Surface conditions close ice runway for season

February 14, 2011

A run of bad weather—including numerous heavy, wet snowfalls that left several inches of water trapped below the snow and above the frozen surface of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee—has forced the volunteers who operate an ice runway to declare the season over. The runway did not open to traffic this year.

“It’s been a horrible year. It hasn’t really been safe for us [to plow on the ice] or for pilots,” said Paul LaRochelle, volunteer manager of the Alton Bay ice airport—a seasonal public-use facility at the location of the Alton Bay Seaplane Base (B18). “This has happened a couple of times in the past—conditions have been such that we couldn’t open the runway. We had two or three storms with rain in it, and it’s soaked under the layers of snow out there.” The surface of the lake might look like normal from the air, LaRochelle said, but it’s not. “If you saw how thick the slush was underneath the snow, you’d understand why.

“It will definitely be back next season, so long as we don’t get another winter like this,” he added.

For much of this winter the volunteers who clear the runway could not get out to the runway area, he explained. “This year the ice hasn’t been thick enough. We’ve had a lot of breakthroughs out there.” Even ice-fishing houses can’t get out to their normal places, he added.

The ice airport has operated for more than 30 years and was the subject of a January 2010 AOPA Pilot story and video, “ The Iceway is Open.

LaRochelle provided updates on runway conditions on the airport’s information line at 603/875-3498, and the Feb. 9 recording sums it up. “The runway is still closed and will remain closed. As you know this has been a tough season for the ice runway. We’ve had thin ice with uneven surfaces…. Basically the ice surface is not in good shape at all for lading planes on. We’re sorry but everybody’s safety is first—pilots and [runway] maintenance alike. Mother Nature has not been on our side this year.”

Alton Bay’s Winter Carnival will be held as scheduled on Feb. 20, but without aircraft operations.

“We had over 700 planes come in last year—it was fantastic. This year—zero. I just didn’t feel as though it was safe. We have every intention of opening it up next year,” conditions permitting, LaRochelle said. “We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

LaRochelle said he is looking for snow-removal equipment that’s lighter, so his team can get on the ice safely earlier in the winter, and take care of the runway during storms. “Our trucks are too heavy. A plane weighs half of what our trucks weigh.”

Mike Collins

Mike Collins | Technical Editor, AOPA

Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.