Warren Miller and Ski Flying

Bernie Willis

Many of us grew up watching the fantastic films by Warren Miller and his skilled
skiers mastering or crashing the slopes across N. American and Europe. If you
know anything about good movies you know they are well planned. When I first
participated in the Iditarod in 1974 the group of mushers I was with ran into
trouble at Finger Lake due to weather. Somehow word got out that we were low
on dog food. The next day a Yellow and Red Super Cub showed up with slabs of
bacon, lots of it. The pilot said it was something the dogs and musher alike could
eat. We really appreciated it. Don Sheldon was such a likeable guy and being a
pilot I had to ask him how he’d landed on such a wind carved lake.
In his softspoken way, He said, “You didn’t see me land and you won’t see me take
off because the only smooth place anywhere near here is around the corner out
of sight. He started and taxied away at a snail’s pace. In the Antarctic it’s called
sastrugi. I’ve only seen it that winter on Finger Lake and on St. Lawrence Island. It
happens after a couple of feet or more of snow fall is followed by hurricane force
winds. The result is like a rough plowed farm field with ridges and valleys a couple
feet apart and about as high and hard as dirt. Its almost impossible to walk over
parallel to the ridges and very tiring crossing the ridges. Sleds can sometimes
span the valleys but not the dogs. I could only imagine the tail of the cub crashing
down between the furrows and the skis breaking the safety cables and bending
the struts. Don’s mercy flight took conscientious planning.
You know the old saying about wisdom coming from experience and experience
coming from mistakes. I hope you’re in the mood to learn from the mistakes of
other pilots operating on skis. I got a call late one winter evening asking if I could
dial a crank shaft. I answered, well yes but why now and where. The pilot had
had an incident out in the valley and had quite a bit of vibration on his way to Big
Lake and was afraid to continue without some inspection. He’d had a turning
problem. He was too slow to make a turn and too fast to stop, so out of
desperation he gunned the throttle and ate up the porch of a friend’s cabin with
his prop.
Can you imagine the anxiety of trying to decide whether you have enough room
to get over the trees or stop before the lake shore. You’ve made the perfect
landing but the skis are sliding so well that stopping is in doubt then you slide
onto a patch of ice and it seems as if instead of slowing you’re accelerating.

The distant trees are about to fill your windshield. Now your only hope is to stop.
Could you swerve to one side and lengthen your space? A picture of ski brakes
flashes through your mind. Then trying to turn, the outside ski hits deep snow
near the lake shore and pulls you the opposite way. The new outside ski hits the
shore and stretches out the back safety cable just as the wing tip brushes some
willow branches further up the bank. But you’re stopped and undamaged. You
brought a decent shovel with you and all you need is some time to dig out and
turn around.
If parts weren’t so expensive, guess this would all be part of the adventure but
since they are and an engine tear down is part of a prop strike inspection, now-a –
days, you’ve got to preplan your ski adventure. There’s nothing wrong with
landing where others have landed successfully before. Taking a snowmachine trip
to the cabin and marking out a landing area never hurts before taking the family
out in the plane.
There was the time I decided to land on a small lake closer to the village instead of
putting the wheels down and land on the strip a mile or so away. When I tried to
open the door I realized the snow was so deep the door wouldn’t open until I
opened the window of the C-170 and shoveled the snow away with my hand. It
took me all day shoveling and snowshoeing to save the 10 minute walk from the
I’ll assume everybody knows, that everything else being equal ,turning to the left
takes advantage of the natural turning tendency of clockwise rotating American
engines. If the turning radius is still too large a rope tied to the tail spring about
15’ long will allow a passenger to pull on the tail and avoid the prop and snow
blast. If you can arrange for the left wheel to extend first on hydraulic wheel skis
that may help shorten a turn or even a rope around the ski forward of the
pedestal will slow the inside ski.
So far these comments have addressed maneuvering on snow but how do you
select safe surfaces to land on. This freeze-up season with record snows has
played havoc with the usual formation of lake ice. Many smaller lakes froze early
and then were blanked with enough snow to cause overflow to flood between the
ice and the snow.

Some larger lakes that froze after the early snows avoided this
hazard. A precautionary landing and takeoff without stopping will let you examine
your tracks for the dark appearing overflow. If you can get to your proposed ski
landing area with a snowmachine you might consider packing a parking area
especially if the area is prone to overflow. Snow is a great insulator until it is
compressed by snowshoes or a track vehicle. Landing on rivers and glaciers are
another special challenge. Glacier landing are not my expertise so please look to
experts for that but river landings are doable with caution. A smooth
snowmachine trail is worth checking out for landing. If snowmobiles are on it
observe them from aloft and watch to see if they are bouncing much. Even a
variation of a foot or so on a hard packed trail can bounce a ski plane around a lot.
Some beautiful snow covered areas on rivers hid large logs left on the sand bars
by retreating water levels in the Fall. Checking a landing area from the ground is
never a bad idea.
Warren Miller would make sure his camera batteries were charged and the film
packs full in his day, so we should make sure our ski bottoms are not broken, our
bungees are not worn out, the clevis pins in place and safetied, the cotter pins are
in straight bolts on the solid gear fittings and the axels not cracked from last years
hard landings. Planning ahead and a little good luck, of your own making, can
make for a very enjoyable ski flying season.
Here’s a collection of hints to make your ski flying less anxious and more fun:
Ice climbing screws for tie downs on lakes
To prevent skis from freezing to the snow –
Stop, let skis cool then taxi a ski length ahead before shutting down.
Replace the metal ski skags with plastic skags.
If skis may be frozen to the snow –
Kick front of ski sideways to break ice bond.
Shake whole plane from strut attach point to wing.
If using generator power for electric preheat in very cold temps –
Honda generator, make sure the crank case vent tube is slit to allow for
pressure relief like on your airplane engine breather.
If Yamaha generator consider covering with a cardboard box to increase
Density altitude if it doesn’t want to stay running. They tend to run lean.
If using gas stove preheat take along a spare Coleman generator or if Wisperlite a
Cleaning kit as both systems tend to clog up using 100LL fuel.
A small toboggan sure beats caring things from the plane to the cabin.
Most winter ski flying conditions mean it will be colder on the lake or river than in
the air, plan accordingly.

1 Comment

  1. John Johnson on January 3, 2024 at 10:29 am

    Great article and good review. I think winter ski flying actually has a significant increase in potential and possible life threading hazards than floats in the summer. Always great to review the pitfalls and be cautious. I especially enjoyed the part about parking 10 minutes closer to the cabin, but it took hours to shovel out the airplane. I always carry pine limbs or black trash bags to drop out the door at a measured distance for home made verticale guidance incase of whiteout conditions. Always carry snowshoes and cold weather survival gear with you no matter how short the flight is.

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