Wings To Home: A Pilot's Perspective

A bush plane is a vehicle that can make dreams come true. Flying into areas accessible only via wing can bring you to rivers, coastlines and forests far away from civilization for unlimited adventure. In today’s post, Jeff Shapiro heads back to Montana to not only retrieve his beloved Backcountry SuperCub but to find new lessons and experiences along the way.

 

Jeffrey Shapiro in bush plane

Photography: Jeffrey Shapiro

The time had come. Two months without my airplane, as lame as it might sound, had me twitching in bed at night thinking about flying. I feel silly complaining about such a trivial thing but, also so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to fly that plane. So, when she's sitting idyl in a hangar ten hours away in Montana, I have this admittedly irrational anxiety that I'm wasting that opportunity. After packing up our entire lives, bound for the Oregon coast, the last of our possessions in Montana which still needed to be collected was our plane. I missed her like an old friend but the time to drive back to the Bitterroot Valley, climb in the front seat and fly her to its new home was finally upon us.

Watching the weather like any responsible pilot does, I couldn't believe my luck that the weekend my wife Kara was available to make the trip look ideal. The rash of forest fires had abated with a few days of much needed rain. Temporary flight restrictions were lifted and mountain visibility had improved dramatically. Winds were light, even through the notorious Hood River gorge, and it seemed that the flying gods were smiling down upon me. The plan was, we'd drive to Montana on Friday, spend Saturday cleaning out the hangar, and then get the prop spinning so I could make sure the engine was running like a Swiss watch. I'd be flying where landing is not an option on my way home, so this would be my last chance to address anything that might need attention. Then, I'd get the wings full of fuel and be ready for a “first-light” departure across the mountains Sunday morning.

 

Bush plane

Photography: Jeffrey Shapiro

Ten and a half hours of murder-mystery podcasts, road snacks and mind-numbing views of white and yellow lines left us pulling into Missoula after dark. It's a pretty drive with a variety of landscapes to distract you but while moving, we'd done this drive enough to last a lifetime. In the morning, after a hard sleep, we cracked the hangar doors and low and behold.... she was still there. The reunion had me smiling from ear to ear. It's funny, I know that an airplane is just a “thing” but, sometimes “things' ' have soul.

All of the work and attention I'd given her over the last couple of years had been paid in full by how reliably well the airplane treats me over rugged mountains and while flying through inclement weather. In my mind, we have this understanding bordering on friendship. I take care of her and she takes care of me. I intimately know every sound that engine makes and the second something isn't quite right. So, I was admittedly stoked when I turned the key and she fired right up, ran like perfection and once in the air, it was like no time had passed.

Sunday morning came too early but not soon enough. The air was crisp and still, the sun hadn't yet cracked the horizon and there was a thin, low-lying fog filling the low spots in the valley like puddles after a rain. I couldn't imagine a better morning for flying.

I pushed the plane out of the hangar, gave Kara a squeeze and then climbed in the front seat. I wanted to get on the wing and at least half way across the Bitterroot mountains before stopping for coffee. Flying up Lost horse canyon's familiar craggy peaks, the creek far below pointed the way to the historical Moose Creek airstrip. Moose Creek is a backcountry grass strip cut into the trees right at the confluence with the Selway river. While living in Montana, this was one of the “home” strips and I know it well. It would be the perfect spot to land quickly and make a cup of coffee before flying across the second half of the mountains.

 

Backcountry air strip

Photography: Jeffrey Shapiro

Being that fire season was still very real, I had a great excuse to try my WG fire pit. A small kindling fire in the tray, right next to the creek, was just enough to get water boiling. Perfect. After getting my coffee just right, I simply emptied the tray's coals into the creek. Nothing but carbon; clean and safe. The tray cooled down quickly, meaning there was little chance of fire hazard. As a professional climber, I've used most stoves out there. Boiling water like this might seem contrived but, I love cooking over an open fire and this was the perfect chance to try out the fire pit. Putting it all away quickly in its case and getting back on the wing, this time with a hot cup of coffee, I'll admit I was pretty pleased.

 

Portable fire pit and grill to boil water

Photography: Jeffrey Shapiro

Another two hours led me across swathes of wind mills spinning slowly a few hundred feet below. I had a quick landing to fuel up at a small strip just to the southwest of Kennewick, Washington and only the mighty Mt Hood between me and the coast. But, it's a special thing to fly across the green base of a towering volcano and doing so represented the last obstacle before the downhill run into my final destination, Twin Oaks AirPark.

 

Montana mountains

Photography: Jeffrey Shapiro

Landing on the hot tarmac just as the convective turbulence started to kick in, I knew that the flight couldn't have gone any better. Most times, the best path is the one that makes you the happiest and although Twin Oaks isn't the “final” final destination, having our little bush plane close(r) to our new home certainly makes me happy. When we found our house, it happened to be right next to a small airport where I'm currently in the process of building a tiny hangar of our own. But for now, this part of the story was complete and when Kara showed up to collect me for the last hour or so back to the house, we both agreed that the mission was a success.

Flying an airplane from airport to airport never interested me. But flying a small bush plane, not over the mountains but in them, is a mix of barnstormer and explorer. Knowing the complex micro-meteorology in the mountain environment and still flying by the “seat of your pants” as they say, is the perfect balance between intuitive and linear thought. The front seat of the airplane is just wide enough for the pilot. You don't get in the plane, you put it on like a favorite jacket. Most of all, it offers a lifetime of learning and really, isn't learning the best that life has to offer?

 


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