That’s only half the battle when it comes to taking on some of the remote, challenging strips out there. Preparation that starts with airport-specific research, which may be vague or out of date, should also involve asking yourself some hard questions about whether your skills will stand up to the absence of key facts.
Now let’s say you weigh the risks and pronounce the trip a go. Learning from unfortunate experiences of others, another question to ask yourself is: If something does go wrong, can I make sure help will be forthcoming?
Answers to those questions—some better than others—emerged on November 3, 2018, when a backcountry-capable, two-place, 200-horsepower Aviat Husky taildragger flown by a 46-year-old private pilot nosed over on landing at Red Creek airstrip located in a riverside canyon north of Scottsdale, Arizona. Neither the pilot nor his rear-seat passenger was injured.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, a troublesome mix of excessive braking and a soft surface in calm-wind conditions probably conspired to flip the aircraft as it decelerated on rollout on the strip.
Using the closed, uncharted, unmaintained runway is “at your own risk!” and “injury and loss of aircraft are possible.”You won’t find the Red Creek airstrip on a sectional chart, but its quirks and notoriety are well known elsewhere. From online videos that highlight arriving above a spectacular landscape to the strip that’s nestled in a canyon, to web pages posting backcountry expert advice from pilots’ groups, it’s possible to brief the dos and don’ts.
In the case of the 1,200-foot, one-way-in, one-way-out Red Creek airstrip, the Arizona Pilots Association and the Recreational Aviation Foundation caution that using the closed, uncharted, unmaintained runway is “at your own risk!” and “injury and loss of aircraft are possible.” Their list of published hazards is lengthy and ranges from unpredictable winds, surface infirmities, and critical density altitude concerns, to warning that there is “no access by emergency vehicles.”
The capricious winds discourage the practice of “dragging it in”—descending with power at a below-normal glidepath on final approach—as “particularly hazardous.” And environmental considerations also apply: The Verde River, which leads one to the field, is designated as scenic, and eagles nest in the area. Pilots are urged to “leave no trace” of their presence.
All of which added up to this general recommendation from the groups: “Neither the authors of this bulletin, nor the U.S. Forest Service, encourage the use of the Red Creek airstrip! Despite this, some will attempt a visit.”
The November 2018 accident left far more than a trace of human visitation; post-accident photos depicted the inverted Husky sitting on the runway after the occupants were evacuated in a police helicopter.
It was fortunate that the aircraft had slowed enough so that its upset in soft turf caused no injuries. The evacuation was delayed by the pilot’s inability to contact outside help on several frequencies. According to the NTSB, “the pilot estimated it took about 30 minutes to make the successful radio contact” with an air traffic control facility where—again, fortunately—someone was familiar with the place.
Some accidents occur after a sudden change is made to a planned outing, and backfires. According to the pilot’s account included in the official report, similar elements cropped up on the accident flight that had taken off several hours earlier from Scottsdale. Following landings at two other strips, the pilot wrote, he “decided to check Red Creek.”
If you disregard (or miss) advice to stay away from a place, and then run into trouble, it won’t go unnoticed. The NTSB report echoed the resigned tone and cited the cautions of the published safety disclaimer about Red Creek issued two years prior to the accident.