The grass strip where I learned to fly in a Piper J-3 Cub in the late 1980s served as an ideal training environment for a new pilot — for about nine months out of the year, that is. In winter, the 1,900-foot turf runway would usually be covered in snow, ice, mud or sometimes a menacing combination of all three. As a result, the field would almost totally shut down for a stretch of time most winters from January through March, with only one airplane based there able to fly consistently: the little yellow J-3 Cub, its rubber tires replaced by a pair of stout wooden snow skis.
Nobody knows for sure when the first airplane equipped with skis took to the air, but we do know the practice of skiplane flying is about as old as aviation itself. If it’s indeed true that necessity is the mother of invention, the first skiplanes probably emerged right around the time early aviators in the 1910s starting getting stuck in the snow. Somewhat later, in 1955, New Zealander Sir Harry Wigley created the first set of retractable skis. Using a crude, hand-operated retraction system, Wigley’s invention allowed him to depart in his Auster Aiglet high-wing monoplane from the paved runway at Mount Cook and land on the Tasman Glacier, high up in New Zealand’s Southern Alps — with Sir Edmund Hillary riding along as one of his first passengers.
Today, skiplane flying is a popular sport in the United States among a relatively small but hearty group of aviators flying in several Northern states — and it’s an absolute necessity in many parts of the world when winter’s wrath strikes. Interestingly, the Federal Aviation Regulations don’t require any specific pilot training to fly skiplanes. Still, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a qualified instructor before trying it solo. Taking off and landing a ski-equipped airplane from packed snow isn’t much different from normal operations on a hard-surface runway. Belly-deep virgin snow, frozen lakes and sloping glaciers, on the other hand, can pose challenges that novice skiplane pilots will want to experience for the first time with an experienced flier.
One of the most challenging aspects of skiplane operations can be taxiing, especially in strong winds when ski-equipped airplanes behave more like seaplanes, with a tendency to weathervane. You’ll also need quite a bit more room to maneuver a skiplane than you might think. And you’ll sometimes even have to enlist help from wing walkers, such as when taxiing on glare ice in a strong wind.