What pilot doesn't like to play the "dream plane" game? If money were no object (or at least a lot less of an object than it normally is), what jaw-droppingly cool airplane would you stick in your hangar? I know, it's hard to pick just one. So we pilots tend to get greedy when playing the game by picking a small fleet of airplanes optimized for our favorite missions. I mean, as long as you're playing make-believe why not go for the gusto?
One guy who doesn't have to play "What if?" for lack of resources is John Hendricks, founder and CEO of the Discovery Channel. His latest high-winged ride is the stuff of which aeronautical dreams are made.
Hendricks, who fell in love with the West when he was a kid, bought West Creek Ranch in Gateway, Colorado, some years back after his new ideas in cable TV programming paid off in grand fashion. The ranch is beyond spectacular. To the south and north red and yellow cliffs rise thousands of feet, and serpentine river canyons run throughout the lands, green bands of life flowing south and west. It's a land, says Hendricks, that makes it inescapably clear that "you're living on a real planet." And a spectacular planet it is too, no matter which way you turn your head at West Creek.
Its beauty aside, the western range and plateau lands demand respect from pilots, and flying there can push man and machine to their limits, sometimes beyond. With its lofty heights-MEAs of 10,000 feet and higher are the norm-rugged terrain and fast moving weather (some of the most extreme in the lower 48, for sure), the canyon lands of western Colorado and eastern Utah hold risk in one hand and reward in the other. About three-quarters of the lower 48 terrain higher than 10,000 feet is in Colorado, which has more than 50 peaks 14,000 feet or higher, and summer thunderstorms and winter blizzards can move in fast, wreaking havoc with the best laid plans of the small-plane pilot. The mountainsides are littered with the broken shells of flying machines come to harm.
Yet this is where Hendricks learned to fly 10 years ago, going through the paces with Deanna Strand, owner and operator of Strand Aviation in Grand Junction. Strand, who grew up flying with her father in the Tetons, has been running her flight school for 20 years. She and the instructors who work for her specialize in teaching how to stay alive flying in the mountains, stressing the importance of respecting the limitations of the machine while understanding the special demands of the country.