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Pilot's book chronicles Idaho's rural airstrips

Research reveals accounts of how, why individual strips built

By Virginia Hutchens

The Times-News

Published: Monday, Feb. 18 2013 9:12 p.m. MST

TWIN FALLS — Twin Falls pilot Steve Mulberry flipped through an Idaho author's thick new book on backcountry aviation, pausing at a 1970 photo from a mountain airstrip.

"This is the Twin Otter I used to fly in Alaska — I can't believe it," said Mulberry, 59, who reported for his job as an Alaskan bush pilot three days after his Boise State University graduation in 1975.

In the 557-page hardcover "Bound for the Backcountry: A History of Idaho's Remote Airstrips," those moments of recognition might be plentiful for any pilot with experience in the Idaho backcountry. Written by Richard H. Holm Jr. of Boise and McCall, the book chronicles the personalities and aircraft important to nearly a hundred of Idaho's isolated airstrips.

"Almost with every picture I recognize something — it brings back a memory," Mulberry said, spotting pilots' names and aircraft models as he scanned the pages. "This is a real great history; I don't think you'll ever find a history like this."

These days Mulberry flies a 747 for United Airlines, and photos of Idaho wilderness share space on his cell phone with his cockpit photography of Siberia's snow-crusted peaks. He'd returned from Hong Kong two days earlier and would head for Sydney, Australia, next.

But Mulberry still owns a Cessna 185, a model suited to the heavy loads and short takeoffs and landings of Idaho mountain flying. He takes his sons airplane camping every summer — in 2012, for instance, at the remote Warm Springs airstrip on the South Fork of the Payette River. He flies war veterans into the backcountry for Wounded Warrior programs, and he donates plane time to search for lost snowmobiles, lost hunters and missing aircraft.

Mountain flying is dangerous. It requires humility and a knowledge of the limits of both pilot and aircraft. And it's dreadfully hard to make a living at it, Mulberry said.

"You can't eat scenery," he said, echoing advice he heard as a young flier. Still, those long-ago years were a wonderful life. "I savor every moment of the mountain flying. That was the best."

You'll find a lot of that sentiment in Holm's book.

As a University of Idaho student, Holm, now 30, got interested in the state's backcountry history.

As a pilot, he does seasonal air taxi work such as regional charter flights and delivering river rafters to their put-in destinations, particularly on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The two interests combined in his "Bound for the Backcountry," whose narrative backdrop is "how aviation ... shaped what we think of as wilderness areas."

The book's early chapters put Idaho's remote flying into the context of 1930s fire suppression; the shift of backcountry homesteads from serving minors to attracting hunters and anglers; the explosion of whitewater river sports; and The Wilderness Act of 1964.

But the bulk of this thick volume is devoted to heavily researched accounts of individual strips: how and why they were built, who was involved and any interesting tales — funny or tragic — attached to them.

"It's very, very good and comprehensive of the origination of a lot of ranches," said pilot Dick Waite, 86, of Hagerman, who has flown over Idaho for 67 years. "It's a great book that Richard did."

One of the book's most tragic tales involves a blown cylinder on a DC-3 148Z's right engine above the Selway River in 1979. The flaming engine tore away from the wing, and the right landing gear dropped. The pilots maneuvered the wounded aircraft through the walls of the Selway canyon, Holm writes, but when the left wing struck a tree they lost all control.

The images captured by a newspaper photographer hiking up the Selway show the outline of the DC-3 and smoke trailing from the falling engine below it. The crash killed both pilots and eight of the 10 passengers.

But the history has its heroes, too.

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