During the winter months, when the temperatures drop in Northern climes, the sky turns gray and days are cut short as the sun spends more time on the opposite side of the equator, there are fewer opportunities to fly for most of us. Airplanes begin to collect dust, and some engines even get pickled as owners succumb to the fact that they won’t fly for several months.
For other airplane owners, the coldest season presents some of the most enjoyable flying experiences of all. These pilots trade their wheels or floats for skis, and take to the skies with a whole new perspective. “It’s a great way to fly year-round,” says Steven Schwister, owner of TrickAir Skis. Fields, dirt roads, meadows, lakes and even rivers become prime makeshift airstrips for exploration.
Ever since I first saw an airplane equipped with skis, I wanted to experience what it was like to fly one. Years ago, I chartered a ride out of Talkeetna, Alaska, riding in the back seat of a Cessna 185 along with mountaineers heading to the Denali base camp. Flying over stunning glaciers and through narrow rock gates to land on a sloped, snow-packed field brought to light the breadth and breathlessness of exploration that airplanes fitted with skis can provide.
It’s February and I’m on my way to try my hand at ski-flying for the first time. Schwister planned a sky fly-in with Paul Jackson, owner of the Jackson Seaplane Base on Horseshoe Lake, near McGregor, Minnesota. The whole idea of having a fly-in on a frozen lake sounds a bit insane.
When Schwister and I spoke in early January, it was minus-9 degrees Fahrenheit in McGregor, and the ice was plenty thick for a safe event. But the weather gods had other ideas, and the temperatures rose into the 40s, with low clouds, rain and fog predicted for the weekend of the planned fly-in, proving how unpredictable ski-flying conditions can be.
Fortunately, there was another quick change in the weather and the fly-in was rescheduled the following week. I re-booked my tickets, bundled up and headed north to Minnesota.
While ski-flying necessitates specific skills, there is no such thing as a rating or endorsement required to fly an airplane with skis as there is for seaplanes and tailwheel-equipped airplanes. But even though you can legally do it without training, you would be foolish to try. Unfortunately, official ski-flying instructors are rare. Many pilots, such as Schwister, gain experience from more experienced friends.
Getting some official flight instruction is a much better idea. There are some seaplane schools in Northern climates that offer skiplane instruction. Surfside Seaplane Base in Lino Lakes, Minnesota; Romeo Aviation in Cumberland, Wisconsin; and Alaska Floats and Skis in Talkeetna, Alaska, are some examples of places where you can get excellent training.
Before you drop into an unfamiliar area with a skiplane, consider this admonishment: “It’s easy to get in, but it’s sometimes hard to get out,” Schwister warns. The Saami language of northern Scandinavia has more than 175 words for snow, according to a study by a professor at the Saami University College in Guovdageaidnu, Norway — which means there are essentially 175 ways to get in trouble in the snow.
As with any nonairport landing, you should overfly the area and look for anything that could present a hazard. Evaluate the best direction for landing based on obstacles, wind and slope. Once you have committed to a specific landing area, make a light touch-and-go, climb out and look back at your tracks. Dark areas in the tracks indicate water underneath, which could present a major hazard.
If you plan to park, retract the skis if you can, or place wood, plastic or some type of oil under the skis to prevent sticking. Plan for the worst by packing extra clothing and survival gear. You may end up spending the night outside in unforgiving conditions. Also, make sure you have tools to remove snow and ice from the airframe. FAA regs require the tail and wing surfaces to be completely frost-free before flight.
When my alarm clock goes off at 6:30 a.m., it is still pitch black outside the Sandy Lake Lodge, where I spent the night. I don five layers on top, two on my legs, thick winter boots, gloves and a hat before I brave the elements and head out to the Jackson Seaplane Base. Schwister, Jackson, his son Blake and a couple of their friends are already busy organizing door prizes and food for the fly-in.
To provide an organized environment for the arriving airplanes, we all get to work building a temporary runway on the lake, constructed out of a couple of poles, a pile of sizable pine branches and an orange rubber fence held down by firewood marking the threshold at the start of the “runway” — well … let’s not exaggerate. It’s a “landing area.”
With temperatures in the low 20s, clouds around 1,200 feet, light snow and a biting breeze, conditions are not ideal for this Southern California resident. I am definitely unprepared and have to move around to prevent myself from congealing. I wonder if any airplanes will show up.
Sure enough, the sound of aircraft engines soon fills the overcast skies. Cessnas, Huskys, Scouts and Pipers appear over the barren deciduous trees and drop in on our provisional landing strip, some with fixed skis, some with retractable skis and some with penetration skis. The surface of the lake is a mixture of snow and ice, hard enough for airplanes without skis to land. Several pilots with tundra-tire-equipped airplanes and some with normally configured airplanes join the party as well.
Many pilots pull out engine covers to keep their airplanes cozy while they enjoy some tasty chili, hot chocolate and good conversation. Starting a cold engine in conditions like this could produce damage. (More on that in the linked article on preheating the engine.)
It should come as no surprise that the only tricycle-gear airplanes that show up have tires. While there are airplanes that fly with a ski on the nosewheel, the setup is problematic. The nosewheel can catch in the snow and tumble the airplane. Also, snow has abrasive properties that can damage the prop, Schwister says, so it’s better to keep it as far away from the surface as possible. For these reasons, most skiplanes have conventional gear.
A couple of A-1 Huskys show up, with Andy Brown and Ann Heimbach at the controls. They offer to take photographer Jim Koepnick and me up for some aerial pictures. With all the clothes and heavy boots, my entry into the back of Brown’s airplane is far from graceful. But once in the seat, I am cozy. Brown shows me how his retractable RF skis work. It’s a very simple hydraulic system that is electrically actuated through a switch on the panel.
We take off and, as I look out, it becomes evident why Minnesota is called the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The landscape is splattered with them. Trucks and small shacks dot the lakes as people mill around in their quest to fish for culinary treasures. Frozen-lake activities unsurprisingly are popular in the winter in this Northern state.
The light is not ideal, but we spend some time flying in formation for photos. The landing back at the seaplane base is similar to a tailwheel landing, but with a lot more noise as we skid over the frozen ice.
After I maneuver myself out of the Husky, I squeeze into a 1994 American Champion Scout equipped with TrickAir’s penetration skis, with owner Rick Ashback in the back. We take off and leave Horseshoe Lake to practice takeoffs and landings away from the fly-in.
As we evaluate a landing area, our greatest concern is obstacles and surface conditions. We check out a finger of Big Sandy Lake where the snow-covered ice looks smooth. Ashback notices water at the end of the finger and grass protruding through the ice. This could spell trouble, and we decide to head over to an area near some ice fishermen, knowing they have already tested the ice with their trucks.
But there are other dangers lurking. Deep tracks have formed where vehicles drove through the softer surface when warmer temperatures prevailed. As the temps dropped, the tracks formed rock-hard ridges that could damage the skis or airplane. Finally, we find a reasonably smooth area near an island, which helps provide critical depth perception in an otherwise mostly white environment that makes it difficult to determine where the surface is. We did several fun landings with taxi-backs for practice.
Taking off and landing on ice is much like doing so on water, though any ridges produce a much more noticeable response in the airplane than waves do. The sound of the skis scraping on the frozen surface makes it absolutely evident when you touch down. There are no brakes, and the airplane weather-vanes. Turning can be a challenge, but the rudder becomes effective with just a bit of speed. The tailwheel comes off quickly during the takeoff to prevent damage or sticking, and soft-field technique gets the airplane off the ice in a hurry.
Other than the retraction mechanism on the Husky, I found the performance of the different skis to be similar. One day, I hope to experience landing in deeper snow. Unlike with ice, the airplane settles smoothly, as if tucking itself into a bed of cotton, I was told.
But thicker snow requires new skills and considerations. One day, Brown found that the skis provided much greater flotation than his shoes.
“I got out of the airplane and sunk in the snow to my waist,” he said.