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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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.

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.

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