Utah ArchAngel Tim Martin

Flying through Corona Arch ((Photo: Darla Martin)
Flying through Corona Arch ((Photo: Darla Martin)

“People have called me an angel for flying them through an arch—and I got called other names from the ones who think they want to fly through an arch—until they get close,” says Tim Martin, an octogenarian from La Sal, Utah, who has been flying through natural sandstone arches for more than forty years. 

Corona Arch, one of the most impressive in Utah and one of the first Magellan and I hiked to, is also the first arch that Tim flew his plane through back in the early 80s before the FDA made doing so illegal. 

The opening of Corona Arch measures 140 feet across by 105 feet high. The plane Tim flew at the time, a Turbo 207, had a wingspan of about 35 feet—room to spare. In an interview hosted by the Moab Museum, Tim said the smallest arch he’s flown through is Jeep Box, which has a 50-foot span. He says most of the arches he’s flown through are like Corona, about the runway width of his home airport and, “I haven’t missed the runway yet!”

Still, the over land would be my choice, even if it were still legal to go for an aeronautic ride with Tim through the keyhole of Corona Arch.

The hike, five kilometres round trip, cairned and easy to follow, is mostly on sloping slabs of slickrock around the head of a cul-de-sac canyon. Long cables anchored to posts, a crude but effective staircase chopped into sandstone slab and a five-step metal ladder are there to assist you through the steeper sections. It’s a photographer’s paradise. On the way in we passed an elderly guy, loaded with camera equipment and excess flesh, red-faced and labouring profusely. I wonder if he would have preferred to fly with Tim, an option that still may have been open to him in 2016?

Located just outside Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Corona Arch attracts a lot of people, 40,000 to 50,000 hikers each year. To protect it from illicit activities (like rappelling off and paragliding through) and make it a quieter, more pleasant experience, in May 2014 Corona Arch was acquired from the state by the Bureau of Land Management. (A year earlier a young man was killed during a rope swing because the rope was too long and he hit bottom.) The Corona Arch Trail was designated a National Recreation Trail in May 2018. No more fly throughs.

Flying through arches is a dangerous profession; Tim knows only a few other pilots who have winged their way through these natural formations. The worst that’s happened to Tim, who is extremely cautious, was breaking a leg while flying through Pritchett Arch in his Ultralight. “Its two-stroke motor is not that dependable. The power didn’t kick in and I hit the top of the arch.”  Was he hurt? Tim quotes his wife Darla’s response soon after he was rescued from the accident and in a truck with two others: “He was sittin’ up between ‘em so they’re not headed to the hospital.” What scares Tim is river-rafting. “I’m way too chicken to be rafting down Westwater (the first whitewater stretch on the Colorado River in Utah) so I went the safe way: flying.”

Tim was born in 1940 and grew up exploring and loving the backcountry around what’s now called Canyonlands. He wanted to become a bush-pilot but as his daughter Michelle writes, there wasn’t much call for that around Moab and he loved the area too much to leave. Instead, he got his pilot’s license and bought Mustang Aviation, a charter business for scenic flights and returning river runners to Moab. He says he wasn’t a very good businessman and his company lost money, so he also flew for Redtail Aviation for years.

Tim estimates he’s flown through fourteen different arches a thousand times, mostly in the 1980s. “About 200 to 300 people have accompanied me,” he says.

Was it disrespectful to fly through arches? Tim never thought so. As his daughter Michelle writes,

He always thought it was a wonderful way to enjoy these beautiful natural phenomena without leaving a single trace that he had been there. Consider for a moment the impact of hundreds of miles of paved road built to accommodate ground-based visitors to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, or the trash and waste hikers deposit in the landscape along the trails through these parks. By comparison, arch flying hardly seems disruptive.

Tim took a camcorder on many of his flights and had family members and friends videotape his flights from the plane or on the ground. These home movies have been compiled and assembled on DVD, which you can watch on the Moab Museum website and purchase from Tim. 

Michelle says some people are offended by its title: “Wanted: Arch Enemy #1,” the marketing brainchild of the professions who complied and digitally enhance Tim’s home videos. How about our title Tim—ArchAngel?

Navigation

Ershadi, Heila. “A homegrown daredevil.” Moab Sun News, November 13, 2020. Also a good title.

“The Arch-Flying Cowboy; Stories from Tim Martin.” Moab Museum. Another good title. Details on how to order Tim’s DVD can be found near the end of the interview.

“Tim Martin: The Arch Flying Cowboy of Canyonlands.” Naturalarches.org. A video with Corona Arch at about the 3:45 minute point.

Walker, Michelle Martin and Paulsen, Gerritt. “The Arch Flying Cowboy of Canyonlands, Utah.” SWAviator. Great reading.

4 Responses

  1. A beautiful area but sometimes deadly to hike, usually due to heat.
    However I was in St George UT in December to visit my sister. You may not have seen the news article about a “cold” snap to the 50’s and a woman dying of hypothermia overnight while hiking.

    1. Hypothermia is serious! When I broke my hip golfing, I had to lie on wet grass in the rain for 90 minutes waiting for an ambulance. When I got to emergency, it took a few hours wrapped in a heater to get stabilized before they would even take me for x-rays.

  2. Interesting thoughts on using Mother Nature’s offerings for profit, my main concern is what happens when a plane hits one of the arches and subsequently destroys it or part of it, then no one can enjoy, in my opinion not good. Of course, like anything else that man touches in nature, there will be scars, just the waste alone that is left on site or in waterways is an example of this, not sustainable, again, in my opinion.
    Amazing are the flowers that grow in the desert climate of Utah and Arizona, coming from Cacti they seem to defy the order of what we expect plants to be, a different world for sure, apparently the spring bloom is unprecedented.
    Nice story.

    1. Yes. The evolution of Utah’s regulations to prohibit this along with paragliding and other stunt activities that were going on here until recently is a welcome sign of progress in a world that is going backwards on so many environmental and political issues.

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