The incredible, beautiful world brought to us in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS2020) allows for some pretty realistic backcountry experiences. I decided to test these great spots firsthand while being fairly close to them myself on a recent working trip to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (KBZN) in Montana.
I stayed at the Yellowstone Valley Lodge, which sits along the Yellowstone River. Even though I haven’t landed an airplane at the hotel property in real life, I did in the sim. In the world of bush flying, there are no rules, so any place where you can safely land a short takeoff and landing (STOL) type of aircraft becomes an airport.
The aircraft is a Kitfox STOL model version “low ’n’ slow,” available in the MSFS Marketplace within the sim (or directly from the developers here) that makes landing off-road, off-airport, or anywhere very easy.
For this MSFS2020 flying adventure, you’ll first need to purchase the Idaho mountain bush pilot strips available on the MSFS Marketplace right within the sim itself. Get Soldier Bar USFS Airport (85U), Mahoney Creek USFS Airport (0U3), and Thomas Creek Airport (2U8) to get you started. The Mountain Flying Bible provides some insight to the real-life locations, and some low-resolution photos and videos of the real places. They install seamlessly, and it takes only a few minutes on a good internet connection. I would strongly recommend grabbing some freeware bush planes widely available on websites such as www.flightsim.to or some commercially produced ones. And as always, consider FSRealistic add-on for sounds and head motions, and a great set of Honeycomb controls flight sim starter set, available at Sporty’s Pilot Shop.
I flew from my hotel in Montana in real time about an hour or so southwest to 85U, Soldier Bar. The terrain is rugged, and the day I had chosen was filled with frequent updrafts and downdrafts, with a nausea-inducing thermal or two thrown in for good measure.
The rugged backcountry of Idaho has some of the most challenging flying anywhere on earth. This inhospitable place has an unusually large number of unimproved, dirt or grass strips. The route we will use is 85U to 0U3 to 2U8. All close by but by no means easy.
Starting from 85U was surreal. I could virtually smell a campfire as well as the nearby pine trees in the refreshing air. With so many bush planes to choose from, I first tried using the freeware “Bagalu” Cessna 172 bush version with large-diameter tires—a great enhancement to the default 172 series, with added features, such as bush kits, and paint jobs. This version is boosted with a 210 hp engine, which makes all the difference in the world.
The realism of these hand-decorated fields was almost overwhelming. This is the most challenging, off-road style airport I have ever witnessed. I am not sure how in real life they can come and go from here. The trees are tight and the runway narrow. No room for error, plus it slopes way downhill, all while curving! This is only a logging road used for a makeshift runway it seemed.
Starting off with mixture leaned out a bit for altitude, with the brakes held, flaps 20 for soft field technique—and fingers crossed. This is not an ordinary runway as it is really a curving dirt road with a hard turn to the left as you plummet downhill with about only a wingspan distance between huge pines. There’s zero room for error. Crosswinds are not allowed.
I barely made it out of the forest, scraping paint off a wingtip. I decided to attempt an immediate landing back at the field. This was a tight canyon to turn, and my first attempt was too close and high for landing. Back around the tight canyon with some heavy sink rates on terrain down flows. It was nerve wracking with some steep banks, lots of power required and at one time. I added too much flap and had the stall horn peeping. Between the thermals, turbulence and tight canyon walls, I really felt I was taking some risks.
The result of being an amateur, fool, and attempting this in something with huge rubber tires. I bounced myself right over. After this, I gave up.
Next up, the “WBsim” late model but all steam gauge Cessna 172 ($20 from Just Flight). This again takes the default version and turns it into a machine where wear and tear, proper technique, and normal care must be employed. I really enjoyed this one, although I dinged up the wheel pants in the making of this story. Luckily, a no-pants version is a keystroke away.
On the final second attempt to Soldier Bar, it was too high. Almost 2,000 fpm down, and look at this crazy, bent, narrow ‘road’ entangled within the trees.
Closer in, I realize I’ll not be able to land on the beginning as it all slopes downhill. Several attempts all failed because of my poor technique to the narrowing runway, trees, and slope. I couldn’t slow down enough and descend fast enough simultaneously. Then the go-around was met with rapid negative VSI off the end. The local wind-flow pattern can be dangerous. On about eight attempts, I made it in on one landing only, uphill, only hitting trees slightly—powering up to the campsite. Time to move on.
Up next was the run down to 0U3 Mahoney Creek. You’ll get two airports included in this pack. Right below it is Cougar Ranch in the river bottom, several hundred feet down.
Next up is the Savage Grravel STOL, a marvelous freeware aircraft from “got friends.” This thing cruises fast and lands slow. This may actually be my preferred bush plane for its ease and performance ability. Again, giant bouncy tires.
Pro tip: Don’t use the brakes like that.
Along the way to Mahoney, it was irresistible to take the Grravel to some bald-headed mountain peaks. With almost helicopter-like landing speed, you can truly take this anywhere. Any mountain top could suffice as an airport along the way.
On the downwind abeam the field at U03 Mahoney, checking out the layout and terrain. There’s another detailed field right next to it lower down the canyon called Cougar Ranch.
Kitfox Speedster Series Bush Wheel (marketplace too)—Circling high overhead Mahoney and seeing it’s nice and flat on that ridge. But the other dirt strip (Cougar Ranch), seen below in this picture, is still down deep in the canyon.
Mahoney was easy compared to all the others. Bald, no trees, just short and windy.
Trying the Cessna once again, down the valley river floor, Cougar Ranch as seen on short final. Swinging left and right down the river, abeam the walls, shadows, thermals, updraft and downdrafts—WOW. No time to even take in the beauty of it all! Short and flanked by trees, this was definitely a par 3 (about three attempts to get it right for me and land safely).
In close finally, Cougar Ranch was green and lush. Mahoney up above was drier and browner looking than this. Holding the speed on the edge of MCA, because of the altitude, temps, and airflow over terrain and trees. Stall horn made an occasional peeping. This was a fun place to try a touch and go, and climb back up around on the edge of a stall, into landing at Mahoney. These could be the closest two individual airports on earth.
Finally for the grand finale, I enjoyed flying a classic Stearman biplane from Carendo (www.carenado.com). Another marvel of historic beauty, sounds, and realistic cockpit instrumentation, etc.
Bush flying is well done in MSFS2020 as my photos show. This is really just the beginning as more and more folks are making customized bush scenery, either for free or as payware via the sim marketplace. There seems to be no performance hit by getting this stuff, and it blends seamlessly with the default scenery nearby.
Until now, I had the thought that small backwoods strips didn’t need to have add-on scenery as it was good enough. Well, that’s no longer the case because just the little details make a world of difference, and fun local knowledge is brought to life. I am almost seeing these individual bush strips as complete simulators, with the aircraft available, weather conditions, and terrain—equaling endless combinations of realism and scenarios to imitate real life. It’s easy to spend many hours doing this. Happy ‘bush’ flying!