School of Hard Rocks
Loni Habersetzer teaches pilots how to land on the harshest terrain.
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
From a thousand feet, the Alaskan tundra is a verdant landscape broken only by rivers winding down to Bristol Bay. Loni Habersetzer banks his Piper Super Cub steeply over one of the rivers. He circles once, twice, then descends for a closer look.
What's the matter?
The airplane is now low over the water, the wingtips seeming to brush tall spruces nearby. Habersetzer turns to follow a sharp river bend. He's found a place to land, he tells me.
Ahead is a bar covered with pieces of driftwood and boulders the size of basketballs.
Habersetzer cuts back the power. The airplane's tires skim water, throwing up rooster tails of spray.
We're not landing, we're crashing.
The airplane bounces up onto the bar and jolts to a stop. Habersetzer turns to me. "Great, isn't it?" he asks, grinning.
Habersetzer specializes in landing on difficult places: narrow gravel bars, steep mountain slopes, rock-strewn glaciers, rough beaches, muddy bogs, stamp-size clearings. Depending on the conditions, he can land and take off in an area as small as 100 to 150 feet, a little more than five airplane lengths. Other bush pilots land and take off from challenging terrain, but they do it for practical reasons, to deliver cargo or carry passengers to and from remote areas. Habersetzer flies into unwelcoming places purely for sport, pushing the limits of his ability and the performance envelope of his airplane.
Habersetzer shuts down the engine. The only sound is that of the river rushing by. He gets out of the airplane and surveys the rock bar, pacing its length. It is barely longer than a railroad boxcar. Habersetzer knows within just a few feet the length he needs for takeoff. Here, he will run out of solid ground, but by that point he thinks he will have enough speed and enough lift under the wings for the airplane to safely hydroplane along the water until he can get it airborne.
Habersetzer clears a couple of large rocks and a log, then walks back to the airplane. After starting up the engine, he applies a careful combination of throttle and rudder to gently swing the airplane around. Then he again powers the engine to lift the tail before releasing the brakes. In a couple of bounces he's at the end of the bar. The airplane briefly skims along the water, then lifts into the air.
A man with a gentle, easygoing manner, Habersetzer does not appear to be bent on self-destruction. Lanky and tall and wearing wire-rim glasses, he looks almost bookish. Born in Vancouver, "Warshington," as he pronounces it, Habersetzer practically grew up in a Super Cub, and he has never flown any other type of airplane. He soloed in his father's as a teen. After high school, he supported himself working for his father's electrical contracting business; on weekends he built up his flying hours, and later he began spending summers flying for an Alaska hunting lodge and guide service.