By Peter Fraser
There are only a few places in the world where you can learn to fly on skis and even fewer where you can learn to land on glaciers, high in remote mountains. One such place is Alaska Floats and Skis, offering ski flying instruction in the winter, and float and bush flying courses in the summer.
Late February through early April is the time for ski flying in Talkeetna, Alaska. Your base will be the five-bedroom lodge on Christiansen Lake, just a stone’s throw from the charming little town of Talkeetna, which in the summer is bustling with tourists, but in the winter is almost left to the locals.
The area is beautiful. To the east Denali and the Alaska Range burst out of the flat surroundings, shouldering away the sky, and peaking at just above 20,000 feet. It is a mesmerizing sight on a clear, crisp day. Snow covers everything here, foot upon foot of it. This is dry snow, it creaks under your tread, it glistens in the sun. Gliding around silently on skis, trudging along on snowshoes, or noisily careening along in a snow machine, it is a pleasure experiencing this untamed, wild land.
You wake in your warm bedroom, clump across to the stove, and make coffee, looking out at the deep snow and the sunshine rising out of the east. It’s going to be a great day. Your airplane is on the snow-covered lake, just a few feet from the shore in front of the lodge. These are Piper Pacers, either 150 or 160 horsepower. They are brightly painted, each snug with its engine cover and electric warmer, the wings and tail covered to avoid a buildup of snow or ice.
On the walk-around you pay special attention to the skis and note there is no suspension, they are directly bolted to the wheel struts. Also note the wires running to the front of the skis, two each. Having a ski rotate forward and hang vertically would be a very bad day. The back of the aircraft is full of survival equipment. Temperatures here can drop well below zero degrees Fahrenheit at night, so even one unplanned overnight without proper equipment could prove fatal.
Don Lee is the legendary founder of this operation and, if you are lucky, you may get to fly with him. However, you will likely be with one of the young, keen instructors who are trained and mentored by Lee.
The little electric heaters have warmed the engine and oil. The wing and tail covers are removed, preflight done, and you clamber in, none too nimbly as these are small and tight cabins and you are dressed in big boots and several layers.
Start up, remembering you have no brakes, and steering is the same as a normal tailwheel aircraft except less precise. Taxiing is a hoot and the first time gliding over smooth snow feels marvelous, but when there are rough spots the directly connected skis make you feel every little bump. Run-up is, just like on floats, done on the move. Full power, snow flying behind, get the tail ski up, sliding over the snow and ice is a new and exhilarating feeling. Once airborne it’s just flying, but outside the scenery is enthralling, from far-off huge mountain ranges to countless snow-covered lakes, winding rivers mostly frozen over, and snow-covered trees dotting the landscape.
First flight will have you practicing take offs and landings at Lake Christiansen or, depending on conditions, at one or more of the hundreds of lakes within a few minutes flying time. Three-point landings are the norm so those familiar with tailwheel flying will be at home. If others have laid tracks, then you can just go ahead and land in or alongside, otherwise after a low look-see, you will come in, let the skis lightly touch the snow, feeling for the surface conditions. These can be anything from beautiful smooth, soft deep powder to bumpy, rock-hard ice. Then, inspection complete, its full power and off again, around the pattern to either land or find a more suitable lake. Settling gently onto soft virgin snow is one of the greatest flying experiences you are ever likely to have. Couple this with coming to a stop, shutting down, getting out, and walking around the frozen world, not a sound disturbing the peaceful serenity. In its pristine emptiness, this is a memory to cherish.
Landing at 7,500 feet on a sloping glacier in the Talkeetna Range is an altogether different experience. It is about 40 minutes from the lodge on Christiansen Lake, but a gorgeous 40 minutes on a clear day—and you only do this on a clear and calm day. Flying along, the Susitna River thousands of feet below, the rugged mountain slopes only a short distance from your wing tips. Eventually reaching the glacier, skis skimming the snow in a continuous dance, balancing lift against drag, power against gravity. It is a delicate flying skill. You check out your landing target and figure its altitude. Round you come, hugging close to the enclosing ridges before turning final. The runway of snow has a definite upslope, which makes you think you are higher than you are. You fly almost level without much descent, letting the mountain come to you. Then power off, a slight pitch up, and you are sliding onto the glacier.
Kill the motor and a wonderful quiet fills the air. This is living, you tell yourself. It is only a lucky few who get to have this experience. You are not a passenger. You are the pilot, and it is only you, your instructor, and the little airplane in this wonderful, magical place.
On a rocky outcrop beside the glacier is an emergency shelter hut. A single room about 15 square feet. Large glass windows warm it on a sunny day. It has a log fireplace and is fully stocked for any emergency, including huge sleeping bags, folding camp beds, and a mattress. If you get the chance to overnight, take at least three days of supplies just in case the weather changes and you are stuck. A night here on the glacier with the clearest star-filled sky and perhaps the aurora borealis is unique and awe inspiring.
Takeoff is always straight down the fall line, basically letting the aircraft find its way, just small inputs from you, nudging, suggesting. It’s a bouncy, barely managed feeling. Too soon the mountain is falling away and again you are airborne and heading to Christiansen Lake. But wait, that lake over there looks perfect, with a nod from your instructor you swoop down, the skis slide softly over the deep snow, power on, and away you go, snow flying behind. Another lake, another landing.
Apart from flying you can rent cross-country skis or fat-tired bikes for local jaunts. Alaska Floats and Skis has snowmobiles that you can use to explore the local area. There is no ski flying endorsement, but the thrill and challenge make it a bucket list item for any pilot. Ski flying, float flying, bush flying. Alaska has it all. Choose any or all, you will not regret a moment of it.
Peter Fraser is a retired pilot living in Oregon.