When Life Gives You Snow

[Warning: this whole dang post is basically a PIREP (pilot report) that will probably bore the socks off of anyone who’s not an aviation junkie.]

The weather gods and calendar gods finally relented the evening before I had to leave Fairbanks. Chris Miller flies a Super Cub for ProFlite, and he keeps it on floats in the summer and skis in the winter. Given what I now know of Fairbanks, I should not have been surprised that in addition to its two main slabs of asphalt, Fairbanks International also maintains a skiway and a pond that summer serves as runway for float planes.

Mid Snowpocalypse

Readers will remember from our previous episode that I’d hoped to fly with Chris before, but well, there was that second crazy winter storm over the weekend. I’ll admit, that was a heck of a lot of snow, and even if it weren’t for the zero-zero weather, I’d had to dig my car out twice that morning trying to make it down the unplowed driveway (the second time with the help of a friendly neighbor with an ATV), and once more trying to get it back up (with help of different awesome neighbors. What – stay in and write, like you’re supposed to? I know, I know – hindsight…). But this time, in spite of the temps having dropped back into negativeland, the weather was gorgeous. Light winds, clear skies and, even with it only the start of April, dusk not setting in until well after 9 p.m.


We had to start out late because on weekdays, Chris has a day job. So we met at ProFlite around 5:30, pulled the covers off and preflighted the plane. Chris has all sorts of goodies on this Cub – big belly pod for gear, big prop for climb, big gear so as to not dig the big prop into the (bigger) ground. Skis that could float a plane twice its size.

While we preflighted and fueled, Chris talked me through “contingencies.” Whenever you do any backcountry flying, you prepare as though you’re expecting to get stuck wherever you’re going. In that belly pod he had a tent, sleeping bags, cookstove, snowshoes, shovel and a heckalot of other gear. And while the inside of a Super Cub can be surprisingly toasty, we wore all our snow gear (including winter hiking boots, knife, mini survival kit and one PLB each) because there are ways things can go wrong that don’t give you time to salvage things from a plane as you hurry out.

The thing we hadn’t counted on was that, while the good folks at Fairbanks International were moving snow around to clear things for the heavy iron to get off of 20R/2L, they weren’t taking particular care to ensure that those piles of snow left the skiway accessible from the east ramp. There was a bit of creative back and forth between Chris and the tower, and they eventually cleared us to depart off of Taxiway Charlie.

Taxiing out was a bit of a new exercise for me as in a ski plane on hardpack snow/ice, you have pathetically little steering and exactly zero brakes. You can only turn by adding enough power to get airflow over the rudder, but of course, that same airflow starts you moving forward in a hurry, and remember what I said about no brakes? I still found myself pressing down as hard as I could on the (disconnected) brake pedals all the way out to Charlie; Chris says that’s normal when you’re transitioning to skis.

Ready to go on Charlie (yeah, weird cell phone prop blur…)

Then there we were, pointed approximately southwest and approximately centered on Charlie. Chris explained that we were going to do the mag check on the go (remember: no brakes), and instructed me to throttle up to about 2400 rpm, lift the tail slightly and let her fly herself off when…whoa, that all happened pretty quickly. So there we were, climbing away at 80 mph and a deck angle that felt more appropriate for the space shuttle. I could get used to this airplane.

me: “Chris – this is an absolute blast!”

Chris: “You’ve mentioned that already.”

The river is less than a 1000′ beyond the airport fence, and once we got the handoff from tower, Chris let me take us down a little closer to “the deck” of river ice as we followed its curves south. We drilled on minimum altitudes and distances, knowing that in the event of an emergency, we could set down pretty much anywhere. We might not be able to take back off from where we set down, but remember: emergency. Winding our way past the birch and fir on the shore, we frequently found ourselves looking up at the fancy houses along the ridge. Regs say you must keep at least 500′ away from persons and property on the surface. Not necessarily 500′ above.

Chris let me mess around getting a feel for the plane, then it was time to find a place to set down on the river. Given the amount of snow and the temps, he assured me that I was going to get the full ski plane experience of checking out a new field. He picked a spot he knew in a side channel of the river, and we overflew it slowly at a couple of different altitudes. Chris pointed out that surface features that show up at one altitude may be completely invisible at others and that lower isn’t necessarily better.

On the third pass, he had me do a light tap and go, putting tracks down for maybe only 20 feet, not even letting the full weight of the plane settle on the snow. Did it hold? (this would be good) Did the tracks fill with water? (this would not be good). Another drag, this time putting the skis down for as long as we had on the runway, packing down a strip. Then another from the other direction, trying to hit the same two stripes, packing ourselves a runway. Only then would we come in for a final approach.

Come in flat, like a glassy water approach in a floatplane, aim for the tracks you’ve packed, let it settle, keep the tail up, up, bring the power back. No, really, bring the power back (I was having just a touch of sensory overload, and had kind of frozen up on the throttle until Chris jiggled it). Then tail comes down, crunch crunch crunch, and you’re stopped. Shut down the engine. Shut down the engine? Yeah, shut down the engine. Climb out. Climb out? Sure, climb out.

And sink way past your knees into the snow. There we were, in the dead silence of a glorious Alaskan spring day, up past our knees in snow, smack dab in the middle of a frozen river halfway to nowhere.

“Hey Chris – have I mentioned that I’m having a blast?”

“Only about ten times so far, but it’s okay. Keep it coming.”

Eventually it was time to get going again, and this was where things were going to get tricky. Normally we’d take off straight ahead, but I’d landed a bit longer than planned (remember that “bring the power back” part?), so we were going to have to turn around and take off in the other direction. To turn around, we’d be leaving our packed tracks and effectively be offroading with the skis in two foot snow of uncertain condition. That meant combinations keeping the tail up, adverse aileron and dramatic rudder action that felt a little beyond my comfort level, so I asked Chris if he’d take the stick for the maneuver.

Short story is that when Chris promised me the full skiplane experience, he meant it, so when we got wedged in a spot that had drifted deceptively, we got to shut down, dig the plane out with the shovel and snowshoes tucked in the belly, then turn it around around by hand and do some fancy footwork to power turn back into more even ground. Er, snow. We were both thoroughly covered in snow, laughing heartily at the little adventure by the time we both climbed back in and strapped in for our return, winding our way, this time upriver, low and not-so-slowly.

We popped up to pattern altitude to call into Fairbanks Tower, who informed us that they’d uh, made a mistake in clearing us to depart off the taxiway, and wouldn’t be able to allow us to land there (damn you, Harrison Ford!). There was a bit of on-air discussion as we putt-putted our way in until someone on frequency chimed in that in our absence, airport ground crew had cleared a path we could use to get off the skiway. It had less snow than the river, and we were pretty sure the asphalt below was smooth and going to hold our weight, so we skipped all the preliminary passes and dropped in for a relatively normal landing. A crazy no brakes no brake oh criminy no steering and no brakes set of turns through the maze of taxiways and very expensive aircraft off our wingtips, and we were back at ProFlite.

I told Chris a couple more times that I’d had a blast. He said he kinda got that idea, and agreed wholeheartedly.

Aerial view of our “assisted” turnaround

2 responses to “When Life Gives You Snow

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