that can be stuffed into its capacious cabin. Pilots also praised its long center of gravity range.
The Cessna 205 received good marks for its stunning useful load, but was downgraded slightly because its smaller engine means the loaded rate of climb suffers. The 207 was a favorite for those who wanted to carry sheer volume but we were warned that its performance drops off significantly when it’s high and/or hot.
Some Alaska operators told us that they make a great deal of use of 36-series Bonanzas because a lot of the grass strips they use are of adequate length for a loaded A36. They said that the rugged gear handles grass and dirt strips without problem and the high cruise speed means the round trip times are about half what they are in other load-haulers. They did warn about the short center of gravity range and the need to put all of the heavy stuff up front.
Choosing the right backcountry airplane means an objective assessment of the type of flying you want to do and what you want to take with you. The good news is that there is undoubtedly an airplane that will fit your needs.
Nevertheless, having the most tricked-out airplane doesn’t make a backcountry pilot, training does.
Backcountry Operations: Train For Your “A” Game
For a short-field landing, the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for the private pilot rating require that the applicant “Maintain manufacturer’s published approach airspeed or in its absence not more than 1.3 VS0, +10/-5 knots with gust factor applied.”
You’re about to land on a 1000-foot backcountry airstrip with an elevation of 3000 feet on an 80-degree F day. 1.3 VS0 in your STOL- and VG-equipped Cessna 182 is 45 knots. At that speed you should be able to get down and stopped in 700 feet. There’s a decent margin for error—especially if you’re dealing with a tailwind on a one-way strip or slippery grass.
Applying the private pilot ACS tolerances, you can approach at 55 knots. That 10-knot speed increase is a 20 percent increase in approach speed. You also learned long ago that for every 10 percent increase in approach speed, the landing distance goes up 20 percent. Now you’re facing a 40 percent increase in landing distance—280 feet—extending the total distance to 980 feet. You’ve got a grand total of 20 feet before you run off the end of what passes for a runway. And that’s if you do everything else correctly.
Is plus 10 or minus 5 knots really good enough?
Absolutely not. We agree with Northern Air’s proprietor and backcountry instructor, Dave Parker: “A pilot has to be able to hold airspeed within one or two knots on approach.”
Combine a need for airspeed control that is well above what a pilot is routinely required to exhibit with runways that slope and have surfaces that are usually uneven and rutted, along with winds wrapping around mountains and stands of trees, and a pilot used to 4000 feet of level pavement is facing a whole new world.
That means that DIY backcountry training is a good way for a pilot to wind up looking stupid in an NTSB report after going off the end (or side) of a runway on landing—or takeoff—hitting obstructions on final or after liftoff, or developing a high sink rate on final, not counteracting it and snapping the gear off. Yes, these are what we see time after time after time when we read reports of accidents in the backcountry.
For all of the seemingly laid-back attitude manifested by bush flyers in the airport’s pilots lounge, the ones who go into the serious strips are fanatics about precision. They fly final at 1.3 VS0 at the very fastest, and they absolutely nail the speed they’ve selected. They don’t waste any precious runway trying for a feather-light touchdown. Approaching below 1.3 VS0 they know that it will probably take a solid, brief shot of power in addition to nearly full back stick to break the descent and flare. They know how much power to apply and when to get rid of it.
Being able to not only operate your airplane safely and consistently at the low-speed end of its flight envelope and acquire the judgment to do so at short, rough airstrips that are—for the most part—in the mountains, means going to school.
It means spending actual flight time—not just ground school—getting the gut-churning experience of the shocking absence of takeoff and climb performance as you suddenly understand the effects of density altitude; setting the mixture for takeoff and that awful “why won’t this thing go?” feeling you get when it’s too rich; realizing that the downdraft you’re in exceeds the ability of the airplane to climb and learning how to predict such situations and how to get out of them; learning the effects of the wind and why you probably should park the airplane if the wind is blowing faster than 20 knots at the tops of the mountains; and working takeoff performance problems and then seeing if you can make your airplane do what the book says it can.
There are backcountry flight schools and instructors throughout the Mountain West. Some use their airplanes, others use yours if it has enough power. Our survey showed they average three to five hours of both ground and flight training and some have “seminars” that include excursions to a number of very cool backcountry ranches or resorts.
A bit of good news—there’s lots of free stuff to help you prepare for that backcountry flying course. Start with The Backcountry Pilot (www.backcountrypilot.org), then AOPA’s Mountain Flying interactive course (https://tinyurl.com/4w67jfrm) and go on to the FAA’s Tips on Mountain Flying (https://tinyurl.com/3fjjyznw).
The strip in the picture is Sulfur Creek Ranch, Idaho (ID74). Its elevation is 5835 feet; the runway is 3300 feet long and slopes uphill to the west so it’s a one-way strip. It’s also one of the “easier” backcountry strips. However, like any backcountry strip, it doesn’t tolerate anything other than your “A” game.
Rick Durden is an aviation attorney, CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 and 2.