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Idaho Pioneer - Frank Hill


Santa Rosa, CA
To All:

On November 7, 2006, the flying community and the Idaho backcountry flying community in particular, lost a true pioneer and a gentlemen, Frank Hill. Frank was based out of my hometown, Grangeville, Idaho, and was truly a backcountry legend. I had the privilege of flying into the backcountry with Frank a number of times prior to getting my own license. What he made look easy and common place, now puckers me up. I went to high school with his son, Greg, who unfortunately was killed in an airplane crash coming out of Moose Creek. The following story was printed in the Idaho County Free Press on December 19, 2006, but was originally published in Idaho Magazine in 2004:

Frank Hill -- The quiet hero

Date Published to Web: 12/19/2006

(Former Idaho County resident Thomas Frank Hill died on Nov. 7, 2006. The following feature on one of this region's more unique characters first ran in 2004 in Idaho Magazine.)
Frank Hill was a quiet hero, a legend among his peers, John Wayne in a pilot seat. For 45 years Frank Hill flew in and out of the rugged back country of Idaho with nary a scratch. Now retired, this modest man agreed to share his memories, and brought out his scrap books, full of pictures of Idaho's famous backcountry and its residents.
He got his pilot license while in high school in American Falls, flying A3s and Cubs. During World War II, he flew a DC-4 for the Navy Air Transport in the Pacific. Afterward he flew in Wallowa County out of Enterprise for five years. There he met and married his wife, JoAnn. They moved to Grangeville in 1952 where he flew for the Grangeville Air Service. They bought out the air service in 1962 and took over airport management. There was plenty of work for a pilot willing and able to brave the unusual conditions of backcountry flying.
The Frank Church River-of-No-Return Wilderness is protected by federal law as a "motorless" area, accessible only by foot, horse or boat. Aircraft are the only exception, and are allowed access to the 26 airstrips currently maintained within the wilderness. Eight are maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, four belong to the state of Idaho, and 14 are private airstrips associated with long-standing ranches.
These rugged crags and steep valleys, with their inherent wind currents and other hazards demand the highest level of skill from a back country pilot. He said of backcountry flying, "With no phones, no roads, and nobody to help you but yourself, there is no margin for error."
"It is a common practice," he added, "to buzz an airstrip once or twice for elk, or moose before attempting to land. Add the effects of rain, snow, or ice and the result is a "white-knuckle" kind of landing that is full of surprises."
He showed me pictures of some of the airstrips from his personal "Fly Idaho" manual. On one of them, a tall hogback ridge parallels the approach, so that the strip is not even visible until you turn to make your final approach.
A few more are situated on the bench of land within a bend in the river. The airstrip spans the bend in such a manner that the plane touches down immediately after clearing the first loop of river, and it must stop before it meets the river again as it bends back around the bar forming its second loop.
One runway uses an uphill slope to slow your plane's momentum before it reaches a hillside. Takeoff is executed by using the downhill slope to gain enough speed to go airborne. Of the backcountry airstrips, he simply said, "Runways were pretty tough, and pretty short. Several times we had to fix them before we could get out."
I asked Hill how he navigated through all of that unmarked territory.
"In the old days we had no GPS," he replied, "So I would fly by compass and my watch more than anything. I got to where I would recognize the country, the canyon, the river or the mountain. I flew Cessna 180s, 206s, Super Cubs and used a Cessna 172 for pilot training.
Operating out of Grangeville, Hill provided many kinds of service within and around the Frank Church Wilderness, including pilot instruction and training. Because he is soft-spoken and modest, his proud wife, JoAnn, fills in the details when he leaves them off.
JoAnn is also a licensed pilot, and once competed in the Powder Puff Derby earning a sixth-place. She is very proud of his unblemished record of 45 years without an accident. He wouldn't mention it, so JoAnn told me he was awarded the Idaho State Aeronautics Division One-Million-Mile Award for at least seven years in a row during the time the award was in existence.
Hill did a lot of work for the Forest Service during his career, and was given a contract to supply the ranger stations. In addition, he became one of only three carded single-engine drop pilots in the world for the Forest Service. He frequently flew in smoke jumpers to fight fires in the Clearwater, Selway Bitterroot and Payette national forests. Grangeville Air Service also flew over the forests looking out for fires during the summer after the old lookouts were put out of service.
In the fall, during hunting season, he flew many eager hunters in to Moose Creek with their gear in his Cessna 206. On a prearranged date, he would return to fly out weary hunters and, hopefully, their meat -- quartered and bagged for the journey.
One of his few mishaps occurred at Moose Creek. During a landing, a wing clipped a tree and broke the leading edge.
"Emil, the ranger there at that time, was a tough ol' guy," he said. "He went out and got one of those thin, straight lodge pole pines and cleaned it up. Then he jammed it right in the leading edge of the wing and pushed it all the way in. It wasn't very fancy, but it held long enough for us to fly out."
Fishermen, too, would seek Hill's services to take them to the "big ones" swimming silently in the pools of the Salmon and Selway rivers. Rainbow and Cutthroat trout abound in the lakes and streams of the wilderness, and he flew the fishermen in as close as the nearest airstrip.
When winter covered the wilderness in a mantle of white, Hill was needed to bring in food and supplies, and occasionally bring someone out for medical care. Frances Zaunmiller, who lived near Campbell's Ferry, wrote in her book how much she looked forward to his weekly visit, saying she would go out to the airstrip in her snowshoes and tramp it down for his arrival. JoAnn said of Frances, "She was very goodhearted and always welcomed everybody with a cup of very strong coffee."
Another celebrated resident along the Salmon River was Sylvan Ambrose Hart -- locally known as Buckskin Billy. Once a college student and engineer, at the age of 26 he went into the Frank Church and became a hermit. His place was along Five Mile Bar, just up the Salmon River from Frances. The Hills knew him well during his lifetime and flew mail and supplies to him many times.
In 1947 Hills were given a contract to deliver mail by air.
"We were the first airplane to deliver mail into the Snake River and the Salmon River" she said. Near the confluence of those two rivers, Hill delivered mail to the Spencer Ranch and the Heckmans. "In the winter, he landed right through their barnyard on skis," she added. "We'd bring mail, and groceries. This was in the 70s and 80s, and in some places in the backcountry that is the way is still is."
Travel on the ground in the winter was nearly impossible for man or beast. Ranchers with livestock wintering in the snow-filled valleys frequently called upon him to carry bales of feed aloft to be dropped where the animals could get to it. He remembers particularly the Gilmore Ranch at John's Creek, where the rancher filled his winter days by making violins.
"I dropped lots of hay for him," he said.
"Winter flying had its advantages," he said. "The snow smoothed the bumps on the airstrip, and the air was nice and cold, and heavy for good lift. But it could change on you pretty fast. You had to watch your weather. I've been weathered in a few times, and I've been stuck in the snow. I had to wait out the weather a few times, but I never had any bad things happen. I've been pretty lucky."
Spring brings out the "floaters." Many trips were made by him carrying rafts, oars, dutch ovens, groceries and beer. Having delivered the supplies to Indian Creek or Mackay Bar, he would return with excited passengers who were about to embark on a bumpy ride down a white-water river.
Hill became a legend among his fellow pilots by standing up to the Forest Service during a long struggle over the legitimacy of the Wilson Bar airstrip. In the 1950s it was a popular airstrip used by charter pilots who supplied hunting camps in the area. However, after Mackay Bar constructed its excellent strip two miles downstream, Wilson Bar saw less use and even less maintenance. Trees and shrubs began to grow on and obstruct the old runway. In 1992 the Forest Service implemented a closure of the airstrip to comply with the wilderness act, claiming it was hazardous and not maintained.
The pilot community began a campaign to save the little airstrip, and filed a petition to the Forest Service to retract this "illegal" closure. In spite of their efforts, in 1993 the Forest Service issued their final position -- the closure was signed and was in effect. The pilots reasoned that if they could prove the airstrip is safe and is maintained, why couldn't the Forest Service also reopen it?
Those who know Hill as the quiet, reserved man that he is, will be surprised by the next development. The issue came to a head in the fall of 1993 when a resolute Hill flew into Wilson Bar with his chain saw, cleared the runway of intrusive hazards, and flew out. Now it was maintained and it certainly had a record of usage.
Outraged Forest Service representatives issued citations to Hill for landing on a closed airstrip, and for cutting 17 trees in a protected wilderness. But a legal decision within the Forest Service backed up the pilots' position that the little airstrip was closed illegally. The standoff was ended in 1995 when an agreement was reached with the Division of Aeronautics to reopen the airstrip. Hill, in his quiet way, became a legend to his fellow pilots.
Galen Hanselman who wrote "Fly Idaho" wrote of Hill, "He spent a lifetime flying the Idaho backcountry, and did what few backcountry pilots accomplish: He retired alive. To me, this speaks volumes about his flying ability and clear-headedness."
Linda J. Henderson is an outdoor writer who lives in Lewiston.

Condolences to all in the Hill family and the Grangeville flying community.

Frank Hill

Frank was a great pilot and good friend. In my opinion he was legendary among the pilots I call Idaho backcountry's "2nd generation", although he spanned both the first and third generations also.
My checkout into the Whitewater Ranch from him was oral only (he had flown with me before)--"Don't hit any trees!"
He was an Idaho original. Thanks for your post.

f.e. potts

There was a thread earlier I can't find. Was it confirmed that Mr. Potts passed? If so, does anyone have a link to the obit?
As mentioned it the article, Frank was very familiar with the "Gilmore Ranch". It's located about 25 miles SE of Grangeville. I was lucky enough to know the outfitters who guided elk hunters on the Gilmore starting in the 1930's. Hal Miller was a very good friend of mine who was one of the guides there for many years. Hal introduced me to Frank in the middle '80's. I'd been fortunate enough to get to ride (horseback) in there several times. Hal had told me of Frank's airlifts and supply runs in there. When I acquired my 185 in the late 80's my goal was to land at the "Gilmore". I hired Frank to take me in, in his Supercub, to show me his method of approach and landing. The place we landed was about a 20% sideslope with a 30% upgrade. It had been raining for several days and the meadow was pretty muddy. On touch down, we were all over the place but survived. I told Frank that I thought I'd wait for drier conditions before I tried it in the 185. His quote was " By GOD kid, you might make a mountain pilot yet"!! I landed there many times in later years and had the privilege of taking Hal in for his last time in '99. Hal passed away a year later.
Frank was and will always be a legend in Idaho aviation.

Although I have flown over Gilmore a number of times, I have not had the privilege of actually being on the ground, whether by air or horse.

I do know the new outfitters of the Gilmore very well, Frank and Terri Schmitz of the Whitebird Summit Lodge on the Lockey U Ranch. They are really great people and good hunters. The Lodge is an excellent place to stay if you are in the Grangeville area.

If you are ever going to be in the area and plan to fly into the Gilmore, I would love to see how it is done.

I flew into Moose Creek and Shearer many times with Frank. I went to school with his kids. We used to sneak out to the Grangeville Airport (Idaho County Airport) to watch the Ford Trimotor and TBM air tankers. Often the airport police (JoAnn) would catch us and send us pack'in! I intently watched Frank and his two pilots (John Moberly and Louie Wimer) fly, and resolved to one day be a pilot. I remember that Frank always fired up a menthol cigarette shortly after take-off. He always treated every seasonal Forest Service employee with respect. The aircraft I primarily flew in were the Cessna 180...N1818 and the Cessna 206....N522U. He was a great friend....I have lost 3 of my 4 children, so certainly understand the impact of Frank and JoAnn losing Greg.