Rough Riders

Five bushplanes and the places only they can fly.

Bush flying has unique challenges. This Quest Kodiak gets a little extra thrust on takeoff from the slope of a dirt airstrip carved out of a hill in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Dave Forney)
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2. Quest Kodiak

Craig Hollander usually gets to the hangar at Juwata Airport in Tarakan, a city in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, at around 6:30 a.m. After a preflight check of his airplane, he gets the weather report called in from villages in the mountains. It’s always the same: low clouds, rain the night before, poor visibility. He knows if he waits until 8 to depart, the fog will begin to burn off during the hour-long flight from the coastal lowlands to the jungle interior. He also knows to head home by mid-afternoon to avoid the usual tropical thunderstorms.

Hollander, who grew up in Ripon, California, flies for Mission Aviation Fellowship, a Christian missionary group dedicated to serving isolated people. Founded in 1945 by a group of World War II pilots, MAF has 126 aircraft in 24 countries for evangelical work, medical evacuation, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance. In East Kalimantan, Hollander is one of 14 pilot-mechanics (MAF pilots have to be licensed mechanics) who serve more than two dozen villages in the province, an area about the size of the state of Georgia. With a fleet of four turbocharged Cessna 206s, a Cessna Caravan, and a Quest Kodiak, they fly in and out of strips carved out of the hills, with rough grass or dirt surfaces. Most are no longer than 1,500 feet, and nearly all are uphill with grades as high as 23 degrees. Landing approaches require the pilot to maneuver until turning to final about 50 feet above the ground and 150 yards from the runway.

“Having that slope is great for landing and takeoff,” Hollander says. “It gives you a little extra braking action on landing, and a little extra thrust on take-off.” After eight years flying in Indonesia, Hollander says he’s gotten so used to landing uphill that he has to adjust mentally when he lands on flat terrain.

The newest airplane to join the fleet is the Kodiak, one of a new generation of bushplanes. In fact, the manufacturer Quest was founded when more than a dozen missionary and humanitarian groups put up seed money to design and build an airplane to suit their needs.

The most persistent hazards Hollander faces are the conditions of the landing strips, and animals that stray onto them in the moments before touchdown. “We set abort points on every landing,” he says, “but after that point, if something runs out on the runway, you have to ask yourself if [it] is a threat to the plane. If it’s not, it’s better just to plow on through it.” Animal strikes to props and struts are common. “If you run into a chicken or a dog, there’s not going to be too much damage [to the airplane]. I’ve killed a number of dogs over the years. But that’s not too bad. The Indonesians eat dogs so they get a meal out of it.” But if a water buffalo is on the strip, “then you got some hard decisions to make,” he says. “If you hit a water buffalo at 50 knots that’s going to do some damage to both you and the water buffalo.”

The villages that Hollander serves are poor but not destitute, he says. Villagers can earn cash by collecting plants used in pharmaceuticals. MAF provides basic transportation, flying passengers and cargo—mail, construction supplies, food, fuel. The alternative would be a days- or weeks-long journey overland through dense rainforest or a dangerous excursion by boat down one of the swift rivers tumbling out of the mountains.

3. DHC Turbine Otter

Summer mornings in Talkeetna, Alaska, normally begin shrouded by a low, wet overcast. Talkeetna Air Taxi owner and pilot Paul Roderick knows the overcast will usually run solidly the 15 miles north to the Alaska Range foothills. So after filing a flight plan and loading passengers and gear into his de Havilland DHC-3T Turbine Otter, Roderick climbs above 8,000 feet, at which point the airplane breaks into the blue. Looming ahead is majestic Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak and Roderick’s destination. Once he sees it, he cancels his instrument flight plan and heads for the 20,335-foot-tall mountain.

On McKinley, weather, wind, snow conditions, and visibility are all constantly in flux. “You have to go up there with a totally open mind, ready for anything,” says Roderick, who in addition to flying charters and sightseers around the mountain specializes in depositing climbers on glaciers or on narrow shelves at the bottom of cliffs.

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