Wings of Desire

I'd been chasing adventure for years. And then one plane ride changed everything.

August 2007

"44 Juliet, taxi 29 right."

44 Juliet is the call sign of my little rental Cessna 172, and when I hear the words crackle over the NAV/COM radio I take a deep breath. I look at the mountains, at a military helicopter landing, a commercial jet taking off into the lowering sun, two small private planes following each other on final approach. From the control tower I hear all the chatter ("52 Charlie go direct to numbers;" "Jeffco Tower 78 Romeo 10 to the north inbound with Whiskey;" "73 Bravo follow the Cherokee on final"—a lot of lingo that made no sense a few months ago), and I still can't believe I'm going to take this little rattletrap out there.

It wasn't like this where I learned, in the wilds of northern Montana. Most of the traffic was bush pilots, returning from backcountry grass strips where they had to buzz the runway to clear out the elk before they landed. My instructor was a bush pilot named David Hoerner. Hoerner could, if pressed, land his Cessna 185 in the length of two tennis courts. He has tracked more radio-collared grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverines at low altitude through rugged terrain than any man alive. When he flies into the mountains, he always carries a survival pack and a .421 Magnum pistol which, he says, "is mostly for me, you know, 'case I break a leg."