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Pilot's book chronicles Idaho's rural airstrips

Research reveals accounts of how, why individual strips built

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

This undated image shows author Richard Holm in his Cessna at Moose Creek located in the Selway Bitterroot wilderness in Idaho. Holm's book chronicles the personalities and aircraft of Idaho's isolated airstrips.     (Associated Press) This undated image shows author Richard Holm in his Cessna at Moose Creek located in the Selway Bitterroot wilderness in Idaho. Holm's book chronicles the personalities and aircraft of Idaho's isolated airstrips. (Associated Press)

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."

This undated image shows author Richard Holm's Cessna preparing for takeoff at Soldier Bar in Idaho.    (Associated Press) This undated image shows author Richard Holm's Cessna preparing for takeoff at Soldier Bar in Idaho. (Associated Press)

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.

Among them is helicopter pilot Rod Snider, who descended through thick smoke, flames, airborne embers and intense heat and wind — over and over — to rescue trapped smokejumpers four at a time in 1961 near Grangeville. Holm tells the story with enough technical detail for aircraft-savvy readers to appreciate the difficulty of the feat, but with all the humanity that another reader might crave.

"It's more dangerous flying than you're going to find in other places, and as a result there are a lot of accidents back there," Holm said in a telephone interview.

In general, pilots who operate in Idaho's backcountry are humble, understated folks, he said. It takes that to fly in these conditions: heat and altitude that lower aircraft performance, heavy loads, tight canyon maneuvers, smoke.

"They do some pretty amazing things — these people who have been at it for 30 years," Holm said.

A key figure in Twin Falls' aviation history makes an appearance in Holm's account of a crew who bailed out of a B-17 bomber during World War II over the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Charles Reeder — who in 1941 started Reeder Flying Service in Twin Falls — made a daring night landing at Indian Creek to help in the crew's 1943 rescue.

"... the only way he could identify the airstrip was the reflection of the snow between the trees," Holm writes.

Mulberry played a role at the Falconberry Ranch homestead on Loon Creek, a large tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Dr. John Hatch of Idaho Falls, who owned the Falconberry property for decades, decided in 1977 that a tennis court would be just the thing for his remote ranch. Mulberry — a family friend home from a summer of Alaska flying and the new owner of a Cessna 185 — made 149 landings there to shuttle sacks of cement for the tennis court, Holm writes.

Waite shows up near the end of "Bound for the Backcountry," as Holm details 16 Travel Air 6000 aircraft that were flown in remote Idaho.

"Without a doubt the Travel Air Model 6000 became an icon of the Idaho backcountry to many residents, fishermen, hunters, smokejumpers and foresters," Holm writes. "These high performance airplanes were rugged and could carry large loads in and out of short, rough-surface airfields with little trouble."

One of those, a 1929 plane that spent part of the 1940s carrying supplies and people for an Idaho mining operation, now hangs out in a hangar at the Gooding airport as a showpiece. Waite, who owns that airplane and two others, also has a hangar and private airstrip — built about 23 years ago — at his Hagerman house.

For 40 years, the 1944 Twin Falls High School graduate provided ground and air transportation for river rafters. In 2004 Waite received the Federal Aviation Administration's Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, which recognizes safe flight operations for 50 or more consecutive years.

"Dick and his connections were an invaluable resource for me when I wrote the book," Holm said.

As Mulberry flipped pages, he paused on one describing the highest airstrip ever used in the Idaho backcountry. Its average runway elevation: 8,233 feet.

"Oh my gosh, Hoodoo Meadows," Mulberry said. "I landed there years ago ... when I was young and foolish."

Holm's book retells many of the stories Mulberry heard years ago as a fledgling flier idolizing Idaho's older pilots.

"I knew a lot of the people in here personally," Mulberry said. "There's so much of this stuff that could be lost forever, and this captures it."

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