The spectrum of knowledge and abilities among individual aviators is vast, but safely flying the backcountry is possible for pilots of all experience levels to a certain degree. Learn about the unique considerations for operation, and how to train and prepare to maximize safety.
How is backcountry airmanship different?
Piloting light, piston-engine aircraft into the "backcountry", that very general term we use to describe the concept of being away from civilization and improved facilities, is a specialized subdiscipline in aviation that requires additional training and experience. In addition to utilizing all the skills of everyday airmanship, operating in the backcountry requires knowledge of:
- Terrain and its effect on wind, weather, and route selection
- Effects of non-standard atmosphere on aircraft performance
- Evaluation of unimproved landing surfaces
- Weather and micro-meteorology
- Cold weather aircraft operations
- Emergency maintenance and forced camping
It doesn't sound like a whole lot extra, in fact much of the knowledge is covered in primary flight training texts, but it's a critical body of knowledge that no aspiring explorer should ignore. There are only a few method by which to kill one's self in an airplane, and pilots keep using these same methods over and over again., mainly due to ignornace and complacence.
It is without doubt that this Knowledge Base will appeal most to low time or inexperienced pilots. While it is a great idea to educate yourself as much as possible from available knowledge resources, there really is no substitute for a real live instructor, especially one who has plenty of experience with this kind of flying. Many instructors have built all their hours instructing primary students on pavement, so time in the cockpit isn't a good indicator of proficiency by itself. Inquire about the quality of their experience and whether they've actually done this stuff.
There are many mountain flying and tailwheel flight schools around the country that specialize in this stuff. Thely likely won't teach primary, but for a pilot with a fresh certificate, it's a good place to get additional instruction.
See the Training and instruction article for more specific information.
Backcountry flying is no different from any other discipline in aviation in that good planning and strategy result in the best outcome. Doing research and gaining as much knowledge about your destination(s) prior to departure allows you to formulate a plan to deal with any unknowns or variables. The strategy aspect really comes into play when considering how to make an approach or departure from an airstrip or landing zone that's surrounded my terrain or obstacles, as well as challenging atmospheric conditions like high density altitude or weather.
Check out Patrick Romano's STOL Tips article & video series for some good write-ups ranging from how to fly the wing effectively, to STOL oriented takeoff and landing techniques.
No summer is complete with forest fire smoke reducing visibility. Learn how to deal with flying in smokey conditions in Hazards of Wildfire Smoke.
Mountains are massive and beautiful, and often the destination for the best camping and fishing spot. But mountains present some unique challenges to pilots. Learn more in this section about the considerations for flying within the mountains.
Not needing a proper airport is probably the most rewarding element of backcountry flying-- The culmination of knowledge, training, and experience in precision spot landing, surface evaluation, and strategy allow a pilot to make his own airport, given that his equipment can handle it.
Read more on off-airport flying
When the lakes freeze and feet of snow cover the surface, it can be transformed into an entirely new and landable wonderland. But it is wrought with challenges and dangers all its own, from deceptively deep snow waiting to bog the aircraft down, to the extremely serious phenomenon of "overflow."
Read more on ski flying
Weather is obviously a huge factor in a pilot's ability to negotiate any particular flight, and this is made even more important when operating in or around significant terrain. Read more on Weather flying.