In recent years, backcountry flying’s popularity has increased. Since its inception, the Utah Backcountry Pilots Association (UBCP) has been wholly focused on all aspects of this type of flying.
The group’s origins can be traced to an in-air conversation where the involved pilots openly expressed their respect for another state’s ease of access to backcountry aviation facilities.
“For the record, the UBCP was ‘born’ during a conversation on 122.9 MHz, at 7,000 feet, southbound, around Snowville, Utah, in July 1997,” the group’s website says. “Several of us were returning from another memorable flight from the Idaho backcountry.
As the basin and range of northern Utah was coming into view, and with the miracle of personal air transportation to the Idaho wilderness behind us, fresh on our minds, someone asked, ‘What’s wrong with us? Idaho is such a wonderful place. The recreational landing strips are secure and there is an organization in place to protect and maintain them. We have a handful of strips as beautiful as anything in Idaho. Why aren’t we doing anything to protect them?’”
Roy Evans II is the association’s president and son-in-law of one of its founders. He explained that the group’s influence within the state’s aviation and preservationist ecosystems has grown in the last 25 years through diligent efforts. One of the group’s flagship airstrips, Mexican Mountain, was one of its early wins in access assurance for pilots.
“[When the airstrip was put into a Wilderness Study Area] the original group banded together to learn about the Wilderness Act of 1964 and all of these other government aspects about how land is designated wilderness, as well as what can and cannot happen on those lands,” Evans said. “They fought tooth and nail to keep the airstrip open and because of those hard efforts on their behalf, the airstrip is open.
And now, as it’s being designated a wilderness area, the group has an unprecedented opportunity to operate airplanes into an area where you can’t even bring in a wheeled conveyance.
“Because of the relationships that they made in the beginning of the organization, the Bureau of Land Management, the folks that organize and manage the state institute trust lands—and many county commissioners—are truly advocates for backcountry aviation,” Evans said. “Because of those relationships, we have a working agreement with our state aeronautic director where when he is working with the Department of Transportation to determine where tax dollars should go to help maintain airports across the State of Utah, that the backcountry isn’t an afterthought in those regards.”
Advice to Aspiring Backcountry Pilots
When asked how pilots can get into backcountry flying, whether they have suitable airstrips nearby or not, Evans provided some advice pertinent to anyone exploring the possibility of landing off-field.
“One of the questions that we always get is, ‘Hey, what is a good beginner backcountry strip?’”
Some of the Utah Backcountry Pilots Associations’ published airstrips seem like better first choices for the uninitiated. But learning to fly in the backcountry begins long before one takes their airplane out with the intent of getting their wheels dirty for the first time.
“Ibex, which is a big dry lake bed, and Locomotive Springs, with its two long runways in the middle of no terrain or obstructions, might sound like good choices,” Evans said. “But what we tell people is that your home airport is the best place to learn about flying in the backcountry. You know, some of these airstrips, like Mexican Mountain, may require you to land or take off with a tailwind, because of slope considerations, obstructions, and other considerations.”
Evans continued, “We were just at the Utah Aeronautics Conference where I was talking about backcountry pilots and I polled the audience. I asked them, ‘How many people here will go out in their airplane and go around the traffic pattern to get comfortable, but do it at max gross takeoff weight, loading sandbags, or people, or water…’ and no one raised their hands.
“And on that same note, ‘how many of you have taken your airplane at max gross takeoff weight with all of your camping gear and loaded it how you would going into the backcountry and have taken off with a five-knot tailwind, or landed with a five-knot tailwind?’ Again, nobody raised their hands.”
Understandably, there is a strong emphasis on safety and training within the organization, with safety through experience being one of its four main values. Oftentimes, informal mentorship between new and older members is a popular way that information about how to fly in the backcountry has been passed down.
“So, we tell people if you really want to get into this type of flying, it’s really about learning what you and your airplane are capable of in the environment that you are in. It’s using as many knowns as possible before you start throwing some unknowns into that.”
Evans said that not having access to an aircraft is not a disqualifier for enjoying the picturesque airstrips that Utah has to offer. At many of these locations, the Utah Backcountry Pilots Association was integral in receiving initial permission to land there, as well as ensuring the continued ability to do so. This is achieved through continued communication with a number of governmental, conservation-focused, and other agencies, as well as showcasing that its members are true stewards of the land that they use.
Oftentimes, these pilots fly aircraft that take off from an airstrip heavier than they landed—leaving with trash found on or around the facility. The association lends a hand.
“We have work parties across the spring and the fall where people will fly to these airstrips; pull some weeds and if there is any semblance of trash, pick it up. And our website allows people to say that they are going somewhere and that they have seats available, [which helps] if somebody doesn’t have a way to get there. A lot of times we just drive too. I have driven to a handful of fly-ins and airstrip work parties, just because I fly a 70-some [year old] Piper Cub that doesn’t hold a lot of weight.”
These formal meetups are in addition to Utah Backcountry Pilots Association members exercising their due care each time that they fly to these treasured destinations. Each member understands what it has taken to get access to these airstrips, as well as ensure their availability for aviators well into the future. With the relationships that they’ve forged over the course of two-plus decades and their commitment to responsible use practices, there is little doubt that the group will continue being an integral part of the state’s growing backcountry aviation ecosystem.