Feather-bed landing

March 1, 2003

AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines has landed on everything from skis to skids in his flying career.

"That's Long Lake over there — the crescent-shaped one. Let's go over there and land in some deeper snow."

Don DeRuiter's voice seems to emanate from within my head as the headset clamps around my ears, attempting to keep out the cold and the sound of the Piper J-3 Cub's 90-horsepower Continental. The little engine propels us well enough on this 14-degree Fahrenheit day, but offers not much more.

"You can slide that heat control in if it gets too warm up there," DeRuiter deadpans. I can imagine him back there grinning, knowing that my feet, like his, are blocks of ice; the heat control little more than a placebo.

The tip of Long Lake passes just off our right and I crank the Cub around for a downwind, trying to make my feet and hands work in coordination. It's been years since I've flown a Cub and it shows as the ball tries to exit its cage with every turn. Harmonious isn't a word often used to describe the flight controls of a Cub and the skis hanging below the wheels do nothing to improve their accord. With thousands of hours in Cubs and Cessna singles patrolling pipelines in the mitten of Michigan, DeRuiter knows every crossroads, every tree. "There's a stump sticking up over there in the right corner of the lake, we'll need to stay close to the shoreline." To me, the lake is a sea of white, but I'll take his word for it.

"Here's what we'll do," he continues. "Turn final and head over those tall trees, then drop it down just over the surface and fly along the curved shoreline until you're turned into the wind, and then just ease it down onto the surface. This will be just like landing on a feather bed."

Curved approaches just a few feet from the surface next to a shoreline of tall trees on a gusty day. Easy for him to say. He has some 3,000 hours on skis. I have, oh, about 90 minutes. Earlier I had landed on a couple of larger ice-covered lakes barren of snow. There, skiplanes must thread their way among huts housing ice fishermen, usually with a pickup truck parked next to them, and dodge brazen snowmobilers who want to race. "They usually beat the Cub," DeRuiter comments, a little dejectedly. "But," he adds, brightening a bit, "I usually win with the Super Cub."

Landing a skiplane on bare ice, well, let's just say you know you've arrived when you touch down. Like floats on a floatplane, the skis transmit all of the landing loads to the fuselage — no tires or struts to help cushion the impact. On the larger lakes, blown clear of snow, we could have cranked the skis up and landed on the wheels, but what's the fun of that?

A simple hydraulic system moves the skis. After taking off from DeRuiter's home base of Wexford County Airport in Cadillac, Michigan, I reach under the front panel and flip a switch to the left. A few pumps of a lever under the panel bring the skis down below the main gear tires. A smaller ski on a spring arrangement encompasses the tailwheel.

Back at Long Lake, which isn't all that long, I'm anxious to experience that feather-bed landing DeRuiter keeps talking about. This lake sits in a bit of a bowl with trees on each side, protecting the surface from the wind. The snow is pristine. The fishing must be no good here because no one has bothered to set up shop. The snowmobilers haven't discovered it yet either.

It's late Sunday morning and this is only my second flight of this January weekend of skiplane flying. All weekend long, lake-effect snows from Lake Michigan, 35 nautical miles to the west, regularly drop the visibility at the airport to less than VFR. Minutes later, blue skies and good visibility prevail. We sneak out during the breaks and head a few miles east, just beyond the reach of the lake-effect snows. Rick Durden, whose byline you see occasionally on these pages, arranges the skiplane weekend each January. He invites aviation buddies from Avsig, an aviation forum started on Compuserve and now also on the Internet, to rent skiplanes at DeRuiter's Northwoods Aviation in Cadillac. A half-dozen Avsiggers from Michigan and Illinois show up by land or by air. McGuire's Resort, just down the road from the airport, offers a plethora of winter activities for the kids and nonpilots. My kids get a taste of snow tubing and snowshoeing; others try cross-country and downhill skiing. One magical evening, moonlight filtered by falling snow casts a glow all around as a team of Belgian horses pulls a sleigh full of us across a snow-covered golf course. My wife, kids, and I all snuggle together. The kids catch snowflakes on their tongues. A Kodak moment if there ever was one.

During the day, the pilots immerse themselves in aviation. A lot of flying goes on. Some of it in airplanes; most of it next to the woodstove at Northwoods.

Like migratory birds, the group returns each summer to fly the same airplanes on floats. Then HQ is a different resort — this one right on the lake. The pilots beach the floatplanes at the resort. Someone always brings a boat or two for fishing or water skiing. Families hang out around the shaded picnic tables.

Looking down on lakes frozen solid enough to support double-cab pickups and my landings, it's hard to believe this place ever thaws out.

Thanks to a strong tailwind, Long Lake passes by quickly. I slide the carb heat on and turn base. So far, the landings — with DeRuiter's coaching — have been OK. My biggest challenge in flying the Cub is proper flight control manipulation while on the ground — or ice, as the case may be. Learning to fly in a kitelike Cessna 150, I remember my primary instructor harping on me about the same thing, but that was during the Carter administration. I've flown mostly high-performance, low-wing singles and twins the past 25 years. Flight controls — you use them in flight and mostly ignore them on the ground. Unless you're flying a taildragger. I vow to remember the wind.

Coming over the tall pine trees at the edge of the lake, I kick in left rudder and right aileron to slip the airplane down to the surface. The flat light in overcast conditions can make it difficult to judge height above the monochromatic snow. But right now the sun is shining and I take a second to look over the side. Looks about right. I urge the airplane around the bend in the shoreline to meet the wind head on. That's the nice thing about ski- and floatplane flying; you can often pick your landing line into the wind. DeRuiter, a master at reading the surface for wind direction, comments on the snow skipping across the surface parallel to us. I raise the nose a bit, pull the power back just a little more, and the airplane settles onto the snow. "You're down. Stick back. Power off," reminds DeRuiter. Like landing on a feather bed. He's right.

I'm so enamored of the landing that I forget about the wind as I turn the airplane to taxi back for takeoff. A gust starts to lift the right wing. DeRuiter snaps the stick over to force the wing down. I'm reminded that flying simple airplanes isn't always simple.

I taxi back a couple of hundred yards and turn into the wind. The run is a bit longer on snow than on ice, but we soon lift off. I glance over the side at our tracks in the otherwise undisturbed snow. Yes, I think, like so many other types of GA flying, this could become addictive.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.