School of Hard Rocks
Loni Habersetzer teaches pilots how to land on the harshest terrain.
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
(Page 2 of 3)
Like most Cub pilots, Habersetzer learned the traditional method for landing a taildragger: Line up with the runway, cut the power, then glide until the airplane touches down softly to a three-point landing, in which the tailwheel and the main-gear wheels all touch at the same time. It is, says Habersetzer, a perfectly fine way to land, if one has the real estate. But he found that the traditional method has two big drawbacks. First, the wind and other conditions will make you land on a different spot every time, and sometimes, Habersetzer wanted more precision, especially when he saw a good spot for hunting or fishing. Second, once the tailwheel touches, you lose nearly all forward visibility, a dangerous situation when you're in close to objects like rocks and trees.
"I met a guy from Alaska who had quite a bit of bush flying experience," Habersetzer says. Instead of gliding, this pilot flew a power-on approach, slowing the airplane to the verge of a stall, then using the throttle to control the rate of descent and the elevator to control pitch and thus airspeed. By flying "behind the power curve," Habersetzer explains, he could drop his airplane on the exact spot he wanted.
Nothing special there. It's the same technique naval pilots use to land on carriers. The revelation to Habersetzer was that the technique doesn't just let him put the airplane right on the spot he wants, it also enables him to keep the tail up longer, which improves visibility.
Habersetzer honed his skills, hopscotching from one landing strip to another, sometimes making as many as 30 or 40 landings in just a couple of hours. Gradually, he added his own touches to the power-on method. He found that by putting 30 pounds of weight in the tail section, he can brake harder after touchdown without flipping the airplane on its back. He learned to use his GPS unit to determine groundspeed on touchdown so he can calculate his rollout distance. He discovered that during his takeoff roll, applying flaps in increments results in less drag than full-on flaps and thus enables a shorter takeoff run. And he figured out how to perform a "water-assisted" landing, in which he slows the airplane by skimming the tires along a stream or lake before rolling onto solid ground.
Habersetzer insists that he's no daredevil, that what looks crazy is in fact the result of careful planning and a lot of practice. "If there is any doubt [about being able to make a landing]," he says, "I'm just not interested in doing it."
When he finds a new place to land, the first thing Habersetzer does is double-check his position—that is, in which direction he will need to hike should he become stranded. He then checks out the airspace above the strip, descending in 300-foot intervals. During this survey, he determines the approach to the strip and checks for obstacles such as trees or power lines. In addition to the length and width of the strip, he pays attention to its surface. He may "drag" the strip, flying its length and letting the airplane's tires roll along the surface. Before deciding whether he will land, Habersetzer may overfly a strip as many as 15 times.
After we've been flying for a while, Habersetzer lands on the crest of a low ridgeline. It is a comparatively easy strip: mostly flat, unobstructed by trees, the ground free of large obstacles—perfect for practicing. Habersetzer places a set of caribou antlers off to the side to mark a touchdown point. We take off and Habersetzer sets up for approach. With constant manipulations of the throttle, he works to keep his speed over the ground at 43 to 45 mph. "A one-mile-per-hour difference in groundspeed can mean another 25 to 50 feet to stop," Habersetzer says.
Just as he is alongside the antlers, he cuts the power, dropping the airplane onto the surface. The wheels roll over the gravelly surface and he pumps the brakes to bring the airplane to an abrupt stop. Habersetzer checks his rollout distance: a little over 120 feet. Not satisfied, he decides to go around for another approach.
Much of what he does, Habersetzer explains, depends on the equipment he flies. The Super Cub, with its large wing, its high power-to-weight ratio, and its tough, simple design, is ideal for backcountry flying, a fact Cub drivers have known since the airplane's 1949 rollout. And "the airplane is so responsive you almost wear [it]," Habersetzer says. "You get a lot more feedback from the controls."
Just as important are the tundra tires (Habersetzer never flies with skis or floats). They are larger than normal tires, and kept at low air pressure, so they don't roll over obstacles as much as through them. Manufactured by Alaska Bushwheel at a tiny factory in Joseph, Oregon, the tires come in several sizes and sell for as much as $4,500 per pair. Once marketed primarily to commercial operators in Alaska or Canada, the tires are now sold to all kinds of pilots, around the world. As more recreational pilots discover the pleasures of off-airport flying, says Alaska Bushwheel president Bill Duncan, airplanes like the Super Cub are becoming "the new sport utility vehicle," and tundra tires as much a status symbol as a practical necessity.
Other necessities, says Habersetzer, are a shovel, a saw, and a good axe, in case the pilot finds himself needing to extend his runway. "At that point, you have all the time in the world," he says. When Habersetzer's airplane got bogged down in the mud once, he spent the afternoon cutting down spruce trees to lay down for an impromptu strip.
In 2003, having noticed that backcountry flying was becoming increasingly popular, Habersetzer decided to start teaching his techniques to other Super Cub pilots. He began his own business, Cubdriver749er (based on his airplane tail number, N82749). Not being certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as an instructor, he cannot offer dual instruction in his airplane, so students have to be licensed pilots and provide their own Super Cubs. Habersetzer offers courses in Alaska, in Washington state, or at a pilot's home, in packages starting at $1,500.