Going-to-the-Sun Road Skyway

by Yasmina Platt
Copyright 2020. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine (online) – December 2020/January 2021 issue

Jackson Glacier, truly the only glacier most people can see from the road while visiting Glacier National Park.

Glacier, Waterton Lakes, Banff, and Jasper National Parks have been on our “to visit” list for a long time. We took advantage of my work travel being cancelled, the fact that I always work remote, and that we felt RV traveling would be safe (even with COVID-19), since we would be bringing our wheels and home with us, to go on a road trip to Glacier National Park, even though the Canadian parks were off limit (the border was closed due to the pandemic). It was a great decision!

Kalispell, Montana, was our “basecamp” for a month (late July to late August)! It was a very central location and the weather could not have been better. We got to enjoy all of our outdoor hobbies and travel the area well by foot, floats, wheels, and wings. The latter one is what I’m here to talk about.

We have not pulled the trigger on towing a helicopter, an ultralight, a powered paraglider, or a Cub (with the wings folded) behind our motorhome, so for now, I rent an aircraft in the areas we visit. (And, yes, in case you’re wondering, there are people pulling those aircraft behind RVs. That’s a discussion for another time! I’m extremely jealous!)

Glacier Park International Airport (KGPI).

It was frustrating to learn that only one of the area flight schools allows landings on unpaved surfaces and that’s “Backcountry Flying Experience.” However, unfortunately for me and fortunately for them, they were already fully booked for our timeframe when I called them. So, I flew twice with “Glacier Jet Center” and CFI Logan Hutchin out of Glacier Park International Airport (KGPI). One of the flights was exclusively focused around Glacier National Park and that’s what I’m covering here. It was a fantastic flight, especially since the east side of the park (where the majority of the glaciers are) was closed due to the virus and flying offered the only chance to see it in 2020.

Some time ago, I wrote a blog about “flying to and over the national parks” (https://airtrails.weebly.com/other/flying-to-national-parks). The advice in that piece is very much still applicable and what I lived by.

Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake.

While Glacier National Park does not have its own airport, the area has multiple options and I checked out some of them:

Whitefish (58S), open only during the summer, has a turf runway and is owned by the Montana Aeronautics Division. One of the great things about this little airport is that they offer free bicycles to pilots flying in and downtown is only a short ride away.

The commercial service airport, Glacier Park International Airport (KGPI), which I mentioned earlier. A rental car would be required to do any sort of sightseeing from it.

Kalispell City Airport (S27), its General Aviation (GA) sibling, is a short walk/bike ride from downtown.

The Recreational Aviation Foundation’s (RAF) Ryan Field (2MT1), which is actually in West Glacier, so the west entrance to Glacier NP is only a short hike away. But you’ll have to receive permission from them prior to landing. Permission is also needed if accessing it via ground (there is a locked gate at the end of Ryan Road). I struggle with this. “The RAF is dedicated to preserving existing airstrips and actually creating new public-use recreational airstrips throughout the United States” (https://theraf.org/about/). Yet, 2MT1’s private-use status seems to contradict their mission. I understand it’s important (even paramount) for pilots to receive and read the safety briefing; however, the airfield does not need to be listed as private-use for that to happen. As their RAF Airfield Owners Guide (https://theraf.org/education-safety/#raf-guide-for-the-private-airfield-owner) says, they could list it as “Conditional Use” and add that pilots must first read the safety briefing prior to visiting or they could even list it as public-use since Montana amended their Recreational Use Statute (RUS) to specifically include “noncommercial flying of aircraft in relation to private land.”

We started out overflying 2MT1. As mentioned, the flight school I rented from does not allow landings at non-paved runways, but I wanted to see what it looked like. It is important to note that, as the sun rose from the east in the early morning, the big mountains created a shadow on said airfield, making it a bit hard to find coming from the west, especially with a little bit of smoke in the air.

From there, we flew all over Glacier National Park. While I had planned a route, we mostly applied dead reckoning once flying. I used a combination of the aviation sectional and the aerial to design this course as it was obviously easier to pinpoint the sights I wanted to see on the aerial map. I made sure though that I wasn’t violating anything and complying with all airspace rules and the U.S./Canada border by looking at the aviation sectional.

As far as altitude… Montana isn’t Colorado. The tops of the peaks are much friendlier. One can fly over most of them without a problem.

Oh, the scenery! It was beautiful and the pictures speak for themselves. You can see some more on www.airtrails.weebly.com.

Time to visit some more of our national landmarks – Americas Treasures! Fly safe and fly often!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yasmina Platt has been with the international airport planning and development consulting firm AECOM since 2016. She also writes an aviation travel blog called “Air Trails” (www.airtrails.weebly.com), in addition to articles on pilot destinations for Midwest Flyer Magazine. Pilots can locate articles Yasmina has written by going to www.MidwestFlyer.com and typing in her name in the search box.

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