The sun is not up yet in Afton, Wyoming, and the last I checked, the temperature was reading 10 degrees. Fahrenheit. I pull on two layers of long underwear, ski pants, turtleneck, a wool sweater, two pairs of socks and the Sorel boots and huge down parka-remnants from my old Minnesota days-that I dragged out of deep storage for this trip.
"This had better be an awful lot of fun, to make all this worthwhile," I think as I drive down the snowbank-lined road to the airport.
In most parts of the country, the onset of bitter temperatures and winter storms prompts recreational pilots to tuck their airplanes inside a warm hangar and retreat to the comfort of a cozy hearth and fire until the only icing conditions are in the beer cooler. But there are a few places, and a few hangar rows, where pilots actually look forward to winter. Instead of fighting the snow and ice, these pilots embrace the season, exchanging their wheels for skis and heading out into a landscape suddenly awash with landing sites.
As far as I can discern, ski flying dates back almost as far as aviation itself. It may not have been patently obvious how best to design a functioning airplane, but the idea of putting skis underneath a plane's wheels probably originated minutes after the first snowbound pilot realized he was stuck.
Then there was Sir Harry Wigley, a New Zealander who absconded with a section of his mother's Formica countertop (or so the story goes) to help develop the first set of retractable skis in 1955. Using a crude, hand-operated retraction system, Wigley used his invention to fly his Auster Aiglet from the paved runway at Mt. Cook onto the Tasman Glacier, high up in New Zealand's Southern Alps-with Sir Edmund Hillary as one of his very first passengers.
Which illustrates perfectly what a pair of airplane skis can do for you. Not everyone needs to get up on the Tasman glacier, of course. (In point of fact, I doubt anyone ever really needed to get up on the Tasman glacier, even in Wigley's day.) But strap a pair of skis on a plane, and 45 minutes later, you can be standing in the middle of a winter wonderland so dramatically remote, unspoiled and crystal-perfect that it dazzles your senses and takes your breath away.
The one thing the experience isn't likely to be, however, is warm. The last time I went ski flying, it was a 30-below-zero weekend in Minnesota, with a brisk 25-knot breeze. To say we were all a bit cold truly doesn't do the experience justice. So even though the Wyoming forecast called for temperatures in the far-more-hospitable, positive-numbers range, I fully expected my second attempt at ski flying to entail more than a little discomfort, as well. But then, I hadn't counted on Bill Wiemann.
Wiemann is an Aviat dealer in Alpine, Wyoming, who loves backwoods flying in any season, but who's also a firm believer in comfort and warmth as well as adventure-a fact that becomes obvious the moment one steps into his rustic lodge-style FBO at the privately-owned, public-use Alpine Airport. Huge, overstuffed leather couches and chairs surround a crackling, wood-burning fireplace in the corner of an open, beamed-ceiling log structure where, he says, pilots are always welcome to "drop in for a cold Corona."
Wiemann is the reason I'm in Wyoming-Wiemann and his stable of brand-new, ski-equipped Huskies, which he and Aviat owner Stu Horne have invited me to come and fly. Alpine lies in the Wyoming highlands, smack on the Idaho border, one ridge over from Jackson Hole and at the confluence of three rivers-the Salt, the Snake and the Greys. Those rivers form the Palisades Reservoir, which creeps, at times, within a couple dozen yards of Wiemann's hangar.
"Yeah, it's a carrier approach, coming in here sometimes," Wiemann says with a laugh.
Alpine Airport, which Wiemann bought two years ago, lies at an elevation of 5,720 feet, nestled between the Salt River Range and what locals call the "western hills" of the Star Valley. The valley name sounds wonderfully poetic until Wiemann tells me that it's actually short for "Starvation Valley"-the moniker given to it by early settlers. Why Starvation Valley? Because the valley got so much snow in the winter that no animals foraged there-leaving the settlers with no sources of food.
In terms of ski flying, however, that means Star Valley offers some prime real estate and options.
The morning sun is shining brilliantly on the steep, glistening slopes of the Grand Tetons by the time Stu Horne and I fly down to Wiemann's place and trade our wheeled Husky for one of his ski-equipped aircraft. The Husky type certificate covers all three basic kinds of aircraft skis: straight skis, simple retractable skis and hydraulic wheel-skis. Wiemann uses the second kind, which can be retracted in flight but then have to be re-extended on the ground. The ones on Wiemann's Huskies are made by the Aero Ski Manufacturing Company in Brooten, Minnesota, and cost about $7,500.
Some pilots prefer the cheaper and simpler option of straight skis, which cost about half the price. But Wiemann likes the lower hassle factor associated with skis that don't require removing the plane's wheels, as well as the option of landing on hard-surface runways for fuel, or if snow conditions deteriorate. Ideal, of course, would be hydraulic wheel-skis, which can be extended and retracted in flight as many times as required. But the additional investment for wheel-skis, just like amphibious floats, is significant. The hydraulic wheel-skis manufactured by Wipline, for example, run between $18,000-$23,000.
To make sure the comfort factor of our experience is covered, Wiemann has already dispatched a bevy of friends on a backcountry expedition to catch some trout and set up a camp for us, complete with campfire and log seats, along an open section of the Salt River. They, of course, will take a whole lot longer to get there than we will, which leaves us time to practice takeoffs and landings in a number of places before heading toward our breakfast stop.
As with floats, much of the challenge-and fun-of flying an airplane on skis lies in the landing and takeoff portions of flight. There are no brakes, so a landing on ice can be an interesting experience. And, at least in theory, the plane will start moving as soon as the engine is turned on. I say "in theory," because in reality, one of the biggest challenges in ski flying can be getting the plane to break free of the snow, if it's been sitting in one spot for any length of time. Wiemann, in fact, makes a point of taking not only survival gear, but also snow shoes, a shovel, and a lightweight block-and-tackle with a 200-foot rope with him in the airplane, just in case.
But once the plane is moving, a takeoff from snow is very much like a takeoff from water. Once or twice, I had to rock the stick back and forward a bit to get the tail ski to break free of the snow and find the "sweet spot" where acceleration was the best. But the feel of the airplane tells you as much about when the plane wants to fly as the airspeed indicator does. It gets light on its step, and then just a little back pressure-at least in a Husky-elevates you into the sky.