Flying Wild Alaska on the Discovery Channel and Alaska Wing Men on National Geographic Channel have raised bush flying awareness. This article is to help pilots get started learning and brushing up on the skills required to fly safely in the backcountry.
Here’s the first test to see if you’re ready for backcountry (bush) flying. Dig out the Pilot Owners Handbook or Owner’s Manual for your airplane. Look up the minimum distance required to do a short field takeoff. Add in all the variables—air temperature, surface, density altitude, runway slope—to come up with a “book” distance. Then imagine that your life depends on your ability to get off a remote airstrip in the book distance. Fly a series of test flights to see if you can get off the ground in that distance. This is the first step in flying “scientifically”—gathering data appropriate to your airplane and your skill level.
If you can’t pull it off the first time you try, you’re not alone. Skills atrophy during winter layoffs. Perhaps you’re just not yet ready. It’s very likely that you don’t really know the numbers for your airplane.
Pilots that can’t maintain speeds within a couple of knots and/or aren’t comfortable flying close to the ground in unwelcoming terrain have a ways to go before they’re ready to tackle landing strips that require “on the edge” flying. On-the-edge flying means flying final at speeds as low as 1.1 Vso.
This inability may be because of rust or not-yet-honed skills, but let’s also remember that manufacturer’s “book numbers” are gleaned using airplanes that are in top-notch shape with strong engines and being flown by professional pilots. So, Rule #1 is to do tests to determine what you and your airplane are capable of. Do these tests with the airplane loaded because that’s how you will be flying.
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