As winter approaches and the airplanes are changed over from floats to skis, I’d like to pass on a lesson learned last winter while flying over the Kenai. Will Rogers said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Last winter I got a lot of experience.
Lakes on the Kenai Peninsula had record levels of snow last winter, attracting ski-plane pilots like hydrants attract dogs. As a pilot for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, I sometimes land in areas restricted to other pilots to assist biologists, conduct law enforcement investigations, or for search and rescue operations. Each landing away from the airport environment carries new risks.
One project in particular reminded me of Roger’s wisdom. The mission was to fly Tim Mullet, a Refuge biologist, to several lakes to set up environmental monitoring equipment. With so much snow, this seemed like a dream mission for any pilot on skis. After considering mission needs, we opted for the Cessna 185 on wheel-skis rather than the smaller and lighter Super Cub. The Cessna 185 is a very capable aircraft with a powerful engine, but it can be a bear in deep snow, especially with wheel-skis that don’t float well in deep powder snow. Landing is not the biggest challenge; it’s getting airborne again after we stop.
We got an early start to take advantage of the cooler morning air. Circling over the lake, I evaluated wind direction to plan my landing. Tim wanted to land close to the outlet stream, where there was open water. I studied the snow, searching for hidden logs or snow drifts. “Spider holes” in a shallow bay, formed by escaping methane gas, indicated thin ice. I told Tim we would “lay tracks” to be safe. Laying tracks, while carrying enough airspeed to still fly, allows me to feel the snow’s surface. I suspected overflow here.
GAS, UNDERCARRIAGE, MIXTURE, PROP — I recited the mnemonic as I touched down. I took off and came around for a second low pass. I touched down sooner than before to lengthen my track, but this time slowed the airplane to put more weight on the skis and pack the track harder. The tracks did not get dark centers, indicating no water overflow (or so I thought). With the risk evaluation complete, I decided to actually land. Since the skis generate heat as they travel across the snow’s surface, I came to a complete stop, paused for a moment, and then bumped the throttle again to unstick the bottoms from the snow.
This is when I really started to gain experience. The backs of the wheel skis immediately sank and the entire airplane dropped in the snow. I knew immediately we were in overflow. The snow was so deep that it took much longer than usual to absorb the water pressed above the surface of the ice by the aircraft’s weight. I added full power and tried to get the airplane moving. It didn’t budge. Adding elevator and rudder movements, I tried to break the skis from the snow but to no avail. “Well, we’re stuck,” I said to Tim.
I shut down the airplane and jumped out, immediately sinking into snow with water to my knees. I wear wool and NOMEX fleece in the winter months so no worries about hypothermia yet. The older, retired Refuge pilots had tried to convince me that a C-185 on wheel-skis required a large scoop shovel, ropes, and a come-along. I only had a shovel. I dug out the snow in front of the tail and made a packed snow ramp for the tail wheel to glide up if we got the airplane moving again. I also dug out the snow in front of the ski tips, trying to get the skis level again. Applying full power, the C-185 didn’t budge.
Tim laced on his snowshoes as I laid out Plan B. Tim packed the ski tracks while I scraped the frozen snow from the skis and tail wheel. With an empty passenger seat, the C-185 started to move when I applied full power. I was determined not to let the skis fall out of the hard-packed tracks as I used the rudder pedals to steer. I taxied past Tim but didn’t stop. He was supposed to snowshoe toward the lake center where it should be free of overflow, but it was also further away from where the biologist had wanted to install his equipment. I had allowed my passenger to convince me to land at a location which I thought was marginally safe. Now we were both in trouble — I was in the airplane and he was outside on snowshoes.
Approaching the end of the packed ski tracks, the trees loomed larger as the C-185 gained speed. Holding the wings level, I kept from pulling back on the yoke, an action which would create more drag if the aircraft wasn’t ready to fly. As I reached the go-no-go point, the gauges indicated the airplane should be capable of flight but I continued to hold it level to gain more speed.
Reaching for the Johnson bar, I used the flaps to break the skis free of the snow. The airplane was in the air but not ready to climb yet. I held the airplane in ground effect until I saw 70 knots indicated airspeed. The Cessna should be very capable of climbing at this airspeed but, easing back the yoke, it felt like it was going to fall back to earth. I pushed the elevator forward again anticipating flying into the tree tops. A controlled flight into trees is often a survivable crash, unlike a low-altitude stall, statistics proven to be true every year in Alaska.
The three-blade prop turning at high RPM and the engine at maximum manifold pressure, the STOL-equipped C-185 barely cleared the tree tops. I continued straight ahead knowing that any bank might cause a stall. The airplane was tremendously heavy from the slush frozen on the skis.
Meanwhile back at the lake, Tim watched the Cessna fly out of sight. Figuring I had abandoned him, Tim abandoned our original plan and walked back to the bay with thin ice and overflow. I hadn’t forgotten him — I just needed a few minutes to “fly the airplane.” Life can get busy in the cockpit quickly and pilots need to remember that flight basics are the most immediate life threats. The Cessna was heavy and I suspected it was forward of the center-of-gravity range limits because of the heavily-iced skis. Using a shallow bank and slight control inputs, I turned the airplane back toward the lake.
Flying low, I laid and re-laid ski tracks in the area where I wanted to pick up Tim. With each pass I lengthened the tracks and packed them more firmly. I landed and taxied past Tim. Pulling the throttle back to idle, I leaned across the cockpit and threw open the passenger door. “Get in,” I shouted. Tim knew the drill — stay behind the strut, seat belts on, lock the door, and don’t touch the controls, but he paused at the door to clean off his snowshoes. “Just throw them in,” I told him. “Let’s go.”
I could feel the airplane settling into the snow again. The weight of the airplane compressing the insulating snow will draw moisture to the surface were it will freeze.
Pilots will often block their skis up on sticks of firewood if they leave their airplane parked for very long. I could hardly wait to go while Tim’s cold hands fumbled with his seat harness. I reached across the cabin to make sure the door was locked and then added full throttle. Having burned off fuel while laying tracks, I knew the lighter airplane was offset by Tim’s added weight. This time, though, we were starting the takeoff with the skis still on top of the snow.
As we returned to the Soldotna airport, Tim reminded me that I was landing with wheels this time. I tell my passengers to remind me as part of crew resource management. They have a shared interest in a safe flight. Nevertheless, as pilot-in-command, I learned that if my gut is telling me that something is a bad idea, I need to trust that instinct. That gut instinct is experience telling you to use good judgment. Be safe out there!
Shay Hurd is a law enforcement officer and pilot at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.