We were up at the base of the Alaskan Range near the toe of the Kahiltna Glacier, and we had been airborne for more than 4 hours. I don’t know about you, but I start getting a little antsy after a few hours in the cub seat. We fly primarily over wilderness areas with no airstrips so when it’s time to take care of physiological needs I just look around for a place to plop down for a few minutes and stretch our legs.
It was that annoying time of year when there is not enough snow for skis, but almost too much for tires. It’s always a toss up as-to which landing gear to operate with until the seasons have definitely made up their mind. On this particular day I had opted for my 35″ Bushwheels, and it was a good choice, but I wish they made a treaded model.
I looked around for a landing spot for about 5 minutes, and started to get antsy because I really had to pee. Many a pilot has wrecked a perfectly good airplane in an attempt to not piss their pants. I remember a couple of years ago a guy landed on a snow packed runway in a Cessna 180 with little tires. There were two grooves torn into the crusted surface, and then a divot where the prop spinner met the ground moments before the aircraft catapulted onto it’s back. Anyways, that’s another story … so I see this spot that I figure is long enough to land, so I do a low pass, to look at the depth of the snow drifts and then wing around to land. It was plenty long enough even with the heavy load of gas, gear, and passenger, but a 10 cut bank marked the touchdown point on a teardrop shaped plateau that tapered down to a very sharp point after about 450′. The length did not concern me, and the winds were mostly calm. It was slightly sloped so it would have been nice to land uphill but the bushes on the low end mandated a small obstacle approach. I opted for the downhill landing over the 10′ foot cut bank and toward the pointy end of the teardrop.
I plopped into the snow just 18 inches past the bank and stood hard on the binders ….. no deceleration. I pushed harder on the brakes but still no response. I was surprised because I thought there would be some amount of breaking or deceleration due to the resistance of the snow … I was wrong. Halfway down the strip I was getting nervous, and it was too late for a go-around. ( this is true with most of our strips, once you are on the ground you can forget about a go-around) I looked out my side window and my tires were locked up tight just plowing through the snow. I was working my way down the pointy end of the teardrop, and a successful outcome was in question. We finally began decelerating and stopped just 6 feet from falling off the other end. The passenger made a comment something like, “%$@*&* man your tires never turned an inch”. He was not exaggerating. We had set down on the very end, and slid the entire 444′”.
We land in snow fairly regularly but sometimes unknown conditions will throw a curve ball at you, and temperature and humidity are major factors determining the amount of available friction. I was certainly surprised by the lack of resistance but I sure was thankful to stop. My flying mentor Gar is 73 years old and has been flying airplanes in Alaska since the early 60’s. One thing he is always reminding me is that, “Airplanes will humble you in a big hurry.” You really can’t be too careful with this sort of flying. Usually it’s scenarios just like this one that are not life threatening, but they sure can be expensive if you don’t stop sliding.