RAF Signs Agreement with Death Valley National Park Service

California Liaison Rick Lach and Idaho Liaison Tim Riley show off the results of hard work at the Chicken Strip. Recreational Aviation Foundation

The Recreational Aviation Foundation closes out 2019 with a list of significant accomplishments, but one serves as a good example of the association’s mission to preserve and protect “off the beaten path” landing strips across the United States. The RAF has signed an agreement with the Death Valley National Park Service committing to a maintenance program on the Chicken Strip and other aviation assets within the park. The agreement sets a template for other work provided by the RAF nationwide.

The five-year cooperative maintenance agreement was put in place on October 18, and it codifies the efforts that the region’s RAF members, led by RAF California Liaison Rick Lach, have put into making the strip even more accessible over the years. “Chicken Strip” is the common name for Saline Valley Warm Springs Airfield, in use informally (and without sanction when it was under Bureau of Land Management purview) for decades, and officially authorized by the Death Valley NPS in August 2019. The 1,350-ft-long, gravel-surfaced runway has an approximate orientation of 18/36, and the RAF has lined the strip with white-painted rocks and orange cones to help distinguish it from the landscape.

RAF Idaho Liaison Tim Riley says, “There were some pretty good rollers in [the airstrip], but they seem to have been flattened out by Mother Nature” over the years. The RAF applies a “drag” to the strip periodically to smooth out the gravel, and it often gets up to 20 volunteers on a work weekend to perform clean-up and ongoing maintenance—and to enjoy the traditional reason for strip, the nearby Saline Valley Warm Springs. A previous locale for the strip was right next to the springs, Riley says, which proved problematic, as cars and creatures would sometimes park themselves upon it.

The RAF and Death Valley NPS also renewed the maintenance plan already in place for Furnace Creek Airport (L06) and Stovepipe Wells Airstrip (L09). For RAF chairman John McKenna, Chicken Strip is just an example of the work the organization has striven for over the last 16 years of its official existence. “To suggest that [the RAF] is all about flying in Oregon or Montana is a misstatement. What we learned in the mountain west we are now applying across the country.” While the physical upkeep of a remote strip is one thing, the navigation of bureaucracy, land use, and politics looms as an even larger challenge. “Chicken Strip has involved all of the skills we’ve had to improvise along the way,” says McKenna. “There’s been no playbook for us to follow.” With the agreement now in place, and Chicken Strip a legitimate spot on the map for pilots, it appears the RAF has created a template for effective runway rescues to come.

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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