Friday, December 15, 2017

Ski Plane Lands in Eight Inches of Winter Overflow

This year's warm and soggy winter weather has disappointed - and endangered - outdoor enthusiasts on all sorts of skis - cross country, snowmachines, and planes.  At any temperature, when ice thickens on lakes and rivers, it pushes water up through spider holes and other crevices to flow atop the ice, with inadequate places to drain.  Unseasonable winter rain/sleet deepened those pools.  The modest moniker of "Overflow" belies its danger.

Nearly frozen water is thick - almost viscous - and it has a terrific affinity for metal, adhering to and weighing down any surface it touches.  This impediment to forward movement is bad enough when visible, but it is even more treacherous when covered by a thin layer of snow that looks soft and deep but actually insulates the water enough to keep it from freezing thick and safe for transport.

When we arrived at Willow's little rural, gravel strip airport (originally an emergency runway for the Lend Lease planes in World War II), Barry Stanley of Denali Flying Service warned us, “The ice is thick, but be careful of overflow out there. Land fast so you won't bog down far from shore.”  Then his passenger regaled us with a few harrowing and expensive lessons learned by friends whose airplane skis were trapped in icy graves.

So cautioned, my husband circled our Piper PA-20 over the lake at 1000 feet to spy any open water.  We saw none but three spider holes in the northwest corner - far from where we intended to land.  So far, so good, but it was hard to see much else.  Although mid-day, the light was completely flat, providing no shadow to identify moose tracks, snow drifts, snowmachine or plane tracks that could catch a ski.  In such white- on- white conditions, depth perception is severely challenged. Where is the surface? What angle and speed will ensure a smooth landing instead of a chaotic bounce?

Bryan turned downwind and flew far out over the bog beyond the lake, searching for any other surface indicators, but it, too, was covered with snow.  In preparation for landing, he reduced the speed from 2450 RPMs to 1700 RMPs, put in two notches of flaps, pulled out the carb heater, and trimmed the plane before turning to his final leg with full flaps in at 65 mph.  He dropped low over the stunted trees that provide a reliable depth indicator at the margin between the bog and the lake.  Because he was flying a bit too fast for all flaps, the plane bounced twice on landing, but, in retrospect, those bounces may have aided our safe trip home.  Landing conditions initially felt pillowy soft, but after 10 - 15 seconds, the heavy, wet snow and underlying water grabbed the skis, pulling the plane heavily to the right and sharply slowing momentum.  Afraid that we would stall in the center of the lake, Bryan applied hard left rudder and full right aileron to correct the turn and increase power. This action may have lifted the tail, reducing drag.  It certainly countered the right pull and resulted in a serpentine left turn toward shore...and home.

Meanwhile, he directed me to open the passenger door and give a visual report of the overflow we had felt. Sure enough,  yellow-brown water welled up to the surface of the scar- like track we had cut through the thin layer of snow.
He powered to our intended stopping point, along the shore below our cabin.

Stepping down from the plane, I splashed into 8 inches of frigid water.  The entire tail wheel assembly and one front ski were submerged.  My initial priorities were home bound, however:  unscrew the windows' bear shutters and start the fire in the wood stove. Meanwhile, Bryan unloaded the plane and did a few shore chores while considering how to elevate the entire plane so we wouldn't be frozen in until May.

As I stoked the fire and stirred the split pea soup I always make on initial return, I saw through the window that he was dragging a little plastic sled toward the lake, piled high with the house jack, a pallet and several logs and planks from our wood corral.  Into the water beneath the plane's metal hand grip (about 2/3 of the way along the body), he dropped a log as a base for the jack, which he wedged under the handle. Voila. The tail rose easily, but it was disconcerting to see how quickly slushy ice had already encased the wheel-ski assembly in a frozen beehive shape.
Once he scuffed off the ice, he dropped the wheel-ski onto a partial pallet - well above the water.  One job done.

The front skis were more problematic because they bear most of the weight of the plane.  Fortunately, the right front ski had stopped on a firm pinnacle of ice, but the left ski was completely under water  and sinking further.  He manhandle one plank under the front, but raising the rear was a two person job.  In cumbersome snowshoes, I knelt in the slush to shove one, two, and finally three slippery planks under the ski while he pushed the wing upward, arms apart, looking (to me) like an Arctic Atlas.

To my surprise the next afternoon, the 8 inches of exposed water around the plane had hardened enough to support our weight.  Snow covered margins remained waterlogged.  What a difference the slim snow cover made.  The third day, Bryan augured two deep holes through the ice, in front of each wing, through which he dropped planks to anchor strong nylon rope tie downs against winter's northern winds.

Grooming our landing strip will be a task for a future, and hopefully colder, day.
But for now, we were home, and our plane was safe.  Soup's on.  Time for dinner.


  1. Clearly, yours is not "The Simple Life." Probably more complex that ours, and certainly more gripping!

  2. I'm alway horrified and fascinated by the Alaskan bush life.