A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Bearhawk on skis!

January 17, 2016
Tyson Sawyer

A special winter activity when I was growing up was landing the Cubs or Skyhawk out on the local lakes when the ice was safe. We did this on regular wheels and tires, so it could only be done when there was little or no snow. In recent years I’ve found a group of folks that like to play off-airport with their planes and many of them put their planes on skis in the winter. Skis were a novelty I wanted to try someday, but someday never seemed to come. Now, seeing all the fun my new friends were having while I had to stay on plowed runways was too much to bear. I was either going to put skis on the plane or I was going to push the limits of wheels on snow too far. Since skis are _much_ cheaper that pushing limits, and more fun, I finally committed to installing skis on the Bearhawk. I have no shop, no tools and no supplies. I also have limited free time which I really like to use for flying or skiing. A friend who has built his own Bearhawk was willing to take on the project, making it possible.

I dropped the plane off at Claremont (KCNH) in mid-October. After 3 months of work, shipping parts, picking large packages up at customs in Boston and dealing with a number of other issues on the airplane (the battery quit when the weather got cold), today it was finally ready to go!

Emilie and Harvey in the Skyhawk.

Emilie and Harvey in the Skyhawk.

My father flew over from Jaffrey (KAFN) and picked up Emilie, Isaac and myself. Emilie took the front seat to fly us up to Claremont. It is always good to get experience in different types of airplanes. Even if by any reasonable measure her RV-4 is a lot more challenging to fly than a Cessna C-172, when the C172 is strange to you it deserves some practice.

We arrived at Claremont to find Dave already there preheating the Bearhawk’s engine. We spent time going over the modifications for the ski installation, tested one more time to see that they retract and deploy correctly and then I hopped in to do the first test flight. Like many airports, Claremont has grass on the sides of the runway that can be used by airplanes if you are attentive for obstacles. I taxied out, planning to take off on the pavement and then land on the snow covered grass because there were snowbanks seemingly everywhere preventing direct access. When I reached the end of the runway to take off, I found that the very end of the runway had no snowbank and I could taxi around it to the grass/snow area. I taxied off the end of the runway onto the snow, stopped, and then flipped the switches to roll the airplane up onto the skis. Awesome! After doing a slow lap and back down the grass to check for hazards and get some feel of the airplane on skis, I did a take-off and landing. It was completely uneventful, the way test flights should be. I taxied back to the ramp to report back to Dave, fill the tanks and load the family and all the “spare parts” from the project. The biggest “spare parts” were the larger tires that were not compatible with the skis.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we were done with discussing and testing. In mid January the days are still short, so we had limited time to practice ski flying. The safest places to learn are grass runways that require little snow to be usable on skis, typically don’t get plowed, and aren’t likely to have the hazards that can be found in off-airport contexts. The local lakes were not an option as there hasn’t been enough cold weather to make safe ice.

Mt. Cardigan

Mt. Cardigan

First we flew by Mt. Cardigan in hopes of waving to our fellow AMC ski trip leaders attending a backcountry ski instruction clinic. It appeared that we were too late as we didn’t see them in any of the usual places on the mountain. Then we continued on to the Plymouth airport (1P1) where we made an uneventful landing.

So… ski flying 101… Take-offs and landings on skis really aren’t that big a deal. The white snow can make it difficult to judge height, but other than that it is no big deal. One concern is hazards under the snow, but since we had chosen grass runways and there wasn’t any deep snow, that wasn’t an issue. The other concern is just taxing around on the ground. On skis, the tail wheel doesn’t steer you very well and, more importantly, there are no brakes! With a little planning and energy management stopping is manageable, but on dry ground brakes are used differentially (one at a time) to assist with steering. Just turning the airplane around on skis without running out of space and going into a ditch or something else is the real challenge.

I managed the first turn-around to go back to the start of the runway without much issue. After taxing back, I went between the threshold markers, swung out wide and then started my turn to setup for take-off. I was planning to go back between the threshold markers, but it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, so I went around the outside of them and then back onto the runway.


Our next stop was a friend’s private grass strip in Rumford, ME. After an other uneventful take-off at Plymouth and landing in Rumford, it was time for some more taxi turns! Again the first one went OK. Then I tried to park next to our friend’s plane that was parked in the snow on skis. I turned right well before his plane and was planning to make a left to end with his plane on my right. The right went fine. The left just wasn’t going to happen without bent metal. So, similar to the threshold markers at Plymouth, I went around the far side instead. …looking almost as if I meant to do it that way!

We got out, took some pictures, stretched and hoped that Phil would be around. Since he wasn’t, I settled for texting him a picture of the Bearhawk sitting in snow with his plane clearly in the background so he would know we had been there.

Next, more taxi turns! Pulling out onto the runway went smoothly. The turn around at the end was less graceful. I again setup to the right, but this time there was some up-slope at the edge that kept me from getting all the way to the over. Next I turned left but clearly wasn’t going to finish the 180 degree turn before hitting fence on the other side. Emilie got out and provided assistance by pushing backwards on one wing to help the airplane turn.

It was an easy flight home, arriving in the dark. Night landings at Brookline are always fun!


All Photos