RAF Introduces me to Backcountry Flying With Two Fun Days at Sullivan Lake

2:13 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

There are so many great benefits to owning your own airplane, and each one of those flying machines have different capabilities to serve different missions. Some haul lots of people and baggage long distances, while others have oversized main gear tires and can deliver you and your camping gear into remote "backcountry" strips carved out of beautiful forests. Choose your ship to match your mission.

A full photo gallery of this aviation adventure is available here.

Many of those fun machines are owned and flown by members of the Recreational Aviation Foundation, a very important advocacy group that is critical to preserving the many backcountry strips in the U.S., many of which happen to be located in the Pacific Northwest states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. But in between work parties and convincing government entities to keep strips open, these RAF people really know how to get away from it all, and at their annual Sullivan Lake, WA fly-in this weekend, I witnessed some of the most fun any of us can possibly have with our airplanes.
1948 Aeronca Sedan came loaded with two aboard, a pair of folding bikes, iPad and GoPro on the glareshield, and even a load of firewood!
This trip actually started about 12 years ago when I met "Turbo" Harry Wildgen at a Chamber of Commerce mixer. He was wearing an airplane lapel pin, and my wife said I should go talk to him since he probably was a pilot. Our friendship has endured - a challenge these days for busy adults - and since he flew a gorgeous Cessna Turbo 210 "Centurion" and I flew ships with carburetors, he became "Turbo Harry" and I became "Normally-Aspirated Dan" in email exchanges.
Fast forward to this weekend, and off we went in Six-Three Lima, Harry's beautiful 1984 T210. This aircraft is so well-equipped, it has 41 STCs, all of which can make his annuals expensive, but the ship's performance stellar. With TCAS, Aspen PFD, Garmin 530, air-conditioning that works as well as a Cadillac Escapade, Riley Intercooler and Robertson STOL kit, Six-three Lima is well-suited for operations over long distances that culminate at a short grass strip such as 09S at the north end of Sullivan Lake in far northeast Washington just 11 miles from the Canadian border. From my home in southern Oregon, this was about a 2:20 flight, sitting on very comfortable leather seats and cooking along at about 155 knots of ground speed.
We "arrived" at Sullivan Lake after a great scenic flight, with routing that gave me an "up close and personal" look at Oregon's Mt. Hood. Our landing was one of legends...or at least made for great campfire chatter, but details will remain a closely-guarded secret. Ask Turbo Harry next time you see him. I will just say we didn't break anything and were able to depart the next morning, so no harm, no foul.

Close-up look at Oregon's Mt. Hood as we cruised northbound
The first day of this RAF event was spent watching a slow parade of airplanes arrive, all first buzzing the strip to check winds, and next making a nice clean direct approach from out over the lake. It was very cool to be in such wilderness splendor and see a pair of Aviat Husky A1-Bs, a Bearcat Patrol, an RV-6, a Searey amphib and even a 1948 Aeronca Sedan arrive, taxi to the fence to join the Cessna 172s and 182s that had arrived earlier and set up camp. It should be noted that the '48 Aeronca with two on board had two folding bikes, camping gear AND firewood inside. A very capable machine it was, and the iPad and GoPro perched on the glareshield made it quite the juxtaposition of old and new.
This RAF fly-in is possibly one of the best times I have had around airplanes. The people in this group are all the kind of social, friendly and aviation-addicted flyers we #avgeeks love to hang with, and the entire time was spent roaming between airplanes, chatting everyone up, talking about other great backcountry strips, and generally building bonds around the kind of camaraderie that makes being an aviator a priceless experience. This chatter went on late into the night around a roaring campfire, where thankfully the topics were all about aviation and not politics.

Norman was the life of the party, and kept us entertained with his endless game of fetch.
What was so cool about this backcountry fly-in was that everyone did their own thing. One pilot was content to just sit under his wing reading, while another flew a kite in the gentle afternoon breeze. Mark and Jeannie, who arrived in a pristine Husky A1-B also brought their completely adorable dog, Norman, who was happy to spend his time at Sullivan Lake endlessly chasing after his favorite tennis ball.

My hand-crafted "tent" didn't quite work out. I got points for my survival skills, until the dew pooled above my head and rained on me all night!
My personal experience took an abrupt deviation as Turbo Harry was unloading Six-three Lima upon arrival. As the gear came out, missing was my tent, which I soon realized was still in the back of my truck back in Eugene. It made for some good-natured ribbing, and with the generosity of other RAF members, I was able to fashion a lean-to out of a tarp, some rope, a chain link fence and a picnic table. My "tent" was great until "severe" dew developed overnight, and it turned out my design was perfect for collecting all the moisture and pooling it right above my head, where it could leak through the tarp and rain on me all night. Suffice to say it was a cold, wet night, with my mind alternating between being annoyed I forgot my tent, shivering in the cold, and wondering if the bears in the area (signage everywhere warned of them) would see me as a nice, moist human burrito while I slept in a borrowed sleeping bag that turned out to be a kid's size. I scored no points on camping preps on this trip.

One of the RAF members explaining his airplane to a young camper from the adjacent state campground. I wish I had recorded this exchange, because hearing this pilot talk about his airplane and the many benefits of GA flying was exactly what all aviators should do when given the chance.
Saturday morning, we woke to a gorgeous clear sky, and several of the planes decided to make the 35NM jaunt over to Sandpoint, Idaho, where their EAA chapter was holding an annual Fly-in airport breakfast. It was a smooth, easy flight in Six-three Lima, with Turbo Harry and I deciding airport pancakes were more appealing than two bags of dehydrated survival breakfast he had brought.
After a couple of plates of classic hangar fare served to perfection by a crew of EAA volunteers, we were about to depart for Eugene when I noticed the sound of a throaty and BIG radial engine overhead. When I saw what it was, my #avgeek fun-o-meter flew into the red. Could it be? Yes, it was the Pemberton family's 1928 Boeing 40C biplane, an airplane I consider to be the finest example of restoration craftsmanship anywhere. The plane crashed in 1928,  and the wreckage was hidden in the mountains near Canyonville, OR until recovered in 1994. The Pemberton family hand-built the airplane back to perfection (and FAA certification) around the all-important data plate, which was recovered along with a handful of burned, twisted pieces of the original airplane.

Addison Pemberton and his amazing 1928 Boeing 40C at Sandpoint, ID fly-in
With Addison Pemberton at the controls, he brought the giant one-of-a-kind rare biplane in for a sweet landing, one that is not all that easy on the ship's very narrow main gear underneath two huge wings. I have written many times about Addison and this airplane, but had never seen it in person.

Our trip back to Eugene in Six-three Lima was a smooth ride despite headwinds that knocked our ground speed back to about 125 knots at times. This Turbo 210 is probably the smoothest GA airplane I have ever had the privilege of flying in, with the GAMI injectors allowing the big Continental to produce power without a hint of vibration. It might be expensive to own and fly, but Turbo Harry uses this plane as intended, for fun, for business, and to fly both Angel Flight and Pet Rescue missions. And, from a photographer's standpoint, not having wing struts makes for a great view to the ground.
My first introduction to backcountry "air camping" was a really pleasant experience, and brought together two of my favorite things...airplanes and nature. I can see now why Ramona "Skychick" Cox - the undisputed Queen of backcountry flying - spends up to three months a year living out of her Cessna 206 Stationaire in the back country. This is a lifestyle I can get used to, and as I re-evaluate my flying after the sale of our Cherokee 235 this year, the idea of owning a Husky or some other "backcountry" plane has become more real. I do not yet know what my next airplane will be, all I know is that if it is one that's capable of short-field ops at short mountain strips, it would be all right with me.
Major kudos from Airplanista to the RAF for the work that they do. If you ever get the opportunity to join these fine people at an air camping event, do it, you will not be disappointed. A prop banner hung on one airplane at Sullivan Lake described backcountry flying perfectly, saying "It's why you learned to fly." After immersing myself in this world, I find it hard to disagree with that statement.

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