Backcountry Operations: Train For Your “A” Game

For a short-field landing, the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for the private pilot rating require that the applicant  “Maintain manufacturer’s published approach airspeed or in its absence not more than 1.3 Vso, +10/-5 knots with gust factor applied.”

You’re about to land on a 1000-foot backcountry airstrip with an elevation of 3000 feet on an 80-degree F day. 1.3 Vso in your STOL- and VG-equipped Cessna 182 is 45 knots. At that speed you should be able to get down and stopped in 700 feet. There’s a decent margin for error—especially if you’re dealing with a tailwind on a one-way strip or slippery grass.

Applying the private pilot ACS tolerances, you can approach at 55 knots. That 10-knot speed increase is a 20 percent increase in approach speed. You also learned long ago that for every 10 percent increase in approach speed, the landing distance goes up 20 percent. Now you’re facing a 40 percent increase in landing distance—280 feet—extending the total distance to 980 feet. You’ve got a grand total of 20 feet before you run off the end of what passes for a runway. And that’s if you do everything else correctly.

Is plus 10 or minus 5 knots really good enough?

Absolutely not. We agree with Northern Air’s proprietor and backcountry instructor, Dave Parker: “A pilot has to be able to hold airspeed within one or two knots on approach.” 

Combine a need for airspeed control that is well above what a pilot is routinely required to exhibit with runways that slope and have surfaces that are usually uneven and rutted, along with winds wrapping around mountains and stands of trees, and a pilot used to 4000 feet of level pavement is facing a whole new world. 

That means that DIY backcountry training is a good way for a pilot to wind up looking stupid in an NTSB report after going off the end (or side) of a runway on landing—or takeoff—hitting obstructions on final or after liftoff, or developing a high sink rate on final, not counteracting it and snapping the gear off. Yes, these are what we see time after time after time when we read reports of accidents in the backcountry. 

For all of the seemingly laid-back attitude manifested by bush flyers in the airport’s pilots lounge, the ones who go into the serious strips are fanatics about precision. They fly final at 1.3 Vso at the very fastest, and they absolutely nail the speed they’ve selected. They don’t waste any precious runway trying for a feather-light touchdown. Approaching below 1.3 Vso they know that it will probably take a solid, brief shot of power in addition to nearly full back stick to break the descent and flare. They know how much power to apply and when to get rid of it. 

Being able to not only operate your airplane safely and consistently at the low-speed end of its flight envelope and acquire the judgment to do so at short, rough airstrips that are—for the most part—in the mountains, means going to school. 

It means spending actual flight time—not just ground school—getting the gut-churning experience of the shocking absence of takeoff and climb performance as you suddenly understand the effects of density altitude; setting the mixture for takeoff and that awful “why won’t this thing go?” feeling you get when it’s too rich; realizing that the downdraft you’re in exceeds the ability of the airplane to climb and learning how to predict such situations and how to get out of them; learning the effects of the wind and why you probably should park the airplane if the wind is blowing faster than 20 knots at the tops of the mountains; and working takeoff performance problems and then seeing if you can make your airplane do what the book says it can. 

There are backcountry flight schools and instructors throughout the Mountain West. Some use their airplanes, others use yours if it has enough power. Our survey showed they average three to five hours of both ground and flight training and some have “seminars” that include excursions to a number of very cool backcountry ranches or resorts. 

A bit of good news—there’s lots of free stuff to help you prepare for that backcountry flying course. Start with The Backcountry Pilot (, then AOPA’s Mountain Flying interactive course ( and go on to the FAA’s Tips on Mountain Flying (

The strip in the picture is Sulfur Creek Ranch, Idaho (ID74). Its elevation is 5835 feet; the runway is 3300 feet long and slopes uphill to the west so it’s a one-way strip. It’s also one of the “easier” backcountry strips. However, like any backcountry strip, it doesn’t tolerate anything other than your “A” game.