Galen Hanselman Lived Idaho Backcountry Aviation

The mountain pilot and author died on May 6.

Blessed with nearly 100 pristine wilderness airstrips within easy reach of civilization, Idaho is the premier destination for recreational pilots from every corner of the planet. But the first time Galen Hanselman tried landing at one of those strips, he nearly crashed.

Flying out of Hailey, Idaho, he often heard his pilot friends talk about their experiences in the “backcountry.” Intrigued, he decided to fly to Sulphur Creek—“a great little one-way strip”—on his own. Looking down at the grassy landing area, he overestimated its length and came in too fast. After touching down about halfway, the airplane barreled toward the end. Hanselman stomped on the brakes, which locked. The airplane skidded past the lodge, coming to a halt just before the runway’s end. Knees shaking, Hanselman slunk inside for a piece of pie.

As he sat in the lodge, Hanselman realized he needed two things: backcountry instruction, and real data, rather than word-of-mouth advice. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a book with photos and complete information about every strip? And just like that, the seed was planted, and Idaho’s aviation history would be forever changed. Once published, Hanselman’s informative and entertaining guide—“Fly Idaho!”—quickly found a place in nearly every mountain-pilot cockpit, earning it the nickname “bible of the backcountry.” No other person did more to bring safety to operations at Idaho’s famed backcountry airstrips than Hanselman, who died on May 6, 2020, from complications of liver cancer. He was 72.

Galen Lee Hanselman was born on April 2, 1948, in Paulding, Ohio. His father, Ralph, was raised in Gooding, Idaho. In 1961. Ralph noticed an ad in Life magazine that offered for sale a trailer park in Ketchum. He and his wife Phyllis piled their three youngest children in the car and headed for Idaho. After staying in the trailer park for several weeks, Ralph commented, “Well, they’re not charging us to stay here, so we might as well buy the place.” The following year they purchased an old school bus, filled it with their belongings, and moved to Ketchum.

Hanselman grew up fishing, hunting, and exploring the nearby rivers, creeks, and mountains. He graduated from the College of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in physics. Familiar with electronics, he started a business in 1976 designing and installing residential and commercial fire and security systems in the Sun Valley area. Hanselman started flying in 1980 at age 32. With his airplane he was able to do installations throughout Idaho and across the US.

Galen Hanselman
Galen Hanselman grew to resemble another famous Ketchum, Idaho, resident, Ernest Hemingway, in his later years. Courtesy of Crista Worthy/Galen Hanselman

Hanselman sold his business in 1989, and—flush with both cash and time—flew every day. It was time to systematically and scientifically document as many of Idaho’s airstrips as possible and publish his findings in a book. This would give other pilots accurate information to help them decide whether they had the skills and equipment to safely fly into each airstrip.

A stickler for accuracy, he purchased surveying equipment including a tripod, theodolite, measuring wheel, level, compass, GPS, and more. In addition to accurately computing the location, length, width, elevation, and orientation of each runway, he overflew each strip and photographed it from different angles, as an incoming pilot would see it. This sounds easier than it is: Many airstrips lie deep within narrow canyons, making it difficult to fly and photograph at the same time without colliding with terrain. Furthermore, he always shot through an open window, which created hurricane-like conditions inside the cockpit. “It doesn’t make sense having a $2,000 camera shooting through a 98-cent piece of Plexiglass,” he said.

His guides were written in a folksy style that belied the scientific background of their author. Along with “more photos than you can shake a stick at” and data, “Fly Idaho!” provided quirky and (mostly) true tales of Idaho’s backcountry history, including “stories galore of old timers, miners, trappers, hermits, Indians, ne’er do wells, wayward pilots, outlaws, moonshiners, murderers, and sweet little ladies of the night,” the author wrote. Recreational information was also included. To help pilots assess the difficulty of any airstrip at a glance, Hanselman developed the Relative Hazard Index (RHI). The RHI is a number between 1 and 50 that considers factors such as obstacles, terrain, visibility, runway surfaces, and more.

Hanselman published “Fly Idaho!” in 1994 and followed up with equally entertaining guides to Montana, Baja California, Utah, and a second edition of “Fly Idaho!” Hanselman was nothing if not thorough, yet he never let a day of work interfere with a chance to go flying, fishing, or shoot the breeze (or his guns) with his many friends. Consequently, each book took years to complete.

While researching “Fly Utah!” Hanselman crashed his airplane in southeast Utah’s deceptive terrain. Mistakenly taking off uphill from a rough airstrip, his plane stalled and flipped upside down into a juniper, totaling it. Neither he nor his son, Marc—who was in the airplane assisting with photography—were injured. “Six weeks later I got a check and was flying another Cessna. On a lot of these strips, you can’t see the grade just by looking,” he said. This experience spurred him to include new elevation and terrain diagrams in his books. His final book, the two-volume Third Edition of “Fly Idaho!” incorporated his new techniques plus all-new photos and information and even more airstrips.

Hanselman’s contributions go beyond books. He developed unique aeronautical charts for Idaho, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, and many other states depicting backcountry airstrips, reporting points, obstacles, and other data not typically shown on FAA charts. He flew his Cessna for charity, including Women Fly Forward, where he gave many girls and women their first ride in a general aviation aircraft. He once said, “I don’t know if we’ll be able to fly like this 50 years from now, but my goal in life now is to leave a mark.”

Hanselman’s blue-and-white Cessna 182 was a familiar sight at the historic Sulphur Creek Ranch, his favorite backcountry haunt. There, the breakfast menu reads “yes or no.” Ranch caretaker Kiere Schroeder said, “Galen had a heart of gold and a twinkle in his eye. He was funny and intelligent in a graceful sort of way. I used to serve him breakfast with a pen because folks clamored for his autograph. Everyone around him got to talk up his books and he patiently answered all their questions with no agenda of his own. One morning, Hanselman and his friends were standing around the coffee pot when another group of pilots started rattling on and on about ‘Fly Idaho!’ and how they couldn’t fly without it. Galen just smiled and never said a word. He was not prideful. I learned a lot from him!”

You could never go anywhere around Hailey or Ketchum with Hanselman without running into people he knew. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone left laughing and smiling after conversing with him. In later years and sporting a white beard, Hanselman developed a resemblance to famed author Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, who lived in Ketchum, causing passers-by to do a double take. Hanselman admired fine woodwork and built himself an oven in which to bake a pair of antique recurve bows that he restored and re-laminated.

For some reason, many pilots seem reluctant to bring passengers along; perhaps they fear scrutiny. Not Galen. He loved to take people up for a ride in his Cessna, often flying them through the Sawtooth Mountains so they could see Idaho’s grandeur from above. He knew every canyon, and we had some wild times. Early one morning Galen set up for an approach to Mackay Bar, along a bend in the Salmon River. The strip comes into view at the last moment. This morning, he was a touch high and Galen knew the grass would probably be slippery, so he wanted to set it down quickly. Over the threshold at about 12 feet AGL, he suddenly retracted the flaps in his 182. We came down, all right, and still slid far down the runway. After he shut down, as we laughed in relief I asked, “Galen, what were you thinking?” “Seemed like a good idea at the time!” he chuckled, adding under his breath, “Don’t think I’ll try that again though.”

A service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and a memorial fly-in at Smiley Creek are planned for the future. Hanselman is currently nominated to the Idaho Aviation Hall of Fame.

I’ll always remember the last time I saw him fly: We were backpacking in the Sawtooth Mountains, and camped at Sawtooth Lake, the only people there. Galen had taken some friends up for a scenic flight. He knew where we were, so he made a flyby, a wing-wave, a flash of blue, and the Cessna disappeared around the bend.

Godspeed Galen Hanselman–thanks for all the laughs, and thanks for all the work you did to make backcountry aviation safer for us all. You are a legend of Idaho aviation.

Crista Worthy writes about travel, aviation, and wildlife from her home in Idaho.

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