Plane & Pilot
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Extreme Flying: Winter, Part 1

Lessons learned from an Alaskan bush pilot can be just as valuable to pilots in the lower 48

Extreme Flying: Winter, Part IIt’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.

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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.


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