By ROB STAPLETON
The Iñupiat of Alaska use more than two dozen words to describe different types of snow.
And while you don’t need to know all those words, it is important for pilots who fly in cold climates to know the various methods for taking off and landing in different types of snow and ice.
Famed Denali pilot David Lee has been flying year-round in Alaska for 39 years — longer than any other glacier pilot — with more than 20,000 glacier landings and 15,000 flying hours. Who better to ask for extreme winter weather flying advice?
“Every place you land is going to be different,” the veteran pilot says. “It’s not like pavement landings, where you have a routine surface.”
“And just like every airplane is different, so is flying on straight skis (no wheels) or wheel skis, or whether you’re flying a Piper Cub, Cessna 185, or a deHavilland Beaver — all are very different,” he adds.
Lee, who is co-owner with his wife, Holly Sheldon Lee, of Sheldon Air Service, an FBO at Talkeetna Airport (PATK) in Alaska, enjoys flying in winter. But he adds that sometimes it takes a whole day preparing the aircraft just to do a short flight.
“It’s dark by the end of the day, at 3 p.m., with little daylight,” he says, noting that Alaska has only three to four usable hours of daylight in December. “It’s safest flying into glaciers or snow operations during daylight.”
Before flying, seasoned Alaskans who aviate in the winter know that they have hours of preparation before ever turning a prop. Flying since 1980, Lee says flying in the winter is “no work for those not fit and ready to shovel snow.”
And you might not want to rush out to shovel the snow as soon as the storm subsides, he says.
“I usually like to wait 24 hours or a few days to let the snow settle, otherwise a short trip can turn into an overnight adventure digging out your airplane,” he says.
Once you are ready to fly, it’s time for the preheat and the preflight.
“You must treat your engine well — it’s your lifeline,” he says. “A good preheat is essential. Metal parts crack and break easier in the extreme cold. Do a thorough preflight, inspecting your ski cables, tailwheel ski, and tail section.”
Next, the wing, tail, and windscreen covers come off. Lee notes that all of these can be used in an emergency for sleeping or to keep you warm.
Ready to Fly
Judging your takeoff and landing distance is critical when operating off airport where the conditions are variable, according to Lee.
“It is important that a pilot test the conditions and be observant to the drifts, getting a feel for the snow, overflow, and what might be submerged under a blanket of snow — whether it’s a river, lake, ridge, or where no one has ever landed before.”
“A straight stretch of snow on a river might look like the place to land, but there could be thin ice under the snow, open water, or trees on the approach or departure ends of the spot,” he continues. “Also, temperature and altitude can cause longer takeoff distances difficult to gauge.”
The differences between snow types also can make a difference in landing distance, he notes. For example, fresh snow equals shorter distances, while light snow on a river or lake requires a much longer landing. Landings are “icy long” for corn snow, which is a granular snow formed by alternate thawing and freezing.
Landing on virgin snow? Do a touch and go first.
“Touch down just enough to check the surface, mainly to feel the snow type,” he explains.
He also recommends this for rivers and lakes, to see if the tracks turn dark, meaning they have filled up with water. This is commonly called “overflow.”
“Be extra careful to check for overflow,” he says. “Once you know you are in overflow, you either work fast or move the airplane to a different spot, or maybe even takeoff and get out of there.”
If you decide to stay where you landed, your work isn’t done.
“Get out and assess the environment,” Lee says. “Check the snow, get a feel for the conditions. I chop the ice to check thickness. There are always thick and thin spots on lakes and rivers, so maybe snowshoe around and check your takeoff area.”
If you are planning on spending the night after landing, it is very important to put tree boughs, limbs, or wood under your skis to take the ski bottoms off the snow, according to Lee. That’s because when you land, the underside of the ski is warmed from friction and once the airplane sits in snow, the ski will freeze into the surface snow.
“More than once I have seen other pilots with an ax or hatchet trying to break skis loose,” Lee reports. “No amount of RPM can do the job and you risk breaking a ski or even your landing gear.”
Ski flying requires special attention to your landing gear, whether you’re flying a conventional or tricycle gear, Lee adds.
“Snow and ice put stress on the struts, cables, even the underside of the airplane and the tail surfaces,” he says. “Check for ice stuck to the tailwheel assembly or even ice on the tail.”
Landing on a glacier or a mountain?
“Land uphill into an upgrade, keeping enough speed to negotiate a 180 turn in the snow before coming to a complete stop,” Lee advises.
No matter where you are flying or what phase of flight you are in — from taxiing to takeoff to landing — it is imperative to always think ahead, according to Lee.
“Where are you going?” he says to ask yourself. “And how, when, and where are you going to stop?”
“When landing or taking off on snow, avoid sharp turns, and accelerate and decelerate slowly to get a feel for what type of snow and what’s under it,” he concludes. “The amount of weight you have in the airplane also is a very important factor.”
Day is Done
Once you are done with a day of flying, it’s imperative that engine, windscreen, wing, and tail covers are installed.
Tying down the aircraft is critical. Use a rope or chain anchored into the snow with a snow screw or tied on to a log, a tree, or a snow machine.
Make sure to point the aircraft into the prevailing wind.
Never a dull flight
With nearly four decades of experience flying on skis, Lee enjoys flying in the winter in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
But even more than the stunning scenery or the challenging environment, what he really appreciates are the variety of people he meets as a pilot.
“It’s never a dull flight, whether it is dropping supplies to hunters, flying groceries to people living in the bush, delivering a mother and her newborn back home, or just sightseeing around North America’s tallest peak, Denali,” he reflects. “I am fortunate to encounter many interesting people in very remote fascinating areas that challenge me every flight.”