Thursday, December 11, 2008

Clear for landing — Flight ends a little too smoothly for pilot’s liking

Takeoffs and landings in a small plane can sometimes be a challenge in the wintertime, especially when there is snow covering the runway. With a little practice, I have found that my softest landings are ones on a runway with 3 to 6 inches of fresh snow covering the pavement. If I do it just right, I won’t know that I’m on the ground until the plane starts to slow down below flying speed.

A couple fellow pilots invited me to join them for a picnic at Snag Lake last fall. They assured me the ice was plenty thick, and if I could take off and land at Soldotna’s airport, I could land and take off from Snag Lake. I followed them north and was No. 3 landing on the lake. They were absolutely correct. Landings and takeoffs from the lake were like landing on a mile-long, snow-covered runway. I can do this! We had a great picnic, too.

The next weekend I gathered my ice fishing gear, loaded the plane and headed for Snag Lake to see if there really were any rainbows under the ice. During the week, the gale level winds had blown virtually all of the snow off the lake. The temperatures had been below zero all week, so I knew the ice was still solid enough to support the plane and its occupant again. As I lined up to land on the superwide runway, something was very different.

Approaching a touchdown, my brain told me I was about to take a bath. I could see aquatic vegetation and the lake floor flashing past under the wing. I was about to settle into this aqueous mass and take a very cold dunking. How can this be?

I then realized that the plane was slowing and I was already in contact with the glassy smooth and crystal clear surface of the lake. I had somehow landed on the water but hadn’t sunk yet. As I taxied to the place where I wanted to fish, the water was so clear that I could see submerged stumps and unknown dark things passing by underneath. I awaited the sinking of the plane into the water. When would it start? I finally taxied up on a small patch of remaining snow, somehow figuring that if I couldn’t see to the bottom of the lake, I would be safer. Is that silly or what?

Stepping out of the plane, I found myself a little apprehensive of stepping off the snow patch for fear of sinking into the crystal-clear water, only to find it was crystal-clear ice. Could something that clear hold my ample girth? I wasn’t sure. It was spooky, to say the least.

I drilled a hole in the ice and it was 18 inches thick — plenty thick! As I waited for the fish to visit my tantalizing menu, I kept feeling like I was floating on the water surface, awaiting the gentle waves. The fish were big and hungry, but I’ll save the fish story for another time.

Departing Snag Lake gave me the exact same apprehensions as landing. I kept thinking about what it would feel like when I sank into the water I could see through so clearly.

Once I was airborne again, I kept telling myself that there was no reason to worry about landing on the glassy smooth ice and that I would return for another ice fishing trip. I did return several times, but each time my brain told me I was going for a midwinter swim.

David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and a pilot.

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