“IF NOT US . . . WHO?” Forming the RAF

Many pilots over the years have faced the “Where will I fly to today?” conundrum. There are of course many options, the most common being the “$100 Dollar Hamburger” (Kudos to John Pruner.) A quick flight to a relatively close airfield for lunch is a great way to get some time in the air and justify your habit. Sometimes however, that trip for burgers simply won’t scratch the itch. I am prone to starting one of those burger runs only to discover that, once airborne, the day is so wonderful and the sky so beckoning, I wish I could simply hang in the air just a bit longer; perhaps find a destination just a bit more remote or exotic. Ever had that feeling; like shooting a few landings at the home strip as the sun sets simply isn’t good enough?

Apparently plenty of pilots have had that feeling. I seem to be the only one who has not taken note of the growth of a very interesting, grass roots organization for pilots that has been actively creating pilot destinations and quietly gaining both members and momentum.

As the story goes, some fifteen years ago a half dozen or so Montana pilots were enjoying an beautiful evening on a bush strip in the mountains when the conversation shifted to the loss of recreational airstrips around the country. That would be those strips located in out of the way places where folks might like to visit and enjoy camping, hiking, hunting, skiing, fishing or any of many other outdoor recreational pursuits. Many recreational strips around the country were in sad condition, abandoned, or being closed. Rather than accept what seemed inevitable, this core group of aviation enthusiasts vowed to meet the challenge of protecting these back country strips so that recreational pilots and nature lovers like themselves would continue to have a “special place” to fly to and some special friends to work with on a very special cause. The Recreational Aviation Foundation (http://www.theraf.org) grew out of that idea and its stated mission is to “Preserve, maintain, and create airstrips for recreational access.” From that original core of just a half dozen bush pilots the membership has grown to over 10,000 pilots and enthusiasts, and has made a positive impact on many recreational strips around the country. The RAF must be doing something right!

While no one can argue that the RAF influence has benefited adventurous pilots across the country, there is often a side benefit to the general public that goes overlooked. Many of the outback strips created or maintained by the RAF can be useful as emergency landing sites for aircraft in distress. These bush strips often times also provide access to remote sections of the country for law enforcement or fire control, the BLM or Department of Natural Resources, Federal agencies and the National Parks system. While fly-in camping in a secluded valley in the mountains is rewarding and exciting, no one can deny that a bush strip can prove to be invaluable in the event that search and rescue services are needed in an otherwise remote area to locate a lost, injured, or stranded hunter or hiker.

From the initial start up the RAF has been an all-volunteer organization. With the thought in mind that “everyone has something to offer,” the organization has morphed into a well-informed, well organized association of caring intelligent folks who just happen to love airplanes, love the outdoors, and pursue a very well defined goal. I won’t go into the whole “who’s who at HQ” here. I would urge you to visit the RAF site for that. (http://theraf.org) But, I will say that the organization is guided by a well suited gaggle of leaders intent on keeping the group focused and on course. From Chairman John McKenna Jr. and President Bill McGlynn, the knowledge and enthusiasm continues to drizzle down through the RAF directors and liaisons all the way down the chain and into the general membership and volunteers.

This is not an organization of wild and crazy bush pilots that delight in scarring the backcountry landscape for the sake of landing somewhere in the middle of nowhere. These folks are focused on the big picture and through member resources, (remember; everyone has something to offer?) are making sure that the impact on the environment is taken into consideration. They probably know more about the use of recreational land by aviators than any other organization in the country and willingly provide that information to all interested parties. The RAF has some really bright folks on an Environmental and Science Advisory Committee working on their behalf. While they do adhere to the “pack it in; pack it out” rule, their involvement runs much deeper than that. Members operate under a well thought out “code of conduct” (http://www.theraf.org/content/raf-code-conduct) designed to make adventure flying rewarding, safe, and sustainable. Their work maintains, creates, or rehabs  recreational airstrips that exist in remote areas where non-aviators also take advantage of the great outdoors. The “leave no trace” axiom of courtesy to others is therefore practiced at every opportunity.

Since the RAF is involved in many public use air strips it would seem only logical that the membership include members operating in the geographic areas where the RAF may wish to become involved in preserving, maintaining or creating a recreational strip. The mission could not be completed without the input and understanding of policies put in place by governing bodies throughout the US. To that end, a network of state liaisons has been created. These volunteer point men and women work directly with those governing entities having authority over the terra firma beneath any proposed RAF airstrip project. Through the communications, leg work, sweat, and follow through of these liaisons many new or reclaimed landing strips have been successfully completed.

Since there is a degree of difficulty involved in landing on any private or recreational air strip the RAF is also committed to safety. To that end they have an entire section of their web site dedicated to education and safety. Numerous learning resources are listed there to assist pilots in understanding bush techniques and tricks that they may never have been exposed to. The goal is to have pilots enjoy the strips they oversee but stay safe while doing it. Not everyone was born to land on a minimal strip. Education is the key to safety; and more is better. In order to prepare pilots for what they may find, an observation of the general condition of many of its “bushier” strips is also included on their web site along with all the normally needed information like airport layout, frequencies, services (or the lack thereof), hazards and standard procedures. See an example here: http://theraf.org/content/north-fox-island-safety-briefing-0

To date, the RAF has created, rehabilitated, enhanced, or is involved with maintenance on about 40 recreational strips. While a good number of these strips are located in the Wild West, I was pleased to find that two or three of them are located in my home state of Michigan and there are plenty of others scattered around the eastern or south eastern portion of the country. My friend and fellow pilot Brad Frederick is the Michigan liaison for the RAF and has been instrumental in bringing both North Fox Island and The Two Hearted River strips here in Michigan under RAF oversight since he joined the organization. He also happens to be the owner of the Prickett and Grooms (6Y9) airfield in Sidnaw, Michigan which is also another RAF back country strip. (See: http://6y9.sidnaw.org)

So, what does a back country strip look like? I took Brad Frederick up on his invitation to visit the Two Hearted River strip on its grand re-opening this past July 7, 2018. I arrived a bit early (To those of you wondering, no, I did not fly my Mooney in there!) and was surprised to see that several aircraft had already flown into the strip. The early arrivals included what you would expect to find, Cubs and 170’s, 180’s, 185’s. I was pleased to find however, that later arrivals included a 160 HP Cherokee and a 172. These arrived despite the fact that the strip is 2200’ feet long and the safety briefing carries this notation: “This airstrips surface is rough and undulating, minimum safe landing airspeed is necessary, be prepared for more than one touchdown and landing per attempt. Throw in some serious winds and crosswinds and your piloting skills will be tested.”  This seems to prove the theory that if a pilot is prepared, knows the airplane and trusts in past experiences and knowledge, a lot of different types of GA aircraft could make use of this strip. I met a fair number of folks at this strip and was really impressed with the fact that they all seemed to be involved in the process of opening a strip, rather than simply attending the opener. They were the same type of pilots I find nearly everywhere I fly, enthusiastic, friendly, happy to help, and glad to meet you.

The Two Hearted River strip is sure to get ample use since it is located at the mouth of the Two Hearted River where it crosses a rock strewn beach and dumps into Michigan’s Lake Superior. The views in the area are simply gorgeous wherever you look and there is a State Forest Campground located a short walk away where the river enters the “Big Lake.”  Rainbow Lodge is right up on the bluff with this strip and the owners there have multiple cabins to rent during the summer season. Visit: (www.rainbowlodgemi.com) or you may call 906-658-3388 or 906-658-3357.

Also recently completed in Michigan is the North Fox Island strip. This strip is even more remote than the Two Hearted River strip! As the name denotes, this grass strip cuts through the middle of North Fox Island. The island is midway between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsula on the Lake Michigan side of the “Big Mac” bridge, about 20 Miles SW of Beaver Island. Beaver is the closest airport with facilities. North Fox is a true get away with rustic camping, a porta-john and a fire ring for sharing with other intrepid flyers. The strip is 3000’ but is hemmed in by trees at both ends so the thresholds are displace 800’ to 1000’. Bring your own tie-downs and expect to hear the loudest silence you have heard since your last engine failure! The island is surrounded by Lake Michigan in the middle of nowhere. Very dark, and very quiet at night. Mosquitoes are a given, you have been warned!

The one common thread weaving its way through the RAF strips is that they must have recreational possibilities before the RAF will become involved. The one common thread weaving its way through the RAF membership is that they simply love what they are doing. Gee, how long has it been since you were involved in some aviation project that was done just for the pure joy of it?

The glimpse of access to back country strips I have provided here is simply the tip of the iceberg. There are many more out back opportunities awaiting you courtesy of the Recreational Aviation Foundation. If you are passionate about preserving fun flying and fun flying destinations, the RAF invites you to join them, support them, or simply follow their progress. They make it fun to join, there are no dues. Simply support them however you wish. RAF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit so any contribution you do make is tax deductible. Sign up is quick and easy and their monthly newsletter will keep you abreast of projects you may wish to get involved in and places you’d like to fly to. You will find some of the nicest “airplane people” you ever met at an RAF “work party!”

For more information on back country flying visit: www.theraf.org or www.airfield.guide




Tom Speerstra

Author: Tom Speerstra

Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and the two dogs Hess and Pappy.