Pilot logs adventures in the sky


Few people know the skies of northwest Montana as well as pilot Dave Hoerner.

Whether it was tracking bears for biologists, relocating wolves for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, or teaching others to fly, Hoerner has been at home in the skies of Flathead and beyond, accumulating more than 34,000 flight hours over the course of his career.

Hoerner literally wrote the book about backcountry flying in Montana called Advanced Mountain Flying Techniques.

Born in Whitefish and raised in Columbia Falls, Hoerner had been a lumberjack for nearly a decade just after graduating high school when a spontaneous decision changed his life forever.

“One day I was driving by the city‘s airport, I was bored with life, so I decided to take a flying lesson,” he said. “It was like a drug for me. I just couldn’t get enough. It was a bit tough on personal life though.”

“I’ve been through a few marriages because I’ve never been home,” he added with a chuckle.

When his cousin bought an Alaskan gold claim in 1981 and was looking for a pilot to help move supplies, Hoerner jumped at the chance. Despite having just a few hundred flight hours and no license to operate commercially, Hoerner soon became a lifeline for the miners who lived 150 miles from the nearest town.

As the only pilot along the creek that the claims are on, Hoerner spent a year flying for all the miners, transporting everything from food to equipment and more.

“I should have died many times on those runs, but we did what we had to do,” he said.

AS HE When he returned from Alaska, Hoerner decided that he no longer wanted to make a living with a chainsaw. Hearing from wildlife biologists looking for a pilot for their studies, he bought an old, battered Super Cub and accepted the challenge.

Working with pioneers of wildlife research like Diane Boyd and up to 15 other scientists in a single season, Hoerner soon became a pioneer himself in the field of radiotelemetry (tracking wild animals from an airplane) and was the first pilot to come that way the idea of ​​putting radio antennas on each wing to locate radio tagged wildlife.

Moose, deer, moose, wolves, bears, wolverines, you name it, he’s taken scientists in search of them.

It’s a dangerous job that few pilots would take on, and one that requires skill and nerves of steel. Flying in areas so remote that rescue in the event of a crash is unlikely, if not impossible, Hoerner could fly his modified Cessna 185 impossibly low to the ground at speeds slow enough to cause other planes to fall out of the sky . Hoerner needed 300 feet or less to land and quickly became a master of backcountry flying.

“Flying for the Wildlife Surveys was fun because you get to meet the people and see the animals every day. I was only getting paid $80 or $90 an hour and I wasn’t smart enough to know that that wouldn’t pay my bills. But I didn’t care. I had fun,” said Hoerner. “You observe the same animal for ten years and you really get to know it. You will find out where they like to go and what they like to do. You really get attached to them.”

Hoerner flew eight hours a day, six days a week for 20 years, accumulating more than 25,000 hours hunting wildlife on his plane and occasionally transporting them.

Hoerner recalled an incident when FWP received a call from a rancher near Island Lake telling him his prize bull had been killed by wolves. The FWP eventually hurled the entire pack and transferred them to Spotted Bear, using Hoerner and his plane to fly them there seven sedated wolves at once.

“Eventually I look back and the alpha female has her head up and bared her teeth at me. I got the plane down as soon as possible so the biologist could drug her again. If we had been forced to wait another three minutes or so, we would have been in real trouble. After that I said to myself: ‘No more animals on my plane,'” said Hoerner.

A promise that Hoerner could not keep.

“A few years later I was flying with (FWP Bear Management Specialist) Tim Manley following a mom grizzly and her cub. We found out the mom had been killed and Tim decided to save the cub,” Hoerner recalled. “He shoots it and we put this 300 pound cub on the plane. We get ready to go and the bear growls. I stop the plane and open the door. When we get the bear out, he’s already standing up. That was really the last time I had a wild animal on my plane.”

THE FOUNDER and longtime operator of Red Eagle Aviation in Kalispell, Hoerner has come up with many other ways to keep his planes fueled and in the air. Since becoming a certified flight instructor in the mid-1980s, Hoerner has taught more than 300 people how to fly airplanes and trained around 30 helicopter pilots.

Hoerner served as the search and rescue coordinator for the state of Montana for five years, serving as a chief flight instructor and teaching winter survival.

Hoerner said he even invested in a banner towing system for his plane to eventually be able to pay the bills.

He recalled pulling banners for Wrangler Jeans over football games to make money, but says one incident in which he pulled a banner over Browning’s North American Indian Days parade will forever stay in his memory.

“A person at Cut Bank called me and tried to get me to put up a banner about Browning Indian Days. I told them first that I didn’t want to fly in that strong wind over there, but they called every week and increased the price,” Hoerner said. “The price eventually got so high that I had to say yes, but at that point they asked me to also drop ping-pong balls with a local bar’s name on them.”

As Hoerner had predicted, the wind howled on the day of the operation.

“I get there, hang the banner and take off. The wind was so strong that I climbed to 1,000 feet and looked down and the runway was still below me. I didn’t want to give up the $450 they were going to pay me, so I headed downtown,” he said.

Hoerner said the parade hadn’t started when he reached town, so he circled around and made another pass while the parade was underway.

“I made it and was about a half mile north of town when I realized I hadn’t dropped the ping pong balls. I banged on the door and just threw out the whole garbage bag full. It exploded when it hit the wind, and I was just heading to Kalispell,” he laughed.

Hoerner later learned from his brother, who had been on the ground at the parade, that the ping-pong balls had quite an effect.

“He said it looked like a rodeo when those ping-pong balls hit the parade,” Hoerner said. “There were people who went into the side streets to hide and a [man] was bucked by his horse. He said nobody was happy with me. That was the last time I pulled a banner.”

These days, Hoerner can still be found regularly in the air, flying for a few local companies or spending his summer transporting fishermen to a lodge in Alaska. Hoerner says he remains busy but is starting to slow things down a bit.

When not in the air, Hoerner writes about flying. In addition to his Advanced Mountain Flying Techniques, his books Surviving The Turbulence: Montana & Alaska, Flying Alaska Gold: Grizzlies, Gold, Gangsters, and Sage: Frontier Justice are available on Amazon.

Reporter Jeremy Weber can be reached at 406-758-4446 or [email protected]

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