I flew up to Alton Bay last Sunday with four other Brookline pilots. The runway on Lake Winnipesaukee is the only official ice runway in the lower 48 states. I worried the ice would be too thin after the rain-thaw-refreeze cycles that week, or it would be half refrozen with slush between ice layers. Thankfully, Alton Bay’s Sunday morning video reported smooth thick ice.
First stop Lake Potanipo
Isaac and I, in the Bearhawk, were airborne before everyone else. The morning was gray and cloudy but clear underneath. Since I saw trucks driving on Lake Potanipo nearby, I stopped in for a quick landing. A better Bearhawk pilot would have touched down shorter, but I touched no farther than my successful RV-4 landings. Sliding across slick ice is a zen experience. You must be patient for the airplane to stop. I pulsed the brakes on the little snow patches and the Bearhawk came to rest 3/4 down the lake.
On my left, Tyson zoomed by in the RV-4. I wondered, had I kept sliding to the end, could I have used throttle to skid around the snow banks as ski planes do in videos?
Landing Alton Bay
Mike led the way in his Birddog, then Leo in his Cherokee, Tyson in the RV4, and I in the Bearhawk. This was a big gaggle to pile into the Alton bay traffic pattern all at once, so east of Concord, I peeled off. Isaac and I took the scenic route up and over Lake Winnipesaukee. There was one other plane in the pattern when we arrived.
“You had it easy,” Leo told me when I joined the others standing on the ice. “There were people flying all over the place when we landed.”
I later got the full story from Tyson.
“There were two planes landing when we arrived,” Tyson recounted, “I guess Mike cut off another RV when he turned final. I don’t think Mike saw the RV. It was on a very long final, and was the same color white as the clouds and the ice. The white RV complained on the radio. I told the RV there was plenty of room for Mike to land and clear the runway before he got there.”
“Mike landed,” Tyson continued, “I was next in line behind the white RV, still on long final. Behind me, a Kitfox complained I was extending my downwind too far. I guess he didn’t see the white RV either.”
When I arrived, there were about twenty airplanes parked on the ramp. I didn’t recognize anyone except our crew. A drab grey 170 landed while we were chatting. Behind it, a twin engine Baron dove down from a tight pattern.
“Is he going to land?” Leo asked.
“Is that a fly-by,” I wondered at the same time, “or a missed approach?”
The Baron’s twin engines roared to life and it pulled up and turned away over the mountain. The ice-gray 170 taxied off the runway and onto the ramp. Then the Baron circled tightly back again and plummeted to the runway. This time, twenty feet above the runway, the Baron flared and bled off all its speed. It touched down right at the threshold.
“Masterful” said Mike.
“On the first pass,” Ed commented, “the Baron must have spotted the 170 and aborted.”
At lunch, I sat across from Ed who had left Brookline before the rest of us to stop for gas. This was his first time landing on ice. He said he slid and slid and slid. He couldn’t get any traction to brake. His idle, about 1000 rpm, was so high that it kept pulling him along.
I sat too far away from Mike’s passenger, the test pilot for the Terrafugia flying car, to hear any good stories.
The young autopilot
Isaac wanted to help fly home. I handed him the controls after we passed the ridges south of Alton Bay. Up, up, up we went.
“Isaac, point the plane down,” I told him sharply, “we are getting into the clouds.”
After he had come down a few hundred feet, I showed him the altimeter.
“Keep us between the five here and the zero,” I traced the right side of the altimeter, “that will keep us below the clouds.
“Which way should I go?” Isaac asked.
“Do you see the runway over there?”
“Yeah,” he responded, too quickly. But then I saw his eyes focus on the right spot.
“That’s Concord,” I told him, “fly to it.”
We bobbed along up and down five hundred feet. Over Concord, I picked out a mountain for him to aim towards, then a power line. Isaac flew all the way back to Wilton. He was reluctant to give up the controls then, but I insisted I should do the landing.
The next weekend, Mike told us, after we left Alton Bay, he saw an unbelievable almost catastrophe.
“You know how the runway almost lined up with the ramp?” he said, “I had started up and was about cross the taxiway when I saw the ramp guy crossing his arms in front of me.” Mike demonstrated holding out his arms in a bold X and frowning worriedly.
“We were still landing to the south, you know,” Mike continued, “He pointed down the runway, so I looked left. There was a Long-EZ or VariEze trying to land. Do you know the Long-EZ?”
Both Tyson and I nodded. A Long-EZ is an experimental canard (main wing in the back) built for speed and efficiency. Not for short field or off field.
“It was doing 50 knots midway down the runway. On the ramp, straight off the end of the runway, was one nice little Cherokee. The Long-EZ was moving fast and headed straight for it.” Mike’s eyes were pained at the idea of the airplane carnage about to unfold in front of him.
“The pilot must have tried to turn, because the Long-EZ started sliding sideways, past me, towards the line of twenty airplanes on the near side of the ramp. This was bad.” Mike’s hands mimed a crash wiping out all twenty planes. “Somehow, he avoided the planes and slid all the way down the middle of the ramp into a snow bank at the end. The pilot must have used power.”
Mike said “I turned to Phil in back and asked ‘Have you ever seen something like that?'”
“Never” he said, test pilot though he might be.
The following weekend, another airplane spun out on the ice. Video from WMUR. Also the following weekend Vlad, well known RV pilot in the northeast, wisely decided to abandon his attempt at landing in 20kt cross winds gusting to 40kts.
Moral of the story, know what you are doing, and don’t paint your plane white or gray.