The iceway is open

If you plow it, they will come

January 1, 2010

Picture this movie scene: The local airport has closed down. At a meeting of area businesspeople, everyone agrees the airport was a boon for the local economy and a much-loved attraction that should be restored. Three men volunteer to resurrect the airport and keep it open.

They go to the aeronautics division of the state’s department of transportation and find everyone there helpful and enthusiastic. The bureaucrats even lend the volunteers equipment and expertise. The airport reopens. The townspeople rejoice. The pilots come and eat pancakes cooked by the local business association.

Yeah, right. That’s too hokey for even an after-school special.

Except that’s exactly what happened at Alton Bay, New Hampshire. The twist here is that the airport is only open for a couple months each winter. And the entire airport—runway, taxiway, parking area—is made of ice.

How to build a runway

Alton Bay Seaplane Base (B18) is an official public airport that you can find on the upper half of the New York Sectional. It’s at the south end of Lake Winnipesaukee (pronounced Win-uh-puh-sock-ee by the locals) but doesn’t see much use by seaplanes because of a high volume of boat traffic and the lack of a good ramp.

Each winter, however, the lake freezes solid enough to drive a snowplow on it. For the past 30 years, a succession of volunteers has plowed out of the snow the Alton Bay ice runway. That was until 2007, when Glen Horne of Ossipee Valley Aviation finally called it quits.

Paul La Rochelle has a house just off what is the approach end of Runway 1 when the ice airport is open. “Glen just got tired of the time commitment,” he said. Given that Horne lived more than 30 miles from the lake and did the plowing before and after going to work, that’s not surprising.

La Rochelle, and his friends Steve Bell and Roger Sample, were the three volunteers who tried to get the airport reopened in 2008. “There was a general consensus in the town that they wanted to see it happen again,” La Rochelle said. “We got talking among the business association and decided to see what we could do. Then we met with the New Hampshire DOT and they said someone had to be the airport manager. Everyone pointed at me.”

The contact at the New Hampshire DOT asked not to be named, but he did say, “We’re adamant in preserving history as well as all the airports in New Hampshire. We just wanted to make sure it was being properly managed. It was kind of a whirlwind to get them educated.”

None of the three men was a pilot or knew anything about radio procedures, nontowered airport operations, airport markings, or the notam system. But the New Hampshire DOT officials explained what needed to happen and gave the team a handheld radio, an answering machine (so pilots could call and get the latest conditions of the runway), three “active runway” signs, a windsock, and a blueprint showing where to plow. La Rochelle put the answering machine on the little-used fax line in his house.

The blueprint is an important part of this process, because the runway has to fit into a specific spot. It can’t be too far up the lake because ice ridges form at Sandy Point, which would create ramps and gaps in the runway. It can’t be too close to the hills or houses, but it also can’t be right in the center of the bay because that area is filled with ice-fishing shacks (known as bob houses). The exact length and width of the runway depends on the snowpack and the conditions when it’s first plowed, but the general result is a 2,400- to 3,000-foot, north-south runway that’s about 75 feet wide with one taxiway on the east side and a parking area on the south end.

The ice must also be thick enough to support the plow trucks, which are La Rochelle, Bell, and Sample’s personal vehicles. That means at least 14 inches of ice, a depth that is usually reached by early January.

A local attraction

Gillian Marine is a family business on the south end of Alton Bay that serves the summer boat traffic on the lake. The ice airport was actually created by Ernie Gillian Sr. because he wanted a place to put his Commander 112 near his office.

This evolved into the Alton Bay Flying Club, a group that plowed and managed the ice airport for many years. Ernie Gillian Jr., who now runs Gillian Marine, noted that even after the flying club stopped doing the runway, someone else has always picked it up. “The runway has sort of always been part of winter around here.”

If you walk out on the lake among the bob houses and talk to folks—there are at least some people fishing out there almost any time of day—you generally get the same message. Over the years, there has been occasional conflict between the ice anglers and the ice aviators. In 2006, an airplane’s wing actually hit a bob house that was too close to the runway. Now the bob houses are required to be at least 150 feet away from the runway.

But the majority of the pedestrians on the ice near the airport welcome the airplanes. As bob house owner Warren Dahl puts it, “Everyone is out here for the bob house experience. The airplanes just add to it. Anyone who’s doing serious fishing goes up the lake.” John Melatchy, another angler, said “There’s a place for everyone.”

The big event that really draws both townsfolk and pilots is the winter festival. For one day in February, the ice is crowded with visitors eating local food, playing games, and watching the Alton Bay bed race (entries range from cribs to four-posters with prizes for style as well as speed). Last year the festival was on a day with perfect weather and the ramp was packed. More than 70 airplanes flew in. At one point there were 41 airplanes on the ice, seven of which were sitting on the taxiway waiting for a place to park. A more normal count for a weekend day with good weather would be five or so airplanes on the ice at any given time.

Ice runway operations

Step one for anyone planning to fly in is checking to see if the runway is open. A snowfall, a warm day creating slush, or cracks forming in the ice could close it overnight. Because B18 is an official airport, it’s in the notam system; however, you shouldn’t count on a closure notam. The B18 notam will give you the phone number to call and you’ll hear La Rochelle’s voice on that DOT answering machine. If the runway is open, you’ll want to check the weather at Laconia, New Hampshire (LCI), which is about 10 miles northwest up the lake. The nearest applicable TAF would be from Concord, New Hampshire (CON), about 21 miles southwest of Alton Bay. Both airports have instrument approaches and are within easy driving distance of Alton Bay.

The runway at Alton Bay is plowed for 1 and 19. Runway 1 is the preferred calm-wind runway. Most often the wind is from the north since it’s funneled down the valley over Alton Bay. The bay is in a shallow but narrow valley and the plowed section is on the east side of the bay. This means left traffic for Runway 1 puts you over the hills on the west side of the valley with a good view of the runway. Watch for turbulence off those hills in a west wind.

You’ll line up for final over the land and cross Route 11 and some power lines with orange obstruction balls just before the shoreline. Watch for pedestrians and snowmobiles. If you have to go around, there are miles of lake ahead of you northbound. This is another reason takeoff and landing north is preferred. If you land south, you do have a bit of a climb to clear the low hills.

A runway length of 3,000 feet may seem like plenty, but remember that braking action is poor to nil. Plan for a long rollout. Expect the slickest runway when the ice looks deep blue or black from the air. A light dusting of snow actually helps with rolling resistance and shorter stops.

Crosswinds can be tricky, as I discovered. The forward slip to a one-wheel landing was no problem. But when the other wheels touched down, the airplane began to slide sideways (downwind) even though it was pointed straight down the runway. The fix ended up being a jab of left rudder to point the nose about 20 degrees off the centerline and short touch of power. The airplane then tracked down the centerline—skidding slightly sideways—until it slowed enough that the weight on the wheels got the airplane rolling straight again.

Don’t be too intimidated by the ice surface, though. A normal landing accomplished with average skill will be just fine for most days at Alton Bay. And, no, you don’t need to touch down especially softly. Even an extra-firm arrival won’t break through the ice. At taxi speeds, the runway is really no different than any icy airport surface. Taxi south of the runway threshold to a wide area and park.

Bring chocks, because there won’t be any tiedowns. Also wear boots or some other water-resistant shoes. Yes, the runway is frozen, but there’s snow and slush around and some liquid water on the surface on a sunny days. Once you’re on the lake, it’s a three-minute walk to places where you can sit down and warm up. When you do, mind the signs telling you to stay clear of some docks. These docks have bubblers that keep the ice thin near them and it’s not safe to walk there. Don’t worry if you hear a loud crack or boom from the ice now and then. Frozen lakes just do that.

Many pilots frequent Shipley’s Restaurant on the Pier, which is in a big, red building opposite the aircraft parking area. The Cold Bay Diner is nearby as well. Both have good sit-down eating. If you don’t see La Rochelle, Bell, or Sample out on the ice, you’re likely to find them at Amy Lynn’s, the corner store at the south end of the lake. The store is open “Seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.” Amy Lynn’s has the normal assortment of food and goods you’d expect from an old-fashioned New England general store. It also has a deli counter and grill with a few tables for eating. If you fly in for the winter festival, traditionally there’s a pancake breakfast on the ice.

There are a few other shops nearby if you’re visiting on a non-festival day and want something to do. If you’re flying in with kids, or have an interest in theatre, check out Donna La Rochelle’s shop near Shipley’s called Puppet Patter Plus. You might even get Donna to perform for you. She’s a ventriloquist. Even if you just fly in for the ice-runway experience and don’t stay long, consider stopping by Amy Lynn’s and making a donation in the bucket on the counter to help pay for the fuel used to plow the runway. Remember, this is all volunteer.

Nothing lasts forever

Pilots fly up to Alton Bay from as far away as New York or Pennsylvania just for the novelty of the $100 hamburger on ice. Plenty of them do it in faster aircraft such as Bonanzas, Mooneys, and Cirruses as well. But if you want to make your trip to the last official ice airport in the continental U.S., don’t procrastinate. While Alton Bay Ice Airport can remain open until as late as mid-March, a big snowfall or a warm spell can close it earlier with little warning. Last winter, 12 inches of wet snow closed it for the season on February 22.

The runway was such a success last winter that the plan was to extend the taxiway and widen the parking area this season. There is even talk about putting in some seaplane moorings to encourage the summer aircraft traffic to come back.

La Rochelle says he has no regrets for all the time and expense put into keeping the runway open. “We just love to see the airplanes come in and out. And [the pilots] feel happier with an area that accepts and wants them.”

While standing around on the ice drinking coffee from Amy Lynne’s with La Rochelle and Bell, the question came up of whether they would do all that plowing again next year. After the long pause that’s almost always a part of New England conversations, La Rochelle simply answered, “I ain’t going anywhere.”

Bell added, “Me neither.”

For more information on Alton Bay and for the 2010 dates of the Winter Festival, call 603-875-3498. Jeff Van West is a flight instructor in Maine and editor of IFR magazine .