|Pilots who fly around the time of the winter solstice in December can experience whiteouts, high winds, frigid temperatures and limiting visibilities.|
It’s Gary Chamberlain’s second cup of coffee and it’s still dark outside. For months now the sun has been rising later and later each day, only to scribe a low arc across the horizon before disappearing again just a few hours later. As the winter solstice nears in December, even the twilight hours are gone. Still, there’s flying to be done, and Chamberlain has learned the lessons that decades of living in Alaska have taught him. Despite the constant risks of whiteouts, high winds, frigid temperatures and limiting visibilities, he’s developed a set of rules that allow him to crisscross Alaska and the Yukon Territory year-round in his Cessna 185.
“The most important thing for any pilot is to get a good handle on the weather you’ll be dealing with,” Chamberlain says. “Of all the things to worry about in flying, weather should get most of your attention.” You can hear the unmistakable emphasis in his voice when he says “weather.” Over the years, he’s lost 12 friends to Alaska’s harsh flying conditions, and all but two of these accidents were because of weather.
“I start out by looking at weather on the computer,” Chamberlain says. “I want to see what the weather’s doing all around me. For example, it can be a good day here, but if there’s a low, hanging over the Gulf of Alaska, I know that the ceilings are probably coming down, and we may get heavy snow as well.” He picks up the marine forecast to help him make his go/no-go decision. A modern bush pilot on the Internet can also take advantage of live weather cams to look at real-time conditions. “You can actually get a lot of good information from those damned things,” Chamberlain muses.
Next he gets a weather briefing from the local flight service station. “I pay special attention to the pilot reports because that’s awfully good information about what’s really going on out there.” He even goes so far as to ask who made the pilot report—not just what type of aircraft, but who was actually on the flying end of the microphone. A report of low ceilings or turbulence that comes from a day-in/day-out Part 135 operator, for example, might carry more weight with Chamberlain than a report from a tourist pilot on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around Alaska.
“Then I want to talk with some real human beings,” Chamberlain says with a smile, “not robots, like ASOS or AWOS. I start calling people who are familiar with bush flying and ask them how this pass looks or what the conditions are like on the runway or landing area where I’m headed.” Even if he’s staying overnight in the bush, Chamberlain sticks to his routine of talking to people along his route and at his destination before taking off, even if it requires using the high-frequency radio that’s in the panel of his aircraft. “Talking to real human beings is very, very important,” he insists.
If, after that, he doesn’t like the information he’s collected, he waits. “We have a saying here—‘I’ll see you tomorrow, weather permitting.’ We live by that,” Chamberlain says.
Before he starts his engine, Chamberlain always checks that he’s carrying everything he might need should he experience problems along the way. There’s always a chance that mechanical problems could cause an unscheduled stop, and Chamberlain knows that Alaska’s unruly and unpredictable weather could push him into a situation in which a forced landing to await improving conditions is the only safe move. “Only a fool travels without survival gear,” he states matter-of-factly.
“You need to have whatever it takes to survive in any location that you’re flying over,” he says. “For us up here, priority one is staying warm. What’s the point of making a beautiful landing somewhere if you end up freezing to death?” His list of must-haves includes an ax, fire starter, snowshoes, a rifle, polar weight sleeping bag, a few MREs, a small gas stove (his burns avgas), a snow shovel and a change of clothes in case he gets wet. Chamberlain also carries a small Honda generator to supply power to the heaters in his airplane. When the weather improves, he can start the Cessna’s engine and take off again.
Toward the top of Chamberlain’s winter checklist is a satellite phone. He believes that anyone who flies has a responsibility to be able to contact those people who might put themselves in danger in the event of a search-and-rescue mission. He explains,“You want to be able to call people and say ‘Here’s where I am; I’m okay; you don’t need to come looking for me.’ There’s been plenty of people who’ve gone out looking for someone and gotten killed while they were looking.”
Anytime his airplane isn’t flying—whether tied down at his home or in a clearing 20 miles from the middle of nowhere— Chamberlain protects it from the cold. He covers the lifting surfaces to prevent them from exposure to snow and ice formation. His engine is covered by a thermal blanket, and three separate heaters keep the cockpit instruments, the engine case and the oil warm. “Even though they’re operating in this kind of cold, my engines always make TBO,” Chamberlain says. “You’ve got to get them warmed up before you use them, you want to see the oil drop freely off the dipstick before you try to start them,” he points out. If you have the luxury of keeping your airplane in a warm hangar, always make sure the gas tanks are topped off to prevent condensation. “Otherwise you can plan on making about a cup of water in each tank,” Chamberlain knows.
Operating in winter conditions requires some special techniques, in the air and on the ground. “I try to avoid taxiing through any puddles of standing water,” says Chamberlain. “Not only does the water eat on your prop, but your brakes can freeze that way. If I suspect they’re frozen, I’m extremely cautious when returning to a hard, dry runway.” He recommends a tail-low takeoff from wet, snowy and icy surfaces. That gives the propeller more clearance, but also keeps the prop from blasting moisture over the elevators, which can then freeze in flight.
Winter flying can often mean a short climb from takeoff only to find low ceilings and low visibility. A bush pilot’s solution? “Slow down,” says Chamberlain. “You don’t have to keep flying at 130 knots. Your airplane is just as happy flying at 80, 70 or even 60 knots. That way everything else slows down, too. You have a lot more time to see things and react, and your airplane can turn in a much smaller radius if you have to make a 180.”
Low, ragged ceilings can also bring icing woes. Without deicing or anti-icing equipment, a pilot’s only recourse is to look for warmer air. “I vary altitudes, and if that doesn’t work, I turn around. Period. If the ocean is nearby, I’ll go toward the water and descend. It’s usually warmer nearer the ocean,” Chamberlain points out.
With low ceilings and ice to contend with, Chamberlain often finds that winter flying requires point-to-point navigation, as opposed to a strictly en route heading. He explains, “The weather is not always going to let you go someplace in a straight line. Sometimes you have to pick a point ahead and you fly to that. If I can see it, I know I can reach it.”
From there, he’ll pick the next point to fly to, and so on. “It’s like stepping stones, and sooner or later, I’ll get to the destination safely.”
For winter flying, Chamberlain’s C-185 is equipped with wheel skis. For the uninitiated, wheel skis allow a pilot to take off and land on wheels, or pump down the skis for landing on snow or ice, whichever is more appropriate. Obviously the wheel skis allow Chamberlain to operate more safely throughout the Alaskan winter; he can put in almost as many flying hours as he does in the more forgiving summer season.
“It doesn’t take a special rating to fly on skis, but you should learn the skill from someone who’s experienced,” Chamberlain says. “There’s little things, techniques, [to learn] like how to turn the airplane around on skis, and you need to have somebody teach you how to read the snow conditions.”
One of the real threats to ski pilots is the often invisible presence of overflow. “Overflow can happen when you get a layer of snow over ice. The weight of the snow pushes down on the ice, and water from beneath is squeezed up toward the surface,” Chamberlain instructs. He says the risk is that a pilot can land on a smooth layer of snow, only to find out what’s underneath him won’t support the airplane’s weight.
“That’s why before I ever land, I make a few passes and look for any discoloration in the snow or ice,” he continues. “That tells us there’s overflow. If things look alright, I’ll make a low pass, flaps down and power.” He puts the tails of his skis on the snow to see how it feels. He’ll then power up and take off, returning a few minutes later to see if any water has risen into the tracks he just laid, a sure sign of overflow. If everything looks good, he’ll return for another pass and set his skis down in the same tracks. This time, he’ll add a bit more weight. If all continues to look and feel good, Chamberlain will finally land after several passes.
“It’s really important,” he says. “If you don’t pay attention, you can land and step out only to find your airplane sitting in water. You better do something right away or you’re probably still going to be sitting there in the spring.”
Speaking of spring, we asked Gary Chamberlain if he would allow us to come back in the warm months when he trades his skis for a set of tundra tires.
“I’d be happy to share what I know about summer flying,” he smiles. “Weather permitting.” Stay tuned next month for part two of our Extreme Flying special report.