Galen Lee Hanselman
1948 - 2020
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Galen L. Hanselman
Icon of Idaho Backcountry Aviation
Galen L. Hanselman, whose meticulously researched and highly entertaining books helped popularize backcountry aviation worldwide, died on May 6 from complications of liver cancer. He was 72 and is currently nominated to the Idaho Aviation Hall of Fame.
Nearly every pilot in Idaho who flies the backcountry carries a copy of Hanselman's book, "Fly Idaho!," in the cockpit—to the point where most people simply refer to it as "the backcountry pilot's bible." His "Idaho Aeronautical Chart" is used by pilots all over the Northwest. The widespread distribution of Hanselman's books, charts, and articles has increased the safety of flight in Idaho, while bringing public awareness to Idaho's irreplaceable backcountry airstrips. Blessed with nearly 100 pristine wilderness airstrips within easy reach of civilization, Idaho has become the premier destination for recreational pilots from every corner of the planet.
Galen Lee Hanselman was born on April 2, 1948 in Paulding, Ohio. His father Ralph was raised in Gooding, Idaho. In 1961 Ralph noticed an ad in "Life" magazine offering a trailer park for sale in Ketchum. He and his wife Phyllis piled their three youngest children in the car and headed for Idaho. After staying in the trailer park for several weeks Ralph commented, "Well, they're not charging us to stay here, so we might as well buy the place." The following year they purchased an old school bus, filled it with their belongings, and moved to Ketchum.
Galen Hanselman grew up fishing, hunting, and exploring the nearby rivers, creeks, and mountains. He graduated from the College of Idaho with a bachelor's degree in physics. Familiar with electronics, he started a business in 1976 designing and installing residential and commercial fire and security systems in the Sun Valley area. Hanselman started flying in 1980 at the age of 32. With the aircraft he was able to do installations throughout Idaho and across the U.S.
Flying out of Hailey, he often heard his pilot friends talk about their experiences in the "backcountry." Intrigued, he decided to fly to Sulphur Creek, "a great little one-way strip," on his own. Looking down at the grassy airstrip, he overestimated its length and came in too fast. After touching down about halfway, the plane barreled toward the end. Hanselman stomped on the brakes, which locked. The plane skidded past the lodge, coming to a halt just before the runway's end. Knees shaking, Hanselman slunk inside for a piece of pie, and realized he needed two things: backcountry instruction, and real information.
As the years passed and Hanselman explored many of Idaho's backcountry airstrips, he realized the only information available about most of the strips was word of mouth. Having recently sold his business, he decided to systematically and scientifically document as many of Idaho's airstrips as possible and publish his findings in a book. This would give other pilots accurate information to help them decide whether they had the skills and equipment to safely fly into each airstrip.
A stickler for accuracy, he purchased surveying equipment including a tripod, theodolite, measuring wheel, level, compass, GPS, and more. In addition to accurately computing the location, length, width, elevation, and orientation of each runway, he overflew each strip and photographed it from different angles, as an incoming pilot would see it. This sounds easier than it is: many airstrips lie deep within narrow canyons, making it difficult to fly and photograph at the same time without colliding with terrain. Furthermore, he always shot through an open window, which created hurricane-like conditions inside the cockpit. "It doesn't make sense having a $2,000 camera shooting through a 98-cent piece of Plexiglass," he quipped.
His guides were written in a folksy style that belied the scientific background of their author. Along with "more photos than you can shake a stick at" and data, "Fly Idaho!" provided quirky and (mostly) true tales of Idaho's backcountry history, including "stories galore of old timers, miners, trappers, hermits, Indians, ne'er do wells, wayward pilots, outlaws, moonshiners, murderers, and sweet little ladies of the night," the author wrote. Recreational information was also included. To help pilots assess the difficulty of any airstrip at a glance, Hanselman developed the Relative Hazard Index (RHI). The RHI is a number between 1 and 50 that considers factors such as obstacles, terrain, visibility, runway surfaces, and more.
Hanselman published "Fly Idaho!" in 1994 and followed up with equally entertaining guides to Montana, Baja California, Utah, and a second edition of the Idaho book. Hanselman was nothing if not thorough, yet he never let a day of work interfere with a chance to go flying, fishing, or shoot the breeze (or his guns) with his many friends. Consequently, each book took years to complete.
While researching "Fly Utah!," Hanselman crashed his airplane in southeast Utah's deceptive terrain. Mistakenly taking off uphill from a rough airstrip, his plane stalled and flipped upside down into a juniper, totaling it. Neither he nor his son Marc, who was in the airplane assisting with photography, were injured. "Six weeks later I got a check and was flying another Cessna. On a lot of these strips, you can't see the grade just by looking," he said. This experience spurred him to include new elevation and terrain diagrams in his books. His final book, the two-volume Third Edition of "Fly Idaho!," incorporated his new techniques plus all-new photos and information and even more airstrips.
Hanselman's contributions go beyond books. He developed unique aeronautical charts for Idaho, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, and many other states depicting backcountry airstrips, reporting points, obstacles, and other data not typically shown on FAA charts. He flew his Cessna for charity, including Women Fly Forward, where he gave many girls and women their first ride in a general aviation aircraft. He once said, "I don't know if we'll be able to fly like this 50 years from now, but my goal in life now is to leave a mark."
Hanselman's blue and white Cessna 182 was a familiar sight at the historic Sulphur Creek Ranch, his favorite backcountry haunt. There, the breakfast menu reads "yes or no." Ranch caretaker Kiere Schroeder said, "Galen had a heart of gold and a twinkle in his eye. He was funny and intelligent in a graceful sort of way. I used to serve him breakfast with a pen because folks clamored for his autograph. Everyone around him got to talk up his books and he patiently answered all their questions with no agenda of his own. One morning, Galen and his friends were standing around the coffee pot when another group of pilots started rattling on and on about 'Fly Idaho!' and how they couldn't fly without it. Galen just smiled and never said a word. He was not prideful. I learned a lot from him!"
You could never go anywhere around Hailey or Ketchum with Galen Hanselman without running into people he knew. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone left laughing and smiling after conversing with him. In later years and sporting a white beard, Hanselman developed a resemblance to famed author Ernest "Papa" Hemingway, who lived in Ketchum, causing passers-by to do a double take. Hanselman admired fine woodwork and built himself an oven in which to bake a pair of antique recurve bows that he restored and relaminated. He loved to take people up for a ride in his Cessna, often flying them through the Sawtooth Mountains so they could see Idaho's grandeur from above.
Hanselman was an active member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Ketchum. He is survived by his son Marc Hanselman, daughter-in-law Heidi, granddaughter Esle, sisters Sharon Isom and Diane Clark, and Ms. Sylvia Cunningham, his high school girlfriend who became his close companion for the last seven years of his life. Hanselman will be buried in the Ketchum cemetery beside his parents and not far from Papa Hemingway. A service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and a memorial fly-in at Smiley Creek are planned for the future.
---Crista Worthy

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Published in Idaho Statesman on May 17, 2020.
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St. Thomas Episcopal Church
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2 entries
May 24, 2020
The tribute to Galen on this page captured beautifully why so many of us enjoyed his company so much. I will miss the laugh filled conversations and phone calls, and his seemingly inexhaustible trove of wonderful stories, along with his rich knowledge of flying to backcountry airstrips. He was a great supporter of the Recreational Aviation Foundation. The members and countless other recreational outdoor pilots will always treasure his guides and fly safely into incredible destinations for generations to come thanks to his work. Tailwinds, clear skies for cruising, and beautiful sunsets, Galen.
Rol Murrow
May 21, 2020
So many happy memories with you and Hudy from days gone by. Rest in peace ol' friend.
Leslie Andrews
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