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.

Wing covers, See angled rope tie downs to the ice.
Photo taken April 1.
It is awkward to climb into this little plane in summer-weight clothes, but it is infinitely worse in winter. Picture a fat man climbing into his own skinny coffin or maybe an astronaut lumbering around in a space suit. The two of us are wearing bulky parkas, padded Carhartts 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. I always climb in after my husband is settled in the pilot seat. Once I squeeze in, I endeavor to secure the “over-the-shoulders and around the waist” belts without knocking off my husband's headgear with flailing elbows. Barely able to turn, it is hard to secure the skinny lock of the door behind my shoulder.

Take off:
While wheeled planes need a groomed runway lest the wheels bog down in the snow, ski planes don't. As sports skiers can envision, we glide through and then over the snow. So most ski plane owners don't have or need runways. For take off, we confirm wind direction by checking the wind turbine on our property, point the plane into the wind and start skiing. The plane was designed to take off in 1600 feet, but at some point in our plane's history, a prior owner had installed an STOL kit (the acronym stands for Short Take Off and Landing) which makes an enormous difference. Fully loaded with two tanks of gas, two people, and all required emergency supplies, we can lift off in less than 500 feet, as the snowy tracks show (about 375 feet for one person, light on gas).

Flying directions:
Bush Alaska flying directions amuse me. While public landing strips are identified with GPS coordinates and additional information in the well thumbed, paperback Airport Facility Directory: Alaska Supplement, landing announcements from major airports still include directions like, “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. When we called a lodge for lunch availability and landing instructions recently, they said, “We are on the bend of the river.” Well anyone who has seen the braided rivers descending from Denali know that there are about a thousand bends. “Uh, anything else to help us find you?” “We are near Mile 19.” Well, I guess that is useful if you know where the counting starts, but even then the designation measures twisting river mileage, not straight air travel. We flew back and forth in the general vicinity and, because I'd seen their website, I was able to recognize the building from the air, and then to see the landing strip nearby.

The season:
March flying in Alaska is gorgeous. The air is very clear, so you can see really far. None of the mountains are ringed with the clouds that often cloak them in summer. The season's headwinds tend to be higher, which slows us down heading north, but since we are generally flying about 110 mph at 1500 ft to enjoy the scenery, that's OK. As all the deciduous trees are leafless, it is easier to spot moose than in the summer, and to see pretty little cabins and creeks that are otherwise obscured by the trees. We can trace popular and obscure snowmachine trails across the landscape. One important task is to observe the rivers and lakes for overflow and open water on the route my husband takes to town by snowmachine and freight sled this time of year to haul in the year's bulky construction and fuel supplies that can't fit in our little plane. For the past two weeks, afternoons have been above freezing and the snow is melting down to open patches of ground around the spruce trees, but night time temperatures remain below 10 degrees. How long will the lake and river ice support our snowmachine and ski plane? How long will gravel strips remain safely covered with snow? Each winter is different of course, but the rule of thumb around here is that April 7-10 is the end of both the ski plane and cross-river hauling season. So by then, we need to have all our food and supplies delivered, fly the plane to a mechanic in town who will change out the skis to floats, fly back with a friend, and await open water, usually in mid-May.

The first thing to mention is that ski planes lack brakes. They rely on friction to stop. In the case of a snow covered lake or ground strip, that soft, white surface provides traction. Ice, however, is a different matter, as any skier, sledder, or even driver knows well! It is difficult to turn, slow, and stop when and where desired. The second point is that conditions of bush landing strips vary widely.

A nearby lodge, Yentna Station, has a nice straight ski plane strip (on the snow over a gravel bar of the river) outlined with a line of black plastic bags over stakes which form an excellent color contrast to the snow (and tasty burgers and fries or home made soup for $14).

Another lodge, Skwentna Roadhouse, has an FAA listed strip with landing lights, two windsocks, and a weather reporting station, surely reflecting a busier community than the 10 occupied homes that remain. As promised, the proprietor of the lodge met us with a big snow machine that could seat the three of us and whisked us through the woods to their bright, warm lodge for two ENORMOUS cheeseburgers, and fries ($18.50 each) where we shared tables with local snowmachiners and flyers also out enjoying the lovely day.

Merrill Field, a general aviation airport in Anchorage had a terribly pitted and neglected ski runway, at least last week.

Most private pilots lack runways altogether. We just groom a flat circle as a sort of parking spot for the plane, manually turn the plane to face into the wind, and ski away, through the snow.

However, we have one neighbor who is renowned for the well marked oval runway he painstakingly grooms for several hours after every snowfall for occasional visiting friends.  It is something of a marvel, and a real labor of love, because neither he nor anyone in his family is a flyer.  He estimated once that he puts 25 miles on his snowmachine each time, going around and around, like a homemade zamboni.  That's probably 5 gallons of gasoline.  Flying over this part of Alaska for the past several years, I've seen no residential or even small commercial landing strip for ski planes with anything like the effort put into this one.  

Parking at home:
When we return, we look for the wind direction on our wind turbine, so we can let the wind help slow us down. In our little plane, with the STOL kit, the stall speed is really low – 39 mph – so we can land very lightly, and we don't need much of a taxiway. After we pull into the groomed spot on the lake, I pull the cowl cover out of the back and wrap the nose cone. Then I walk up to the cabin to retrieve the sled full of wing covers and gust locks (prevents wind from moving the ailerons and elevators). To protect the plane from possible high wind damage, we have fashioned seasonal “tie downs.” My husband drilled holes through the ice (about four feet thick) on either side of the “parking space” and dropped into each a board with a long, sturdy nylon rope tied through a hole in the middle. Once the length of rope was coiled on the snow, he poured water down the hole to seal the board under four feet of ice. What a clever hint from a bush plane buddy! By knotting those ropes through the metal tie down brackets on the wing struts, we feel pretty confident that the plane can't be lifted or flipped by a high wind. The last thing we do is kick boards under the skis to keep them from freezing to the underlying snow. Voila. Home.

I know that I will need to take the “widows and orphans” crash landing lessons myself, but I am nervous about flying a plane. On the other hand, I was leery about lots of things I have learned to do out here in the Bush, so sooner or later, I guess I can tackle this challenge, too.  

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to post it or a link to your favorite social media website, with attribution to Laura Emerson.

If you have any suggestions for future topics on this blog, or future places to post this sort of content, I appreciate your recommendations.

Note: I am pleased to say that I am now a monthly columnist for Alaska Adventure Media publications. The column is titled, “Off the Grid.”


  1. Hi Laura,
    Thanks for another informative post. Great topic.
    As a complete outsider I enjoy your posts. I really got interested in off-grid/bush life.

    Just out of curiosity, how many times per month you guys fly back to civilisation or another location? I would be all over the area having the luxury of my own plane. :-)

    Greetings from Belgium.

  2. Dear Tom: Thanks for your question and your interest. You are right that anybody I know with a plane is willing to fly for any reason, any time.
    Here, we don't fly when it is snowing, raining, foggy or dark. But short of that, my husband probably flies twice a week for any errands or meetings he can dream up. I go with him once a week to some location I have been curious to see. Because weather can be unpredictable, we don't use the plane for weekly grocery shopping or anything like that. (We have months' worth of dry goods and weeks' worth of perishables here at any given time.) --Laura

  3. Hi Laura,
    You can do the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn) "Pinch hitter's" course online. If you're anything like Trudi, you may decide that a lesson or two turns into "just until I solo", and then into "why not just get the license?" Even if you prefer to not stay current, learning to fly is fun, and gives a great sense of accomplishment, and it makes you a much more helpful co-pilot, particularly when you can work the radios, or do navigation. --Bill