I was dropping off some groceries for a Mountaineering course and a small storm had just passed through the area so the snow was fairly deep. This is at 7500′ in the Chugach mountains.
If you google “supercub” this is the first sample image that pops up. Somebody stole it off my website several years ago. You will notice in more recent images of my plane that I have extended the p-tex to give myself more flotation. They work much better now.
This is a great spot deep in the Talkeetna Moutains. You can see the type of hiking terrain surrounding this area, it is limitless. Only 100 yards from this position runs a bluish-green glacial stream on a bed of white sand. The elevation here is about 5000′ so the only vegetation standing in your way won’t get past your shins. Caribou frequent this area, and can be viewed almost everyday of the summer as they run through. A medium sized glacier tumbles out of the mountains up valley from the landing strip and wildflowers are poking up all around. We can even even coordinate hiking/rafting trips from this location down to Talkeetna. If you would like to get into the Alaskan wilderness this is a great option and you can read more at my wife’s website BackPackAK.com. In fact it’s Samantha’s 29th birthday today, and all she wants is for everyone who reads this post to schedule a backpacking trip :o) Gotta go, we’re headed out for her birthday dinner.
This was a new spot for us and it worked really well. A bit rough but other than that very usable. You can see it is fairly steep because I am only a couple hundred feet from the plane and the picture reveals how quickly it is dropping.
What I am about to describe will get flight instructors everywhere disagreeing with me, but thats ok. When the terrain gets really steep its best to use the altimeter to judge the elevation of your desired touch down spot. Usually this requires a fly-by of sorts. Sometimes its so steep you can’t fly down the strip so you just fly by it, and look out your side window. Once you have the elevation determined fly out-bound and descend about 150-200 feet below your desired touch down spot, before turning in towards the mountain. Once you are on final approach fly straight and level into the mountain until you are a couple hundred feet out, then start adding power and climbing up the mountain until your tires hit. I know, I know, thats not the way I was taught either, but this works well. It’s also safer than flying a descent into rising terrain because it forces you to climb to your spot rather than risking a steep approach on a one way strip that will force you to flare like a maniac, and possibly hit really hard after floating well beyond your touch down spot. The angle between the air strip and your approach path is much less than if you were to descend to your point.
I realize that is pretty special application flying, but we use the technique all the time. I will often hit the ground with the throttle wide open. It requires knowing your airplane and your loaded condition very well. This past summer I was flying into a very steep glacier with a bit of wind blowing and I got into a downdraft that would not allow me to climb. I was totally empty, and it got my attention, I was preparing to land short when the down draft let me go and it was fine. That is why we do not fly into marginal strips when the wind is blowing. I would not have damaged the cub in that scenario, but it would have been a different touchdown point than I had planned and I HATE surprises in the air. So this technique has its limits for sure, but it is a more consistent, safer option than the alternative.
The spot pictured above is not all that steep, but it still required some special attention. In fact I just remembered that on my initial approach to land I lost sight of my touch down spot. You will see in the video that the clients had marked the ice with their towels and I thought the markers would show up really well on final, but when I turned inbound I could not spot them so I bailed off the approach before I was committed and re-memorized my touchdown point. ( I edited that out) The video is an old one and has been on Youtube for several months already but I like it. The footage for the video was taken on the same day that I took this picture and it shows the landing to this strip. I must have been feeling very uncreative, because the name is pretty weak, “Glacier Landing 1” … wow ….. gripping.
This picture was taken deep in the Talkeetna Mountains. Looking at the terrain in the distance you can see why my wife and I promote backpacking trips through our eco-tourism business, Alaska Wilderness Trails (BackPackAK.com). The hills in the Talkeetna Mountains are virtually empty in June and July and somebody with good walking legs can cover 15 miles through some of God’s finest creation. This Photo was taken in August so there is a bit of yellow in the grass and white on the mountain tops, but earlier in the summer it is a brilliant green. There are numerous mountain lakes, waterfalls, and wildlife. The Caribou run through these hills daily and sheep can be seen crawling around in the steeper rock. Most of the streams are easily crossed if you don’t mind getting your feet wet and I know of some awesome grayling fishing holes. Mosquitos are few and far between which is more than can be said for most of South central Alaska. Also you will notice a total absence of underbrush so the hiking is totally uninhibited. Our name, Alaska Wilderness Trails, can be a bit misleading because there is not a trail to be seen anywhere except those left by the caribou. If anybody wants to go on a guided backpacking trip check out my wife’s web site at BackPackAk.com because it is a real Alaskan adventure at a great value.
The weather had been bad for several days and this mountaineering team was left without their scheduled supplies. When the weather finally cleared it was fairly late at night so I did not leave the house until after 9 PM. The snow was fairly soft and I got stuck trying to turn around. This is at about 7000′ elevation and I was loaded with almost 400 lbs of food and supplies. You can tell I was heavy because of the way that tail wheel is digging in. In the Winter I run a tail-ski for added floatation in the powder. But, In the summer the snow is often slippery and compacted so it is nice to have a wheel back-there for added drag to use as an anchor for stopping. It’s great until snow like this when it burrows into the crust like a boat anchor, when I am headed up-hill heavily loaded. The baby bush wheel (pictured above) is usually too fat for a brake and does not float well enough to help out when it gets soft. The baby bush wheel is a fairly new invention and is an awesome piece of equipment in rugged terrain…but not so awesome in the snow. Of course, who is surprised, it was not meant for snow, it’s a wheel :o). I should mention that babybushwheel is my user name on YouTube so if you have not seen any of the 30 videos I have posted you may enjoy this. I also have a new Vimeo page coming that should allow a little higher quality video to be viewed. I have about 300 more unedited video clips that I need to turn into videos as time allows. Keep watching this site because there will be some great new features added after the new year.
I took this photo of Mike shortly after he departed one of our ice strips. The transition from smooth to upheaved ice is often over a very short distance. These crevasses will never be filled with snow because they are too big of holes at too low of an elevation. In the winter the 6+ feet of snow that will fall in this area will cover the smaller cracks but leave the others exposed. Snowmachiners love to use the glaciers as a sort of highway and it is amazing to see what they have driven over the following spring as snow bridges collapse. I have seen some terrifying tracks across some awfully large gaps. I have never had a problem with snow covered crevasses and neither has Mike in his thousands upon thousands of snowy glacier landings. As I have mentioned in other posts we are usually only landing on the glaciers if the lighting is good, and part of our reasoning for that is so we can see the sags that are created as snow bridges begin to droop. If I see a dip in the Glacier you better believe I am not going to land on it.
I’ve always thought the Super Cub in this picture sort of sneaks up on you. People have accused me of cutting and pasting the super cub into this image. I cannot remember the name of the client that took this image, but he was an instructor at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. If I remember correctly they were only in here skiing for 24 hours because the snow conditions were so unstable that it was sketchy do any skiing, so they called on the sat-phone for an early pickup.
It was an awesome little spot on the glacier where I landed them. Right up on the this little knob in the sunshine. Without some light from the sun the glacier can be a horribly deceiving place to land. Many a pilot has wrecked their plane on short final when their brain becomes confused by the lack of information from the ground. The white snow is totally non-de-script and a pilot relies heavily on peripheral vision when determining where the ground is at in relation to the tires/skis. The ground will simply disappear into a blanket of nothing as the airplane gets nearer the snow. Often the landing is being made on a steep slope so the ground is rising to smite thee and yet it is invisible. It is an awfully weird sensation that leaves you feeling awfully helpless. There are tricks to overcome these sensations and we do it safely hundreds of times each year. You can see the shadow on the left side of the image. You can land in the shade but it’s more difficult so I always look for the sunshine. And this spot was perfect.
These guys took this moose off a short strip in the Chugach. The strip is only about 320′ long and it ends in a creek in both directions. It’s a fairly short strip even when the braking is good, with smooth tires and 3″ of snow it almost feels like the airplane accelerates when the brakes are applied. I think it’s because when the plane first touches down a deceleration is felt and normally when I stomp on the brakes you can really feel it. Well, on the snow when I hit the brakes I am braced for a deceleration, but I feel nothing so it feels like the airplane actually speeds up. There is this fleeting moment when it flashes through my brain, “UH OH! I don’t know if this pig is going to stop in time ?” A second after that thought pass through the brain the forces of gravity and friction combined with a loss of inertia results in a measurable deceleration.
If I remember correctly the moose horns in this picture measured right near 60″. Usually there are no adverse affects to a moose antler being attached to the wing … but occasionally the wind will catch them just wrong and they will vibrate in the wind forcing me to cruise at minimum airspeed to diminish the affects. On a strip like this it takes two trips just to haul the meat and horns. It’s about 500-600 pounds of meat on the average moose, but with the horns and everything else it’s not uncommon to get more than that. We can take a moose in one trip if it is all boned out and the airstrip is more than 550′ long. I made 5 take-offs and landings on this nasty little snowy strip this day. 2 for the moose, 1 for gear, 2 for the hunters.
There is a long story behind this picture, and it is not a good memory. Mike and I had a group of 4 mountaineers that we had landed at 8500′ elevation at the base of Mt. Marcus Baker. They were on a 7 day expedition in mid-May attempting to climb the tallest peak in the Chugach Mts. Before we departed we left explicit instructions as to landing strip preparation in the event fresh snow fell or winter winds blew. These four mountaineers were in over their head on this mountain so when a big storm rolled in from Prince William Sound they used their satellite phone to harass us continuously, as if there were something we could do. I would have had better luck trying to fly to the moon than attempting a pick-up in the prevailing conditions.
When the storm passed 7 feet of fresh snow had fallen. I was backed-up with flights, but because of their incessant whining agreed to pick them up a day early. I arrived over their camp at 5 pm and was very disappointed to see that there had been no airstrip preparation as I had instructed. With 7 feet of fresh snow I was reluctant to land, but since there were several men on the ground to dig me out I did it. I landed on the steep slope and managed to turn around and get the nose pointed down hill. The snow was really deep so I cold just barely keep moving. If I had not had gravity on my side take-off would have been impossible. I decided to pack the area down a bit by taking off and landing several times. When I applied power and started sliding down-hill the snow was so deep that it was flying up and over the front of the wings, and over the windshield. The poor old-bird barely accelerated and would occasionally bog down as I slowly gained more speed. It was taking me nearly a half a mile to get airborne because of all the snow I was plowing. I finally packed it down enough to take-off loaded, but opted to leave the heavy gear behind because I needed all the help I could get to get airborne. I got done really late that night and was planning on picking up the gear the following day.
When I returned the following day the wind was blowing really hard. I landed but immediately regretted this decision. I got VERY stuck and the wind velocity was increasing all the time. I was all alone at 8500′ on a glacier, in snow boots and carharts, in a 40 mph wind, in the face of another Spring storm, with a very stuck Super Cub. I was NOT having fun anymore. I will not go into all the details because I would rather not post them here, but ask me sometime and I will tell you the full story. I eventually got dug out and was deciding how I was going to get out of there. I could not take-off uphill and into the wind because it was far to steep, and ended abruptly into the mountain pictured above. I had two options: #1) take-off with a 40 mph tail wind #2) spend the night at 8500′ in a storm. I did not like either option, but opted for #1. To give myself the best chance I dug a big hole and set the tail of the airplane into it so that the wind blowing down glacier would blow over my tail rather than getting underneath and tipping me up on my nose. Then I got out the snow shoes and stomped out a runway to improve my initial acceleration. I needed a windsock so that I could judge when there was a lull in the wind. This is a common practice when using a one-way strip. Surveyors tape (the most common windsock) is worthless when the wind is blowing this hard because it just sticks straight out all the time, so I used a piece of 1/4″ nylon rope about 8 feet long. I tied it to a probe and then crawled into the Cub and started the engine. I left all the gear behind once again as I did not dare add any extra weight. I sat with engine running for several minutes waiting for the nylon rope to sag, I waited and waited, and when it drooped I applied full power and started down the glacier. Normally I lift off at a ground speed of about 35-40 mph. My GPS showed over a 100 mph before the wings created enough lift to carry me off the ground. It felt so good to be back in the air and off that stupid mountain.
The above picture shows the climbing gear when I finally retrieved it in August. Almost 100 days it sat on the side of that mountain. Not because I forgot about it, but because that wind storm buried the 6′ probe and flag so thoroughly that there was no trace of it for months. I occasionally flew over the area looking for some sign of the gear but it was gone. I did not think I would ever find it. Until this one beautiful day in August I decided to give it one last look. I took a very good GPS location and flew straight home to put my wheel skis on. When I finally landed along side the gear, I was thrilled. The snow was set up like concrete and it took me nearly an hour to dig it out and load it into the Super Cub. What a goat-rope, I worked my buns off for these guys and made 3 trips on my own nickel to retrieve this gear. I did not make any money, but I got this picture … so enjoy it … it cost me ;o)
I remember when I was kid watching a Super Cub pilot come in a drag his tires through the bushes I thought he was a maniac. Whackin’ the bushes with the tires is often a better option than staying above them and therefore loosing the first 25′ of usable airstrip. In other words, to miss the bushes you have to maintain a couple of extra feet of altitude. A couple of feet in height is a big deal when the strip is only 350′ long. I try not to drag the landing gear through the bushes because I am afraid of denting the Alpha Omega suspension system, although I did get the landing-light one time … oops.
One of my clients gave this picture to me, and I did not even notice the bushes the first time I looked at it. You need to be real careful not to drop it in from this position because it tears up the tail feathers something fierce. You can see my tail wheel will hit too, and I am very aware of the flying-wires attached to my tail. If flying-wires start getting drug through the bushes you will have problems. It is really no big deal at all, just don’t land short.
This is my Dad, Wes Keller. I had just picked him up off a river bar after a 10 day moose hunt, and we went for a little cruise around the area just for fun. I had never landed on a glacier with my Dad, so I set down and we walked around a bit. Nothing is more fun than taking your own Dad out and showing him around. My Dad is also a pilot with several thousand hours of flight time in the Air National Guard and Air Force. And when I was a little baby he had a construction company up on the North Slope and we lived in both Wainwright and Point Hope. He flew a Cessna 207 all-over the North Slope of Alaska hauling building supplies. Dad and I have flown together a fair bit, but I had just never taken the opportunity to do this.
He was a little white knuckled when he saw nothing but steep ice over my shoulder out the front, I know this because I felt him grab my seat back just moments before we touched the ice. Maybe it was pay back from when I was 15 years old and he had me hanging my arm out the door of our Stinson-3 air dropping propane bottles to our cabin. HA ! that is a great memory. It was a full five-gallon propane bottle. I wanted to make sure I was ready for the drop, so I forced the door open 2 miles before the drop-point and got the bottle outside the plane. I was feeling pretty good about it for the first few seconds, but then the wind started blowing the bottle around and banging against the side of the fuselage and my arm was getting really tired. I kept hanging on, but I was scared I was beating up the side of the airplane and I was loosing my grip after what seemed like an eternity Dad said, “drop!!” and I let the bottle fly, and pulled my numb arm back inside the cabin. We were both laughing pretty hard. The propane bottle made it but it took two men 30 minutes to pull it out of the 4 foot deep hole it had burrowed into the swamp. Now Dad is a State Legislator working as the representative for Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin’s home town. This picture is one of my best memories, I love my Dad.
Below is a video of landing on the glacier pictured above.
Thanks to Cat Powers “Cross Bones Style” for a great song.
Notice the tires, they were still virgins when I landed here … but that was lost by the time I left. These 35″ Alaskan Bushwheels were only two days old when I took this picture. I tore a pretty nasty chunk out of my left one when I landed. Glaciers have a nasty way of tearing up rubber. Little quarter sized rocks with razor edges freeze firmly into the ice and when my tires roll or slide over them they slice and dice. I have learned to never use my brakes on the glacier unless absolutely necessary. Even then the rocks have a way of slicing my expensive tires and spending my money. I can’t see these rocks from the air because they are so small. I always look for the nice clean spots in the middle of the glacier, unfortunately the smooth ice is typically nearer the moraine which always contains lots of small rocks. So I often end up in a catch-22. Land in the big bumps or the razor rocks. I usually end-up somwhere in the middle like in this picture.
Lots of people ask me what I think of these new 35″ Bushwheels … I’ll tell you. I was very skeptical because they seemed so big. Also, any pilot that just spent nearly $6000 to purchase, and install them, surely is not going to admit they don’t like them. So I was not sure if I was getting an accurate report. I also new that a quick test flight in somebody else’s cub would not answer my questions. Not to mention what they say about guys with big tires on their truck that, “The tires are inversly proportional ….. yada, yada, yada. So, my old tires were totally shot, and I needed new ones, I took the plunge and bought 35’s. I was not totally nuts about them at first because they had an odd feeling on touch down, I could not see over the cowl while taxing, and they are miserable to crawl up on and fuel. You can actually feel the tail come up when the tires touch down because of the inertia it takes to get them rolling. I liked them but I did not love them, but I decided to keep them. I now have 600 + hours on them and more than twice that many landings. I am falling deeper in love with each landing. These things ROCK. I will buy another set absolutely. Guys say, “I’m buying them for the safety”. They are full of crap. 35″ tires are not any safer, but they sure let you land in some awesome places.
This little airstrip is one of our nastiest. You can watch the video and it will significantly diminish its nasty little disposition. It is difficult for a number of reasons. The biggest problem it that it sits on top of a knob so the winds are never funneled in any one direction, instead the wind swirls and is seldom a help. It is difficult to see because the tundra hides it almost entirely. I don’t dare wander off the established strip because of the sharp rocks would destroy my $3200 tires. To add to the difficulty of visibility is the fact that the far end of the strip disappears just seconds before touch down because of the center of the strip is so much taller than the end. This is a relatively new strip, only 4 years old. We only use it twice each summer and its always an adventure. The video makes it look like I simply turned and landed, but the truth is that I made 5 passes before I got the wind to cooperate. If a nasty strip like this allows me to power-up and go-around I may make several attempts until I can feel the winds are in my favor before setting down. The worst thing you can do is get in a hurry, the ground isn’t going anywhere.
So after making five passes, fighting the wind, and struggling to locate the exact position of the strip I finally got it on the ground, I crawled out of the plane and unloaded the 300 pounds of groceries. I was waiting while they sorted through the supplies, and enjoyed the opportunity to stretch my legs. A teenage girl walked over to the 1962 Super Cub and spent a long time standing at the door gazing at the faded old instruments, wooden floor boards, and manual controls. After some-time she turned to look at me and in disbelief and acknowledged, “You mean you landed that thing here MANUALLY, I thought it was all electronic ? !!”. I just about died laughing… but she’s probably right someday I’ll get replaced by a bush plane drone. Until then I’m gonna enjoy every second.
I threw in a couple of scenic clips from random flights this summer, but most of this video was taken on the day of the flight described above.