When people get together around southern Arizona, there's a good chance that somebody will say, "That reminds me of the time I flew with Ike Russell. . . . " A backcountry pilot famous for his jaunts into the wildest, most remote regions of the borderlands, Alexander "Ike" Russell has become something of a legend since his death in 1980, and the stories surrounding his flights never fail to amaze.
This book combines biography and oral history by offering a wide range of anecdotes and remembrances about Ike by friends and family. Many describe the great adventures and gut-wrenching close calls that have become enshrined in local folklore as classic "Ike Russell stories," in all their hair-raising and hilarious splendor.
Russell was an easterner who moved to Arizona for his health and got his pilot's license in 1948—despite suffering from a respiratory disorder that would have kept other men firmly anchored to the ground. Over the years he flew scientists and other scholars to remote field locations in Mexico's Gulf of California and Sierra Madre Occidental that otherwise might not have been investigated. He often landed on short and dangerous airstrips and never seemed to mind running out of gas, getting caught without provisions, or attempting night landings in unlighted terrain. He took along a teapot wherever he went—and wherever he stopped, his first priority was to brew a quick cup.
Backcountry Pilot is the story of a larger-than-life adventurer, with those who knew Ike sharing tales tall and true about his famous exploits, brushes with fate, and sometimes narrow escapes from the jaws of disaster. It includes reminiscences by such scientists and friends as botanist Richard Felger, whom Ike frequently flew down to Seriland; ethnohistorian Bernard Fontana, whom Ike took to Tarahumara country; and paleoecologist Paul Martin, who talked Ike into a nine-month trip through Africa over totally unfamiliar terrain. A concluding chapter by Thomas Bowen offers a brief biographical sketch of Russell.
Ike Russell was a central figure for a generation of people who studied the southwestern desert and who helped others see it as a biological treasure rather than a wasteland. More than a highly skilled bush pilot, he was an extraordinary human being who touched the lives of everyone he met. For those who never got the chance, Backcountry Pilot secures Ike Russell's legacy in the desert skies.