LESSONS FROM THE MOUNTAINS
Flying|May 2020
A PILOT’S RETURN TO THE BACKCOUNTRY
JULIE BOATMAN

My relationship with the mountains began on hikes with my family, camping trips up into the farthest corners of Glacier National Park that could be reached with a 7-year-old (me) and a toddling 4-year-old (my little brother) in close formation. We took what we could carry in our little packs—supplemented heavily with the resources my parents stuffed into their own.

Fast-forward to my early flight-instructing years in Colorado, where one of my greatest joys was introducing pilots to the high country— famously high-altitude airports like Leadville, Telluride and Aspen. The “real” backcountry beckoned, though, and about 15 years ago, I took a condensed, one-on-one mountain flying course with well-known backcountry instructor Lori MacNichol, through McCall Mountain Canyon Flying Seminars. The flights I made there cemented my love for the high country and, more so than that, provided me with a skill set that could be applied to much of my everyday flying.

Indeed, these lessons that the mountains bring to us know no gender, age or aviation background. So, when Christina Tindle from WomanWise Aviation Adventures dropped me a note on Twitter, asking my interest in joining them for an upcoming seminar in Cascade, Idaho, I was intrigued by two things: how flying with like-minded pilots would enhance my experience (or detract from it) and how much I would recall from my previous time flying into the Idaho wilderness.

A psychologist and counselor by occupation—and backcountry pilot—Tindle launched a series of seminars in 2011 with a fly-in to Smiley Creek, Idaho. In 2019, she conducted four events in Idaho and Colorado, focusing on backcountry flying but also touching on other areas of flight based on the requests of participants, including upset and recovery training, aerobatics, floatplane flying, and primary tailwheel instruction.

SETTING GOALS

I knew this aviation seminar would be different when Tindle sent me a pre-event registration packet that included an overview with the quote, “If the shoe fits, you’ll dance a lot longer.” While the questionnaire accompanying the notes asked me to list standard items such as my flight time and recency of experience—and relative comfort flying in the backcountry—it also asked an open-ended question, “What do you want from your experience at WWAA?”

You could respond with a simple answer, or you could dive in more philosophically. Given that the registration form also noted that we would be formulating Life Flight plans, the intention with the question was clearly broader than simply probing our need to improve our confined-airstrip-landing skills.

Because I would be a speaker at the seminar, giving a presentation on coping with life’s “go-arounds” (often mistakenly referred to as “failures”), I left my answer generic, knowing I’d address the very topic I wanted to work on— extrapolating the confidence I’ve often gained from flying into my life on the ground—in my talk with the group.

PREPARATION AND PLANNING

Weather in Cascade in the third week of September can offer up anything from summerlike temps and density-altitude concerns to drizzly clouds and mountain-obscuring ceilings—or even a blizzard. I scheduled two days of instruction according to the forecast, knowing I could add an aerobatic flight or some tailwheel practice as the actual conditions allowed.

To balance the flying time, Tindle scheduled briefings from the instructor corps in the afternoons and evenings. For example, in one evening, Bob Del Valle of Hallo Flight Training (based in Priest River, Idaho) covered key concepts, such as engine failure after takeoff and accelerated stalls, as well as decision-making skills tuned to the environment in which we’d fly.

I spent my first day of flying with Fred Williams, an instructor who splits his time between Cascade and Reno, Nevada. He offered up his Kitfox with large-format tires for our flying—an airplane I’d flown only briefly with a friend in the more urbane environs of airpark-rich Florida.

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