Friday, September 11, 2009

Bush Pilot Tips 3 of 7: Winter Flying in the Alaskan Bush

By Father Scott Jospeh Garrett

Winter is quickly approaching and in the next few weeks our Cherokee Warrior II will be covered with snow and ice. Without a hanger, winter flying in the Alaskan bush requires an intimate relationship with the weather services, huge amounts of aircraft preparation, constant communications with villagers, and razor sharp landing skills for icy runways.


Extreme cold temperatures, gale strength winds, dangerous icing conditions, rapidly changing frontal systems, three to four hours of light during the day, and severe snow storms demand that the upmost attention be paid to the weather report. As an Alaskan Pilot I call Kenai Flight service and Dillingham Flight service daily to keep myself continually briefed on all the weather conditions. Additionally I have my favorite internet site,

As a Catholic Priest who flies year around to some 20 small villages, I have developed certain rules for flying in the winter: (1) I do not fly when the weather is colder than 20 below zero Fahrenheit, (2) I will not land on a runway if I know there is fresh snow over 2-3 inches, (3) Depending on the wind direction at the airport I am flying to, I will not take off if the wind is gusting over 30 MPH, (3) I will not take off if icing is reported in the area. Bush Pilots always report icing conditions to the Dillingham, Alaska Flight Service Station.

Flying into Clarks Point in the winter


Once I have analyzed the weather and have deemed it flyable, I start aircraft preparation. Because of the short daylight hours and the fact that many villages around the Bristol Bay area do not allow aircraft to land after dark, most of the preparation I do is in the dark. My Cherokee Warrior II is not parked in a hanger. Shoveling snow to be able to taxi, warming up the engine and cockpit, taking off wing and horizontal tail covers, breaking ice off the fuselage, wrestling with the frozen tie down ropes, and ensuring ice has not inhibited the flight controls all have to be done before I can finally start the actual pre-flight inspection.

Here are two pictures of our Cherokee Warrior II in full winter uniform. These pictures were taken after flying to Anchorage Merrill Field Airport from Dillingham. Anchorage is 325 miles North East of Dillingham.

After flying year around for four winters in the Alaskan bush, I have learned many useful techniques for flying in 20 below zero weather:

(1) unless the plane is flown daily, take out the battery and keep it warm when it gets below zero;

(2) if the engine oil drips off the end of the dip stick, or if when you push down on the propeller it snaps up quickly, then the oil is warm enough to start the engine. I plug in my Tanis engine heater four hours before take-off;

(3) do not tap on any service because parts of the fuselage are plastic and shatter. Sometimes a shell of ice accumulates on the aircraft and the only way to get it off is to tap on it with your fist, just be careful;

(4) always carry a plastic bush mail bag tag with you to scrape ice off the leading edge of the wings (the tag is about 6 inches by 4 inches). When ice gets on the leading edge of the wing it disrupts the airflow and one can stall out in midair;

(5) always put on the wing covers even if the weather is suppose to be good. Weather is unpredictable in the Alaskan Bush. Having snow and ice on your wings is almost impossible to get off unless you tow/taxi the airplane to a hanger, if there even is a hanger around;

(6) to fly to Clarks Point and back during the winter, which is only 12 miles away, it may take eight hours if the preparation time is included, i.e. plugging in the plane early, shoveling snow, taking off, and putting covers back on, etc. Make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare.

Here is a picture of where I plug-in my Tanis Engine Heater. Last winter when it was a -20 degrees, there was ice in the plug-in socket. I tried to clear it out but ended up punching the receptacle right through the fuselage. It actually made the connection and my engine was warm when I came back out in four hours. Tibbett Airmotive replaced the receptacle and put a red light above it so I know when electricity is reaching the engine.

Benefits to all the aircraft preparation come in the form of easily visible Caribue heards roaming across the snow. This picture was taken near King Salmon, winter 2008, while I was flying there to offer Mass. Click to Enlarge.


Last winter a lady died waiting for a villager to pick her up after being dropped off by a bush pilot. The lady had assured the bush pilot that someone was on the way to pick her up. She froze to death. Good communication is crucial when flying in sub-zero weather.

The first thing I did when I got my Cherokee Warrior II was to have a marine radio installed. People in all the small villages I fly into monitor marine radios. Every village has a specific frequency, i.e. Levelock channel 14, Clarks Point 11, Ugashik 18. After contacting the village through phone or email, and after setting up a pick-up time (parishioners normally pick me up on a snow machine or four-wheeler), I always call them on the marine radio when I am about ten minutes from landing at the runway. That ensures that someone will be waiting when I get there.

Although it doesn't look that cold, this picture was take when the temperature was 2 below zero Fahrenheit. I did not have to wait long before someone picked me up here.


In sub-zero weather in the Alaskan bush most runways are short and the gravel is covered with ice and snow. Every village, no matter how small, has a runway and are prepared to keep it cleared of deep snow. After all, their livelihood depends on air travel because there are no roads connecting any one village. Unless it is actually snowing when I get ready to take-off, then most small strips can be landed on. Brakes are not an option. In the winter when the runway is ice and snow, I use the flight controls to keep me straight on the runway and then coast to a stop. A strong crosswind is not good when landing on ice and snow. If one starts to get blown off the runway, the best remedy is “FULL POWER.”

This runway at Manokotac, Alaska is perfect for landing in the winter. One can still acutally see gravel. Usually we are not so lucky!

Ground time in an Alaskan Village has to be closely monitored. First, there is no electric plug-ins in the small villages I fly into. That means that I have to immediately put on my Engine blanket after turning off the engine. The blanket will keep the engine warm for about 2 hours and 30 minutes. Second, I do not like to fly in the dark (the risk factor for winter flying goes way up in the dark) and the days are so short I have to plan my mass celebrations accordingly. That is why much of my aircraft preparation is done in the dark. With mass, catechism, and some counseling or reconciliation, I am usually on the ground two hours or so.

Levelock, Alaska Airport, two inches of new snow, sub-zero weather.

I love to minister in the Alaskan Bush. Not everyone flies year around out here. I do it because I feel called to the challenge and adventure involved in spreading the gospel to “The Ends of the Earth.”

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