by Paul Nopper
Early in 1999 after reading a flying article that included some inspiring pictures, I contacted the author. We struck up a friendship and in July 1999 I stopped in Colorado to meet Jim Wark in person. That was at the beginning of my flying adventure to Idaho (see Canadian Flight, November 1999). During the following months we continued to E-mail each other, trading stories and sharing ideas. I became inspired to go one step further with my passion for flying. I decided to make a serious attempt at aerial photography, and so we hatched an idea where Jim offered to introduce me to the photographic beauty and adventure of flying the canyons of Utah. We met again in February 2000 when Jim passed through Ontario after doing some aerial photo work in the Dakotas for a book project on the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806.
For months, I was looking forward to my trip to Utah with Jim.
On April 13 I was awake at 05:00, called U.S. customs at the Port Huron, Mich. bridge and made a flight plan with London FSS. Launching at 06:30, I made stops at St. Claire County Airport for customs clearance, Ottumwa, Ind., Goodland, Kans., and finally 11.5 hours later, I shook hands with Jim in Pueblo, Col. The endurance of my Aviat Husky at 2000 rpm and 22" manifold pressure is around 7.3 gallons per hour or about 6.5 hours. That is probably 1.5 hours more than my butt wishes to stay in one place.
The next morning Jim and I were up early and went to the airport to load our airplanes with tents, sleeping bags, clothing, food, water and film to last a week or more. Jim has been flying his Husky since 1987, averaging over 300 hours per year and exposing 300 to 400 rolls of film at the same time, or about one roll per hour. Jim spoke to the Pueblo tower and advised that we were a flight of two. We both departed Runway 35, turned left, and headed west. The Rocky Mountains, that only yesterday had been visible for a couple hundred miles, were now only 30 minutes away. Through the first pass, Jim took me by the Royal Gorge Bridge, the highest suspension bridge in the world, and soon we were above the snow-covered peaks.
After getting over the foothills, we began a slow climb to 14,500 ft. I have been to 11,500 ft before, for over an hour at a time, but this was different. There were several things to be aware of, navigation, photography, and flying with another airplane without getting too close. I had along the Nonin Onyx Portable Pulse Oximeter and sure enough, it told me my blood oxygen level had dropped to the low 80 per cent level. I reached into the seat pocket and connected my Aerox nine-lb oxygen tank, donned the cannula and set the flow for 15,000ft. Pow! What a wake up. My head was clear and alert. It was like someone flipped a switch, it was that fast.
Nearing the Utah border, Jim remembered a strip that was high above a canyon, Dolores Point. At over 7,000 ft, it was not on the charts and made for a rather rough but manageable landing. We hiked a short distance to be able to look down 3,000 ft to the valley below. Back at the landing strip, I emptied two six-U.S.-gallon jerry cans into my tanks. This was a test for another trip I am planning to Baffin Island in July.
The rugged mountains of Colorado gave way to the sculptured canyons, buttes, mesas and hoodoos of Utah. I followed Jim around one such mesa called Mexican Mountain and watched as he landed on the tiny strip below. Sections of this strip were soft from the mud being soaked by storms and then dried and cracked, as it was now. The normal approach was to fly a pattern around the mountain, about two nm, and then let down between the canyon walls. It took me two tries to land because the proximity of steep canyon walls gave me the feeling that I was too low. Actually I was too high, so I went around and made it on the second try, still a little hot. I have to learn to trust the throttle response and temper those low approaches with less margin for error.
Our campsite had all the elements defined by Jim as being remote: no picnic tables, no toilet, and no other way in but walking. We did not use our tents, just a ground sheet, sleeping under the moon and stars. In the morning, it was cool at 06:00, about 10 C. After breakfast we hiked for two hours up the canyon to the east. We passed 1,000-year-old rock etchings made by the Anasazi people who once lived here. You must take care when hiking here to avoid rattlesnakes that might be among the rocks.
We left Mexican Mountain and flew north towards Freemont Island in Salt Lake, over some very desolate landscapes. It is hard to imagine how the shapes and forms you see today were carved over the millions of years. It would have been difficult to find an emergency landing site. The train robbers of yesteryear like Butch Cassidy used this remote and rugged land to hide from the law.
We made a short stopover at a strip on top of 7500-ft Cedar Mesa, where density altitude must be considered as well as the 1000-ft vertical drop off at the end of the strip. Then it was on to Page, Utah and Carbon County Airport for fuel and to meet another Husky owner, Gust, who took us to lunch. We traded stories like all good pilots.
Jim and I said goodbye to Gust and then we waited. The weather was not good to the north. After an hour or so we had to make another plan. Departing into some stiffening winds, we headed south crossing miles of desolate, yet beautiful, country.
Much of this land is under the control of the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and there were crisscrossed tracks made by mineral exploration vehicles and others.
Care must be taken not to land your plane in some of these supposedly protected areas. We passed by Dirty Devil strip, tucked down at the bottom of a canyon on a curve in the Dirty Devil River. I asked Jim if we could stop. This was one of Jim’s favorite remote spot, but it was windy and he said it would not be advisable.
We landed at Fry Canyon in the late afternoon and began setting up our tents. There was the possibility of a storm. I secured the plane and put my tent under my wing. The soil here is rust-coloured from the iron oxide and has the feel of talcum powder. It gets into everything. On Saturday morning it was colder. My parka came in handy. Jim built a fire from the abundant dried wood scattered around. We went for a hike and tried for half an hour to find a way into the canyon but were unsuccessful, so we decided to leave the tents and go flying. Just to the north was Lake Powel where outfitters pick up rafters who have just negotiated the treacherous Cataract Canyon Rapids. We had a quick stop at Dark Canyon where I got a refresher course of what I learned last year in Idaho. Not all cow patties on the runway are dried out and hard. They look like mud on the bottom of the wing.
The morning light projects shadows in the canyon walls, painting colors that make great photo subject. Taking pictures through the window is okay for the albums, but a Piper Cub or Husky allows you to fly with the window and door open and take some amazing shots (see below for Web Sites of more photos). Flying northwest past Hanksville was an abandoned coal strip mine with a faded strip to land. Jim called this place Selenite for the glassy mineral that littered the ground but I thought that Factory Butte was a better name because that feature was so close by. We walked through the coal pit and then had some lunch. The winds were getting brisker and we decided to leave. I departed first.
I heard Jim’s radio transmission: "I guess you saw that."
I looked back. His airplane was perched up on its nose. I quickly landed off the strip into the wind and taxied over to help. The tires of Jim’s plane had stopped in the soft ground as he was turning for takeoff and a gust of wind had lifted the tail high into the air. Several dirt bikers saw and came over to help. Jim was out of his plane and looking things over. Before we could manage to secure the tail wheel with a rope, a strong gust blew the plane over onto its back.
We loaded as much as we could into my plane and I flew the 60 miles back to Fry Canyon. I walked a mile down the road to a motel and booked a room. A young man named Jake took me in a truck to empty the contents of the plane into the room then he drove me back so I could go and get Jim. After removing as much as we could from Jim’s Husky we went back to Fry Canyon and Jim took down our tents while I flew 30 miles west to Cal Back Memorial Airport at Bull Frog Mesa for fuel. Returning to Fry Canyon, I made a low pass over the motel so they knew to come and pick us up.
Jim took the whole incident in stride as if it was a routine part of flying in the wilderness. He never stopped snapping pictures the whole time.
On Sunday we flew to Hanksville to report the incident and have the airplane secured. In the afternoon, Jim’s wife Judy met us at Fry Canyon. I needed to head home but I didn’t want to abandon Jim while his airplane was on its back. Jim told me not to worry. He seemed to have everything in hand so I headed east to Pueblo while they remained in Utah to supervise the recovery operations.
My oxygen tank was empty now but the flight east was lower through the passes and over the mountains. Jim graciously gave me the use of his hangar, car and home. I spent most of Monday cleaning the evidence of Utah from my plane. The weather in the mid-west and southern Ontario was supposed to be good on Tuesday. I headed for the airport at 4:30 a.m. and departed before sunrise when the tower was closed. Five clicks on the microphone lit up Runway 8. I climbed to 7,500 ft in the smooth morning air.
The 1,150-nm trip home would have needed only the one stop at Ottumwa Ind., but I had to call Canada Customs and file a flight plan near the border. The last hour from the Sarnia area, over London and on to Brantford was below a 1000-ft ceiling with four miles visibility. There are so many places to land a bush plane in southern Ontario compared to Utah,, I never had a worry.
The majority of this trip was at a power setting of 60%, for a total time 40 hours, at an average ground speed 92 knots, fuel burn 7.4US gals per hour, and 2 liters of oil.
Paul Nopper lives in Ancaster, Ont. about 40 miles from Toronto. He is married to an understanding wife who has him on a very long leash (stated at her request). They have a grown daughter and son and a German Shepherd, named Kayla, who will probably never grow up. Paul enjoys golf, squash and visiting with fellow pilot adventurers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.