From the moment I first engaged with the ever-unfolding energy of the Ozarks, I longed to see them from a certain sweet spot. On land, you can get lost in the subtle rhythms of the hills, valleys and mountainside and almost forget that you are in the middle of the largest American mountain range between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Ten thousand feet in the air, the finer features of the Ozark Mountains are muted and marginalized by the extreme heights that commercial airlines accomplish. Somewhere special among the two–nestled between 1,000 and 10,000 feet–a perspective, pivotal in the holistic appreciation of the Natural State, appears. Here you can best understand the expansive nature of the Ozarks. How they, crafted by time, maintain a most-natural flow over the countryside, generating a variety of life across all their avenues as they conduct a certain state of energy that pushes everything in contact with them forward, deeper into nature.
I've always longed for this perspective, somewhere above the treetops, but below the first stratum of clouds, to soar between the two and ride the waves of air above the complementing rolling mountains. In early July, I was given the opportunity to step into this vision as a result of a shift in legislation and backcountry aviation community development.
In 2012, a change to the Arkansas Recreational Use Statute (the bill that protects landowners from the liability associated with allowing certain recreational activities on their land) was made. The term, "aviation activities" was added to a long list of some of the most enjoyable outdoor activities in Arkansas–fishing, swimming, mountain biking, camping and hunting. With this small change, hundreds of private airstrips through the state became unlocked, and with them, the soaring potential of recreational flying and training throughout the Natural State. Like never before, the world of backcountry Ozark aviation is accessible to everyone, from young professionals like myself, aspiring pilots, and families young and old, across the state. As a state, we are better because of it. The more we deeply appreciate the astounding nature of our surroundings, the better we understand ourselves, our outdoor community, and how to best connect and progress them.
It is a good thing that landowners across the state can now more comfortably allow various levels of permission to their airstrips, because the Ozarks contain some of the greatest potential for recreational flying throughout the country. There is an innate performance value embedded above the Ozark Mountains. Our ranges of rivers and ridges are nestled at relatively low altitude, averaging around 1,500 feet in height. The higher density of the air here reduces the power needed for take off in the higher altitude settings of Colorado, Idaho or Utah. This reduction in power need unlocks another door of opportunity in the variety of aircraft available for recreational use.
Although backcountry flying has traditionally been a recreation pursued in the Western U.S., the compilation of quality conditions for its expansion into the Ozarks has gotten the Central U.S. on the aviation map. The centralized location of the Ozarks and its landing strips provide a huge logistical advantage to cross country pilots, and in one of the most scenic spots to fly over in the Central U.S. Hundreds of acres of deciduous forests, rocky, aged bluffs, and winding rivers paint quite the picture from above. Although these features have long been at the heart of Arkansas' culture and community, backcountry aviation promises lovers of the outdoors a new perspective on them such that they can be appreciated with the fresh eyes included with a new perspective.
Although the Recreational Use Statute only recently passed, many of the best destinations for backcountry aviation have been available to the public for years. Gaston's White River Resort has hosted thousands of aircraft operations over the years and Byrd's Adventure Center off the Mulberry River has tailored their operations to better host incoming pilots. Petit Jean Airport has a campground specifically for fly-ins, and Bentonville Municipal Airport has reinforced their efforts to be a better base for recreational flying by purchasing loaner bicycles to ride into town. If you're looking to get deep into the state's gem, the Buffalo River region, the folks at Buffalo Outdoor Center are also ready to receive fly-ins. Each of these locations provides substantial opportunities for aviation access to outdoor recreation and serve as the backbone of Arkansas' budding recreational flying culture.
As one might have guessed, some effort is required to get up in the air, especially in this most intimate and remote manner. But good news–there are plenty of access points to it and a growing community ready to help you learn along the way. The best approach to this new world is to approach it with a student's mind. Understand that there is a world of information out there with individuals and organizations to help you learn it, and you'll be just fine. Make your mind a sponge and in this case, you will literally ascend into the air.
Planning a backcountry aviation trip currently requires a fair share of "tribal knowledge" to line out what airstrips allow visitors. A local group, Tailwind Aviation Foundation, has been working with individuals throughout the Ozarks to build out a database of allowed landing area, denotatively named "The Airfield Guide". Like many niche, emerging community culture projects, The Airfield Guide is being produced by volunteers as a passion project. The more people that join the cause, the quicker that information will be release in public format.
If you are not currently a pilot, the skills needed to get started in backcountry aviation are the same set of skills needed to earn your sport pilot or the next step up, the private pilot's certificate. After learning to fly, the next proper step is to find a FAA certified flight instructor (CFI) who has some experience with "off-airport" operations. If you are planning on hitting some remote spots with rougher terrain access points, you are most likely going to be flying a tailwheel (also know as conventional gear) aircraft. To fly with these planes youíll need to earn your tailwheel endorsement. As each accreditation adds up, the world becomes more open and accessible.
To earn your sport or private pilot's certificate, the general range for renting a plane, purchasing fuel, and paying an instructor is between $3,500 and $9,000. This will train you to the point where you can legally carry passengers and fly where youíd like but does not allow you to charge for your services as a pilot. To tap into the educational scene, there are freelance instructors and flight schools statewide that base their operations in nearly all of the public airports. To begin, sit down with a CFI and state your personal aviation goals and budget, and outline the time that you can dedicate to studying and flying. If you are ready for this conversation, call your local airport, reference learning to fly, and they will put you in touch with the most active school or instructor.
It's a lot of work on the front end, but good things often are. Once dialed in with certifications and independent with your own aircraft, there are plenty of inexpensive options for a weekend excursion with the friends and/or family. For instance, a family flight from northwest Arkansas to Petit Jean for a three-day stay at the Mather Lodge can be done–complete with food, fuel, aircraft and lodging–for around $500.
Ultimately, a more connected world is an empowered one. The more we can understand and appreciate each other, the better set we are to live in peaceful union with an enlightened understanding of the natural world and its expansive, directing character. You see clearly that all the territorial segregations we created over the centuries, all the invisible lines we have drawn to separate this from that, are without real weight from a few thousand feet in the air. The beauty of the outdoors is all connected, nature is and always will be single whole, and the shared responsibility we have to properly protect, maintain, and development binds us together as community. Backcountry aviation sends an electric spark through the roots of the flourishing Ozark outdoor community, putting the subtle beauty of the Ozarks in full frame and joining together the seemingly separated outdoor settings with a flip of a switch and a push of the propeller.
Backcountry aviation aims to remove the less efficient and/or trouble-filled factors associated with outdoor adventure. For instance, it can eliminate the step of planting a vehicle at the end of a float on a multiple day river excursion. All you would need to do is plan drop-off and pick-up locations and dates with a pilot. You are also given access to campgrounds that might otherwise be dangerous to drive a car through. The multiple financial and prone-to-error factors with car trips–gas, time spent on the road, potential car trouble, food–are all removed in a flash with backcountry aviation. Just as the Internet made the world smaller, moving information around the globe in a flash, backcountry aviation makes the world physically smaller, in a good way, connecting you with diverse individuals, cultures and settings like never before. The potential for personal and social growth is enormous when viewed from this perspective.
Bentonville Municipal Airport
2500 SW Aviation St. | Bentonville, AR 72712
36 20' 44' N , 94 13' 09' W
Bentonville Municipal Airport and Summit Aviation are leading the charge for backcountry aviation in northwest Arkansas. The airport is in the final stages of getting a turf runway established along their paved runway. And in addition to the handful of existing "friendly" grass strips in the area, more public-use airstrips are in the works as well. When a pilot flies into Bentonville, they can grab a loaner bicycle to ride up to the lake (which surrounds the north part of the runway) or ride to downtown and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There are also two very nice courtesy cars for use as well for those not wanting to bike, or in case of poor weather.
Buffalo Outdoor Center
1 Main St, AR-43 | Ponca, AR 72670
buffaloriver.com | 870-861-5514
36 20' 55' N, 92 33' 25' W
Fly in to the Buffalo Outdoor Center on the Upper Buffalo River in Ponca, and land on their 1,300-foot-long airstrip. The BOC's airstrip–lovingly referred to as "Ponca International"–can accommodate STOL-type aircraft (short takeoff and landing) like Cub, Maule and Cessna. Call ahead and let the BOC know youíre on your way, and owner Mike Mills will be there to greet you. Guests who are staying at the BOCówhich includes a number of cabins, a lodge, a gear and grocery store, and loads of outdoor fun from canoeing and fishing to ziplining and hikingócan even make use of a courtesy car to get around the area.
Byrd’s Adventure Center
7037 Cass Oark Rd. | Ozark, AR 72949
byrdsadventurecenter.com | 479-667-4066
35 40' 37' N, 93 43' 59' W
Located on the wild and scenic Mulberry River in Arkansas, Byrd's Adventure Center features two grass runways on 800 private acres surrounded by the Ozark National Forest. A range of on-site lodging options are available, and the Riverfront Restaurant is open seasonally on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Snacks, drinks, ice and handmade sandwiches are available year-round at Byrdís on-site store. Bring gear for non-flying activities along the Mulberry River including fishing, canoeing, trail hikes and campfire cookouts. Aviation fuel is available at the Ozark (7M5) and Clarksville (H35) municipal airports. Ethanol-free fuel for Light Sport Aircraft is available locally at Turner Bend and the Oark General Store. A courtesy vehicle can be arranged.
Gaston’s White River Resort
1777 River Rd. | Lakeview, AR 72642
gastons.com | 870-431-5202
36 20' 55' N, 92 33' 25' W
Located on the White River, Gaston's offers a 3,200-foot-long Bermuda grass airstrip. The airstrip is open to everyone, not just guests of the resort. If you do plan to stay at Gastonís, expect first-class accommodations in the resortís cottages, as well as a delicious lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch at the on-site restaurant. They even have a "You Catch 'Em, We Cook 'Em" option for anyone who finds success in one of the best trout streams in the country. If you're new to trout fishing, you can sign up for Gaston's fly fishing school, or just take it easy on one of the nature trails and enjoy the breathtaking surroundings.
There's a place in the Ozarks where my favorite rivers start. Itís along a stretch of Arkansas Highway 16 between the ridgetop communities of Boston and Fallsville.
Springs flow from this mountain into the valleys of the Buffalo, Big Piney, Mulberry, White, War Eagle, and Kings. I've kayaked these rivers over the years with friends. Today I'm making a solo flight above the headwaters in a light-sport aircraft.
Powered parachute folks have an easier time getting help. Instructors can be found in virtually every state. The same can be said for fixed-wing pilots wishing to fly light-sport aircraft. Sport pilot certificates for two-seat airplanes can be earned at many general aviation flight schools.
My trike hums along this morning as the old settlement of Fallsville passes below. At this altitude the air is crisp and cool, especially for summer. To the north flows the Buffalo River, where my friend Mike Mills of the Buffalo Outdoor Center has a runway above the cliffs of Ponca. To the southeast the town of Deer looks into the valley of Big Piney. Southwest are the rapids of the Mulberry River, where my flight started on the grass airstrip at Byrd's Adventure Center. A few miles northwest the White and Kings begin winding through the Ozarks, taking a history of fishing and backcountry aviation with them. On today's flight Arkansas is like no place on earth.
From the air these carpeted slopes remind me of South America. Sometimes I see Idaho or Colorado among the hilltops and pine-capped cliffs. I've heard other pilots recount similar tales of the Natural State. With the right light even Africa appears along the Arkansas River, a savanna mirage between the Ozarks and Ouachitas.
I got hooked on backcountry flying decades ago while hang gliding from the cliffs of Mt. Nebo and Mt. Magazine. As an affordable means of flying, hang gliders are less expensive than general aviation aircraft. Like paragliders, they meet the FAA definition of ultralight vehicles.
Flight training is necessary for safety, so hang gliding and paragliding instructors are found across the United States. Arkansas hang gliding enthusiasts are capable of flying more than 100 miles with many hours aloft. Not bad for pilots of non-powered flying machines priced in the realm of mountain bikes.
Add a motor to a hang glider and you get a weight-shift control trike. That's what I'm flying today. These are defined as either ultralight vehicles or light-sport aircraft depending on weight, fuel capacity, and number of seats (one vs. two). Add a motor to a paraglider and the result is a powered paraglider or powered parachute. Gyrocopters and light airplanes may also qualify as ultralight vehicles or light-sport aircraft according to the FAA.
Like my old hang gliders, the trike is economical and easy to fly. Because it is has two seats and carries more fuel than an ultralight, it is categorized as a light-sport aircraft and requires flying with a sport pilot certificate. Those years of gliding experience helped, but I had to travel out of state to find additional training and earn a sport pilot certificate.
The Savage Outback is the result of two years of study and collaboration with experienced Alaskan bush pilots. The goal: To produce a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) as close as possible to being the perfect utility airplane for demanding operating conditions. The Outback may also be flown under experimental rules in the USA.
The new airframe design is based on experience in the field with Zlin's previous Savage models that have been successfully used in the most extreme bush-flying activities. The resulting design is light and durable, able to handle more powerful engines, with improvements in safety, payload and performance.
With its category leading power-to-empty weight ratio of 4.74 pounds/hp (7.33 at MTOW [Maximum Takeoff Weight] with 505-pound payload), the ECI Titan-equipped Outback climbs at up to 2,100 feet per minute. Takeoff roll is 60 feet with one pilot, or 81 feet at MTOW.
Like a custom motorcycle, the Savage Bobber is personalized for its owner–the first time this concept has been applied to the world of light aircraft. A Bobber pilot can choose from 15 different colors for the engine, 20 available colors for the welded fuselage, two types of chrome, eight types of high-quality leather, 10 types of luggage holders, three colors of seat belts, two types of seats (including high-quality saddles from the motorcycle industry), 10 different paint schemes, four colors available for the propellers, and two types of original instrument panels (even machined).
The guarantee of the Bobber's reliability comes through sharing, with its older brother the Savage Classic, the wings, the empennage, the landing gear, the controls and the fuselage, which has been narrowed only slightly. The 55-pound lower weight makes it more agile, and the absence of covering on the fuselage makes it particularly resistant to lateral gusts.
Learn more about these and other light aircrafts at sportair.aero.