Photography by Cameron Lawson
The pristine beauty of flying over the snowscape in a skiplane has many alluring qualities. Whether it is a day trip for ice fishing or an outing to a warm cabin on a frozen lake, getting there is half the fun. Who doesn’t like to observe the sleeping Earth under a blanket of snow?
Viewing animal tracks, unusual textures, and winter shadows can be almost hypnotic from the aerial perspective. The air is often smoother in the winter. The security of skis for landing gear gives you more options for off-airport landings. A skiplane offers accessibility to places at which you can land only when snow is present. Frozen lakes provide ideal open spaces to practice ski training. You can access your favorite winter mecca to enjoy backcountry skiing or snowshoeing.
The preflight should cover all of the essentials that you already examine, as well as an in-depth look at the skis. Examine the wire cables, bungee cords, metal springs, tabs, and connecting points as well as the bottom surface of the ski. Skiplane landings can be on uneven surfaces and variable textures/thickness of snow. Because of the torque on the axle of the landing gear, examine this area closely for cracks and signs of wear. For example, straight skis are connected directly to the axle and do not have the absorption quality of tires. Thus, landing on ice and hard snow surfaces means direct contact with the ground. Make sure all the nuts and bolts are secure and the bungee cords are in good condition.
Remove all ice from the airplane and don’t even think to take off with frost on your wings. Even when you remove wing covers, ice buildup can hinder free movement of flaps, ailerons, and tail feathers.
The Lycoming manual suggests that you preheat your engine when temperatures are lower than 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The oil needs to be warm before startup to properly lubricate all the internal parts. Proper preheat prevents serious wear and tear on the engine. Use an engine cover or sleeping bag placed over the cowling to insulate the engine. You may already have an electric plug-in heater, hair dryer/car heater, or a 100-watt light bulb. The hair-dryer method circulates the heat and warms the fluids and engine parts. An oil pan heater is a glue-on hot pad type. A Tanis heater is a thermostatically controlled heating element bolted onto the engine.
When you venture away from the comforts of electricity, you must use your camping savvy and equipment. Old-timer skiplane pilots had a unique way to deal with freezing temperatures. They simply drained the oil into a can, which could be brought indoors for the night. The next morning, after warming it up on the stove, they poured the warm oil back into the engine when they were ready to fly. This technique is outdated and better ones now exist.
When there is no electricity available, a compact backpacker stove placed in a 12-inch can (with air holes drilled in the can) underneath the engine works with a small stovepipe that directs the heat into the engine cowling. A catalytic heater also provides a good heat source without an open flame. If you do use a stove that has a flame, stay close to monitor the flame and have a fire extinguisher handy. When you have properly preheated the airplane, you can then start the engine with less risk of causing unnecessary damage. Be sure to take the time to let the engine warm up before taking off.
Skiplanes, like floatplanes, do not have brakes. However, liquid water has more resistance than frozen water. Depending on the quality of the frozen surface, there are different things to keep in mind. Ice tends to be more slippery than packed snow, and you must be ready to cut the engine with the mixture if you are sliding where you don’t want to go. Those who operate on ice often have more than the usual number of bolts on the underside of the ski in order to increase resistance.
A lot of snow offers other challenges. You must taxi with enough power so that you don’t simply sink in too much and get stuck. Making a turn in the deep stuff is like making a step-taxi turn in a seaplane. In a left turn (the preferred turn because of torque from the prop), you push the stick forward while adding power (to lift the tailwheel/ski up and somewhat out of the snow) and to the right.
If you have limited space, making a tight turn requires a burst of power. Be careful of other airplanes and know your limitations. It's best to try this technique first on a lake with lots of room.
Lakes have their challenges, too. Most experienced skiplane pilots can tell you about getting stuck in overflow, which is water that shows up even in cold temperatures when the ice sags and water surfaces. The white military “bunny boots” are ideal for even spring flying because they’ll keep your feet warm even when wet. Cold feet can lead to some real winter survival situations if you do get stuck. Your instructor can teach you a lot of tricks about taxiing a skiplane that will save you from making costly mistakes early on.
Taking off on pavement with wheel skis is the same as a regular soft-field takeoff. Some airports will designate specific areas on the runway for ski operations, letting the snow remain on the runway. If taking off in deeper snow, use the same technique as a soft field takeoff in which the objective is to keep the tailwheel from digging into the snow while maintaining maximum angle of attack to become airborne. If you are flying in flat light, make sure that you have climbed out well above the ground before making a turn.
Start off conservatively. Practice your initial landings at a place where other airplanes have packed a runway and there is a lot of room to land and come to a complete stop. Remember, there are no brakes, and surfaces will vary on how long you will slide before stopping. Ice may require that you have a longer distance than a landing zone with two feet of fluffy snow. If the skis are retractable, lower them before landing. Place a placard on your panel as a reminder.
As you begin taxiing, taking off, and landing on snow, you’ll see that snow comes in many forms: sticky, soft, mushy, corn snow, cold smoke, dense, drifting, water saturated, deep, fluffy, crusty, compacted, grabby, et cetera.
When landing on a lake, you must also judge the quality of the ice. In the early winter, dark ice is more solid, while white ice is still in the process of freezing. In spring, the opposite applies. White ice is harder, while dark ice is saturated with water and is in the melting process.
Just as floatplane pilots fly low passes over landing areas to examine the water, so must skiplane pilots. Snow can hide obstacles and appear quite different than it is. There can be wind drifts, buried obstacles, and even overflow on lakes. What may look like an open bowl of fresh powder can have a tricky crust layer that may be grabby. An untracked landing zone can look so good and be so bad. So the technique is to make a passing touch and go first, without the intention of landing. This is a power management skill where you allow the skis to touch down, but not sink into the snow—make a track and then add power and become airborne. The point here is to make a few passes so that you pack a runway, test the snow quality, and give yourself some visual reference. Then ask yourself if this a good place to land. When in doubt, don’t! Anticipate getting stuck at least once—it's why you so carefully prepared your winter survival kit.
A difficulty in landing on snow is the flat light and poor visibility and depth of field, which can be difficult to determine. Why not pack some pine boughs to throw out the window over your landing area to provide a reference point?
For every landing, set a predetermined landing abort point. This takes the guesswork out. You want to avoid the last-second go/no-go decisions that so often lead to the did-not-go-as-planned gosh-darn-it landing. Ask your instructor whether it is in your peripheral vision or picking an object on the horizon ahead of you. Set up a stabilized approach. Hold the descent rate with power and when you pass your reference point, hold the nose attitude on the horizon and wait until you softly touch down. The reference point is a visual cue of how close you are to where you want to touch down. It can be a tree, or log, or even some surveyor’s tape that you dropped out of the airplane. Flat light can be very dangerous and a reason not to land if there are options elsewhere. Treat the landing like a soft-field spot landing. On the approach, arrest the descent at a predetermined point in the landing area. Finesse the power, applying just enough to gradually settle into the snow. If it is deep snow, this will be like flying onto the snow while flowing through the first layer like a skier cutting through champagne powder. It’ll feel like you are still airborne, and in a way, you are—so keep flying the airplane with rudder control for alignment to your desired course.
There may not be an even surface, so anticipate quick rudder inputs in order to keep the airplane from getting swung around or sliding sideways. This sometimes happens, but hopefully not on your first try. Some experienced pilots are as comfortable with their skiplanes as hockey players on ice. Work up to the fancier rollouts. Believe it or not, a noseover is less likely to occur with skiplanes because of the skis' length and stabilizing qualities.
Once you have touched down, you need to keep in enough power to prevent settling in the snow too soon. Consider this: The landing process should include both the landing and getting the airplane parked where you want to be to begin your takeoff roll. This is so important, because once you shut off the engine, snow sets up, and you may not be able to maneuver it as easily as when you have the momentum carried through from the landing roll.
Some pilots taxi the airplane back and forth a few times to pack out a runway. This can make your life easier the following day by doing the work while you and your airplane are warm. It is important to pack out the area in front of the airplane, as well as place pine boughs or logs under the skis so they won’t freeze solid to the ground from the variable temperature changes of snow and ski surfaces. Even a coating of frost on the underside of the ski will act like Velcro—and you won’t be going anywhere until it is removed.
Sound fun? It is. And even though it’s not like the perfect world of a Christmas card, pilots say when you try it, you will not stop smiling.