When talking about landings in remote places among the wilderness and mountainous areas, the first place that comes to mind is Alaska, motherland of the contemporary bush flying.
But if we start looking back in history, we can notice how the first examples of backcountry landings over high terrain actually started during the First World War as a way to supply the troops on the alpine front.
Aviation was still in its early days and very little was known about flying principles and human performance; and this probably was the cause of a very inefficient learning approach. Pilots were sent out with their planes to accomplish missions that were probably feasible or probably not. Performance reduction of both the aircraft and the crew when climbing at higher altitudes was all to be discovered. This caused the loss of thousands of aviators during the years of the Great War. But in that period, they were able to establish the foundations for modern flying, including bush and mountain flying techniques.
Due to the lack of knowledge and the rush given by the war, pilots’ training was not extensive and so they often found themselves in potentially deadly conditions, especially when flying among the Alps. Turbulence and rotors near mountain walls, updrafts and downdraft due to insolation, wind strength increased by the Venturi effect in the valleys, icing even when not flying into clouds, hypoxia and hypothermia when flying too high; all these exacerbated by planes whose designs didn’t suit the purpose of landing on mountain tops or glaciers very well.
But when nations have a need, big investments will come. So in the decades that followed, aviation got refined and became more efficient everyday; from the first wood and cloth Capronis of the ‘20s; to the Fieseler 156 (the first STOL airplane worthy of this noun developed by Germany) in the ‘30s and to the J-3 known everywhere.
Aviation got so big that almost every place that had a need to be reached by plane had its own runway. Places unreachable with conventional aircrafts were now provided with helicopters. Because of this, the development of backcountry aircrafts got interrupted, leaving the Piper Cub design being the standard for all the bush planes that came after.
Nowadays, we have many different brands building planes that are designed to land on short unpaved surfaces but these modern machines present very little differences from their yellow grandad. As above mentioned, this lack of innovation is mainly due to the absence of a justified reason to get something better. Every bush pilot would like to land on a distance of only one foot, but there is no real need for this if not personal satisfaction.
But maybe it is exactly this search for enjoyment while flying that has caused the design of stol planes not to change anymore.
Because everyone who performs this type of flying dreams to feel the same emotions as a historical explorer when he first touched down on uncivilized territories, to land in places someone else has never been before, to have only the strict necessary equipment onboard to be as close and as raw to the aircraft as possible, like in the old days.
Maybe this is why aviation in the new century still hasn’t radically changed because we all are so attached to old beautiful designs. We are still too attached to the vintage machines that defined this era, because we still prefer a roaring piston engine rather than a hissing jet or a mute battery.
This is what also contributed for me to start bush flying here in northern Italy. I have been intrigued by planes since I was a kid. And being able to combine them with the mountains that surround my home is simply a dream come true.
I fly a 1990 Husky, equipped with an old style, almost steampunk cockpit. I would never trade it for something modern with an all glass display or any digital gauge, because that would take away all the magic that surrounds an aircraft like this. Combining it with the places that hosted the First World War just enhances the whole experience.
Actual fun fact: My mountain flying instructor broke the landing gear and prop of another Husky on the landing rollout because hidden by tall grass crossing the strip was a trench that had been dug in 1915. Not the kind of experience I was talking about but surely it’s something unique.