School of Hard Rocks

Loni Habersetzer teaches pilots how to land on the harshest terrain.

Habersetzer operates out of Marabou Landing, a lodge about 230 miles southwest of Anchorage. (Clark Mishler)
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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.

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.

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