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FLYING AN "EXPERIMENTAL" AIRCRAFT IN THE WASHINGTON CASCADES
Story and photos by Steve Giordano
HighOnAdventure.com   December 1, 2012

 
 

What would you do if your snowshoe guide said it was a good day to fly? All that great snow fell out of the sky, and some guy wants to take you up? In a teeny weeny little homemade plane?

The snowshoes were in the truck, ready to go, when the guide said to me, "I know you're interested in scenic stuff, but I gotta tell ya there's nothing more scenic than an airplane ride. We can do what you want, but I've got a little plane and I just love to fly...''

At that point I realized this was the brother his sister was telling me about at lunch - builds his own planes and flies his little one from Leavenworth to get to his big one in Wenatchee.

  backyard airplane  
         
 

snow_runway

 

I hardly knew his name, but something reminded me that the best stories and the most fun come from people with passions, and that this was a chance that I wouldn't see again soon.

So we flew. He rolled the plane out of his garage at the edge of town. Earlier in the day he had driven his pickup truck up and down the "runway'' to pack the snow down.

 
         
 

Experimental

So I climbed in the narrow fuselage and buckled up while reading a little sign on the dash:

"PASSENGER WARNING: This aircraft is amateur built and does not comply with the Federal safety regulations for standard aircraft.''

Whoa, I thought. People really fly in this thing? This was definitely a non- standard experience from the start.

The pilot assured me that only three people had ever thrown up in his plane, and they all wanted to go up again. Throwing up is not something I do in the air, so I figured I'd have a better time than most.

 
Experimental aircraft sign
 
         
 

We taxied down and up the snowfield airstrip to make sure all systems were go, then tore off downfield out of his driveway, past his sister's house, past his other sister's Bed & Breakfast, past his parents' ancestral home and up and over the town of Leavenworth on our way to Icicle Canyon and the Peshastin Peaks beyond.

He said we could be as daring as I was comfortable with, like he could fly upriver a few feet off the deck if I wanted... ``Nah,'' I yelled back into his earplugs. ``I need a higher perspective.'' So we ambled and tooled, climbed and turned, seeing the forest burns of last summer and incredible views of mountain tops that seemed to go forever.

 

 

Icycle River aerial  
         
 

Cascades aerial

 

We got up to 8,000 feet (the plane does have instruments), within a few minutes of topping the Peshastins, when we felt the westerlies from the other side starting to bluster us about. With fabric wings, the plane is a floating duck for any wisps that come along.

I chickened out after the second blast, so he turned around and found a wider valley to do some air surfing. We ended up at 9,000 feet just coasting in the waves of air currents. He even let me drive awhile, keeping his hand on the override handle. . .

On the way back to town we flew over a cross country ski trail to see what we could see, and there was the pilot's father leading a group of skiers. Father and son waved at each other. It turns out the father likes nothing better than catching a ride up to Stevens Pass and skiing back down to Leavenworth, a distance of about 30 miles. Leavenworth sure grows adventurous people.

 
         
 

Pilot Robbie Johnson

 

We had a spirited landing and taxied through the family compound and right into the garage. It was a great ride, and if anyone ever asks about snowshoeing vs. flying, I'd take flying anytime. But we did prop the snowshoes in the snow and I took some fine pictures.

The desk lady at my hotel, after I told her the story, said, "That must've been Robbie Johnson. We always had a saying around town, that if you heard a plane coming down it had to be Robbie.''

 
         
 

"He's cracked that thing up a few times,'' said a grumpy man whose wife insisted he give me a ride to town to meet my group for dinner. He was so grumpy, and suspicious, that he didn't introduce me to his cheerleader daughter in the back seat. It was a big basketball night for the high school, and things were tense. . .

The next morning I had breakfast with the Robbie and his father, and mentioned some of the townies' comments. "Yeah,''said the father. "It's come down on its nose a few times - Robbie, remember that time I got my foot tangled in the fuel lever just when we got it in the air?''

 

Pilot Robbie Johnson sign

 
         
 
     
 
 
 
 
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