What a day it was. Rod T and I set out to join up with other pilots from the Latitude Aviators Facebook group to get breakfast at the historic – and spectacular – Temperance Creek Lodge on the Snake River in Oregon.
After a short briefing for pilot responsibilities and other miscellany, including rigging no less than 4 GoPro cameras, we let a little air out of the tires for a nice soft ride on the airstrips we were going to be visiting. The 175 rolled out of the hangar to face our deserted airport, and easily fired up thanks to the oil pan preheater that had been plugged in all night.
Departing early from Coeur d’ Alene Airport, Rod and I first spun a few laps in the pattern in the Latitude 175 to get Rod up to speed on tailwheel and familiarize him with some of the 175’s handling qualities. An experienced, current, and proficient pilot is Rod, but the last time he’d flown tailwheel was 3 years ago. Nonetheless, he was safe and smiling in just a couple of laps thanks to his experience and the 175’s kind handling.
Piercing the gap between layers, the 175 saddled up and launched out to VFR over the top and set sail to the South at a decent cruise of 110kts, eyes set on adventure in the Idaho backcountry. Smooth and cool air, thanks to a ridiculous inversion covering the entire Northwest, made the ride enjoyable as Jeff and Rod enjoyed catching up with each other and doing some in-flight verbal training on the flying to come, as this was Rod’s first journey to the mountains.
The gorgeous countryside of the Palouse and rolling foothills were soon revealed from the blanket of low clouds, exposing winter wheat and plowed fields. Sunlight glinted on a powerful inversion-fueled freezing fog layer over Lewiston, which hinted at weather problems soon to come. The 175 descended smoothly into the Snake River drainage passing Lewiston having heard a couple of Skywagons depart Pullman just a few minutes prior, who turned out to be a flight of pilots and friends soon to be met.
As the 175 wove its way up the Snake, stunning winter grasses and patchy fog in the bottom of the valley slid by underneath as the canyon walls began to rise. Soon we were sailing along well below the bluffs, enjoying the smooth ride, sunshine, and easy conversation as an awestruck Rod began to truly get excited about where he was and what he was doing. Some of the lessons described in mountain seminars he’d previously attended were now augmented and made real by the view out the windshield, and a few points were brought up and clarified in our conversation now that there was a visual example of them.
Rounding the last corner north of Temperance Creek airstrip a mere hour after departure from Coeur d’ Alene, it was apparent that the fog was still covering our destination, revealing only the hillsides above where the airstrip allegedly was located. Rod and I discussed a few options as our tummies hinted at rumbling. As we discussed and evaluated our options, I took over the airplane for a bit (hey, I wanted to do SOME of the flying!) and began a gentle climb to get a little altitude for better radio communications with the other aircraft that were supposed to be coming (the radio had thus far been silent). No sooner had I gained 1000 ft than we began to hear chatter from the Skywagons out of Pullman and another pilot from Coeur d’ Alene in his Husky discussing where they might land to wait out the fog. Contact was made!
Although the other airplanes eventually settled on landing at Dug Bar down in the Snake canyon, Rod and I decided to first go land at Lord Flat after I handed him the controls and began perusing my Fly Idaho directory. We were right next door, and although the other airplanes supposed that it would be warmer at Dug Bar due to the lower altitude, I suspected it would be quite balmy at Lord Flat even at 5500 MSL due to the prevailing temperature inversion in the atmosphere. A high survey pass later, the strip looked good enough to land on from altitude with only a light cover of fluffy snow and a herd of elk well clear of the runway as considerations. Rod was unsure of his tailwheel skills given the snow and narrow track, but really wanted to go in, so I took the controls and “dragged” the strip by laying the main wheels on the “runway” (a term perhaps too generous for the reality) to test the snow. The airplane told us that the snow would not be too deep or draggy for a safe landing and subsequent departure, so I set the airplane up to commit to land.
I elected for a soft field arrival, which in the 175 meant 45 IAS on short final with full flaps, and a little power left on in the flare and a dash of finesse put the mains gently on the ground, tailwheel held just clear of the ground to keep weight off the mains as long as possible. I retained some power as the airplane slowed easily uphill in the light snow, in case I needed the elevator to remain effective – needlessly, as it turned out. Without braking we coasted to the top of the strip, and parked in the sparkling sunshine with startlingly warm air underneath an arrogantly, perhaps extravagantly, deep blue sky. Wow, we were really here!
We hopped out into the snow and grass lit by the crystal sunshine, and as I had hoped it was light-sweatshirt-warm even here at the top of the world. High-five and some laughter later, we took some pictures and video, then hopped back in for departure.
Takeoff was uneventful, and we skipped back to the east to check on Temperance – nope, still fogged in. Dug Bar, here we come!
Rod handled the arrival to Dug Bar with only a little coaching, and settled the airplane in on long final as he felt his way into 55 IAS for his first landing in the backcountry. A small skip-and-plop on the mains and an easy rollout over green grass and frozen cow patties marked our arrival in front of a distracted audience of the other pilots parked against the fence above the Snake River. Glen H in his gorgeous Husky and Michael W plus friend in “The Pig” – his Maule M5 he learned to fly in – all from Coeur d Alene, were parked alongside 3 Skywagons from Pullman, among them Jared S and a couple of his cropdusting buddies.
Introductions and conversation followed as we waited another hour for the fog at Temperance thanks to my recent PIREP. Some of the guys there had been flying for a looooong time, and it was simply great camaraderie as newbies and old hands alike enjoyed the sunshine and hangar talk with other pilots.
We all decided it might be cleared out down at Temperance, so we all climbed back in and launched south down the Snake, following the Skywagons in loose trail. The airplanes were performing marvelously in the cool air and ridiculously high pressure (altimeter settings were 30.70+!), and most broke ground well before midfield on the short downhill runway.
Glen in his Husky and us in the 175 weren’t sure of our arrival at Temperance Creek, due to a couple of stubborn patchy poofballs that were low in the valley. After we heard on the radio from the Skywagons, we could see them parked down there on the edge of the runway, so we followed the Husky through a gap in the fluff to an uneventful landing – a novel experience, no doubt about it. Good thing it was Class G! No one ever felt the least bit unsafe as we threaded the needle in the poofballs, and as we turned around for parking we were treated to the sight of the Maule landing with the sun absolutely blazing the haze behind it. I wish we would have gotten a better picture, it’s an image that is burned into my memory, it was that spectacular. For us in the 175, this was our third backcountry airport, and it was barely 11am! Only in an airplane…
A short stroll to the lodge later, and the ladies there were already firing up the grills to cook our breakfast to order under a sunny sky and an outdoor gazebo breakfast ensued. Easy conversation continued as we all began to get to know one another, and the food showed up hot and plentiful. I can say I ate too much, but my belly was empty and the food was delish so what else could I do?
Stepping out of the moment, I reflected on what a blessing and privilege we pilots have, and we fly in the most beautiful area.
Towards the end of the meal as the feeding frenzy died down, Rod gushed about the completely different world he was experiencing – completely different from his own flying. Rod owns a pretty Cirrus that he regularly uses to go high and fast to area destinations to see his family and take vacation. He’s flown over the mountains, he says, but never through them – and he can’t believe how cool is this entire world that he had no idea even existed. He admitted being nervous at first with proximity flying, what to do in the event of a power loss, short airstrips etc., but went on to say how impressed he was with the 175 and its amazing short field ability – and its ability to make short fields easy. He was glad I was along as well to lend my mountain experience as he grew more comfortable in the canyons. Rod and I finished off our plates discussing our next destination, Wilson Bar, and Glen and Michael joined the listening as we briefed the departure and flight path out of Temperance and Hells Canyon, arrival at Wilson Bar, fuel status, and order of airplanes on the way. We also briefed that the 175 would pathfind the approach, so that Glen and then Michael could follow at least our final approach path.
Wilson Bar sits on a sandbar on an inside corner of the Salmon River some 40 NM upriver from Riggins, and is generally regarded as one of the most scenic and challenging destinations in the high Idaho mountains. Although the runway itself is quite smooth and longish at 1500 ft, the primary challenge lies in the intimidating approach downriver on the Salmon. At its best, the approach is done with a stabilized descent starting overhead the airport, and the descent is begun over the high ridge just east of the runway, base is flown down Five Mile Creek, with final occurring along the Salmon river hard up against the south shoreline. The other pilots listened attentively as I described the go-around decision presented as the airplane rolls to align with the runway – “Either you’re in position to land… or you’re not. Don’t push it!” says I.
One after the other, we started our airplanes, did rolling runups on our steeds, and blasted out of Temperance into relentlessly blue skies and crossed the thin ridge between Hells Canyon and the Salmon River drainage and joined the main fork of the Salmon River passing Riggins eastbound. We marveled at the smooth air and expansive mountain vistas as we gently descended upriver.
Rod muttered something unprintable when I pointed out our destination just upstream from the confluence of the South Fork of the Salmon River – he wasn’t convinced it was actually an airport. Nonetheless, we flew a high survey and then a 360 descent to lose a little altitude as we configured the airplane to fly a downwind leg. We knew the Husky was just rounding the turn in the river behind us as we joined downwind and started our descent into Five Mile Creek. Our first approach actually missed a skosh high, so I called the go-around as we approached the decision point.
This led to a discussion of some of the differences between go-arounds at flatland airports vs. go-arounds at mountain airports, which highlighted the importance of remaining on a great profile – or recognizing a profile that would require more than small corrections to make a successful landing, and escaping a possible incident or worse with an easy go-around. All too often pilots attempt to “save” an imprecise approach with a forward slip or cutting the power to idle, not recognizing that their margin of performance is approaching – or even below – zero. By the time a go-around is finally obvious, the airplane is only closer to terrain, further behind the power curve, and possibly beyond a safe escape.
Ours was not that story as we put coal to the Lycoming up front, cleaning up the airplane as we climbed away from the airport. Our pathfinding was not unobserved and for naught, however, as Glen was just rounding base to final having watched our approach, and he was able to set up a perfect landing on the runway. Michael in The Pig elected for a flatter, lower approach downriver on the Salmon, but nonetheless put his airplane in position to land, setting those big tires safely down on the smooth green surface of Wilson Bar.
Our second approach was uneventful, now that Rod was growing more accustomed to the idea of rocks being close enough to spit on. We rounded final in better position, and he planted the mains on the runway with only a small bounce. Light braking brought the airplane easily to a stop before we arrived at the parking area.
We opened the doors to excited laughter and high-fives between the other pilots, for whom this was their first visit to Wilson Bar. We added our own, and started taking pictures and spent a glorious 20 minutes walking about exploring the camping and river opportunities adjacent to the runway.
With daylight waning, we all again returned to our airplanes for departure. A short briefing followed on the obvious route upriver on the Salmon followed, with well-wishing and handshakes all ’round.
By now Rod was becoming accustomed to so much dirt outside the windows, and flew the airplane off the runway and joined the Salmon flying upriver like an old hand. We circled for altitude and joined a course for Kamiah, hoping for gas on our way back to Coeur d Alene. Along the way we monitored our fuel supply, which at this point was more than legal but would not tolerate any big deviations from our plan. A quick call on MULTICOM to the FBO at Kamiah determined that the fuel truck was INOP, so we diverted to Grangeville. Good thing we called ahead!
The remainder of the flight was uneventful, with the majority of the discussion centered on scenarios and concepts suddenly made more relevant by the day’s flying, punctuated with a ridiculous sunset worthy of the day.
The day held an unbelievable combination of adventure, education, and camaraderie that perhaps captured the best parts of flying. Only pilots get to experience the world at this level, and it is an experience worth every penny. Blue skies and tailwinds!
Jeff Fouche is the owner and Chief CFI at Latitude Aviation, the leading adventure school in the Inland Northwest.