Anybody who was in the Anchorage area during the week of December 1, 2009 woke up Monday morning to the sound of falling rain on snow. The Anchorage area (Including Palmer/Wasilla) has a nasty habit of destroying a perfectly good winter season with hints of summer. It rained fairly heavily for most of Monday and then continued with 6″ of beautiful snow in the days that followed. One can only imagine what this does to the avalanche danger in the mountains, ski conditions, road conditions, and in my case, runway conditions.
I had a flight first-thing Wednesday morning. I pushed out of the hangar and fueled up. I am equipped with hydraulic wheel skis and because of the prevailing conditions, and lack of snow (and a list of other factors that I won’t go into) I opted to fly off our home-strip with my wheels down and skis up. I finished fueling, jumped in the plane, lit the fire, and did the proper run-up and engine checks. Everything looked good so I applied full power and accelerated down the snowy runway unconcerned. I was well on my way when the ground erupted with slush and my windshield was covered with a sloppy mess. I could still see well enough to safely continue my take-off, so I decided to maintain take-off power rather than to risk decelerating and getting stuck. I accelerated out of the first pit just to be slowed by the second slushy hole. By now half my runway was behind me and I still had not developed enough airspeed to lift-off. I maintained full power but continued to fight gravity. I was just beginning to break ground when I decided that I was no longer 100% certain of success, so I chopped the throttle and began decelerating very carefully. Decelerating is risky in these conditions because if it happens too fast the Super Cub will nose-over. The slushy mess was thickest at this end of the runway so I was needing to maintain about 50% power as the airplane slowed down so that I would not flip.
I was disappointed to be delayed, but I shut the engine down and walked around the plane. I was totally amazed. The slush that had been revealed as I was running down the runway had completely covered my Super Cub and was now in the process of freezing to the wings, fuselage, skis, and tail section. Without the insulating factor from the snow, the watery snow was adhering like concrete to the entire surface of the airplane with every passing second. I tried to rub it off but there was no-way, I was fighting a loosing battle. If I did not get it into the heated-hanger immediately, my flight controls and skis were going to freeze in-place. After a bit of a struggle, I fought it back into the hangar and started the torpedo heater to speed-up the thawing process. It was not long before the plane was dripping. I had managed to pick-up about 120 pounds of snow and water during my 500′ December slip-and-slide. I had to wipe the whole aircraft down, and dig all of the slush out of the ski apparatus before I was comfortable pushing it back outside to try again.
I picked my passenger up at the Palmer airport and headed out through the Chugach towards Sheep Mt. After working for a bit we decided to stop for a quick break at our house and hangar near Sheep Mt. It was apparent that Palmer’s rain storm the previous day had loaded Sheep Mt. (2900′ elevation and 60 miles North) with snow. I took one good look at the strip from the air, and then came in for a landing. It felt really good until I started to decelerate. The snow was deep and dense, Sheep Mt. had received nearly 2 feet. I had to use full throttle just to taxi on flat ground. Eventually the 160 HP Lycoming could no longer pull us along, and we came to a stop still at 100% power. I slowly eased the throttle back, shut the engine down, crawled out, and put on the snow shoes.
I was concerned that I might have had ice chucks still stuck to the bottoms of my skis from the morning’s slushy frolic, so I jacked the wing up to have a look … they were as smooth as glass. A combination of the depth, density, and temperature were such that the skis just did not want to slide very well. I have had this happen before on the glaciers in the summer. With the nose of the airplane pointed down hill, on packed snow, and under 100% power the airplane will sit dead-still. Snow can be very temperamental. After about 30 minutes of packing the snow down with the snow shoes we were ready to give it another try. I took-off by myself first, and then did two more landings. This way the runway would be more packed down before doing it with a passenger.
We finally got airborne and headed back out over the Chugach mountains. This photo shows the sun setting on Mt. Drum in the Wrangell St. Elias mountain range near Glenallen. The view made all the work well-worth it. Days like this are common during winter operations in Alaska. Especially when operating off unimproved air-strips. Ski flying is a blast, but as the pilot or passenger you better bring a good set of snow shoes and be ready to work your buns off, because eventually you are going to get stuck… sometimes more than once in a day.