Winter flying requires modern savvy, yet time tested smarts
In Alaska, per capita plane ownership is higher than anywhere else in the United States, and probably higher than the rest of the world. And it’s no wonder. For some, flying is much more than a recreational pastime — many Alaskans commute by plane from home to work. Given our terrain, it is often faster and cheaper in gas to fly between two points than to drive a circuitous route around forests and bodies of water. Since no roads traverse the rivers, bogs, mountains and forests that surround our off-the-beaten-track home, we, too, have a serviceable little plane — a 1954 red and white Piper PA-20 — that acts as our primary vehicle.
It is awkward to squeeze into this little plane in summer-weight clothes, but it is infinitely harder in winter. Picture a fat man climbing into a skinny coffin or an astronaut lumbering around in a space suit. In the winter, the two of us wear bulky parkas, padded Carhartt’s and enormous, heavy bunny boots, which, with my long legs, are hard to swing up and under the co-pilot’s wheel without getting in the way of the pedals.
Most private pilots in the Bush lack runways and hangars. For Bryan and I, it is much the same. We just smooth out a flat circle on the frozen lake in front of our cabin. To protect the plane from high wind damage, we fashion seasonal “tie downs” by drilling two holes through the ice on either side of the “parking space” and dropping into each a sturdy board with a thick nylon rope tied through a hole in the middle. Then, we fill the hole with water to seal the board under several feet of ice — what a clever hint from a Bush plane buddy.
By knotting those ropes through the metal brackets on the wings, we feel pretty confident that the plane can’t be lifted or flipped by high wind. We also kick boards under each of the three skis, so the metal doesn’t freeze to the snow. Thus, high tech meets low tech in Alaska Bush transportation.
In winter, as anyone without a heated car garage can imagine, we need to preheat the plane. To do so, Bryan parks his snowmachine next to the plane, and heats a torch, which looks like something in a household HVAC system. He sticks the blower tube up into the engine for about an hour. Meanwhile, he goes through a 42-point safety checklist.
When we are ready to leave, we remove the cowl cover from the nose cone (which looks like a giant, padded bra for one boob) and the fabric wing covers, which protect the plane from ice accumulation. Then we manually lift or slide the tail so that the nose faces into the prevailing wind, usually north.
Our plane was designed to take off in 1,600 feet, but, like many Bush planes, ours is equipped with a STOL kit (Short Take Off and Landing) enabling us to lift off in less than 500 feet, fully loaded. As long as our skis don’t stick, we can power up and then ski through and over the snow.
Bush Alaska flying directions amuse me. While public landing strips are identified in the well-thumbed “Airport Facility Directory: Alaska Supplement,” landing announcements from major airports include directions like, “follow the power lines toward Cook Inlet and then call in when you are over the ball field.”
Looking for private strips is a bit of a scavenger hunt with references that only a local would know. One lodge told us to “land on the swamp.” However, from above, snow cover makes every lake, meadow, bog, swamp, and lowland look exactly the same.
Another lodge said, “We are on the bend of the river.” Well, the braided rivers of Alaska feature about a thousand sinuous curves.
“Uh, anything else to help us find you?”
“We are near Mile 27.”
Mile what? This apparently refers to twisting river mileage, not straight air flight. This sort of information certainly separates the locals from the newbies. Thank goodness for GPS and website pictures of the lodges we are circling to find.
Once you can identify them, some lodges offer well-marked landing strips. Yentna Station (www.yentnastation.com) designates a nice, straight ski plane strip (on a snow-covered gravel bar) with the simple expedient of black plastic bags over a line of stakes, forming an excellent color contrast to the snow.
Another lodge, Skwentna Roadhouse (www.skwentnaroadhouse. com), features a wonderful FAA-listed strip with landing lights, two windsocks, and a weather reporting station (surely reflecting a once busier community, or the erstwhile largess of Uncle Ted).
In terms of landing, a key point to note is that ski planes lack brakes. They rely on friction to stop. A snow-covered lake or ground strip offers welcome traction.
Ice, however, is a different matter, as any skier, sledder, or driver knows well. It is difficult to turn, slow, or stop when and where desired. I have had my heart in my throat on many a slippery, serpentine landing toward a fast-approaching shore. Since the conditions of Bush landing spots vary widely, prudent ski pilots often fly v-e-r-y low to inspect a frozen lake or river for overflow, thin ice, ice heave, upended logs and innumerable other elements dangerous to a safe landing.
Cruising into our home lake, we note the wind direction on our wind turbine (high) and windsock (low). Because of the STOL kit, our plane’s stall speed is really low – 39 mph – so we can land very lightly, and we don’t need much of a taxiway. Once parked, we turn the nose to the north (prevailing wind), knot the tie downs, wrap up the wings and cowl, kick planks under the skis, and call it a day.
If anyone else lived there, we’d call out, “Honey, we’re home!”