Sunday, February 21, 2021

Just Icing on the ... Lake

Aeronautical Brigadoon

Alton Bay's ice runway (B18) is an aeronautical Brigadoon that only exists during the coldest weeks of the year. Outside of that narrow window, the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee consume the ephemeral airport. But there are no guarantees that the famous New Hampshire ice runway will even appear each year. Insufficient ice formed during the winter of 2020 for the FAA-sanctioned airport to exist at all. Moreover, negotiating winter weather through various microclimates between here and there is always a challenge. As a result, Alton Bay is the kind of place that requires opportunistic readiness on behalf of any pilot hoping to make the trip.

I have landed the Warrior at Alton Bay (B18) three times previously (here, here, and here), but had resigned myself to forgoing a 2021 trip. Between COVID-19 restrictions and the fact that my airplane is two counties west of home for an avionics retrofit, getting to Alton Bay seemed like a stretch. Still, I attended the annual FAA safety seminar on the ice runway ("Decision Making on Ice") and actively monitored manager Paul LaRochelle's efforts to bring the airport back to life for 2021. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement as the ice thickened on its way to supporting a viable runway.

Opportunity Knocking

Ed decided that he was going to make his first attempt at landing on the ice this year. His first visit to the ice runway happened in 2018 via the right seat of Warrior 481. Knowing that I was without an airplane this year, he offered me the right seat in his Archer and indicated that it would be nice to have an experienced pilot along for the ride. Let's be clear: he did not need the help. Additionally, Paula was interested in visiting for the first time and eager to ride along.

Ed fueling Archer Four Four Papa during an early morning snow squall

In light of COVID-19, there were logistics to manage. All three of us would be masked for the entire round trip flight as well as the time spent outside on the frozen airport while ogling the other aircraft. We decided not to mix closely with other people or seek a meal in any of Alton Bay's crowded indoor restaurants.


Last call for the Alton Bay Express

With Paula comfortably situated sideways in the back seat of Ed's Archer, I was the last to board before we launched among the flurries lazily drifting downward over the airport.

Logistical Challenges

Alton Bay as photographed from Warrior 481 by Ed on 17 February 2018

The photo above shows the usual configuration of Alton Bay. The runway is usually about 3,000 feet long (2600 feet this year) and oriented roughly south to north (01-19). A parallel taxiway often runs along the east side of the runway and feeds into a parking area directly south of the runway threshold. When runway 1 is in use (aircraft landing to the north as shown above), the intersection of the parking area, runway, and taxiway creates what the FAA calls a "hot spot" at big airports. A choke point, a place where mistakes can be made. On busy weekends, Paul and his crew of volunteers actively manage traffic flow through and over this spot, pausing arrivals to allow for departures while gating aircraft into and out of the parking area.

But there were changes for 2021. First, owing to a few incidents over the years that all involved aircraft landing to the south, Alton Bay became a one-way airport. All landings and take-offs are to be performed to the north. 

Additionally, the ice was not thick enough east of the runway to accommodate a parallel taxiway in 2021. This significantly complicated ground movement because all landing traffic needed to stop on the runway, turn around, and back-taxi southward to parking, creating logistical challenges for landing traffic to avoid conflicts with back-taxiing "ground" traffic. Fortunately, Paul and his team plowed a handful of pull-off spaces along the eastern edge of the runway, temporary holding pens for newly arrived aircraft that allowed them to clear the runway for additional landing traffic before back-taxiing to the ramp. These pull-off spaces could buffer up to four aircraft.

Video of landing at Alton Bay.
Click here to view directly in YouTube (it's best full-screen).

When we arrived over Lake Winnipesaukee, airplane parking was already full and the airport was effectively closed to new arrivals. We nonetheless entered the traffic pattern third behind a Super Cub and an RV. Behind us, a pilot in another Archer kept making radio calls suggesting that he thought he was number three. Ed dutifully clarified our position more than once, but we nonetheless watched carefully to make sure that the other Archer did not cut us off in the pattern.

While we were on downwind, Paul announced three imminent departures, meaning that at least three aircraft in the pattern would be able to land and park, including us. Based on the number of online postings I saw from people who were unable to land at Alton Bay that day, it also meant that we were lucky to show up at just the right time.

All four of us landed in sequence and filled the available runway pull-offs. As we waited, Paul closed the airport to additional landings and launched the three departures. Once the departures were off, we were invited to backtaxi south to parking.

It was all a little nutty, but Ed handled it well. Like the skilled director of a middle school band, Paul successfully managed the controlled chaos with only the occasional squawk.

Vignettes from an Ice Runway

That morning, Alton Bay had all the characteristics of a popular fly-in pancake breakfast only without the pancakes.  Knowing that we did not plan to dine in Alton Bay, I came equipped with trail mix instead. Frankly, pancakes would have gone down really well. Or perhaps a nice omelet? (Never blog on an empty stomach.)

Paula and Ed with Four Four Papa

Me, Paula, and Ed with Four Four Papa - not that we're particularly recognizable!

After disembarking, I was greeted by one of Paul's volunteers. When I offered praise on how well they were managing the action, she demurred. "It's not actual air traffic control phrasing," she said apologetically.

"It's clear and concise and that's all the counts," I offered. "You're all doing a great job." 

They really were.



Wind information is available at the famous floating bandstand, the only part of the airport that persists year-round. The runway threshold starts about 100 feet north of the bandstand. The wind was high enough that it would have been problematic for landing on ice had it been a crosswind, but it ran directly down the runway. 








LOVE was in the air at Alton Bay.


In another change for 2021, only crew and passengers were allowed on the airport surface. We were issued wristbands to display for re-entry. I think this was a smart move in the name of safety, not just by reducing the density of people out of deference to COVID, but by significantly thinning the herd of aeronautically naïve folk wandering around airplanes equipped with invisibly whirling meat choppers.








Definitive proof that Gary could land his Commander at Alton Bay if he set his mind to it! 😀


There was no mistaking the toothy grin of a Globe Swift.


It looked to me like The Swift could give The Cirrus a run for its money! Plus: vintage cred.









A New Hampshire standoff.




Although there was a stated goal of distancing airplanes more than usual in the parking area, parking capacity increased throughout the morning as the aircraft were parked closer together.


After checking out all of the airplanes and watching several arrivals and departures, we returned to Four Four Papa and prepared to surrender our parking spot.

Choreographed Departure

When it was time to go, Paul shooed away the general public gathered behind Ed's airplane so that he could do a runup in his parking spot without blowing them all back toward open water created by dock bubblers near shore.


We departed in a wave of four aircraft. As we queued for departure on one side of the parking area, Paul directed new arrivals around us to parking. 


As we waited, we heard one of the volunteers exclaim on frequency, "One just snuck in!" Sure enough, although Paul had closed the airport to arrivals, I watched another aircraft glide low over the parking area and settle to the ice.

Paul barked at the new arrival and instructed him to stay put in one of the runway pull-offs to allow the rest of us to depart.


Paul held us while the aircraft in line ahead of us launched.


Once the other aircraft was airborne, Paul verified that there was no landing traffic and motioned us forward. We waved to our excellent host and took the runway.

Lake Winnipesaukee

After a fuel stop in Laconia, NH where I took a moment to rehydrate and devour my trail mix, we made a perfunctory cross country flight back home to the Williamson Sodus Airport.

Home again

Debrief

Overall, I was glad that I went. Even though it is more fun landing at Alton Bay as pilot, I still enjoyed being along for the ride. Ed had experienced help immediately at hand (me, in theory) if needed (it wasn't). And Paula got to experience Alton Bay for the first time and to see how the whole operation worked. Hopefully, she'll be comfortable landing her own plane there next year. The key learning reinforced from past experience was that weekend trips to Alton Bay are best taken as early in the day as possible.

Between winter weather and the pandemic, we have been a bit starved for reasonable destinations that do not involve dining in a crowded indoor restaurant. An outdoor visit to the ice runway made for a perfect pandemic adventure, even if my stomach objected to the lack of lunch.

Thanks to Ed for the ride, Paula for the company, and Paul and his army of ice runway volunteers for their dedicated battle against entropy, both weather-related and pilot-induced.

PS

It was a short season for Alton Bay in 2021. The ice runway officially opened February 12, with one closure of a few days in the wake of a snowstorm. The airport closed on February 22 for a snow storm and remained closed because of warm temperatures and rain. By February 26, Paul and his volunteers made a forecast-driven decision not to reopen the facility in 2021. With not quite a two week window of opportunity that included two weekends, Alton Bay's short 2021 season underscored the need to be opportunistic in planning to land there.