Another consideration is the type of ski you should use. Just as there are many different types of snow surfaces you’ll encounter, there are different types of skis for the conditions. A long, wide ski is best for fresh powder, whereas a sharp, thin blade can improve performance on hard-packed snow or smooth ice. When taxiing in deep snow, you’ll have to add plenty of power to “get up on step,” similar to floatplane flying. If an airplane on skis is allowed to sink into soft snow, it can come to a halt and become immobile. That’s not such a big deal if you’re at your home airport and have friends around to help dig you out. If you’re alone in bush country, such a misstep can escalate into a life-threatening situation.
Aircraft skis can be constructed from a variety of materials, including composites, wood, aluminum or polyethylene plastic bonded to the skis’ bottom surface. Some skis replace the wheels by bolting in their place, while others clamp onto the tires with the benefit of a little extra shock absorption on landing. Prices vary widely, from about $5,000 for a basic pair of skis for light-sport aircraft from companies like TrickAir in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, to nearly $30,000 for top-of-the-range retractable skis from Wipaire in St. Paul, Minnesota. Of course, used skis can be had for much less, but keep in mind a cheap set of skis might need repairs or refurbishing.
One of your first decisions before buying skis will involve the choice of whether to fly with nonpenetration retractable skis, which can be extended for snow operations and raised by a hydraulic pump or crank for operating from hard surfaces, or penetration skis (also known as wheel-skis), a simpler design whereby the wheels extend partially below the skis at all times. This compromise eliminates the need for a mechanism to raise and lower the skis, but the tradeoff means less than optimal ground clearance on hard surfaces and extra drag from wheels on snow.
Once airborne, flying a skiplane isn’t much different from flying a conventional airplane, with the exception that speed and range can be reduced by the extra drag. Your POH may also specify a lower maximum cruise speed with skis installed.
As with any kind of winter flying, you’ll want to bundle up and carry basic emergency gear — including waterproof matches, signaling devices, a shovel, a flashlight and an arctic parka — in the event of a forced landing or in case the engine won’t restart after you’ve set down at a remote location.