Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ice Runway

Winters in New England are cold. Of course this revelation should be of no surprise to anyone, especially to someone who has lived his entire life in Maine. Still as I walk around in ankle deep snow shaking the cold from my fingers; pulling the wing and tail covers of “the flea,” I get a renewed appreciation for just how cold February in Maine can be.
“Super Flea” has been waiting patiently for nearly a month now to get back in the air. Her pilot has been grounded with a severe head cold for two weeks and the weather has been less than favorable the rest of the time. I’ve visited her from time to time to clear the snow from her wings after a storm, or check her tethers after a high wind.
Today the temperature has finally risen back into the double digits, the sky has cleared and so has my head. I’d shown up earlier this morning to prep the plane for today’s mission, plugging in her oil heater and wrapping her nose in a quilted blanket. Winter flying takes extra time, and to rush it invites trouble, for you and your aircraft.
I return at ten planning for an eleven thirty departure. I’m expected at my destination sometime after noon. I lift the quilted blanket and find that despite the oil heater and the quilt the cylinders are still quite cold to the touch. No worries, I plug in my little ceramic heater that fits nicely inside the oil access door and rests perfectly on top of the battery box. Door closed and blanket back in place the flea’s engine compartment should be nice and toasty warm by the time I’ve finished my slow careful preflight.
Pre-flight started, I reach the left wing fuel sump and stop right there. It is frozen solid. It won’t budge. A quick trip around the plane shows me that the other two external sumps are going to be just as stubborn as the first.
Ah, but I’m a rugged, self reliant, New Englander and experience has taught me to prepare for these kinds of eventualities. I dip into my bag of bush pilot tricks and pull out a device custom made for just this kind of problem. A seven dollar hair dryer, bought at the local Wal-Mart. Laugh all you want, it works.
I plug in my err…um…heat gun, point it at the sump, throw the switch to high and…nothing? I check the built in ground fault…nothing? No power at all. A few choice words and as I rush around to the front of the plane to check the… You guessed it. The engine is still ice cold, the heater isn’t even running!
A trip into the FBO reveals that the circuit breaker has tripped in the panel. Evidently, the fuel truck block heaters were plugged into the same circuit that I was. Things were fine until I fired up my little ceramic heater, then poof.
Two hours later, engine pre-heated, sumps thawed and preflight completed, I climb onboard and fire up the engine. Three shots of prime and she starts on the third blade. That’s my girl!
After a long time at idle, and a slow careful run-up, temps are in the green and we are on our way. The runway slips quickly behind as we climb steeply away. The cold winter air does have its advantages. At nearly 1,000 feet per minute we climb first through two then three thousand feet. I put push her nose over at three but “The Flea” still wants to climb. 105 mph and she still wants to climb. Nose pointed bellow the horizon and she still wants to climb. A quick look around the cabin…Yup, its still a Cessna 150. Wasn’t sure there for a second. Wish she performed like this year round!
I turn west and a check of the GPS confirms that we are bucking a bit of a headwind. 110 mph indicated airspeed and 80 mph over the ground. This time I’m actually pleased to have the head wind. Our destination is just a few miles away and it doesn’t seem right to start the engine on a cold winter day, only to shut it down 15-20 minutes later.
It’s about this time I stop to consider the wisdom of today’s mission. The first landing I’ve attempted in a month and I’ll be doing it on a sheet of ice! I won’t be alone; Unicom is alive with dozens of other aircraft descending on Alton Bay.
Every winter a dedicated group of volunteers plow a runway on the ice at Alton Bay, on Lake Winnipesauke in New Hampshire. What makes Alton Bay unique among the ice runways peppered around New England this time of year is that it is a State of New Hampshire sanctioned and licensed runway. For a few weeks each winter, hundreds of pilots from around the north east descend upon this little town in New Hampshire to play bush pilot for the day.
We cross over the mountains and I pull the power back to descend into an extended crosswind for runway 01. Alton Bay is nestled in a valley between two low ridge lines. I am making my pattern entry high and wide as I will not be able to see the runway until I am almost directly perpendicular to it; directly in the path of any departing aircraft. With 40 degrees of flap at my disposal, coming in too high is the least of my concerns. Staying above the sloping terrain, and keeping an eye on the busy traffic pattern, those are more immediate concerns. Even without the extra height; I am about to land on only 2,500 feet of glare ice, full flaps and a slow approach are the order of the day.
Calling left downwind, I retard the throttle, pull on the carb heat, and dial in my first 10 deg of flap. The light breeze creates a burble as it comes over the ridge and rocks my little ship. It seems the slower we get the more we bounce around.
Rounding base leg and 20 degrees of flap I look to the runway out my left window and decide that despite myself I managed set up our position and decent rate perfectly, I reach for the flap switch to dial in the next ten degrees.
Just before starting the turn onto final approach I perform my customary “belly check.” I look right; up the approach corridor for traffic before I make my final inbound turn loosing sight of the approach course bellow my belly. It’s then that I see him. A late model Cessna Skyhawk on an unannounced straight in approach steaming up the valley. Here again my height advantage pays dividends. I push the power back on to arrest my decent and cross over the top of the descending Skyhawk. I cleared him by less than 100 vertical feet as he crosses in front of my nose. Did he ever see me? Honestly, I don’t think he did but right now I have more immediate concerns. I’ve leveled off perpendicular to a narrow valley below the ridge-line. A 90 degree turn to the left and I’m parallel with the ridge on an upwind leg on the go around.
A little ticked off at the pilot of the Skyhawk for messing up my almost perfect approach and a little embarrassed at having to go around with my friends on the ground watching, I make my way back around the pattern.
Rounding base leg, bobbing like a cork in the water, I dwell a little too long on the “belly check” this time before turning final, and I overshoot the approach course just a tad. Turning back inbound on short final now. Why am I coming in so high? I push the nose over…too fast. Oh yeah, flaps! While concentrating on lining back up on final I forgot to put in some more flaps. I normally land with just twenty degrees; but today isn’t normal, today we are landing on ice.
I drop thirty degrees of flaps and pull power to idle. I skid a little to right of center line as I notice that this year the runway has a curve in it. I touch down just a little faster than I had planned but with enough runway, staying off the breaks I pull the yoke back to keep the nose wheel off for as long as possible taking advantage of the aerodynamic breaking, and dancing on the rudder to maintain alignment.

I’ve flown into Alton Bay a few times in the past but today was the slickest I’ve ever seen it. Normally there is some texture to the ice and a little packed snow here and there to give you some control. This year the ice is pure, smooth, clear and dark. I could gain absolutely no traction at all. The wheels never even turned on touch down they just slid. It was like being on water. Nose wheel steering and differential breaking were useless.

I pass by the midfield turn offs. I’ll be letting her ease to a stop, rolling (or was it sliding?) out to the end of the runway.
Reaching the end of the runway, a burst of power across the rudder slides her around and onto the taxiway. I taxi slower than I ever remember taxing. There is a very slight breeze, only about three or four miles an hour but it is enough to push the plane sideways, turning the nose wheel does nothing.
I reach the ramp and the gang from the Cessna 150 – 152 Club has already gathered and are coming over to help me park. I would later find out that my approach to landing had been photographed. Super Flea and Steve’s photographic skills made me look good this time and there is no mention of my scrape with the Skyhawk or my go around.
After a warm welcome from my fellow Cessna drivers, we all walk up to the local restaurant for a hearty lunch and to exchange some war stories. One of the greatest things about flying airplanes is the people you meet. Here I sit with a group of ten to twelve other pilots from all over the North East, some flying for several hours, just for a chance to land on the ice and meet other Cessna 150 pilots for lunch. Some of them I’ve met before and some I’ve only corresponded with via email. I’ve earned friends from all walks of life, from across the nation and even around the world and all I’ve done is buy and airplane and joined an owners club. We need know nothing more about each other than our mutually shared love of flight. Anyone who owns and flies a Cessna 150 must be a good guy after all. As good spirited, reliable and unassuming as the steed they choose to fly.
These guys and gals are the heart and soul of general aviation and I’m honored to know them, and count them among my friends.

After lunch I walk alone out to “the flea” for a preflight check. Along the way I run into some friends I know through work. Richard and his wife Anna live just up the road and had come down to see all the airplanes and have a bite to eat at the restaurant. We talk as a J-3 cub makes its approach to land. Hanging in the air more like a hot air balloon than an airplane it slips in for a landing. God, I love Cubs!

I watch as one by one the Cessnas depart. Then it is our turn. Preflight complete, engine warmed at idle we do a quick mag check as we slide our way toward the runway.
Lining up close to the right side of the runway because of the bend, I apply power slowly waiting for the rudder to become effective before applying full power. Torque and P-factor can send you off into a snow bank if you’re not careful on the ice.
At 65 mph we rotate and start a shallow climb. Turn left to follow the shoreline and we stay low contour flying around the lake. When contour flying, you really get a sensation of speed that you don’t up at altitude. Even a modest airplane like the Cessna 150 seems like it is hurling around the curves, a sensation that is amplified by the nimble little 150s responsive controls.
Rounding the mountain side I pull us up into a climb and trade our speed for altitude. I turn back toward Sanford and home. Now benefiting from a tail wind we are over Sanford Airport in a few short minutes, I continue the climb up to 5,000 feet and head out over the coast for some maneuvers. It’s been a while and the flea and I need to get reacquainted.
Radio still tuned into Unicom, I hear that a Cessna is disabled on the runway at Alton bay and the runway is now closed.
It looks like we left just in time.

Here are a couple videos that were posted on Youtube for you to see what it is like to land at Alton Bay: