Flying on Skis
“Stewart’s Aircraft Service.”
“Hi Cathy… Dave Conrad. Are you flying on skis yet?”
“We put them on this morning!”
“I’ve never flown on skis.”
“Is there any way you could get me on the schedule?”
“How about today at four? You’ll be with Emerson.”
“I’ll be there!”
And so it began. Something I have always wanted to do, but somehow never had done. With global warming and all, the ski flying days have been limited for the last several years. Stewart’s, in Waynesville, Ohio, is a family run grass strip airport. “Grass-roots” aviation at its finest. ‘Cub’ and Cathy run the maintenance shop, daughter Sara does the books, and their son Emerson heads up the flight instruction. Emerson, now thirty something, grew up on the airport. He is soft-spoken, and unassuming, but knows a thing or two about flying (that is an understatement). Emerson particularly knows about aerobatics, taildraggers, and Piper Cub’s. I am excited to have the opportunity to fly with him in a Cub, on skis.
It snowed overnight. The heavy wet stuff. Six inches! More snow flurries are forecast and the sky is a gray overcast with diffused light. When I arrive at the airport around three o’clock, it looks like an arctic tundra. Expansive and white. The only color is white. The yellow cones which normally define the runway are covered in snow. White on white.
White on White
I walk out toward the runway and meet Penny who has just finished flying with Emerson in the Cub on skis. There are not really any strangers at airports like this, just friends you haven’t met yet.
Emerson is flying with his next student while Penny and I chat and take some pictures. I finally succumb. “I’m cold!” With this I head to the warmth of the airport office.
After some hangar talk with those in the office; “How you been?” “Wind is still down the runway.” “Did you see the radar?”, that sort of thing, Emerson comes in with his student. All smiles from their mini adventure.
“Is the weather good enough?”, I ask.
“Sure, let’s go.”, Emerson says.
Outwardly, I’m trying to be cool. Inwardly, I’m excited! Just like a little kid. But it is a good thing.
As we walk out to the airplane, Emerson starts giving me the brief about flying on skis.
“I’ll fly the first pattern and then it will be your turn. Don’t touch the brakes, they aren’t connected to anything. On takeoff, you need to hold the tailwheel just above the snow. Too low, and the tailwheel causes drag. Too high, and the weight of the plane is all on the skis, and they’ll sink into the snow, again too much drag.”
So, about starting. I climb into the back seat (the command seat in the Cub) and Emerson prepares to prop the plane. Normally the pilot in the plane would hold the brakes, but there are no brakes. I envision my running Emerson over after he props the engine to life. Here’s the deal. As the skis slide along on the snow, the friction heats them up, and when you stop for very long at all, the skis melt the snow, and then it refreezes. So, I learn that the Cub is frozen in place and not to worry. Emerson props the plane, I gently catch the engine with the throttle as it sputters, and I remain stationary. Whew!
As Emerson walks around he grabs the wingtip and rocks the plane to loosen the grip of the snow. He gets in and closes the bi-fold door, and we are ready to go.
With a goose of the throttle, a lift of the tailwheel, and a yaw of the rudder, Emerson breaks us completely free from our moorings and we are rolling, ah… sliding toward the runway. The turns are all done through the aerodynamics of the rudder. Without differential braking the radii of the turns are large, so it takes some planning to get where you want to go. We check for traffic and pull out on the runway. Reality is, we are the only plane with skis, and the only plane to use this airport all day, but we check for traffic anyway. Emerson adds power and sets the attitude of the plane, tailwheel just clear of the snow. We slide down the runway with slowly gathering speed plowing through the six inches of snow. The sixty-five ponies up front are straining at the bit. Nothing happens very fast in a Cub, but as we ‘slip the surly bonds’ and the skis come off the snow, I feel a push in my back as the airplane lurches forward… now free from the drag of the skis on the snow. I inwardly smile.
Emerson flys the pattern, and as we roll out on final, I exclaim out loud, “Where’d the runway go?!” It is just a sea of white, and with the flat light nothing stands out. At about 200 feet, with concentration, I can start to pick out the runway cones, and a little bit of the tracks in the snow from previous landings. We fly down and as we get close Emerson stops the descent with pitch and then adds a little bit of power and waits. The airplane slowly settles, and when the backs of the skis touch the snow he pulls the rest of the power out and the plane slides on. Quickly the snow and drag are back and we slow, now needing power to steer and exit the runway for the taxi back.
Now it’s my turn! I check for traffic and taxi out. “You ready?”. I see a nod. I add power and start to play with the pitch. Too high… Too low… Just right! And wait. I’m keeping track of the white cones out the left side of the airplane. There isn’t much else for reference and I need the cones for alignment. Being in the backseat, I’m not seeing much over the nose and around Emerson. Once we liftoff I immediately know why Cubs are so dear to so many. This is simple unadulterated flying. No distractions, just flying. The only thing missing is the open door on the right side, but I am wanting to keep it closed today.
Around the pattern we go. It is smooth, and as we roll out on final I visually grab hold of anything I can see. Emerson’s house is off to the side of the runway threshold and I start with that landmark. Finally some things start to subtlety appear. The cones… the texture of the runway. I fly down, arrest the descent, add power, and wait to touch. There it is. Power out and we settle on. The impression I have is that flying on skis is a lot like flying on floats. When landing, set the attitude, add power and wait. Big wide taxi turns. And no brakes.
Two more circuits and we are done.
In the warmth of the office, Emerson writes four words in the comments section of my logbook. “Takeoffs Landings on Skis”. Thank you s are expressed and Emerson is off with his last student of the day. I always enjoy time spent at Stewart’s. They are a kind family sharing their love and knowledge of aviation with others.
I call home to Sue, a habit when and wherever I land. “I’ll be home in an hour”.
Final thoughts from a fun and memorable day; I can only imagine the difficulty of landing on virgin snow, off airport, on skis. Of judging height, etc. There is plenty of potential for really messing up. Be careful out there.