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Backcountry flying is taking off in Southeast Utah

Justin Higginbottom
Backcountry pilot Gary Hilley stands at the Horseshoe Canyon airstrip on April 21.

Backcountry flights are becoming more popular, especially in Southeast Utah, where small planes can provide unique views of the vast landscape. But the runways they use are often no more than remote dirt airstrips that dot the countryside, many of which have been around for a long time. A small but growing number of pilots are helping to keep them maintained. For Rocky Mountain Community Radio, KZMU Moab’s Justin Higginbottom takes to the skies to learn about the growing hobby.

Gary Hilley’s job as a mechanic usually keeps him grounded during the week. But when he’s free he heads above Southeast Utah.

Today Hilley is in his two-seat plane called a Supercub, a lightweight craft able to take off and land with only a few hundred feet of runway, flying over slot canyons and mesas, heading south with Canyonlands National Park in the distance.

“So all these orange dots are runways around us. But we’re probably going to go either to Mineral [Bottom] or Horseshoe [Canyon] right here,” says Hilley. He’s pointing to a phone screen with dozens of dots representing backcountry runways within about a 15-mile radius.

They are mostly from the region’s uranium mining days. Prospectors would use the strips to bring in supplies or labor.

There’s around 300 backcountry runways in Utah, mostly in the Southeast part of the state and many in Bureau of Land Management areas.

“This is the Mineral Bottom airstrip which was associated with two mines,” says Hilley, looking down at a narrow dirt path on a bend in the Green River.

Hilley flies over unfazed cows, wild burros that look up curiously and a couple antelope that seem willing to race — but no humans. That’s the point, according to Hilley. He uses his small plane to beat the crowds and explore usually hard-to-access areas of the state.

“I use way less fuel flying in there than I do driving. And I can get out there and do a hike, get back in four or five hours,” says Hilley.

Justin Higginbottom
Gary Hilley flies his Super Cub backcountry plane on April 21.

He’s one of a growing number of backcountry flyers taking lightweight, fixed-wing aircraft into the wilderness.

Roy Evans, a commercial pilot and president of the Utah Back Country Pilots Association, says the backcountry aviation industry is expanding rapidly for hobbyists.

“Those markets have been exploding for the last 10 to 20 years,” says Evans.

He says there’s new options for planes and training. And although this kind of flying has been around for a long time — for Utah miners to remote Alaska residents — social media has attracted a new generation.

Evans says local officials have even approached him for help in drawing flyers to their county, asking him how to add backcountry airstrips.

“And I’m like, ‘well, there’s actually 40 already,'” says Evans.

Evans says his group has around 900 online members. They share trip reports and details on the condition of remote runaways.

“The people you’ll meet alongside these airstrips are from all over the world. We’ve met people from Germany that were out here flying around because America provides them so much more freedoms with aviation,” says Evans.

But he says not everyone is as excited about the hobby as him. Grand County commissioners submitted comments to the BLM with concerns about noise in some management areas with airstrips.

Evans says compared to other motorized vehicles — ATVs, motorcycles and especially helicopters — backcountry flying is pretty unobtrusive.

“The airplane only makes noise for those brief moments where it’s coming in to land. And then when the airplane is on the runway, we’re shut down. We push the airplane into our parking spot,” says Evans.

Kya Marienfeld with the conservation group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance says the hobby could run up against other wilderness uses and values as it expands.

“It’s just a question the same as it is with another motorized vehicle like a Jeep or a UTV or a motorbike… you’re making sure that you are in the places that are the best suited for that kind of impact,” says Marienfeld.

Some historic runways in the San Rafael Swell were challenged after the area became a designated wilderness, she notes. And she says enforcement of aircraft can be hard.

“Airspace is extremely hard to regulate. Land management agencies don’t have a lot of sway or say over [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations,” says Marienfeld.

She says there’s great places where this kind of flying makes sense — and likely some where it doesn’t.

“If you are a visitor or if you are wildlife out in one of these ecosystems and a plane flies overhead, it does substantially change the experience that you’re having,” she says.

Hilley, who’s been flying for five years, says he tries to teach pilots new to the area about the rules of the sky.

“I try and educate a lot of pilots that come to town about what’s sensitive for us. Guys love to fly the Green River like right on the water. But right now it’s full of canoes and stuff, so really not a good idea,” says Hilley.

Justin Higginbottom
When he's not flying, Gary Hilley spends his free time maintaining historic dirt runways in Southeast Utah.

The runways have stayed largely intact in the desert climate. Although vegetation is very slowly encroaching and the rare flood can wash away these bits of history.

Hilley spends his free time maintaining the landing areas: clearing parking and camping spots, replacing wind socks, hauling out trash that might include 50-year-old cans of beans left over from miners.

At the Horseshoe Canyon runway, he’s clearing a rut with a metal rake he made himself and left here for volunteers.

He says with the privilege of being able to access these runways, there’s a responsibility to keep them safe. It’s especially needed, he thinks, as the area attracts more pilots — along with other outdoor enthusiasts heading to Southeast Utah.

“Like we’re the mecca for mountain bikers, we’re also the mecca for backcountry flying. And that comes with pluses and minuses. With more people on the river every year there [are] more people in the air as well. And more bikers, more [side by sides], more of everything,” says Hilley.

Today on a windless day during peak tourist season, there didn’t seem to be another plane within eye or earshot.

“If you can get everyone to kind of be respectful of each other and consider their point of view. You know, they’re here to have fun. We’re here to have fun,” says Hilley.

So far he thinks there’s enough space for everyone, whether in the sky or on the ground.