Photos of the Day -- The Weather Today ... Fickle

The weather was fickle today. I flew more than 7 hours and saw everything from blazing sunshine, to wind, snow, slush, sleet, hail, rain, and fog. All of the above photos were taken in the past 8 hours. One moment I would be flying in clear air and in a matter of minutes the visibility would grow hazy as the moisture in the air around me condensed into visible clouds. It's an eerie feeling to know that the weather is not an isolated unit moving around, but rather it is building in intensity, and size through invisible means in the air supporting you. I never know if it is going to totally shut down, and leave me stranded at some abandoned cabin or if it is merely a passing cell. Little can be left to chance and I spend the majority of my efforts avoiding the bad areas and not flying through them.

Spring and Fall are the most unpredictable seasons as the weather patterns battle for control. Even though the weather was not exceptionally bad today, it was totally unstable and moving fast. The picture of the icing on my wing was taken after flying through a small snow squall that lasted less than one minute. You can see the dangers involved with this sort of thing as any amount of icing disrupts air flow over the wing. It was bothersome that I had flown through multiple squalls a short time before that built no ice. The temperature, wind, visibility, and precipitation were changing very fast, and I decided to call it a day and head home to see my girls, and eat some dinner. I did manage to get 3 kite skiers and 2 gold miners moved before the weather turned on me, so it was still a good days work.

Story Sunday -- Photo of the Day -- Pants on a String

There was a storm brewing on the other side of the mountains and the wind was temperamentally building. I was surprised when the report from the glacier was less than 10 knots, but optimistically assumed we were experiencing a lull before the storm. I also knew that if they did not get their groceries today, it might be several days before conditions allowed another trip. I quickly loaded the plane and headed for the 10,000' level. It was obvious that the wind was blowing at altitude because the clouds were passing by the peaks at a tremendous rate and conditions were changing rapidly. The clouds were looming over the landing site and it was becoming apparent that the line between do-able and dangerous was growing very thin.

The airflow affecting the cloud formation just overhead indicated winds in excess of 60 mph but where I was currently flying conditions remained ... reasonable. I made one pass over the campsite and was disappointed when they explained on the aviation radio that the wind had picked up significantly in the past 20 minutes. The climbers had taken a 12 foot probe and tied a pair of pants onto the end of it and stuck it in the snow for a wind indicator. The pants looked like a thin silk flag as they stood straight out pointing away from the ominous cloud formation threatening to overtake us at any moment. This is not uncommon and can be viewed in the picture above as the air comes up and over the range it will actually hold in position for several hours, and then, all of a sudden unleash it's furry.

I could feel the wind tugging on the control surfaces of the super cub yet I was reluctant to retreat because the air was relatively smooth. As I flew away from the camp a massive downdraft required full throttle to maintain a 500 foot per minute decent. This is where the game can get a little dicy because the Super Cub is no longer performing at its full potential because of the reduced airflow over the wings, and through the engine and propeller. 350 lbs of groceries and gear sat behind me in the seat and the 10,000' elevation was making itself known. It does not take a rocket-scientist to realize that you have about 30 seconds to make a choice; either go home and don't look back, or, if you're comfortable, drive it in there. Circling overhead and talking about it is not always an option, because the longer you lolly-gag the longer you leave yourself exposed.

I was comfortable with landing because I had felt the wind and while it was powerful it was not turbulent, but I knew it was a one way trip. A go-around was absolutely out of the question because of the steepness of the terrain as well as the unstable air. I turned in towards the snow and ice and drove it into the ground under nearly full power with no flaps. It was an un-eventful landing and I quickly unloaded the gear and explained that I wanted to be airborne in 10 minutes --Usually we hang out and at least drink a cup of coffee.

I didn't know if it was my imagination or if the clouds really were closer, but as soon as the Cub was unloaded and I looked around it seemed as though things were getting worse. The clouds were darker and the wind was stronger. Somebody had an anemometer and we held it into the Southerly wind. It quickly climbed through 10 then 15, 17, 22 mph..... that was all I needed to see, I walked away from the wind indicator and headed straight for the plane. I hollered to the course leader that I needed to be airborne immediately, because I had to take off with a tail wind. They grabbed all the garbage and backhaul they could and I was in my cub with the engine running in less than 2 minutes. I sat with the engine idling while I stared at the pair of pants whipping in the wind, I was waiting for a lull that never seemed to come. I had to take-off down hill because an up-hill, up-wind take-off was suicide in the rising terrain and massive downdrafts at the base of the nearest mountain. I waited, and waited but the wind never relented. I eventually poured the cobbs to it and started down the glacier with 25+ mph of wind blowing on my tail. At 10,000', in fresh snow, with a half loaded Super Cub, and a 25 mph tailwind it took me almost 2000' to get airborne.

There is nothing like that feeling of your airplane breaking ground as the wings finally build enough lift to fly ... it is a beautiful thing. I spoke with this course a couple of weeks later and they said that within 15 minutes it was snowing and blowing so hard there was no way I could have landed and they did not a see a break in the weather for 3 more days. That's one thing with the glacier work, you just never know what you are going to get.

*NOTE*  I have no pictures of this event because of the circumstances, but the above photo is taken in the same area with a much milder system brewing on the horizon.

Photos of the Day -- The Big City and the Big Wind

I've mentioned in other posts that we live up at Sheep Mt. for the bulk of our flying season which is May-Sept.  During the winter months we move down to the big city so, welcome to Palmer.  In French Palmer means - "Where the freaking wind never stops blowing."  OK so maybe I just made that up, but don't forget it.  I should not isolate the blame to Palmer, because Palmer's sister town, Wasilla, is no better and it's ugly to boot.  Summers are nice, but during the winter months the air never stops moving. The nice thing about Palmer is the fantabulous mountains surrounding the small town.  Pioneer Peak is the most prominent mountain standing 6,400' above the saltwater at its base.  It really is a good place to live and is referred to as the Matanuska (Mat-an-oo-ska) Valley which includes Wasilla and the surrounding communities.  Over the past 15 years the Matanuska Valley has become Anchorage's bedroom  because it's only 45 minutes away.

What you are looking at here is Palmer-proper with the "downtown" section right beneath the nose and the runway (PAAQ) to the East (left)  I grew up here and got my pilots license right there on the Palmer runway when I was 18 years old.  You see that row of rivets running down my engine cowl ?  It's pointing at the Glenn Hwy which will take you directly to our house at Sheep Mountain this summer.  Sheep Mountain is a beautiful 1 hour and fifteen minute drive from Palmer.  We come into town several times a week to get groceries, and water the plants.  So we may be able to fly you out of Palmer if it works with our scheduling, don't hesitate to ask.

The reason the wind blows so much is because Palmer and Wasilla sit at the mouth of two large valleys the Matanuska and the Knik.  Those two drainages are the main passage-ways, or relief valves through the Chugach Mountains.  And when I talk about wind, I mean some WIND!!  on average it is less than 20 mph, but then all of a sudden the mountains will get an attitude and LOOK OUT !  The stiffest breeze I've seen this winter is 80 mph.  The next photo was taken during a Palmer windstorm ...  and here's what it does to a Super Cub.  Makes me really sad, poor guy.  Mike's Cessna 185 was parked just 75 feet away when this happened, we were more fortunate I guess.

Photo of the Day -- Story Friday -- Frictionless

We were up at the base of the Alaskan Range near the toe of the Kahiltna Glacier, and we had been airborne for more than 4 hours. I don't know about you, but I start getting a little antsy after a few hours in the cub seat. We fly primarily over wilderness areas with no airstrips so when it's time to take care of physiological needs I just look around for a place to plop down for a few minutes and stretch our legs.

It was that annoying time of year when there is not enough snow for skis, but almost too much for tires. It's always a toss up as-to which landing gear to operate with until the seasons have definitely made up their mind. On this particular day I had opted for my 35" Bushwheels, and it was a good choice, but I wish they made a treaded model.

I looked around for a landing spot for about 5 minutes, and started to get antsy because I really had to pee. Many a pilot has wrecked a perfectly good airplane in an attempt to not piss their pants. I remember a couple of years ago a guy landed on a snow packed runway in a Cessna 180 with little tires. There were two grooves torn into the crusted surface, and then a divot where the prop spinner met the ground moments before the aircraft catapulted onto it's back. Anyways, that's another story ... so I see this spot that I figure is long enough to land, so I do a low pass, to look at the depth of the snow drifts and then wing around to land. It was plenty long enough even with the heavy load of gas, gear, and passenger, but a 10 cut bank marked the touchdown point on a teardrop shaped plateau that tapered down to a very sharp point after about 450'. The length did not concern me, and the winds were mostly calm. It was slightly sloped so it would have been nice to land uphill but the bushes on the low end mandated a small obstacle approach. I opted for the downhill landing over the 10' foot cut bank and toward the pointy end of the teardrop.

I plopped into the snow just 18 inches past the bank and stood hard on the binders ..... no deceleration. I pushed harder on the brakes but still no response. I was surprised because I thought there would be some amount of breaking or deceleration due to the resistance of the snow ... I was wrong. Halfway down the strip I was getting nervous, and it was too late for a go-around. ( this is true with most of our strips, once you are on the ground you can forget about a go-around) I looked out my side window and my tires were locked up tight just plowing through the snow. I was working my way down the pointy end of the teardrop, and a successful outcome was in question. We finally began decelerating and stopped just 6 feet from falling off the other end. The passenger made a comment something like, "%$@*&* man your tires never turned an inch". He was not exaggerating. We had set down on the very end, and slid the entire 444'".

We land in snow fairly regularly but sometimes unknown conditions will throw a curve ball at you, and temperature and humidity are major factors determining the amount of available friction. I was certainly surprised by the lack of resistance but I sure was thankful to stop. My flying mentor Gar is 73 years old and has been flying airplanes in Alaska since the early 60's. One thing he is always reminding me is that, "Airplanes will humble you in a big hurry." You really can't be too careful with this sort of flying. Usually it's scenarios just like this one that are not life threatening, but they sure can be expensive if you don't stop sliding.

Photo of the Day -- Story Friday -- Broken Animal Crackers

These guys were walking through the Chugach Mts. on a month long expedition. They needed food, fuel, and supplies delivered at three different points along their route. We try not to leave food unattended in the wilderness because animals always find it and make a mess. We usually plan to meet the teams so that we can give them their supplies in person, and back-haul their garbage.

Their second re-ration was scheduled for June 1st at 10,000'. (Let me remind you that this is Alaska, so 10,000' is really high, and even in the middle of summer a couple of feet of snow and 80 mph winds are not uncommon.) When I woke up on June 1st it was rainy and foggy and rather persistent, so we held out for the next day which showed little improvement. On the 3rd of June they called and said it was improving. Since we were already 2 days behind schedule, I launched immediately for the 20 minute flight to 10,000'. By the time I got to 8500' I could tell that things were not looking good up ahead. I got within radio range, and was speaking to the course leader on the ground. He told me that conditions had deteriorated drastically over the last 30 minutes. I was only 600 yards from them, but I could do nothing. Their camp was on a long narrow shelf with steep mountains to the immediate South, and a 3000' cliff just a couple hundred yards to the North. I was circling out over the cliff and looking onto the shelf, but could see nothing but white. The weather was only deteriorating so I headed home with an airplane still full of groceries.

The weather continued to be horrible for several more days, and finally on the 6th of June I got a sat-phone call from the mountain. The report was mediocre at best, but I hurriedly loaded the plane and headed for the glacier. 6 days late on a re-ration is a really long time, and I knew that they were out of fuel. Without fuel it's difficult to get water because they can't melt snow, not to mention the shortage of food. As I passed through 8500' I noticed it looked ... bad. Not horrible, but bad. The clouds were higher now, and I had decent forward visibility, but there was no substantial light to cast any shadows. I climbed up to 10,000 feet and circled over their camp just 200' below. The only reason I could see the ground was because of the climbers out walking around. It looked like they were floating in a world of white. I asked two of them to put on skis and go down-hill away from camp so that I could aim for something on final approach. This is a little airborne test that I like to make occasionally. If I can see their tracks while they ski I will take further actions toward a landing attempt. If I cannot see their tracks in the snow ... the light is too flat and I won't do it. As the skiers got roped up and headed down hill I strained to see a variance in color on the ground ... nothing. Just two dudes floating around on a common rope.

I forgot to mention there was also about 20 mph of wind at elevation so the variables were stacking up against me. Even if I had them lay-out two parrallel climbing ropes up the glacier for a visual clue, the prevailing winds would make the approach unstable. And with a heavily loaded super cub, at 10,000', in super-flat light ... it ain't worth it !!

I reported the bad news on the radio and asked them if they wanted an air-drop. We don't often airdrop because it breaks the animal crackers and leaks the fuel, but sometimes you gotta get 'er done. Without a moments hesitation they said, "Yes, anything, fuel please." I flew off to the North so that I could get immediate clearance from the invisible ground and circled out beyond the cliff while tying surveyors tape to several gallons of white gas. Gallon cans of white gas have about a 50/50 chance of staying intact if dropped in the snow. On my first pass I threw out 3 gallons of white gas and one food bag. I did not dare get low-and-slow, as is custom for an airdrop, because low-and-slow is a bad idea when you can't see the ground. I stayed up high enough that the people on the ground looked small and made three passes throwing food out the door each time. While dropping the food I focused on looking straight ahead and flying level. Normally I look at my target, and drop while looking down, but I did not dare take my eyes off the few visual references I had. It's not that I was in the clouds or had reduced visibility, it was simply that everything was white, and there was no sun-beam strong enough to separate the monotony. This is the only airdrop I have done at a cruise power setting, hundreds of feet off the ground, but it worked thanks to all the fresh snow.

I took the above picture the morning after the airdrop when I was finally able to land and laugh about it with them. They were more hungry than I realized, and told me they had just laid in their tents and tried not to burn any calories. 6 days is rather extreme and VERY uncommon. Especially in the era of sat-phones. Usually the weather will break for a few hours and we will get it done very near the schedule. But then again ... this is the last frontier, it can do what ever it wants, it's Alaska.

Photo of the Day -- Bouncy Mt. Top Landing

I was flying home with an empty Super Cub when I flew by a mountain top that looked liked a possible landing spot. I had seen the potential several years earlier, but had never taken the time to work out a landing on it. The winds were calm and the air had not yet been disturbed with afternoon thermals so I decided to give it a couple of passes. It was plenty long enough, but I was surprised by how steep it was. It was one of those scenarios where it was too steep to drag downhill or uphill so all I could do was fly by at an angle looking out the side window. This makes it much more difficult to judge length and texture but it can still give you the overall perspective. There was a hump in the middle that I was trying to get a good look at to determine size. After several passes I decided the hump of concern would not be an issue because the steep terrain would decelerate me so quickly that by the time I reached it I would just roll over it. (A "bump" jars the aircraft, a "hump" launches the aircraft)

In the process of checking-out the strip I also detected a very slight tailwind, but since length was not really an issue I decided it was manageable. I flew by the airstrip one last time as I headed out for final approach. As I turned in toward the mountain top with my flaps fully extended I double checked my ground speed and found it acceptable. As I passed the point of no return I could feel the tail wind had increased. I tried to ease off the throttle and pitch the nose up to really slow it down, but could feel the airplane sag out from underneath me, so I came back in with a little bit of power and hit the ground "long and hot" (meaning I landed well beyond where I intended going faster than I desired). I nailed "the hump" and launched back into the air even though I was climbing a significant hill. One wheel came almost 2 feet off the ground, that is a massive bounce, and is unacceptable in this sort of flying.

We all botch landings once in awhile, and this was a perfect example. I should have moved-on as soon as I detected the tailwind. These sorts of landings don't lend the luxury of a, "little tailwind". I've noticed with pilots that nothing is ever their fault. It's always the, "gust of wind" or "engine problems". Truth is that gust of wind is still my fault because I should have accounted for the fact that there was adverse wind blowing... and then gone home! This landing was no big deal, and nothing of consequence happened. There were no passengers onboard and I was very light, but I remember this event because it surprised me, and I hate surprises in the pilot seat.

An embarrassing bounce.

Photo of the Day -- Invisible Air-strips

This is somewhere in the Talkeetna Mts. Do you see that ditch the left tire of the Super Cub is sitting in ? Notice the rocks behind the left tire. If the airplane was not sitting at an angle you would barely be able to tell if that was flat or if that was a bank. This airstrip washes out on a yearly basis and leaves us scrambling for a place to land. The rocks, grass, and mud, confuse the eyeballs so texture is very difficult to determine and the ground is doing it's best to deceive. Just staring at the picture you may be thinking, "what is he talking about?" ... Imagine flying over that at 45 mph trying determine the size of that bump, the rock next door, and everything else necessary to make an intelligent decision.

Those are 35" tires, so that ditch is about 12" deep. How would you like to hit that bump right after touchdown on a 450' strip? You would bounce like a rabbit on steroids. The 35" tires and rugged Super Cub landing gear can take the abuse, but it would tear the landing gear off of most aircraft. You are probably wondering if I smacked it when I landed..... The truth is I pushed the Super Cub into this position because I did not see the ditch. Mike was on final for landing and I was in a hurry to get out of his way. I just find it interesting how these little factors can all add up into a problem if you are not paying close attention.

The airstrip has not gotten washed out for the last 3 years because we finally found a pretty good spot for it. I have landed here many many times and I still have to do an occasional go-around because I cannot see the airstrip, even on short short final. I have learned to simply drive the cub to the general area of the strip, and then make necessary changes at the last second to hit the proper spot once my brain separates it out. Occasionally I miss the airstrip all-together and see it passing beneath the plane off to one side or the other, and I have to come back around to try again. Seeing an airstrip is a bigger part of the challenge than people realize. On most runways around the world that is not the primary concern, but in bush flying it is one of the many factors. The good thing about having invisible airstrips is that nobody else can see them either.

New Video and Photos of the Day -- Glacial Lake Drains

As glaciers melt they form rivers of glacial water.  Sometimes these streams bump into the lateral boundaries of larger neighboring glaciers.  The larger glacier acts as a dam, and a temporary lake begins to form.  Glacial melt-off continues to pour into the lake for many months and the lake level begins creeping up the sides of the surrounding valley.  As the water level rises the glacier dam continues to melt, calving huge chunks of ice into the lake. Now the lake is brimming with massive icebergs. Eventually the lateral boundary, or edge, of the large glacier becomes buoyant with the deepening water. As the edge of the glacier begins lifting, a chasm is opened and the lake begins draining.  Slowly at first and then with an increased intensity as the water carves a path.  In a very short time (1-3 days) millions upon millions of gallons of water rush beneath the ice for several miles eventually pouring out at the toe of the glacier. This is known as Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF).  I promised a blog entry on GLOF on Dec 14th.

The video shows what this lake looks like before, and after the flood.  We fly over this lake on a regular basis, so we see the first signs of drainage and alert the Alaska River Forecast Center.  The lake is most spectacular within the first 48 hours of drainage because the icebergs are still saturated with water thus showing a deeper blue.  As time passes the chunks of ice will become white in color as the water drains out of them.  These icebergs are monstrosities teetering on uneven footing.  While they lay like beached whales on the gravel bars huge chunks of ice continue to break off.  I have had the privilege of walking among these giants and it is an awesome experience.  With my wife's company, BackPackAK.com, this is one or our favorite trips.  We land out on the glacier and then hike around/through the lake, and up and over a beautiful mt. pass with waterfalls and mountain lakes.  This is an excellent hike, unique beyond imagination.

Turn the volume up because these are some good tunes.

Photo of the Day -- Final Approach for a No-Name Peak

The passenger in the back seat took this photo on final approach.  I am landing just to the left of the peak on the far right.  This landing is interesting because I am descending rather hard over that little ridge and then the glacier is climbing fast.  Plus, I do not have a lot of room on top of that glacier to get stopped.   I have to drag over those cliffs pretty low, then descend hard for about 3 seconds, followed by an immediate application of full power to start a climb up the glacier before touch down.  I can barely taxi up-hill under full power because it is so steep.  (I talked about this sort of scenario on Jan 5th) I cannot  attempt this landing without excellent light on the snow because there are too many factors at play, and it is a totally one-way strip.

That may sound rather insane, but I assure you it is not.  I AM NOT just flying around looking for crazy places to land for an adrenaline rush ... this was just another day at work.  If I bend my Super Cub it's my livelihood and I am out of work, so I am super cautious.  I landed on top of this mountain empty before I ever took a passenger in here.  The wind conditions have to be perfect and I make several circles to ensure that everything is stable.  I have nothing to prove, I am just a dude doing my job, and this is where we needed to land.  I hope you like the picture.

Photo of the Day -- Don't Land Short

Glaciers change by the hour.  Just because I landed on the ice one week does not mean that I will be able to land there the next.  As the ice melts new rocks are exposed, and streams cut new gaps.  Summer to summer the changes are very drastic and spots that were once very land-able become totally unrecognizable and dangerous.  FInding an ice landing is the most demanding flying that I do.  Determining the size of rocks, cracks, and bumps is nearly impossible as there is nothing "standard" to compare them to.  Glaciers are very deceiving and it takes a tremendous amount of experience to really be able to correctly judge a new landing spot.  This particular landing spot is less than 400 feet long.  Both ends were totally unforgiving.  Remember I am not landing on these spots empty, I am fully loaded with people and gear.  A go-around was possible, but only under the proper conditions.  Go-arounds are often more dangerous than just dealing with the outcome of the first attempt.  It is so important on a landing like this that you get your head right before turning final, because things can get ugly in a hurry.  By getting your head right I mean being prepared to improvise, adapt, and overcome.  I made multiple trips off of this spot because there were several people in this particular hunting party.  On landing, my main gear was touching-down right where my tail wheel is sitting (in the above image).  I am not boasting, I am just stating a fact;  in order to do that time-and-time again in various conditions ... you better be doggone proficient.  Proficiency outweighs every airplane modification, and hot-dog pilot on the market.  That is why people fly with Mike Meekin and Matt Keller year after year, we do it more than anybody.