Backcountry mail pilot helps preserve way of life

In the small airport lounge at the River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, Ray Arnold fulfills the wish lists of those who live and work along the only backcountry air mail route left in the lower 48 states, wrote Associated Press reporter Jessie Bonner on June 28.

Arnold Aviation employees wheel cardboard boxes into the hangar on dollies and stack them next to the plane: Bananas, eggs, canned fruit, flour, frozen fish fillets, oranges, ice cream, stripping wax for floors, an 18-pack of Coors and bright yellow mail bags, stuffed with everything from bills and letters to magazines and Netflix movies.

Deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, folks are waiting. For 34 years, Arnold has served this tiny segment of Americans who prefer isolation over convenience, the roar of a river over the bustle of traffic, a sky dusted with stars instead of the fog of city lights, Bonner wrote.

Every week, the Cessna 185 mail plane lands on river banks and grassy cliffs scattered across remote parts of the Salmon River country, a stretch of land bigger than Indiana.
In a place where time seems stuck in a bygone era of the West, the sound of the plane reminds the wilderness dwellers they are not forgotten, but on this blustery day, Arnold finds himself preparing good-byes. The U.S. Postal Service sent notice in March that his approximately $43,000-a-year contract was being canceled. The letter notified the Idaho backcountry residents the air route would be cut. If they made the trek to the mountain town of Cascade, a daylong affair for most of them, a mail box would be available at no cost.

A month later, U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, visited Arnold’s small hangar. The lawmaker remembered the pilot who flew him into the backcountry more than three decades earlier, Arnold says. He wondered if Minnick’s visit might bode a change in the postal service decision and in May the agency ditched the plan to sever the backcountry mail contract. “There was no other alternative” for mail delivery, said the agency’s DeSarro. Minnick hailed the decision as a victory.

Actually, the postal service is exploring alternatives, requesting quotes to find out if the service could be provided at a cheaper cost. Arnold is bidding for the first time since he took over the contract in the 1970s, but the postal service will have a hard time finding another pilot to deliver the mail for less money, said pilot George Dorris. They could probably find one who is more efficient, doesn’t stop to visit, he quipped. “But the people back there won’t bring them rhubarb and cookies.”

Arnold, who estimates he flies about 17,732 miles a year, has been paid $2.45 a mile for the past several years. He carries passengers and freight with the mail to break even. He asked the Postal Service for $2.95 per mile, a yearly contract worth $52,309. After weeks of negotiations, he says he and the agency have agreed on $2.85 a mile, for a $50,536 yearly contract. “I’ll give em’ the dime,” Arnold says.

He has not received an official contract for the next year, he says, nothing has been finalized. He’ll most likely deliver his first mail route in July on faith.

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