Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ski Plane Flying in Alaska

In Alaska, the percentage of residents with planes is higher than anywhere else in the U.S.
An Alaskan Commute
This makes sense, since distances are vast, the terrain so varied, and the entire, huge state has only 3 highways – well – we call them highways (four or more lane roads). It is often faster AND cheaper in gas to fly between two points than to drive a circuitous route around a mountain or body of water. Since my husband and I live off-road, we too, have a plane, a 1954 red and white Piper PA-20, that lands on our lake, on floats, in summer, and on skis, in winter. I've written elsewhere about summer time “Float Plane Follies” so here, I will describe a typical trip with our ski plane, starting with the pre-flight checks, the flying, and then the landing.

In winter, as anyone without a heated car garage can imagine, we need to pre-heat the plane. Part of the engine is constructed of steel, and part of aluminum (to save weight). Since these two metals expand and contract at different rates in extreme temperatures, we need to warm the engine so that the metals are closer to the temperature ranges they were designed for. My husband generally parks his snowmachine next to the plane on the (frozen) lake, carrying a 20 lb propane tank and a Red Dragon torch. The vehicle's battery provides power and the propane the fuel to heat the torch, which looks like a something in a household HVAC system, with a metal, corrugated tube (blower), about 2 feet long and 5 inches wide. He sticks the blower tube up into the engine, inserts the plane engine's exhaust manifold (pipe) into it, and thus heats both the engine compartment and the internal piping. This takes 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
Cowl Cover. Photo taken April 1.  (Our shower house back left) 

like a giant, padded bra for one boob, and the (fabric) wing covers (red tags for the port side, and green tags for starboard because those are the colors of the respective navigation lights). These covers protect the plane from accumulating ice weight in two ways. Since they are black, they tend to heat up and melt any accumulated snow when sunny, and since they have padded baffles that stick up along the front edge, they shake and shiver in the wind, deterring ice formation. For short trips, we generally take the cowl cover with us (it will keep the engine warm for several hours) but we stow the bulky wing covers in a little plastic sled under the cabin, out of the wind.