The Aviat Husky is particularly well-suited for ski flying-at least in its category-both because of its sheer horsepower and because of its controllable-pitch prop, which allows best use of that horsepower for sticky takeoffs. (While Aviat does offer a smaller, 150 hp version of the Husky, most aircraft are produced with either 180- or 200-horsepower engines.) The 180 hp Husky I flew in Wyoming was also the first A-1B model I'd flown, and I found its flight controls far more pleasant and harmonized than its predecessor, an improvement Aviat says is due to new flap and aileron designs. The Husky also has a really good heater/defroster-another plus for a ski flying platform.
In some ways, landing on snow is reminiscent of a water landing, as well. "Ski flying is one of the last frontiers," Wiemann says, "because you're always landing on uncontrolled surfaces." Logs and potential hazards can hide under snow just as easily as they can hide below a lake surface, and an open snowfield can present the same depth-perception difficulties as a body of glassy-smooth water. The good news is, there are so many landing sites in a typical snow-covered landscape that you rarely have to deal with a crosswind.
The first step, according to Wiemann, is to make sure you can get out of any place you decide to go into, keeping in mind that takeoff distances will differ dramatically not only on different days, but even at different times of the same day, as snow conditions change. There's no guaranteed method for accomplishing that, but Wiemann typically starts by making a landing and takeoff from a broad, open area, and then flies back over and times how long it takes him to pass his tracks in the snow below. Then, when he's scouting a tighter potential landing site, he times how long it takes him to fly over it to ensure that it's at least as long as the first site.
"Whatever you think you need to take off, double it and you'll probably be okay," he says, with the caveat that "the snow in the trees tends to pile deeper than in broad, open areas, so conditions won't be the same everywhere." Consequently, Wiemann makes his first pass to any new landing site a "brush and go," adding power as soon as the skis contact the snow so he can get a feel for the grip and stickiness of the snow without sinking far enough to get stuck.
Clearly, ski flying is not for technology-dependent or strict, by-the-numbers pilots. But then, ski flying is almost exclusively the province of tailwheel pilots, who tend to fly as much by the seat of their pants as by the gauges, anyway.
Following Wiemann's advice, we first practice some landings on the open, snow-covered surface of the Palisades Reservoir before attempting shorter fields and strips. It seems to help to use a shallow approach-over a snowfield, the engine quitting on short final isn't a real worry point-so the rate of descent into the snow is gentle.
"You want to settle into it, more than land on it," Stu Horne tells me.
I reduce power on the Husky and flare slightly, waiting for the feel of snow on the skis. When we touch, I hear the scrape of snow on metal as much as I feel the accompanying deceleration, and I immediately add power to take off again. With each pass, I let the plane settle a little deeper into the snow before adding power, testing the Husky's ability to overcome the drag and get back in the air. By the second pass, I decide that I've never enjoyed landing so much. No bounce, no jarring slam onto choppy surface water. Just a gentle "swoosh" as the snow gives way and surrounds my skis with a whisper of friction as the granulated snow gently slows us to a stop. I could grow to like this, cold temperatures and all.
Satisfied that the snow conditions are okay, Wiemann radios that he's heading south, and we follow. We do landings at a couple of additional snow-covered grass strips and landing sites before circling around a short but wide-open area along a curve of the Salt River. I see Wiemann's buddies off to one side as I land and add a touch of power to keep the deceleration from being too abrupt-and to keep us moving for as long as we need to taxi.
I climb out of the plane to a scene straight out of an Orvis catalog. Mike is in hip waders, fly fishing for trout in the frigid but gently-flowing curve of the river. Rex, Randy and Casey are busy steaming the rainbow and cutthroat trout Rex has already caught, while Bill's sons Mitch and Bryce are busy getting eggs, hash browns and sausage prepared on a propane stove. Hot coffee and gravy are simmering over a robust, crackling campfire.
Rex hands me a cup of steaming coffee and tells me to pull a log up to the fire. As I do, my o-dark-thirty wake-up call and the chilly morning temperatures somehow seem less noteworthy. Was I really cold this morning? At the moment, I'm 100 percent warm and cozy, sitting by a fire and basking in the rays of a midday winter sun reflected off a brilliant white landscape.
I sip my coffee and look around at valley snowfields framed by two sets of mountain ranges, delicate willows bending over snow-draped river banks and a flock of geese taking off from a nearby grove of trees. Flying, by its very nature, entails any number and types of uncomfortable moments. But this one is simply … perfect. So is the trout, when Rex pulls it off the fire.
"I sent these guys in by truck and Snowcat, today," Wiemann tells me. "But we could have put all the stuff we needed for this in the Huskies and just flown it in, if we wanted to go someplace even more remote."
As many times as I have sworn I will never live in snow country again, I suddenly find myself fantasizing about living in Wyoming and owning a Husky on skis. And the flying valley tour we take later that day, alongside the unbelievably majestic peaks of the Grand Teton range, only reinforces that inclination.
By the time evening falls and the planes are back in the barn, the sky is clouding over again. More snow is on the way. But to Wiemann, that's a good thing. "Oh, man," he says with a gleam in his eye. "A good solid base with a few inches of fresh powder on top of it? That's perfection." Spoken like a true Wyoming ski bum. Which, of course, he is. A ski bum with the ultimate lift ticket and a magic set of skis.