Our Backcountry Trip

Dave and I were on our way back to Seattle from our big camping trip.  We were flying north along I-5, having started the day on the dry lake bed of the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon.  Our route had taken us over Mt. St. Helens, my first time up close; but we were now descending, in order to stay beneath the Seattle Terminal Control Area. We were also talking about how to get over to Crest Airpark, where we had borrowed this straight-leg Cardinal.

Dave was the Pilot Flying and I was the Person Looking Out the Window, possibly also still rummaging in the box of ginger snaps, opened at the wrong end, which had been rattling around in the back seat.  I had taken my camera gear out as we crossed the Columbia, so maybe I was stowing it now.

It was just about here that the engine quit.  And that’s not the first thing that had gone wrong, either.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Here’s the whole story, in case it may provide a lesson about Cockpit Resource Management or something.

Dave had gotten checked out at The Aviators Club so that we could take their venerable Stinson 108 on a camping expedition to central Idaho.  That airplane, famous in its time as the “Flying Station Wagon,” was perfect for our task, offering both 1940s panache and significant horsepower.  When the day came, however, the Stinson was stuck in its hangar, with bits of its engine strewn about.  That’s yet another story — one which, I believe, would be entitled “Charlie’s Honeymoon.”

The search for another available airplane took us to the suburbs, and to Crest and this unfamiliar C-177.  I like Cardinals — they’re lavishly comfortable for their occupants, with big doors and windows and, notably, no wing struts to run into while entering or exiting — or photographing.   Still, they’re not the backcountry pilot’s first choice.

The differences between this plane and the Stinson are due largely to their ages.  The Cardinal was born in a later era, typified by longer, paved runways.  It’s made to fly faster, but speed is no advantage when getting into or out of a short field.  And most obviously, when talking about landing gear, the Cardinal’s third wheel is on the front, ready to trip over tiny obstacles, instead of bouncing along harmlessly behind as in aviation’s Golden Age.

Our trip was in 1993, in the last part of October.  Days were getting shorter but the weather still looked good.  We loaded A Lot More Stuff Than Usual into the back seat and took off for McCall, Idaho, our fuel stop.  I flew this first leg and it must have been fairly routine; but one of the things that Dave had brought was an early version of a GPS receiver.  The FAA forbade its use for navigation, allowing it however for “positional awareness.”  In an early demonstration of Information Age complacency we were now more likely to ask  “are we there yet?” than to take cross-bearings.

At McCall we bought fuel and probably checked the oil.  Dave used the little step ladder to check the filler caps atop the wings and found more fuel than he wanted.  Our tanks were the optional long-range tanks, and the guy had filled them, not just to the lower collars at the end of their necks, but to their very tops.  This gave us an extra eleven gallons of fuel, but also an extra 66 pounds of weight:  in our new bush-pilot mode this was the sort of thing that might concern us.  Dave declared that one wasn’t to top-up long range tanks unless specifically directed. I was unaware of this convention and didn’t remember the conversation with our attendant.  Our fuel load would ultimately be of interest, though for a different reason.

Would such a minor disappointment deter two famously intrepid aviators?  Hardly, when the wilds of central Idaho lay so close at hand.  With 2.3 million acres, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is the largest such roadless area in the U.S. outside of Alaska.  And it has one big advantage over the others — airfields, “grandfathered” where other means of transport are forbidden, allowing access for hunters, fisherfolk and river-runners.  And hikers, such as ourselves.

We had our choice of a number of grass strips, but I think that we focused early on a Forest Service station called Chamberlain.  It was over 4,000 feet long and its altitude a mere 5,800 feet; only a few nearby trees and hills appeared on its list of known hazards.  A creek ran nearby, and a trail that led past a historic ranch.

We landed without incident and located some tie-downs and then a campsite a short trek distant.  I had brought my two tents, so that we might each have one.  Most of my camping had been done as a climber or backpacker, and I tended to fret over both size and weight — I brought a bunch of cook-in-the-package freeze-dried meals.  And the ginger snaps.

Dave had picked up a package of cut-up chicken, which seemed terribly ambitious to me.  And we had bananas — fresh fruit was a wonderful novelty.  We would use Dave’s camp stove, which sat on a tripod that eliminated a lot of the miserable bending over normally associated with camping.

Dave also brought a rifle.  His recent wilderness experience had been in Alaska, and he had a different sense of required equipment, both in the aircraft and on the trail.  His idea of dropping a bear that we might encounter was probably no more unreasonable than my plan to negotiate with it.  We did meet a couple of Forest Rangers, and they seemed somewhat surprised by the sight of the rifle, muzzle-end-down in Dave’s daypack; but they didn’t say anything (as they might have, had they been Park Rangers instead).  I think they may have been the only people we saw while we were there.  We did not see the bear.

Dave, adding layers.

It was a beautiful spot.  I think we camped for a couple of nights.  The dazzlingly clear days, however, meant that the earth was not retaining heat well.  We concluded that, if the trip were going to seem like vacation, we were going to need to spend it somewhere else.  Records later showed low temperatures of about sixteen degrees in this part of Idaho.  And that’s Fahrenheit.  We took another look at our aeronautical chart.

Heading south sounded like a good idea.  One place we knew about from glider-flying lore was the Alvord Desert, in southeastern Oregon.  It offered the same kind of isolation, or more, plus a lower elevation.  We humped our camping gear back to the airplane for our soft-field high-altitude takeoff.

This leg was mine to fly.  We buzzed some of the other airfields in the neighborhood — Cold Meadows, Big Creek — then turned back to McCall and then south.  On our way we checked out some other magnificent, inaccessible scenery, including Owyhee Canyon.

Once we were out of the mountains, our city-slicker Cessna began to look less out-of-place.  Furthermore, our excess fuel now seemed less like a liability and more like an asset.  But along the way we made other troubling discoveries.

First, our vacuum system failed.  To a non-pilot this may sound like a mere “housekeeping” matter, but in fact the plane’s main gyroscopic instruments are driven by air sucked through them.  We were planning to find our way by sight anyway, and we bet on the weather staying clear, so this discovery didn’t faze us.  We probably were legally required to placard the attitude indicator and the directional gyro as “inoperative” before proceeding, but I’ll bet we didn’t.

The Exhaust Gas Temperature gauge failed as well.  Again, the reader might suppose us unlikely to bother anybody with the warmth of our exhaust; but this is the basic instrument used to control fuel mixture.  A carburetor mixes fuel and air by volume, but in burning they combine by mass, so as you climb through thinner air you need less fuel per volume of air.  Failure to lean this mixture wastes fuel and, carried to extreme, reduces power.  At our chosen altitudes we would want to lean the mixture even for takeoff — without the gauge we’d be stuck with starving the engine until it ran rough, and then guessing how much fuel to give back.

And then — and then — somewhere along the trip we realized that the gauge for the right fuel tank was not going to move off its “full” peg.  We guessed that the problem was with the instrument, not the fuel line, but that would make a big difference.  I had heard that, to be certified for this application, a fuel gauge need read accurately at only one point, that being “empty.”  No need to placard this one yet, then.

Still, the airframe was in good shape, and once we got to Oregon, life seemed less harsh.  The landscape was pleasing — snowy mountains, desert hills — and there were no trees to block the view.  Our airfield was a dry lake bed, roughly seven miles by twelve.  We weren’t sure how soft the surface might actually be, so we landed carefully near what you could call its eastern shore.  After making certain that we weren’t sinking in, we set up camp.

We lolled around for a day or so.  We set out on a hike, but ultimately realized that the scenery wasn’t going to change much — we probably should have flown, or at least taxied, to a place nearer the mountains before starting.  Still, we felt like we’d got our money’s worth.

After a while we felt like it was time to go home.  Some aspects of this next part of the trip are hazy.  This would have been Dave’s leg to fly, and I remember that after we took off, with plenty of desert still ahead of us, Dave did a farewell touch-and-go. I picture myself being in the left seat, though that wouldn’t be the usual arrangement.  Maybe I was there in preparation for our return to Crest, where I would look better as Pilot in Command, since it was my name on the rental agreement and Dave was a relative stranger.  At any rate, we handed off the controls a couple times or more.  It was Dave, unfamiliar with the packaging, who made the rookie mistake of opening the box of ginger snaps at the wrong end, so I must have had the stick then.  It seems to me like I was flying when we crossed the Columbia and Dave took over so that I could get my camera out.

Mt Hood, with Mt Jefferson in the distance, from near Mt St Helens.

Inevitably, the closer we got to home, or at least the farther we got from McCall, the more curious we were about our fuel load.  Now the proper way to know how much fuel you have, in flight, is to know how much you started with, and subtract the amount you’ve consumed, based on time and the rate at which it is used.  Two instruments recorded time for us; but, again, fuel flow was hard to know since we were not able to lean the mixture accurately.

The gauge on the left side was going down, but even if we knew for sure how much we had in that tank, we wouldn’t know how much we had in total, because the right side remained a mystery.  One simple, effective way to know exactly, from inside the moving airplane, the contents of a fuel tank, is to run it dry.  We would still have the same quantity of fuel, it would just be all in the left tank, where we could keep an eye on it.  At some point while I was flying, droning along over the desert, I  switched the fuel selector to “Right Only.”  There’s nothing radical about this plan, and it would answer the “gauge vs. fuel line” question. The problem in this particular case was that I don’t remember mentioning it to Dave, who was probably napping at the time.  And I forgot to tell him later, when circumstances changed.  And I stopped thinking about it myself, until the noise quit.

Engine failure is an event that we train for, and practice, and pretend to expect, and are tested on; but those tests usually come at an appointed time and are designed to minimize actual danger.  This was not a drill and it was a bit of a surprise for both of us.  It was a rare chance to see how someone would behave in what he thought was a real emergency.

Now, this was a plane full of glider pilots, but closer to the ground than it had been, and with a glide angle of maybe ten-to-one.  Dave, muttering an imprecation, began to busy himself with the various knobs, switches and dials before him.  Meanwhile, I reached down to the fuel selector handle between the seats and moved it from “Right Only” to “Both.”  The engine caught almost immediately. I like to think that, if the trouble had persisted, one of us would have started looking for a parking spot while the other ran a checklist; but the moral of this story may be that, with a communal approach to flying, some items may fall into the cracks.  “Dave,” I said to the far more experienced pilot, adopting my best flight-instructor voice, hoping to distract from my part in causing this emergency, “always carb heat first.  Maybe it won’t do the trick, but it definitely won’t work later, after the engine’s cooled off.”

The immediate puzzle was solved, but the incident brought the question about our fuel supply to the fore.  We suddenly wished we had more of the stuff, just in case.  Getting more wouldn’t cost us anything, since gas was included in the airplane rental price.

Western Washington was an area familiar to us, and we had no trouble picking out the airport at Toledo — it had been the destination of my very first practice cross-country flight.  The chart indicated that services were available there, so we landed and pulled up to the fuel island.  Turned out, though, that the automated system required some sort of advance subscription.

We were now in kind of a spot.  Regulations forbid taking off without enough fuel to get to your destination and then fly for half an hour afterward, except for “local” flights.  We were stuck with deep tanks and probably nothing that looked like a dipstick.  I had learned that you can roll a sheet of paper into a narrow tube as a substitute, so maybe we did that.  And of course we knew how long we had flown.  In the end we declared ourselves compliant and took off for Crest.  I was eager to get back, and especially keen to mention to Carol that somebody ought to take a look at her airplane.  Maybe the gang hanging around the lounge would enjoy the story.  “There we were . . . ”


  1. There’s a chance that those ginger snaps may actually have been vanilla wafers.
  2. Crest Airpark was renamed for its developer, Norman Grier, after his death in 2017.  That’s Norm on the right in the last picture.
  3.  We never did eat the chicken.  Alex and I eventually threw it out.