The available landing area on the river at this point looked to be about a mile-and-a-half long, which, in and of itself, should be an adequate distance for the operation today. But just to be sure, I make a timed pass down the length of the river at 60 knots indicated. It turns out to be a minute and 12 seconds from treeline to treeline length-wise, which seems close enough to my estimate. Should be workable. A big negative however, is the natural obstacles formed by the riverbanks and the tress on both ends of the fairly straight stretch. At the northeastern end of the operational area, which is closer to Franklinâ€™s cabin, the river narrows slightly and the banks curve in a tight 120 degree turn to the south. At the opposite end, while the curve is barely more than a ninety degree turn, the river banks at least appear from the air to be even closer together.
As Franklinâ€™s place is located about one-third of the way along the right bank as I make my timing pass down the straight stretch, and further, as I can ascertain no noticeable wind from any direction I lay out my plan in my mind. I will land toward the southwest, dropping my Cessna workhorse in over what appears to be the absolutely classical â€œ50 foot objectâ€ that we all practiced so diligently to attack and surmount in our commercial pilot certificate flight training days.
I figger if I come across the treetops with my skis just missing them, with the stall horn just beeping; I should be able to whack the throttle as I clear the treeline while simultaneously dumping the nose over to keep from stalling. After falling the forty to fifty feet or so to the surface of the frozen Porcupine, a well-timed abrupt hauling back on the stick, combined with a blast of power should just break my fall allowing me to plant the Skywagon on the surface and possibly even come to a halt right alongside Franklin and his load. It will then leave me a good 4,000 feet or so to take off straight ahead.
Yep. That wasâ€¦.the PLAN.
A bit of a sidebar here, for you fellers anâ€™ gals that arenâ€™t experienced with ski operations. There can be a pretty wide variation of snow conditions encountered when operating in different parts of Alaska. Because of that fact; what little experience I had, and the observations I had made while riding around with Little Dean or a couple of my other friends back out on the western Alaskan coast, were only of limited value to me now. Mostly the difference is due to the average 15 knot winds that blow all along the coast of Northwestern Alaska, as opposed to what may be an average of 3 to 5 knots daily in wind velocity, deep in the interior of the state.
For as any math whiz could tell you; for an average daily wind of 15 knots, you have to have winds of 30 knots or so blowing at least a good part of the time. And the kicker is that the wind helps to hard-pack the snow. And in a lot of cases, large open flat areas, such as the frozen surface of some of the huge lagoons just inside the beachline along the western coast around Nome and Kotzebue; when repeatedly exposed to snow and wind, youâ€™ll find the surface often covered in a hard crust with a shallow snow depth.
But here in the deep interior of the state, there are areas that are very seldom windy. Itâ€™s one of the reasons I like living in Fairbanks. Seven knots is a windy day there any day of the year! But, this does allow the snow to pile up deep, and sans much of a crust.
In either case it is important that, if at all possible, you make a low pass at a good flying speed, and drag your skis through the surface of the snow briefly, before gunning the throttle and instantly lifting back off. Sort of like a â€œbounce â€˜n goâ€. Then you whip around in a circle quickly, and fly over the spot where you touched down to eyeball it. The idea is to look into the tracks and make sure they didnâ€™t darken in color. That would indicate water (overflow) on the surface of the ice. Not a good thing.
This was something my boss had me practice several dozen times on Hospital Lake the previous week when I had gotten checked out in the 185. I was plenty comfortable in the 185, having already flown both it and the 180 for at least five or six hundred hours at previous companies. It was just the ski operation and the snow conditions that were new to me. I intended to be very careful and conservative, as this was my first big-time ski flight for my new company.
With that in mind I targeted the middle stretch of the riverâ€™s operational area for my test. That would give me a lo-o-ong aiming zone, with a comparatively much more stable and less radical final approach than would be the case if I tried to do my â€œbounce â€˜n goâ€ where I planned to actually touch down when I landed. For you and I both know that, once committed to my planned landing, (a bare minimum airspeed, short-field operation) this baby is gonnaâ€™ squat at the bottom of that big drop. Itâ€™ll just be a matter ofâ€¦how much I can minimize the downward momentum of the approximately 2300 or so pound airsheen before it flops onto the ice.
On this first pass I opt for flaps thirty, as I wish to keep a substantial cushion of airspeed in my hip pocket, and thirty degrees of flaps still provides heaps of lift in comparison to the associated drag. Thus after flying my skis down into the snow at a good 70 knots or so for a few feet, jamming the throttle in and hauling the yoke back slightly should launch me upward like a homesick angel, clearing the trees on the far end by a wide margin.
I float leisurely across the treetops with a good dozen feet to spare indicating a steady seventy knots. As the last of the green fir sentinels guarding the Porcupine River slides aftward behind the big aluminum Fluidynes, I shove the nose down and creep the power back to only 1200 RPM. Hardly more than a high idle maintains my target 70 knot airspeed. I take a moment to pull my hand off the throttle and wave at Franklin as I pass by him still ten feet in the air and sailing along.
Beginning my flare, I then return my hand to the throttle and shove it in slightly. I feel and hear the IO-520 responding, and know without looking, that the airspeed indicator still holds close to if not exactly 70 knots or more. I push forward just slightly on the yoke and am immediately rewarded by snow flying sideways as the wide aluminum skis break into the top of the snow.
Instantly I simultaneously haul back on the yoke and JAAAM the throttle in to the forward stop.Â The engine bellows as the prop chews at the air. We clear the trees on the far end by at LEAST three hundred feet. â€œOh yeah.â€ I remember thinking, as I retract the flaps to twenty and rack 20807 around in a hard left chandelle, â€œthis is gonnaâ€™ be a no-o-o sweater here. Lotâ€™s of room!â€ A second pass at a slightly higher speed (with another jaunty wave to Franklin as I passed by) confirmed that there was no water in my tracks. Things were looking absolutely splendiferous so far. And once again I chandelled myself up onto another left downwind leg. This one Iâ€™d extend out an extra half-mile to the northeast. I wanted the increased distance to get an extra ten or fifteen seconds on final approach to get myself perfectly into my very slowest, slow flight â€œgrooveâ€. This time I was â€œplaying for keepsâ€.
I roll from my base leg onto about a 3/4 mile final approach, relinquishing the extra four hundred feet or so of airspace between my chariot and the tops of the tall fir trees. Never having sped up to more than eighty knots “in the pattern”, the last two notches of barn door Fowler flaps are easily shoved down and outward into the slowing slipstream. Two presses of the right thumb on the cream-colored plastic twenty-five cent piece sized, spring-loaded unlocking button on the end of the johnson bar manual flap actuating handle, combined with an upward pull and…CLICK-BANG-CLICK-BANG..we have the full forty degrees hung out there with maximum aileron droop.
I allow the airsheen to sink steadily lower and lower, now indicating only sixty knots, until no more than a dozen feet or so above the tops of the highest trees. I add power as I raise the nose to maintain that level and airspeed. I am very mindful that, unlike over the solid ground of a runway, or the surface of the river, I will have no “ground effect” cushion while skimming the tree tops. Thus, rather than trying for the absolute minimum airspeed with a full stall warning horn blaring, I will only reduce the speed to the point where the horn just beeps intermittently. The fact that I can detect no wind, the ride being smooth as glass, makes it much easier and more comfortable to execute this maneuver.
Gradually I ease the power back and continue to raise the nose slowly until, as the tip of the airspeed needle almost touches the 50 knot mark, the stall warning horn give it’s first 1/2 second chirp. Okay. Fifty knots it shall be then I decide, as I try to knock one more knot off the indicated with barely 1000 feet remaining to my “drop off” point.
As the last of the dark green blur disappears from the lower left portion of my vision, I instantly WHACK the throttle to idle, at the same time shoving briskly forward on the Cessna’s control wheel. In two seconds the view out the windshield changes from a brilliant all-blue panorama, to an equally dazzling all-white one, as the frozen, snow-covered surface of the Porcupine comes rushing suddenly closer. My peripheral vision momentarily registers a black clump I know to be Franklin and his “stuffs”, ahead and to the right. I remember a quick thought then flashing through my mind halfway down, as to how way cool this must appear to a mere mortal, normally earth-bound creature such as he. Also it appeared that my planned program was on track to produce the desired result and the landing slide should terminate pretty close to right in front Mr Benjamin. Gadfrey, I’m good!
FLARE! NOW! POWER!!
Author’s DISCLAIMER. – WARNING!! to CloudDancer’s Alaskan Chronicle readers. Descriptions of amazing and seemingly superhuman aerial feats and performances which are contained within these Sacred Volumes, have been known to be HAZARDOUS and/or DEADLY to both airframes and the occupants within, when not conducted with absolute precision! This generally requires a level of skill and knowledge, along with an over-sized set of steel gonads, which can only be acquired over a long period of repeated practice. (*)
(*)Of course, this “disclaimer” is just my way of saying “Kids, don’t try this at home!” and is certainly an exaggeration, as we know I am not some sort of superhero, lacking the required cape and X-Ray vision. But my lawyers made me include it to CMA. You know. Cover my ass! Now, back to the action!
This “roundout” maneuver, for truly it is seen from outside the aircraft to almost resemble an eagle or falcon’s arrival to a nest; much more so than a normal landing, is pretty much “doable” only in the circumstances in which I find myself at the moment. The empty aircraft is extremely light. In addition, there are several inches, if not a foot or more of snow, to help the spring steel gear legs cushion the collision of the skis with the frozen surface of the river. And lastly, there are no wind gusts to suddenly and instantaneously add or subtract from my airspeed and thus my lift.
In less than three full seconds after whacking the power to idle and shoving forward on the yoke, I sharply reverse both motions, again simultaneously. The desired effect is achieved with N20807 “bottoming out” the fall to gently break into the surface of the snow, blasting the fine powder up and outward in all directions. Again I chop the throttle quickly, yet a liddle more gently this time. I just register Franklin standing a few yards ahead and to the right as I begin to feel the 185 start to decelerate when…..WHOOOMMMPPHH!Â In the blink of an eye, Franklin, as well as the rest of the world, disappears into a WHITEOUT!!
I am seemingly solid on instruments out of NOWHERE man! I feel the airplane shuddering as it slows quickly to a halt. The skis, along with all the associated tubes, snugging cables, and bungees et.al., are now massive drag inducers buried deep below the surface of the snow causing the leaf steel spring main landing gear legs to rapidly shake fore and aft to their limits (and GOD! I hope not beyond!).
HO-O-O-OLY CRAP! I come to a stop in a veritable propeller-produced blizzard, as the snow being churned by the fan up front continues to blow sideways past the windows on both sides. Sliding the mixture control full back brings an end to the storm. Good God a’mighty! What the hell have I done to myself?! Unbuckling quickly I glance at the outside air temperature gauge mounted in the left wing root. Thirty degrees outside, and only about 11:00 A.M. so it was going to get warmer yet. I started to get a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was going to turn into a tough day’s work it looked like, instead of the comparatively simple in-and-out operation I had been foreseeing in my mind.
This thought was further cemented into reality when I turned slightly to the left in my seat and rotated the door handle upward and aft. As it reached the end of it’s travel and the locking bayonet retracted into the door from the frame, as usual, the tightly fitted door popped outward from the airframe. An inch! One lousy inch was all it moved before the snow outside stopped it from opening any further!
I was able to use arm-power to shove the door a little over halfway open. And while this created a very pretty and symmetrical pattern in the snow, I was horrified! The snow was four to five inches up the back frame of the door!
I jump out of the airplane and…SUMMAMABITCHES! This crap is up halfway past my navel to my NIPPLES! Looking aft I can see only the upper half of the tan and cream colored vertical stabilizer and rudder. It is protruding upward in the churned wake of snow behind the aircraft like the shark’s dorsal fin in “Jaws” or something. Even the last foot of the top of the fuselage, forward of the leading edge attach point for the vertical stab, along with the entire horizontal portion of the tailfeather assembly, has been buried.
In utter disbelief, I am quite sure I stood there with my mouth agape, in full fly-catching mode as Poppa CloudDancer would say. Shaking my head ruefully, regretting the day I ever agreed to get checked out on skis, thinking I would get to “have some fun”…I remember the thought that ran through my head at that exact moment.
â€œWell now. Doesn’t THIS just suck!â€
(excerpted from “It Was Okay I Guess” in CloudDancer’s Alaskan Chronicles, Vol. IV)