School of Hard Rocks
Loni Habersetzer teaches pilots how to land on the harshest terrain.
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
(Page 3 of 3)
At the beginning of his course, he sits down with his student and describes his flying techniques. He then demonstrates them in his Cub while the student rides as a passenger. Finally, the student solos an approach in his own airplane, while Habersetzer talks to him via radio. At each step, Habersetzer ratchets up the challenge, advancing through the basics of landing on rough surfaces, steep slopes, and soft sand or mud.
Just as important, Habersetzer spends a lot of time telling students what not to do—for example, not being tempted by a spot that has enough room for landing but may not have enough for takeoff. By the end of the course, Habersetzer explains, students should have the ability and confidence to go out and learn on their own.
One Habersetzer alumni, Shaun Lunt, praises his instructor's example: "Loni's very consistent, very smooth," he says. Lunt, a 33-year-old anesthesiologist from Loma Linda, California, is a 12-year pilot who, after working his way up the ratings and endorsements—private, instrument, commercial, floatplane, aerobatics—decided he needed a new adventure. He co-owns a Cirrus SR-22, and last winter he bought a Super Cub with the intention of flying it to Alaska. "I have a passion for the outdoors, and bush flying was something I had been interested in doing," he says. Last May, he flew to Alaska to take the course. "I had flown on skis and floats, but nothing this demanding," he says. "It's a very aggressive way of flying, very precise."
The most valuable aspect of Habersetzer's instruction, Lunt says, "is that you get the benefit of a lot of experience that would have taken a lot of time and a lot of mistakes to learn otherwise…. It takes a lot of the 'school of hard knocks' out of it."
Early on in his instruction business, Habersetzer had thought about making a video, something that might entertain as well as get his service some exposure. He had seen some other backcountry flying videos; he thought he could do better. But knowing nothing about video production, he shelved the idea. Then in 2004, friend and flying partner Greg Miller asked Habersetzer for help making a short video for a line of custom tires Miller was going to promote at the annual Alaskan Airmen's Association convention. "I had Loni shoot me bumping around a few places," Miller recalls. "It was basically a seven-minute loop, something to draw a little attention to the product in the display booth." The video ended up being the talk of the show. "I had people lined up outside the tent," Miller says. "People who had been flying 30 or 40 years in Alaska who came up to me to say they had never seen anything like it—and these are people who you'd think would be blasé about the whole thing."
Thus inspired, the two spent a couple of months in 2004 shooting video of themselves flying in the mountains. "The production quality was pretty rough," Habersetzer admits, "with just some hand-held camera from the ground and some air-to-air shots, along with some shots [from a camera] mounted on the fuselage of the airplane." Watching it, I was reminded of TV footage of snowboarders careening down mountainsides and kayakers paddling over waterfalls. Released on DVD in 2005 with a title only Freud could love, Big Rocks and Long Props has sold nearly 5,000 copies—an impressive number, considering the filmmakers have done no advertising or promotion, and have sold copies almost solely via the Internet. A second DVD came out last year, and Habersetzer has recently finished a third, on glacier flying in Alaska.
"It's opened a lot of opportunities for me that I never would have expected," Habersetzer says. Since the videos came out, pilots in Kenya and Mexico have paid him to come teach them his techniques, and he will be traveling soon to Israel and New Zealand to instruct more pilots. His customers are, like him, in it for the challenge.
It's late now, and as the sun drops, long shadows stretch across the landscape. Habersetzer heads toward another low ridge of hills. The ground quickly rises toward the airplane, but he makes no attempt to climb. He adds a notch of flaps. Then he suddenly adds power and pulls the airplane up. The Cub is following the grade of the hillside, and as it loses speed, it nears the ground. With a gentle bump, it touches down, rolling to a stop just as the hill peaks.