These days, it is not uncommon to see fat Tundra tires on mostly taildragger airplanes flying STOL competitions or descending into a remote airstrip for some “backcountry” fun. It seems more and more that attention is being paid to this subset of general aviation, but the truth is, the lure of short takeoff and landing or STOL flying has been nurtured by the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) for two decades.
With the help of scores of RAF volunteers, the foundation has grown backcountry flying into a very popular niche of GA, with plenty of pilots utilizing stock or modified airplanes to access airstrips that do not involve a paved runway. And while many of these airplanes are purpose-built for STOL operations, according to RAF president Bill McGlynn, an impressive percentage of RAF members fly light sport airplanes now or have used them in the past for backcountry operations.
“Not all of the over 10,000 people in our database indicate what they fly,” McGlynn explained, “but of those who do, the majority have flown a number of aircraft types and models. About one-third have said they have flown in the past or still fly an LSA as part of their RAF flying experience. That number includes some notable backcountry regulars in the LSA category like the Piper J3, Aeronca Champ, and some newer entries, like the Kitfox, Bearhawk, and yes, even two-seat RVs.”
A veteran backcountry pilot with 22 years of experience, McGlynn explains that to first discuss this niche of GA, you need to understand the definition of backcountry aviation.
“Backcountry flying doesn’t necessarily mean landing in a far-off place, deep in the mountains, high in elevation, removed from civilization,” McGlynn said. “In our world, backcountry can also mean an airfield near a lake or stream maybe 30 miles from your home airport. One of my favorite airstrips is Garden Valley, Idaho (U88). It’s grass, has a river running nearby, great camping with showers, and it’s only 30 minutes from Boise.”
Flying LSAs in the Backcountry
McGlynn said that while backcountry flying is different than “pavement to pavement” flying because it requires you to fly in more demanding environments, it doesn’t mean you need a Cessna Skywagon to do it safely.
“LSAs in the backcountry can be a great choice if the pilot has adequate experience,” McGlynn said. “We encourage pilots to get instruction, but a prerequisite is really knowing your airplane, how it performs at different altitudes and temperatures, on grass and gravel, its slow flight characteristics, and its turning radius. Many LSAs are incredibly nimble aircraft, and all the backcountry requires is a good accommodation of the plane and the place.”
To help LSA pilots find suitable backcountry airstrips, the RAF publishes their online Airfield Guide (https://airfield.guide) so pilots can choose strips that are good matches for their particular aircraft and skill level. The guide includes a Relative Hazard Index (RHI) that quantifies the challenges of each airstrip, with most being able to accommodate a wide range of aircraft types while offering recreational opportunities. “We see LSAs of all types and mods, but most are stock airplanes.
“More important is a well-tuned, proficient pilot who knows their airplane well, selects appropriate destinations, and has received backcountry instruction,” McGlynn added.
LSA Backcountry Performance
McGlynn uses the backcountry strip at Johnson Creek, Idaho (3U2), as a good example of a popular destination for RAF members for summer fly-ins that regularly draws a variety of LSAs. “Particular emphasis has to be paid to weight since Johnson Creek has an elevation of 4,960 feet and with summer heat—even with a morning departure—density altitude must be considered,” McGlynn said. “That said, LSAs get off the turf and climb while leaving a smaller
noise footprint, which is especially important in the backcountry. Johnson Creek isn’t particularly tough, but it requires that a pilot follow the Idaho State arrival procedure, descending
into a tight canyon with a short approach. It’s also a one-way airstrip, arriving from the north and departing to the north, with the pilot having the knowledge that the drainage of the Salmon River takes you to lower terrain. There’s a challenge in all that, along with the reward of an incredible place to camp and enjoy nature along with the camaraderie of other aviators.”
The demands of mountain flying in an LSA or any airplane create a different dimension than how most pilots learned to fly, pavement to pavement. McGlynn said that like IFR flying that requires additional training and skills, flying the backcountry in an LSA is doable, as long as the pilot understands the performance of their airplane, does their homework using the RAF Airfield Guide, and receives proper instruction. “There are important skills that should be honed that go along with that airfield knowledge,” he said. “Many backcountry airstrips require very little additional flying skill, but some can turn black diamond quickly as conditions change.
Before heading to the mountains, it’s best to have a backcountry instructor help you practice at your home airfield, then take you into a backcountry airstrip the first time. The RAF strongly recommends backcountry ethics, meaning you should practice at home so you aren’t annoying other backcountry users with the noise of touch and gos.”
The RAF at 20
When the RAF celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2023, it will be a testament to the lure that backcountry flying offers. Unlike many aviation associations, the RAF is laser-focused on finding and maintaining the many backcountry airstrips in the foundation’s Airfield Guide. “With the RAF, it’s all about where you go,” McGlynn explains. “We like to feature places that are not only fun to fly to, but are even more rewarding once you land. The fun of pitching a tent under your wing, unfolding your chair, and enjoying a cold drink while staring out at an incredible window of nature—that’s what makes pilots long to go again and again. It combines a sense of accomplishment in the flying, with the reward of spending time in a beautiful place.”
The work of the RAF is a massive effort that is not free, and recognition of the need for donations should be on the minds of any aviator who flies the backcountry now or has plans to do that in the future with their LSA. “Our supporters recognize how incredibly special backcountry airstrips are and what a privilege it is to be able to fly to these amazing places that may be either difficult or even impossible to reach any other way. It’s their recognition of that privilege that convinces them to help preserve, improve and even create these airstrips through the RAF, either by their time and effort or through financial support,” McGlynn said.
If you want to experience flying your LSA into the many remote airstrips that the RAF maintains, or help to support the high number of volunteer hours needed to keep these airstrips
open and accessible, you can go here to make a donation, which McGlynn said will “be put directly into an airstrip.”