A Ski Fly-In Helps in Finding Happiness in the Suffering

When it comes to flying in the winter, Minnesotans are resilient and adaptable.

You know that you will be with people who love flying when their airplanes are on skis, and this fly-in is proof of that. [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes. I landed in Minnesota for the first time nine years ago. The reason? I was going to do my first air-to-air photo shoot, and there are few places better than Minnesota if you are going to shoot an amphibious aircraft like the Grumman Albatross. There are literally thousands of lakes upon which you can land.

I immediately fell in love with the place, its warm summer temperatures, sunny blue skies, and—the best—its people. Friendly, welcoming, happy people! I made many new friends and kept returning every summer, always mentioning to those I visited that I wanted to move here someday. And my friends—being good friends, kept telling me—"you better visit in winter first." Temperatures in Minnesota range from the 80s (Fahrenheit) in summer to the low 10s during the winter, and in the north can go even lower.

[Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

During the winter, the land of 10,000 lakes becomes the land of 10,000 frozen lakes.

I finally moved to Minnesota this year, just as winter started. As the temperatures started to go down, I was already wearing a sweater while the thermometer showed 50 degrees F. While wearing my best warm clothes, I could observe some strange behavior among the locals: they were still in shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops. What is wrong with you people? It is cold! 

Without knowing it, Minnesotans were showing me how resilient and adaptable they can be and, at the same time, how they squeeze the fun out of any sunny day. And that is how flying is approached by the locals in love with it.

In summer, you will see a lot of wheels left at the hangar, and airplanes become taller in their floats. As soon as those lakes start to freeze, the floats are removed, and straight skis are installed. Any day over 32 degrees F feels like summer, and people will run to the airport with shovels to remove the snow in front of the hangars, and fly in t-shirts.

[Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

One of those adaptable Minnesotans is Paul Jackson, owner of the Jackson Seaplane Base in northern Minnesota (MN61), a small seaplane base with a hangar, dock, and cabin. It’s an excellent place to take a break or escape from bad weather—or make an emergency bathroom stop—last time to pee before Canada! So what do you do when your "runway" freezes during the winter? Easy, you start a ski fly-in.

Jackson, a retired airline pilot, started his Ski Fly-In eight years ago. Pilots will do anything for free food, so he began by offering those who flew in a bowl of chili. Eight brave pilots showed up to that first meeting, which quickly snowballed to up to 70 airplanes in the following years.

[Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

This year's weather couldn't be better: a gorgeous sunny day, temperatures in the 30s, and a packed-solid snow runway. For those without skis but at least 850-series tires, there was an option to land at the snowmobile trail that was rock solid, at least until I left the trail to taxi back and got stuck in the snow with my Cessna 170. Good thing I had a crew onboard that quickly jumped to the rescue, pushing the 170 to better footing.

All kinds of taildraggers (and a brave Cessna 172) showed up to enjoy a warm meal provided by Steve, Kathi Schwister, and TrickAir Skis. Cubs, Luscombes, Huskies, Cessnas, and Andy Brown’s spectacular Beaver, complete with a crew of six—all landing on the frozen Horseshoe Lake with around 17 inches of solid, thick ice.

[Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

This was my first landing on the snow and with big wheels (850s). I talked with Paul several times to confirm that this was safe, and he told me, "go for the snowmobile trail, and you will be fine." Ski flying is not for the faint of heart. Based on a recent fly ice-fishing trip with three other airplanes, I can tell you it is 90 percent hard work and 10 percent fun. The 10 percent fun is celebrating with your friends when you finally manage to start the engine or unstick the airplane from the frozen slush. While it is hard work, it is also definitely rewarding and one of those bucket list items that every adventurous pilot should try.

[Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

My day ended in a spectacular way doing an air-to-air photo session with Andy's Beaver, and as he tells me, "the key to Minnesota winter is to find happiness in the suffering!" And they know how to do that.

You know that you will be with people who love flying when their airplanes are on skis, and this fly-in is proof of that. Until next year!

I am 48 years old, airline pilot since I was 23. My first airliner was the 737-200 Classic, and that happened when I had 252 hours of total flying time! Latest aircraft, Captain of the Airbus A330. 14,000 hours and not counting anymore! I have experience in 41 different airplanes, mostly vintage and tail-wheel airplanes. My favorite one is my own 1952 Cessna 170B! Based at Poplar Grove C77. And of course besides flying, I have been an aviation photographer (and occasionally writer) for the past eight years.

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