Five bushplanes and the places only they can fly.
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, November 2011
(Page 3 of 5)
“You may fly into a strip in the morning and there’ll be fresh snow and it will be cold and fast,” Roderick says. “Then the sun will work on it and by afternoon it will be heavy and sticky, almost like sandpaper.” Throw in a light snowfall or gusting winds and it gets challenging, he says.
Roderick has been mountain flying for 20 years. A native of Connecticut, he learned to fly at Embry-Riddle University in Prescott, Arizona, then moved to Alaska and got a job at the company he now owns. Back then, mountain operators only flew Cessna 185s. “It’s an efficient plane and it’s fast,” Roderick says of the ubiquitous six-seat, single-engine taildragger. While larger airplanes such as the de Havilland Beaver and Otter were doing bush work, glacier pilots thought those airplanes were too heavy and would get stuck in the snow. Also, the Pratt & Whitney radial engines on the Beaver and Otter needed babying. “You couldn’t jockey the throttle around,” Roderick says. “You could blow a jug [crack a cylinder] if you weren’t careful by shock-cooling the engine”—descending too quickly, which forces cold air over the hot metal.
All that changed with the Turbine Otter. Replacing the 600-hp piston radials with a 1,000-hp turbine made the airplane faster and more efficient. “With the turbines, you can be at 12,000 feet and just pull the throttle back and drop down 2,000 feet a minute into a glacial bowl and land,” Roderick says. “They have so much power with the turbine that they can just power their way through deep snow.” With room for 10 passengers and a 3,400-pound payload, what used to take two or three trips in a Cessna 185 can now be done with one in the Otter.
Nearly everything about glacier flying seems counter to conventional flying. In a lot of cases, you’re flying on final approach below your touchdown point. “You’re basically flying up the slope of the peak, trying to match the incline of the mountain,” Roderick says. “The thing about flying glaciers is things are always changing. There are a hundred types of snow. The weather, the winds, the light—it’s always changing. No two landings are the same.” Because of the possibility of weather closing in or of mechanical problems, every airplane carries food, sleeping bags, and survival equipment. “Inevitably,” Roderick says, “one of us gets stuck overnight on the mountain each season.”
You don’t need a heavy-duty airplane for bush flying, says Karl Finatzer. Whatever you fly, “you just have to know how to fly it professionally.” To prove it, the founder of SkyAfrica uses a fleet of single-engine Cessnas (150, 172, and 182 variants) and a Piper Cherokee 235 for “flying safaris” that land and take off from unimproved strips all over the continent. Other than their distinctive, brightly colored paint jobs (“We got tired of white and lines,” Finatzer jokes), the airplanes are the same ubiquitous models that many pilots learned in or flew sometime in their career.
Which is exactly the point.
SkyAfrica invites pilots to travel to the company’s base, near Johannesburg, South Africa, rent its aircraft, and, after a short certification course plus some instruction on bush flying, take off into the wild, either in a group with a pilot-guide or on their own. The company plans the itinerary and arranges fuel, accommodations, border-crossing permits, ground transportation, and side trips. The flights offer a unique way to see and experience some of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth: deserts, jungles, mountains, river deltas, savannahs. “To see everything that we can show you in two weeks would take months by jeep or car,” Finatzer says. And all of it accessed from remote backcountry strips: grass, dirt, uphill, downhill.
Pilots landing on the 3,200-foot dirt strip at the Kunkuru game lodge in South Africa might find obstacles (hitting an anthill is like hitting a concrete post) and wildlife. Elephants aren’t a problem, Finatzer says. But a giraffe is fearless. You can buzz five feet over its head and it still won’t move. Most of the time, you’ll end up having to fly to another strip.
SkyAfrica has organized adventures from South Africa to Kenya, a distance of nearly 2,000 miles. But it is more than simply an air tourism company. It flies in supplies, flies out the sick, does surveying, and offers flying lessons—“a little bit of everything,” Finatzer says. But the flying safaris are closest to his heart. “When I started the business in 1981, it was just a way to pay for my flying addiction,” he says. Thirty years later, “it’s pretty much the same thing.”