Few people outside the aerospace sector are aware of the breadth and depth of our admittedly insular little world. If it’s not an airliner or fighter jet, it’s pretty much off the radar for the general public.
I’ve been fortunate to partake in a wide variety of different flying activities throughout my career: aerobatics, sea planes, instructional flying, tailwheels, antiques, formation, skywriting, experimentals, warbirds, crop dusting, and now the rarefied world of high-end jet charter.
But there’s one particularly tantalizing segment of aviation I’ve yet to delve into: the low level back-country “bush” flying you’ll find in places like Idaho, Alaska, and Canada. There you’ll find aircraft with astounding STOL (short takeoff & landing) capabilities, especially in the hands of the right pilot. These guys routinely alight in places you’d never think an airplane could go without sustaining fatal damage.
The key elements are skill, experience, and of course the proper equipment. Put large enough low-pressure tires on a Cub and it’ll land on virtually anything. Ice, snow, water, and rocks that are more aptly described as boulders.
A few years ago a guy named Greg Miller started filming his off-airport exploits and published ‘em under the name Big Rocks Long Props. If you haven’t seen the series, volume 5 is about to be released, and the cinematography looks to be the best yet due to the new cameras and mounts they’re using.
If you enjoyed that one, take a look at their Study of STOL video. It centers on the annual STOL contest in Valdez, Alaska. I’ve seen helicopters that could barely land in that short a space — and that’s the raison d’etre behind it all. When you don’t need pavement and have a landing roll of less than 100 feet, you journey to places few fixed-wing pilots will ever see up close. Fishing in a remote location, climbing a glacier, exploring a tiny sand bar, it’s all within the realm of possibility.
There’s a practical application for this kind of flying, too. Most of the world lacks our aviation infrastructure. If you want to get around in places like Africa, you’ll be landing on short, rough strips in the middle of nowhere. Bush flying is more the rule than the exception in the third world.
Anyway, much like sea plane flying, every bush landing is different because the surface conditions are always changing and the undulating terrain creates unpredictable wind conditions. Even for the experts, it’s not always easy. Here’s a narrated clip of Greg Miller nearly busting up his airplane while filming volume 2 of the series.
Even though most of us don’t do this kind of flying, there’s a good lesson here: you can do something of great difficulty just right a thousand times, and then you make one little mistake and you’re a Youtube sensation for all the wrong reasons. Fair? Maybe not… but aviation is like that.