I had one of the best flights of my life last week. While on a trip to Ontario Oregon, We, the crew of a corporate jet, Mike McFadden and I, were gracicially hosted for an afternoon of real mountain flying by our friend, and operator at Ontario Municipal Airport (KONO), Tom Frazier.
Tom and his son showed us some real seat-of-the-pants flying by launching their two Piper Super Cubs into some of the most beautiful areas ever to be seen. We took off in the early afternoon when winds and thermals make flying pretty darn challenging, but Tom and his son Ty demonstrated their years of mountain flying experience by making it look easy as they tried to teach a couple of flatlanders that flying is way more than coupled instrument approaches.
As we headed for Reds Wallowa Horse Ranch Airport, we skimmed low over snow covered peaks and spooked a bunch of elk who headed downhill while showing only a bit of concern for the airplanes invading their domain. Unexpected, and of particular interest were the scores of active small gold mines that dotted the mountainsides. Apparently, small-scale mining is still done by pick and shovel by some folks that you probably wouldn’t want to tangle with.
Approaching Red’s, Tom explained some of the variables that need to be considered prior to landing. Winds, runway alignment, thermals, ditches, water, rocks, trees, and escape procedures must all be taken into account to assure a safe valley landing. The strip at Red’s is pretty long at over 3000 feet, but the approach through the trees has to be right on the money and the winds can really be tricky during mid-day. The wind sock was actually making 360s on our approach. Big tundra tires make for a cushy but bouncy ride on landing, really absorbing the rough bumps and rocks before we parked and began exploration by foot.
Red’s Horse Ranch has been around quite a while with a couple of the cabins near a hundred years old. It use to only be accessible by horse, but airplanes were added into the transportation mix in modern times. The Ranch was used as a Dude Ranch, and Hunting Lodge, and at its hay day could accommodate 40 guests. As tough as it seems to fly into, airplanes as large as DC3s have used the field transporting the likes of John Wayne and others of note on hunting excursions.
The ranch had a number of owners over its long history, but the real shock was learning that our hosts owned it prior to having it purchased [stolen] by the USFS, which explains how much Tom and Ty knew about the area and each and every building. Ty grew up (and learned mountain flying from his dad) working around the ranch. Theirs is truly a sad story of government overreach that took a vibrant historical flying ranch from prosperity and beauty, to rot and decay. (The Forest Service doesn’t have enough money for upkeep.)
To their credit and sense of honor, Tom and his family keep the airport open to the public by maintaining and mowing to prevent the Forest Service from closing it. It seems that the Service has the authority, and the will to close previously public accessible USFS airports unless they are maintained (by someone else other than the USFS). Enough of that, and on to the beauty.
With the day growing short, we departed (see the video) from Red’s to the airstrip for the Minam River Lodge. This flight lasts about one minute since the lodge airstrip is just across the Minam River. The Minam River Lodge has recently been purchased and is undergoing a complete rebuild of cabins and lodge. It shares the same enchanting valley with Red’s but will have accommodations for guests in fairly modern (they flush) new cabins. Planned opening is 2017 and I plan on flying in for a week of dude ranching as soon as possible. You just can’t quite imagine, and photos do not do justice to the beauty of this valley.
We departed Minam River Lodge and headed south over ridges and valleys to intercept and follow the Snake River back towards Ontario. At 50 feet above the water (ok, maybe 5 feet), this is a rockin bit of flying with steep cliffs, draws, wild horses, and a very few fishing boats to view.
Like I said at the beginning. This was a fantastic day! Thanks to Tom and Ty for showing us Wisconsinites’ a part of the world that is only accessible by air.