Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Whole New Flying World

Even though ski flying doesn’t require an endorsement, it’s critical to get instruction first

If you keep your plane tied down outside, then you must put a barrier between the skis and snow so you don’t freeze in. I use two-inch PVC pipe—it’s lightweight, and the skis don’t stick to it. I just place a few pieces under the tip and tail of the ski, and when I’m ready, I can just taxi off. I also carry a small shovel and snowshoes. If you get stuck, you may need to dig out around the skis and then use the snowshoes to mat down an area in front of the plane.

Due to the variations in snow depth, consistency and lighting, there’s no “one size fits all” technique. Starting out, you have to remember that on snow, you have no brakes, and your turning radius will be much larger than on wheels. And once you get moving—unless you’re on a hardpack—there’s no stopping. You have to plan your taxi route and turns ahead of time. Do your before-takeoff checks and run-up before you leave your tiedown. It’ll take a fair amount of power just to move the airplane, especially in deep or wet snow—keep an eye on engine temps.

After you get the plane moving, relax the stick, and at times, use forward stick to keep the tail light. This will aid in making turns. By the way, steering is vague at best, sort of like a boat with a rudder that’s too small. If you plan your turns to the left, you’ll get a tighter turning radius due to the left-turning tendencies. As you enter the turn, use forward stick and fairly short, powerful bursts of power to energize the rudder and blow the tail around. As the turn progresses, you may start to slide sideways. It’s fun, but too much can damage your landing gear. You can limit the side-slide with a touch of outside rudder, and then go back to the inside rudder, almost segmenting the turn. Once you’re in line with the takeoff area, don’t hesitate—go right to full power. Allow the tail to rise up out of the snow but keep it tail low. As you accelerate, the skis will begin to plane up, feeling a bit like a floatplane when it gets on the step. There’s a “sweet-spot” pitch attitude that’ll allow quicker acceleration. If you allow the tail to come up too high or hold it too low, you’ll feel the airplane decelerate. Get it right, and it’ll pretty much fly itself off.

If you’re landing on snow that’s already matted down or hardpack, you can pretty much make a normal power-off landing. If you’re landing on virgin snow that may be deep, fly a series of long touch-and-goes and overlap the tracks. This way, you’ll mat yourself a runway. Oh yeah—if you’re landing on a frozen lake and the tracks turn dark, it’s overflow. Don’t land there! If the snow is soft and deep, land with power “soft-field style.” After you touch, keep enough power on to keep the plane moving. When it’s time to turn, jink slightly right then turn left back into your tracks and back-taxi for takeoff. If you’re going to stop, be sure to let your skis cool down for a minute then pull forward onto matted snow. Put something under the skis if you leave the plane for a while. (In a pinch, you can use pine boughs or sticks.) If you try to taxi and the snow is a bit sticky, you can try to break free by slightly raising and lowering the tail; use a fair amount of power and wiggle the rudders left and right. It works...sometimes.

Skis can open up a whole new world of places to land. There’s nothing like landing on fresh powder on a crisp winter’s day where no one else has been. Very cool!

Damian DelGaizo is the owner of Andover Flight ( and has over 15,000 hours of tailwheel time.


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