How To Mod Your Ride for Backcountry Fun

An airplane lands on a dirt strip in the backcountry

Modifications, like big, puffy tires, make it easier to land on unimproved grass and dirt strips. [Photo Airframes Alaska]

You can take your stock airplane into a lot of out-of-the-way places depending on what that mount may be. Take a Cessna 172, for example. With a modest 180-hp Lycoming O-360 engine up front and lightly loaded, you can land a Skyhawk in an amazing array of places.

However, you’ll be able to go into a wider range of airstrips—those with both paved and unimproved surfaces—if you take just a few steps towards “kitting your airplane out” as a true backcountry companion. Here are a few key areas that we’ve identified that are ripe for upgrades—along with a great option in each category.

Tundra Tires

[Photo: Airframes Alaska]

Big, fluffy, puffy tires—the ones that off-piste pilots dream about—come up as the No. 1 mod you want if you plan to fly in the backcountry. From unimproved grass and dirt to gravel roads, the extra give they provide makes for softer—and safer—landings. They replace the main-gear tires upon their installation on most tailwheel aircraft.

Alaskan Bushwheels, made by Airframes Alaska, come in a range of sizes starting at 26-inch models (priced at $1,474 per tire), and run up to the 35-inch Beaver Bushwheels, fit for a de Havilland Beaver (as you might guess), but also Pilatus aircraft with a gross weight of up to 5,600 pounds (priced at $2,443 each). Want one for your tailwheel as well? The Baby Bushwheel starts at 11 inches in diameter and comes with various assemblies for a proper fit.

Climb Props

Taking a big bite out of the air makes all the difference in the world when you’re trying to claw above a line of trees encircling your choice of landing spot. While you can adjust a regular fixed-pitch propeller to optimize climb in a lot of cases, having a specific prop tuned to improve performance takes you even further in reducing takeoff distances and climb rate, and reducing the impact of ground erosion. One drawback? Setting for climb pitch may reduce your cruise speed.

A variety of conversions exist for a wide range of piston- and turboprop-powered airplanes to turn them into STOL stars. [Photo: Airframes Alaska]

Hartzell has a catalog of Top Prop conversions to suit a wide range of piston- and turboprop-powered airplanes, from Beechcraft, Cessna, Piper, Mooney, Pilatus, and Daher. The company also has programs for American Champion, Aviat, Cirrus, Commander, Diamond, Extra, Fairchild, and Maule, as well as several experimental aircraft models. Pricing ranges widely by model.

Truly Slow Flight

Getting the stall speed down on your stock airplane results in a number of advantages for any pilot—not just those flying into shorter strips. But that low stall speed translates into a wider safety margin in normal operations, and a slower touchdown speed overall. When you land slowly, you stop in a shorter distance. Vortex generators (VGs) help slow that speed by controlling airflow over that portion of the wing and its control surfaces, or horizontal or vertical stabilizer, energizing the boundary layer so the airflow doesn’t separate.

Micro AeroDynamics produces VGs for a long list of aircraft models from more than 21 different manufacturers. They come in a kit for you to install along with your aircraft technician, with templates included for easy application to the wing surface. Kits start at $695 for many singles.

Drooping and Cuffing Your Cessna

Another great STOL mod fits outboard on your wingtips. With a signature droop instead of an arcing winglet, these wingtip mods also lower stall speed and thus reduce the landing distance you need. In addition to popular mods from Robertson and Horton, Stene Aviation also produces the Sportsman STOL Cuffs, originally designed by Lockheed’s Skunkworks. The leading-edge cuffs work by increasing the wing’s efficiency along with its resistance to stalls and spins. The Sportsman STOL kit re-engineers the airfoil to achieve this upgrade. Prices for your specific airplane can be obtained from the manufacturers.

Vortex generators energize the boundary layer to help keep airflow from separating from the wing. [Photo: Micro AeroDynamics]

Airbags for Airplanes

They may not be glamorous, but one look at an airplane perched up on its nose after a ground loop will cause you to appreciate installing the latest in safety belt upgrades—the seatbelt airbag for airplanes. Now standard or optional equipment in a preponderance of new aircraft, airbag seatbelts are available for aftermarket installation as well.

AmSafe has produced airbag seatbelts since 1997—they pioneered the concept that first flew in 2001. While they produce model-specific airbag seatbelts for more than 150 types, they have also designed a “universal” kit that will fit nearly any seat in any general aviation airplane, according to the company. Prices vary by model or for the universal kit.

See and Be Seen

There’s no ATC in the backcountry, so you’re on your own as far as separating yourself from other traffic. And while you seek remote strips in order to break away from it all, your choice may prove popular on a good-weather weekend. It only takes one other airplane to make a midair collision. Having good exterior illumination costs relatively little—and just a single LED installation can last you a lifetime of flying. LEDs—or light emitting diodes—are so much more efficient than regular bulbs that they’re now used across the board in automobiles—so their application in aircraft makes perfect sense.

[Photo: Whelen Aerospace]

Whelen Aerospace Technologies has created LED assemblies to light up your entire aircraft, including wingtip nav or position lights, anti-collision lights, landing lights, and tail beacons. In particular, their landing and taxi lights can be used as recognition lights—and they draw much less power (by amperage) than traditional incandescent lights. Pricing ranges by installation.

This article was first published in the 2022 Southeast Adventure Guide edition of FLYING Magazine.

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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