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Story Last modified at 9:28 p.m. on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Winter wings
Despite the cold, Birchwood Airport-based pilots strap on skis and explore the state

For the Star


Bruce Hopper fastens the engine cover on his Piper Super Cub after landing at Lake George in early January.
PHOTO by Chris Lundgren

On a clear, sub-zero Sunday in early January, Bruce Hopper landed his Super Cub on frozen Lake George, the plane's skis coasting along the ice for a mile before coming to a rest. He wrapped the nose cone in a black, insulated cover and headed toward the bergs at the base of Colony Glacier.

The ice underfoot looked like a smooth slab of emerald, interrupted here and there by a superficial crack or the pock mark of a bubble that had frozen mid-pop. Jumbled ice chunks marked the foothills to the bergs. Hopper stepped carefully around them to get close to the giant mass of geometric shapes, some of them filtering the sun like stained glass.

An hour later he was airborn again, heading over the Chugach on his way back to the Birchwood Airport.

"I never tire of flights to and from the glaciers," said Hopper, who has been flying planes for 19 years. "There is really no way to describe the experience to another person."


To most of us, flying for pleasure doesn't seem like an obvious thing to do this time of year. If you didn't know better, you might think the snow, rain, ice, wind, darkness and changeable weather would keep local pilots' feet—if not their aspirations—planted on the ground.

You would be wrong.

Chugiak pilot Roger Denny explains it simply:

"It's fun. Way fun."

Denny, who flies out of the Birchwood Airport, also owns a Piper Super Cub outfitted in the winter with a pair of skis.

"Every swamp, meadow, river and mountaintop is a potential place to lay down a set of tracks," he said. "Everything is a runway."

Denny likens his plane to a snowmachine with wings.

"Flying is just playing and sightseeing," he said. "It's trying to land on some lake and make tracks; that's all you're doing."

Hopper prefers winter flying to summer flying.

"The air is so much clearer," he said. "You have clear blue skies, and the mountains are vivid white, and the glaciers are blue."

The cold, dense air means the plane operates more smoothly, he added.

Pilots invent reasons to fly, Hopper said. Visiting friends at a remote cabin or stopping for a burger at a lakeside roadhouse are incentives to fire up the engine.

Problem is, unless your plane is parked inside a hangar, you don't just fire up the engine.

"It takes me probably an hour and a half to two hours to get the airplane ready in the morning when I want to go fly," Hopper said.

Fog from the inlet creeps in each night and plasters Birchwood's airplanes with frost. Hopper's routine, like most everyone else's, includes defrosting his plane, removing wing covers and pre-heating the engine. After the flight, he spends roughly an hour putting the plane away, he said.

Some pilots find the extra time prohibitive. Chugiak's Ben Booher keeps his Super Cub parked at Birchwood much of the winter, he said.

"It's an all-day affair to go down there and get that plane ready to go fly for a few hours, come back and put it all away," he said. "I don't have that many Saturdays I can take off and abandon the family for the entire day."

It was a different scenario before his kids were born, he said, and he flew just about every weekend.


Booher and others say pilots and passengers should be equipped for emergencies.

"There are just more things that can go wrong in the winter, more things to deal with than in the summer," he said. "If you're landing on skis there's always the possibility that you could get hung up and be stuck overnight."

Alaska law requires pilots to carry survival gear for themselves and their passengers, and most pilots fly with additional equipment. Among the items Booher and Denny stow in their planes are snowshoes and a shovel, in case of a landing in unexpectedly deep snow or in overflow. Both men also swear by their bunny boots.

"What you have on your person may be all you end up with," Booher said, especially if the plane is destroyed or submerged in an accident. "Have something in your pockets (such as candy or other food). Have a waterproof lighter."

Denny suggests thinking like a Boy Scout.

"Be prepared," he said. "Anything can happen out there."


Every pilot has a favorite destination. Denny spends as much time as he can on the west side of Cook Inlet. "You can get out there in some of the hill country closer to the Alaska Range, and the snow is soft," he said. In the spring he sometimes takes friends snowboarding in the Talkeetnas.

Hopper favors Shell Lake near Skwentna as well as the Lake George area, which is about 45 miles east of Anchorage.

Pilots say they mostly enjoy the return trip to the Birchwood Airport. Without a control tower or excessive air traffic, takeoffs and landings can be fairly low key, Hopper said. Wind is not usually a problem.

"A unique feature of Birchwood is that oftentimes the wind picks up there last," he said. "It can be blowing at Palmer and Merrill Field, and Birchwood is calm."

Many pilots feel grateful for its accessibility.

"It's a really good little airport," said Red Beeman, a Super Cub owner from Chugiak who has been flying out of Birchwood for 35 years.

"The great thing about Birchwood is its location, which means less wind and plenty of snow to operate on skis," Denny said. "Literally 20, 30 minutes out of the airport and you're in God's country."

Chris Lundgren is an Eagle River freelance writer.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 26, 2011.