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Guest post: Journey to Yellowstone Part 1 & 2

PART 1

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USA Independence Day 2015

So this is where I found myself, perched on a barstool at some random watering hole on the corner of Main St, USA. Exhaustion was slowly beginning to overtake, all thanks to a lengthy day of exploring behind me. But the day wasn’t over. I was wishfully thinking that a cold pint of local Montana craft beer might ignite one final spark of motivation; I still had to review over 500 miles of Wyoming and Montana airspace charts for tomorrow’s journey. We’d better grab something to eat. Home-style Montana pulled beef was on the menu. Words could not even begin to describe the flavour.

By ‘we’, I mean me and Chris, an old friend crazy enough to come on this adventure with me. It was the 4th of July, and we were killing time by killing our hunger, waiting for darkness so the firework show could begin.

Being Canadian, I’ve never experienced an American Independence Day celebration before. And in this small West Montana town, the 4th of July is kind of a big deal.

There we were, two tourists among hundreds, maybe even thousands of others, out to take-in the holiday celebrations. The entire town was bustling with excitement; alive with the sounds of twangy western music, continuously accented by a torrent of amateur firework displays, popping, flashing and echoing through the hills from all directions.

At this point in time, in the midst of all this commotion, neither of us were really thinking about how we actually ended up here – in a small mountain town on the edge of the largest volcano on earth, camping in the woods beside an airport runway, over 500 miles away from home, and over a mile higher in elevation … all by the means of a little 4-seat piston-engine airplane from the 1970’s with less horsepower than your average Honda sedan.

But really, though … how on earth did we end up here?

Well, that requires a little bit of explaining.

The following is a photographic essay of a journey piloting a Cessna 172 across hundreds of miles of treacherous topography, from the Plains of Canada to the ‘Crown of the Continent’ at Yellowstone, USA and back again. Told with the intent to offer some insight and possibly lend a little bit of inspiration, this 5-day excursion is documented and explained from the ground to the cockpit. Follow along as we travel above beautiful yet dangerous terrain, from the confines of a small aluminum cage with a propeller bolted on the front of it…

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Pilot, Photographer, Editor, Writer, & Producer: Jamie Fitzel
Assistant Flight Photography: Chris Maffenbeier

Contents & Navigation (of posts to follow)

Part 1 – Preparations & Planning
Part 2 – Setting Off – [YQR to GTF] Part 3 – Flying The Montana Backcountry – [GTF to WYS] Part 4 – Flying Yellowstone – [WYS to WYS] Part 5 – Touring Yellowstone
Part 6 – Flying The Wyoming Backcountry – [WYS to COD to YQR]

Preparations and Planning – An Introduction

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Jamie, a private pilot from Regina,Saskatchewan, Canada.
I’ll state the obvious, just to get it out of the way – I love aviation. Big airplanes. Small airplanes. Airports. Air traffic control. Powerful engines. Fancy electronics. The pure romance of flight, floating in the winds. The artistic form and craft of the machines that achieve flight. It all fascinates me to no end. It’s like a magical world unto itself, where everything revolves around humans teleporting ourselves up to lala land above, in the sky.

And I just think that it’s the most interesting thing ever.

That’s me, caught in the web of aviation, flying Cessna’s as a student commercial pilot building flight hours, and helping fix airplanes as an apprentice aircraft maintenance engineer, learning this machinery to a microscopic form. I’m a bit of a knowledge addict, so I’m pretty much trying to learn absolutely everything there is to learn along the way. And not just about airplanes, either. Over the years I’ve developed a bit of a creative side that, as I’m slowly finding out, has an inextinguishable element of learning to fulfill. Writing music, coding software, composing photographs. And now, writing. It’s a never-ending plague of discovery, and it all endlessly fascinates me.

I’m the type to find inspiration from anything interesting and challenging, and in the spring and summer of 2015 I found myself planning an extraordinary journey: A chance to build precious flight hours by piloting a little single-engine Cessna on an outstanding journey through the Rocky Mountains of West Montana and Wyoming.

To call this a life-changing experience would be an understatement; from planning, through to the many elements of execution, an operation of this magnitude required the summoning of every ounce of experience I could muster. No small feat, and certainly something that would be ill-advised to the under-prepared. Long hours strapped in an airplane, navigating turbulent and unfamiliar airspace. Overflying rugged and dangerous terrain, operating out of airports miles above anything I’ve ever done before. Pushing the aircraft to the absolute ends if it’s performance envelopes; this surely was to be nothing short of the greatest learning experience … ever.

With an experience of this magnitude, I simply could not refuse the opportunity to document and share the incredible journey that was about to unfold …

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At the office.

With words, a lens, a pair of wings, and maybe a little bit of luck, allow me to bring you along up in the sky for the 1,300-mile ride as I fly a small single-engine Cessna from Saskatchewan, Canada, across the vastness of Montana and up the American Rockies to Yellowstone National Park with my trusty friend Chris in the right seat. Written entirely from a pilot’s perspective, I work through the journey beginning to end, and explain the many challenges associated with pulling it all off successfully. Throughout, I’ve tried my best to ensure that the readers who don’t speak ‘pilot’ can understand the magnitudes of flying jibberish. But for the aviators, fear not: the story is saturated with your daily dose of gritty technical details across the multitudes of flight characteristics. From weather and environmental conditions, to fuel burns and terrain details, all recalled in an effort to highlight the intricacies of the many factors at play, and how I was able to navigate the narrowing corridors of forgiveness in these tight flight envelopes.

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Waiting for sundown.

It Started Like This

I’ve been a licensed pilot for a number of years, but I’m also a student pilot working towards the advanced pilot licenses and ratings, presently building flight hours to hit the magical 200-hour piloting requirement to achieve a Commercial Pilot License.

As would be expected at this point in my pilot life, most of my flying time is VFR (visual flight rules, flying by visual reference to the ground at all times), but I’ve also logged a handful of training hours in real and simulated instrument conditions (IFR, flying only by reference to the instruments in the cockpit), and further, I’ve recorded a handful of multi-engine training time, flying bigger, faster and more complex aircraft.

There’s a plethora of certain ‘time’ requirements I need to get the group of flying licenses and ratings to pursue a career in the air, but to break it down simply: I needed to focus my time on building a lot of cross-country time as pilot-in-command (not flying with an instructor). It’s a requirement for the IFR portion of the training to have 50 hours of this time, which I did not have.

And that folks, is precisely where the origins of this trip began. After a short time of researching to uncover the best way I could build these hours, the decision was to plan an ambitious camping trip, to a place I had never been!

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 Trip Preparations

Right from the beginning I knew that I didn’t want to go alone. If I was going to be spending many hours flying hundreds of miles, I wanted a passenger to ride along, keep me company and ultimately share the overall experience with. My long-time friend Chris volunteered to be the lucky victim! He had flown with me on occasions before, so he was certainly comfortable with the experience of a small airplane. He had a good idea what he was about to get himself into, even if neither of us could fully anticipate the magnitude of the trip that lay ahead.

Though he’s not a pilot, Chris is experienced enough with the in-flight atmosphere to know what needs to happen, and knows how he can assist to make my life easier in the cockpit. Turns out, he would ultimately end up assuming the default position of co-pilot for the journey. Everything from jotting down notes and shooting with the camera, to holding the iPad navigation maps, his help surely payed-off dividends, allowing me to concentrate on what was important: to get us there safely.

Planning began early, almost three months ahead of the departure date. I started with calculating how much time I needed to get, which turned out to be over 20 hours of cross-country flight time. This allowed me to engage in a wide search radius of places to scour as possible destinations; 10-hours of flying in each direction is over 1000 miles distance! During this initial planning, I undoubtedly found many places that I’d love to experience by air, while further being able to experience the wilderness from the comfort of a tent and a sleeping bag. Most importantly, I had to figure how many days I had to work with, and then, systematically narrow the search radius by how much distance I could realistically cover within that time-frame.

Further, this all had to be done with the consideration for possible weather delays; in a small airplane, I’m almost entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature. I’m not an IFR pilot yet. Even if I was, I certainly wasn’t going to be shooting instrument approaches from 13,000 feet between mountains in a naturally-aspirated piston Cessna. I had arranged the aircraft rental to be 7 days, so with that in mind, I worked out that the trip would be a total of 5 days. With this, I set a target of 1,500 nautical miles total flight distance. This would afford me the ability to plan for flying an average of 300nm, or 3-hours, of flying each day. As well, it offered the flexibility to accommodate poor weather, with a couple days of margin. I could cover some serious ground without fatiguing myself by flying excessively-long days. Time to bring on the maps and find suitable routes.

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Cue: Montana

Our friendly neighbours south of the 49th … Montana has everything an adventuring pilot would want. Mountains, amazing scenery, fantastic camping spots, and entirely unfamiliar airspace speckled with airports in every directions.

I had flown into the USA before, to Minot, ND; so navigating into American airspace isn’t completely ‘foreign’ to me. But, I’ve never gone it alone, only with an experienced pilot in the seat beside me. Additionally, I had never been to West Montana, by air or ground.

Furthermore, I had never flown an airplane in high elevations; that alone would ensure the ultimate learning experience, as now I would have to learn how to slug an airplane through thin mountain air. This point alone brought on an entire facet of study during the flight planning stages, months ahead of time. From studying everything on the subject of mountain flying, to reviewing the airplane performance charts over and over to ensure the aircraft was even capable of completing this heavy task. Even high-altitude training in the aircraft was part of the learning curve; stalls, slow-flight, steep turns with & without power; I did anything I could possibly think of to familiarize myself with the handling characteristics of the airframe in the thinning air molecules, something that I’d never had the need to do before.

Back to the flight planning. It didn’t take me long after beginning to scour the maps before I spotted the town of West Yellowstone in the far southwest corner of Montana, near the borders of Wyoming and Idaho. Nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains along the continental divide, the town offers the closest airport toYellowstone National Park, with the added bonus of a long 8,000ft paved runway.

You’ll learn further along in this essay why those 8,000 feet of runway are going to be necessary. Further study revealed the convenience of a pilot’s campground located immediately adjacent to the tarmac at WYS airport. This all sounded too good to be true! Yellowstone and it’s geological wonders had always fascinated my inner-science nerd, and everything I was looking for in an adventure was right here in one spot.

I did a bit of further exploring in ForeFlight, an Aviation GPS & flight planning app that operates on my iPad and iPhone, which utilizes either my cell-phone’s on-board GPS (which is surprisingly accurate in most phases of flight). Better yet, ForeFlight allows me to tether via Bluetooth to my external aviation-grade GPS unit, a Garmin GLO receiver.

I say ‘aviation-grade’ GPS because, unlike mobile phones or tablets, these Garmin GPS devices establish connections with a minimum of 3 satellite fixes in either the GPS or GLONASS constellations, and offers even tighter precision approach capabilities with the laser-accuracy of WAAS (wide area augmentation system), which simply put, is an extremely redundant high-precision GPS system used to steer jet airliners down to the runways through the fog and low ceilings, as low as 250ft.

But, other than this highly-precise GPS device link, ForeFlight is also the ultimate flight bag for a journey like this, as it organizes every map, chart, approach plate, airport diagram, winds aloft, current and forecasted weather, and more, with only the data specific to the routing in my flight plan, keeping the presentation very clean and organized.

A few moments of plotting the route and I revealed a flight distance of about 550 nautical miles to get in to Yellowstone, factoring the distances of snaking routes through the mountain valleys. And, it further allowed me to easily discover other possible routes in, and all the information regarding alternate airports along the way. With all the various possibilities analyzed, it was resolved that a round-trip would be about 11-hours of flying. This would afford me some additional time while being there to explore the region, and maybe take a side-trip further into Wyoming or Idaho. Who knows what exactly we would be accomplishing, or where exactly we even would be going, but from West Yellowstone as a target, the options were unique and endless.

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Destination determined: We’re going to Yellowstone!

Being someone who genuinely loves being outdoors, I was easily convinced that this amazing geological region would not disappoint as a place of sheer beauty. Plus, this surely would be an excellent place to learn a bit about photography. I wasn’t a pro, but that wasn’t the point. I was doing this to learn. To fly. To explore, from a unique perspective.

The journey to begins – PART 2

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Into Montana

Planning a summer vacation is typically an easy task: pick a destination, figure out where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and go.

But when you answer ‘how to get there’ with: ‘piloting a small single-engine naturally aspirated Cessna, into high-elevation airports through mountainous terrain, in hot summer air, into unfamiliar foreign airspace’ … congratulations! You’ve just opened up an entire rabbit hole of trip planning and flight planning. But trust me, the result is worth every single grueling minute!

Where can I clear customs? How can I contact foreign air traffic controllers? What’s the weather going to be like? Where can I even get fuel? What types of airspace will I transition? Will the airplane have the performance I need? Does my routing account for suitable alternates?

These are the type of questions that a voyage like this brings to the planning regiment; a far cry from my usual Sunday cruise around the local airport.
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The VFR Sectional Chart at Yellowstone Airport.

Flight #1 – Welcome To America

Depart: CYQR Regina Int’l   ///   Arrive: KGTF Great Falls Int’l
via: VLN, YYN, HVR   ///   Distance: 349nm
AirTime: 3h32 (planned), 3h20 (actual)
Fuel On Board: 50gal   ///   Fuel Burn: 36.3gal (actual)

CYQR Wx ///
Wind: 140@6 / Vis: 3 in Smoke / Scat @ 30000 / Temp: 15C / Dew: 1C / Press: 29.97”

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The flight plan as filed, southwest into Montana.

From the METAR above (hourly weather observation), any pilot will be quick to note that the sky conditions were barely VFR (visual flight rules), with the visibility a marginal 3-miles in a dense smoke blanketing the entire region that’s floated in from forest fires hundreds of miles away.

Worse, the wind is light, offering no means to scatter the density.

It was immediately apparent the visibility wasn’t going to get any better this morning, so an important go/no-go decision was required before the entire journey could begin. I did a thorough survey of the forecast and current weather reports at my destination, including all the waypoints en route, and noticed a good sign: the smoke was to gradually thin as I veered further west, offering much better visibility.

Excellent news, but before making the final decision, I studied the weather reports and forecasts over and over, checking the visible satellite imagery with current hourly-data and discovering a corridor of thinning smoke west-northwest of Regina. Subsequently, the plan would be to depart from Regina via this corridor while climbing direct to 8,500ft, an altitude I anticipated would offer the highest possible visibility above the smoke layers. Otherwise, it was a textbook-perfect summer morning across the Prairies.

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Post-start checks: Complete.

I acknowledged the challenges that lay ahead of departing into barely-VFR conditions and concluded the flight was, essentially, the flight I’ve been waiting to fly for my entire piloting life: a VFR flight that required IFR-levels of navigation … and with that all in-mind, the decision was made to go!

I determined before stepping into the airplane my camera would have to stay in the bag for this flight. I was doing this adventure to gain a flying experience I could learn from, and I got exactly what I wished for on this very first flight. Therefore, no distractions in the cockpit. With what was about to become a true test of my skills on the instruments, I filed my VFR flight plan with NavCanada Flight Services, and paused for a moment while walking out to the airplane to give the blue yonder above one final evaluation. Nothing but an endless blue haze. Passports in hand, and a packed Cessna 172 at my control, I turned the key and set fire to the 4-cylinder Lycoming.

Post-start and run-up: complete. All systems green and normal.

Taxi, take-off runway 13 with a right turn-out direct to 8,500 feet. My eyes glued to the instruments for the first 30-consecutive minutes, while I steer to track the navigation beacons westerly. After trimming-out for cruise at 8,500ft, my anticipations of the visibility held relatively true as I flew west through the eerie upper-most reaches of the smoke layers: it was scattered, and subsequently much less dense up here. Even through all the thick of it below me, I was still able to maintain visual reference to the ground below at all times, but horizontal visibility was nothing but heavily obscured horizons in all directions.

It was a truly surreal view as I graced the wispy floating cat tails of smoke as it layered in various densities and floated in the breeze with rolling contours unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Add to that a low-hanging early-morning sun reflecting the layers of smoke in alien form, illuminating colours of fiery oranges to soft greys and browns; truly a flying experience indefinitely committed to memory.

Furthering southwest, the flight continues uneventfully through the ever-thinning smoke beyond Swift Current (CYYN), at which point I begin preparations for crossing the border into the USA, now about 45minutes ahead. There’s a labyrinth of procedures to execute before crossing the border in an airplane; everything from pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight procedures, all which must be strictly adhered to. I recommend researching these procedures well ahead of time, as some applications take time to process, and the procedures themselves are always subject to change.

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Crossing the border.

For this particular crossing, I need to get within 30 miles of the international border before I’d be within range to contact FAA Air Traffic Control. Given the route of my flight, I had over 100nm between myself and the VHF radio station when I would be nearing the international border, and flying at an altitude only 5000ft above ground didn’t give me the reception I needed to make the call.

On frequency, I could hear all the IFR chatter from the airliners 30,000 above, but I had to climb to over 10,500ft in an effort to extend my VHF radio range. Through a couple failed calls, ongoing alternations of silence and static, my call was finally answered by a crackly voice that rippled of American accent.

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Navigation and en-route communication frequencies at Great Falls.

Through all the radio static and heavily accented words, I managed to decipher my aircraft ident, and over the course of a few more broken transmissions, I received my FAA transponder code, finally becoming radar identified by the controllers at Salt Lake Center.

I proceed to request ‘flight following’ from the controller while resuming along at 110mph through the increasingly-turbulent Northern Montana air for another 90nm en route to Great Falls. ‘Flight following’ is a service offered by air traffic control to VFR traffic, and is certainly handy in unfamiliar airspace; I’ll get handed-off between air traffic control units as I cross many various airspace zones, and further, ATC would make me aware of any reported traffic in my area.

Twenty-odd miles out from GTF, as the smoke density begins to thin, I am passed-off from Salt Lake Center to Great Falls Approach, and get cleared for a straight-in approach runway 21. I dial-in the approach on the nav1 radio, and then have a listen to the ATIS (AutomatedTerminal Information System) on com2 for a weather update.

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Wind: Calm / Vis > 10m / Sky: Clear / Temp: 31C / Dew: 8C /Press: 29.96” / Check Density Altitude /

Check density altitude.

Three little words that would prove to be synonymous with the entire flight ops for the duration of the trip. Today, the density altitude at GTF computed to equal over 6,500ft. That’s almost double the airport elevation.

And this means only one thing to a pilot: expect terrible airplane performance. More about what density altitudes mean later …

On the approach, the visibility was greater than 10 miles, but even so, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of a mountain range beyond Great Falls. Being within 30 miles of the foothills, I surely thought l’d be able to see some silhouetted mountains, but negative. The smoke was still too dense to offer any mountain vistas, even from a few thousand feet up. Carrying-on with the approach from the northeast, I was virtually lined up for runway 21 by default, from the direction I had entered the zone.

I had the city in-sight about nine miles out, the runway in-sight shortly there-after, and began pre-landing checks while waiting to pickup the glide-slope for a guided steer down to the runway. Time to bring the power back & trim for the (very) bumpy approach over the rolling terrain around Great Falls. I get handed over to Great Falls Tower from the Approach controller, and receive my landing clearance 5miles back. This was the last landing clearance I would receive for the next 4 days.

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Final approach into Great Falls, MT.

I touchdown, slow to a taxi speed, exit the runway, and run through the short post-landing checklist. The friendly ground controller at Great Falls closed my flight plan and offered me directions to the customs building. By this time, a mild aroma of scorched brake pads grace the cabin, freshly melted from slowing the airplane down from 70mph on a sizzling asphalt runway. It was HOT!

Shutdown at the customs building, I grab the passports and aircraft documents, open the windows (not the doors), and wait. As pilot-in-command, it’s solely my responsibility to ensure that nobody exits the aircraft until we are instructed to do so by a Border Officer.

I make the flight’s entry into the Journey Log while we wait, and in a few short, hot, sweaty minutes, a CBP Officer comes out to meet us. She instructs us to follow her into the building, so we grab ours and the airplane’s documents, and off into the air conditioned office we go.

A few declarations later, and we’re cleared. Fantastic.

Welcome to America!

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Welcome to America!

The Airplane – The Little 172 That Could

1974 Cessna 172M  ///
Powerplant: Lycoming O-360-A4M, 180 horsepower  ///
Avionics: Garmin GNS430, S-Tec55 Auto-Pilot, IFR   ///
Fuel: 58gal extended-range (40g mains, 18g aux)  ///

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One of the most important considerations of mountain flying is aircraft performance. In the higher elevations of mountainous terrain, the airplane will not nearly perform the way it would in the thick dense air at lower elevations near sea level.

Variables such as ever-decreasing air density and 30-degree summer heat start pushing you up to the top of the aircraft performance charts. Then, factor-in a heavy aircraft gross weight, and you start realizing that even some of the particular performance charts in your airplane’s POH (Pilot Operating Handbook) don’t even account for conditions that you’ll be operating in … it’s now up to you to extrapolate the incomplete data.

Can the airplane do everything that you’re going to need it to do? How long will the take-off run be at temperature ‘x’ with load ‘y’? What fuel burn can I expect to the top-of-climb?

Even in a small and light C172, the runway might not be long enough to get airborne. I anticipated, and subsequently encountered, take-off rolls of 2,200ft or more, with an additional 1,500ft in ground-effect to clear a 50ft obstacle. That’s a cumulative 3,700ft take-off distance to a safe altitude, clear of ground obstacles. A Boeing 737 can get airborne in less distance then that on a cold winter day, and many runways in the backcountry may not afford that gracious of a distance. One must be cautiously understanding of all these variables, and plan to accommodate your aircraft, not yourself, before you attempt to go.

For many small piston-engine aircraft, the parameters aren’t conductive with a safe flight. Don’t push the envelope!

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The airplane that would be carrying me on this adventure is a seemingly plain-old Cessna 172M built in 1974, but, it’s always what’s inside that counts; underneath her skin is what truly sets this airplane apart

For starters, under the cowl lay a relatively fresh Lycoming O-360 engine, complete with a free-flowing exhaust system upgrade; and with like-new compressions, the engine still delivers virtually all of it’s advertised 180 horses directly to the fixed-blade propeller. This is a 30hp increase from your standard Lycoming O-320 engine normally found in C172’s, and makes a world of performance difference. All this extra power also offers the airplane a max gross-weight increase, boasting a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of2,550 lbs, up from 2,300 lbs of your standard C172.

With those extra 250 lbs of useful load, the airplane additionally features an auxiliary fuel tank holding 18 gallons of AvGas, bringing my total usable fuel capacity up to 58 useable gallons of 100LL. That’s enough fuel to plan 5.25 hours (~525nm) including a 30-minute reserve, calculated using the engine’s 10 gal/hour burn-rate in standard atmosphere conditions.

It was definitely an ‘extended range’ airplane. I don’t know too many people who have, or would, sit in a little Cessna for longer than 5 consecutive hours! As it turned out, the longest leg I would have to plan on this adventure would be 404nm, and at a planned 4.1 hours of fuel burn, this would afford me over 1.6 hours of fuel reserves. It certainly was an ‘ER’ airplane, at least for it’s type.

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If you’re going to be flying a Cessna for longer than 4-straight hours, you hopefully have a few goodies on the instrument panel to help guide you along, or at minimum, ease your workload. Features in the cockpit of this 172 included an S-Tec 2-axis auto-pilot (pitch/roll), coupled to a Garmin GNS430 nav/com/GPS unit. There’s also a secondary Bendix/King nav/com radio, a Bendix/King ADF receiver, and a 3M StormScope for lightning detection. Combine this with Garmin GLO GPS unit, and I was presented with a total of 2 GPS navigation sources (on 3 discrete display units), 2 VHF navigation sources, and 1 LW navigation source, totalling 5 discrete systems for navigation.

With all these navigational systems, a dual pitot/static system, and an alternate vacuum source, the aircraft is also fully equipped for IFR navigation. Having an instrument panel stacked with all those devices, it should be no trouble finding the way!

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In Balance

One final, yet critically important item to consider regarding aircraft performance: weight and balance.

Sure, this little 172 was loaded with excellent performance, but it still would not be a 4-place airplane at the intended elevations I would be operating from. Instead, it was a robust 2-place airplane, loaded-up with almost 150 pounds of camping gear, baggage, cameras, laptops, and whatever else we needed to survive. This all was spread among 3 discrete loading stations throughout the small aircraft: rear seats, baggage 1, and rear baggage.

It was important to pack light for obvious reasons, so food, drink and various supplies would have to be procured along the way on the ground; we even had to plan ‘in-flight consumables’ moderately. But, the weight of the baggage in the airplane wasn’t my concern, we would be within load limits; it was the volume of space the baggage would consume that worried me.

A hundred-and-fifty pounds of camping gear takes up a lot of space, something a C172 is very limited with. So, the real challenge was to evenly distribute this weight through the airplane, and also to ensure the load wouldn’t shift; a real problem in bumpy air.

To throw in more complexities to the loading issue, one of my three fuel tanks occupies baggage area 1. There’s still room left-over for plenty of baggage here, but not if there’s fuel in the tank. This was troublesome, because on 2 legs of the route I would need to utilize some, if not all, of the tank for fuel leaving me less than 10 lbs of useable baggage capacity.

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A conservatively figured ‘fully loaded’ weight & balance envelope for the aircraft.

This loading problem would be solved by placing the largest but lightest items in the baggage compartment. Pillows, sleeping bags, and blankets; they’re all light, and they’re all bulky allowing me to efficiently utilize the space.

In the end, I still had to creatively utilize the remaining space for baggage, to store goods in every possible cubic inch of space, and make sure that it’s not going to move around.

It’s important, even if you’re initially within your aircraft’s weight and balance envelopes, to try to keep the heaviest items up front, leaving the lighter items for the rear-most baggage stations. This may seem obvious, but without actually knowing the specific weight of each piece of baggage, you can very easily load the airplane in an unexpected, unbalanced configuration.

Take accurate stock of your load, weigh everything and note it down; if you continually unpack and re-pack the airplane you might end up re-arranging the load,shifting your initial weight & balance calculations. Be accurate. We all know that a out-of-balance rearward CG could make the aircraft impossible to control out of a stall, whereas a forward CG offers a much safer configuration to operate the aircraft in, and generally makes the airplane much easier and efficient to fly.

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Packing To Survive

A final note on the topic of packing the airplane. One word: Survival.

One simply can not venture into mountainous and forested terrain without heavy consideration as to what’s onboard the aircraft for survival. Pilots must always plan for the worst; you never know what, or when, something unpredictable will happen to you in flight, forcing you to land immediately. The worst attitude to have is the complacency to believe that it can’t happen to you, because it can. Airplanes don’t discriminate, neither does Mother Nature, and you’re at the mercy of both any time you’re flying.

Anything from fast-deteriorating weather to a sudden unruly vibration from the engine can quickly escalate to test your pilot skills in an instant. Worse, in remote regions, there’s a really good possibility that you won’t be able to get out a mayday call; there are a lot of radio ‘dead-zones’ behind mountains.

This means that nobody will be even aware that you’re missing for hours, possibly days, let alone the additional time for the channels of SAR to get dispatched & organized for a search. Additionally, if you happen to end up in a densely forested area, you could be extremely difficult to locate. In the cockpit, navigational awareness is something that should always be on your mind when flying over heavy terrain, or any remote regions.

Here, you’re seriously reduced in your options for a forced landing. Wide-open spaces of flat ground are few and far between, so always be on the look, scanning the horizon in every direction to be consciously aware of possible forced-landing sites. Knowing your exact location is also very important, as you may have only seconds to get out a mayday call, and accurate information in these critical seconds can make the difference between a fast rescue, or a dangerous backwoods survival experience. Squawk ident 7700 immediately.

Finally, make absolutely certain that if you survive the forced landing, you can survive the post-landing, and, can be promptly found by SAR (Search and Rescue). You could be stuck in the remote wilderness for days, worse, you or your passengers could be seriously hurt. It’s up to you to arm yourself with survival gear, but more importantly, arm yourself with the knowledge to use it.

It’s a craft seemingly lost within the technicalities of our modern society, but the vital knowledge of basic survival should be a skill every pilot strives to perfect. You can’t Google ‘survival’ here. With the remote passages that my flight route would transit on this journey, the crucial contents that we had in the survival kit itself could ultimately determine our fate should the unthinkable arise.

As pilots, our flying machines offer us and our passengers the freedom to fly into spectacular areas of natural beauty from a perspective unseen by the gravity-restrained eye, but these areas of vast wilderness present many unthinkable challenges if you happen to get caught-up and stranded.

Whatever you do, don’t let the dangers deter you; you can confidently prepare yourself to handle these situations and react appropriately.  But never under-estimate the possibilities, and always have a plan for anything, at any time!

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Stay tuned! Flying The Montana Backcountry and Flying Yellowstone are coming up in Parts 3 & 4!
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 Jamie Fitzel is a Regina based pilot, photographer and writer. Learn more on his site and follow him along on Twitter and Instagram.
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