In some areas of the country, gravel bars are large and open. In New England, gravel bars are generally small, surrounded by trees and often covered in large stones. Since installing Alaskan Bushwheels for our trip to UT and ID last spring, I had been looking for the right chance to try some of the local gravel bars.
The Bearhawk is a fantastic and capable airplane. It can carry the family and gear into and out of a lot of places while cruising faster than your typical Cub. However, it is also heavier and faster when landing than a Cub and has less forward visibility which can be very useful when maneuvering in tight spaces with hazards.
Since I would be at a disadvantage with a heavier airplane, I wanted to stack the deck in my favor where I could. The right chance included cool air, calm or light winds, and water levels low enough to expose more gravel. I also wanted to go on a day when someone with experience was available to guide and help identify hazards. Having someone else is also useful for assisting in securing or recovering your airplane if things get broken.
A cool fall morning in a year of drought finally brought the right conditions and a friend, Rene, to help keep me out of trouble. However, I ended up with full fuel, so I would have to work extra hard. I would be flying at a weight of about 2,100+ lbs vs. about 1,400 lbs for a Cub.
Rene and I met up and went over things to know before heading out to the river. He suggested a strategy of three passes before landing. The first pass is above tree height to survey the approach, landing and departure paths for major obstacles. The second is down low and slow, but next to where you intend to land to carefully inspect for hazards on the landing surface. During the third pass, slow almost to landing speed and roll the wheels on to feel if the surface is too soft or bumpy. Roll the entire intended landing surface. By keeping the airplane at flying speed, if things don’t feel good, you can immediately lift off the ground and fly away. Finally, if everything looks good, land on the forth pass. We also discussed a technique called a “water assisted landing” which involved deliberately touching down before reaching shore and hydroplaning up to land. It wasn’t a technique I intended to practice, but it was relevant to the topic of gravel bar landings.
Rene led on the passes and landed first to be clear about where I should be landing. He walked back to where I should touch down and put a few branches in the water to mark it. The approach end of the gravel bar narrows down to nothing. The landing would be at the point where it becomes wide enough.
The approach path was low to the water. I felt like my wing was passing under some of the overhanging trees and branches. I was so consumed by precisely flying the airplane slow, low to the water and close to the trees that I didn’t identify the reference features, one of them being Rene, that marked the intended touchdown point. Instead I identified where the gravel bar seemed wide enough and aimed for that point.
The touch down was surprisingly smooth and roll-out was uneventful, even if a little long as I tried to be very careful of the tailwheel on the large stones. After I parked and got out Rene announced, “Well! You got water assisted landings off the check list!” With poor forward visibility, I had landed a little wider and shorter than intended and done a water assisted landing, which is why the touchdown was so smooth.
During our trip to UT and ID, Emilie and I knew that we had the needed flying skills, but found that applying them facing real canyon walls increased the challenge. I had a similar experience flying into this gravel bar. Each pass prior to landing had been more comfortable than the prior, except that each was done lower, slower and with more commitment. Repetition will bring familiarity and make it easier to pay attention to more details. …and hopefully easier to hit my intended touchdown point.
Click for video https://vimeo.com/475708269