When NHPR’s Sean Hurley heard the Alton Bay Ice Runway opened last week, he asked a pilot friend what landing at the only official ice airport in the continental United States was like. Instead of telling Sean, that friend offered to give him a first-hand ice landing experience.
We’re 100 feet above the grey-green ice of Lake Winnipesaukee in Bob Hirshfield’s 50 year old Piper Cherokee - flying low because of unexpected turbulence – and because, according to Bob, it’s more fun.
Before taking off, when I listed the plane’s half century age as one of my sudden concerns, he set me straight. “Airplanes are not like cars or other things,” Bob says, “you know a 50 year old airplane is not a problem. I mean you have an annual inspection. And the engine has to be completely rebuilt every thousand hours.”
That’s every ten years or so for the typical 100 hour a year pilot, he tells me.
Ok, so what about this other minor worry I have - what about cold winter flying in little old airplanes? “It's actually better for flying in the winter because the air is more dense,” Bob tells me. “The airplane takes off in shorter distances, it climbs better, performs better than in the summertime.”
Bob’s only real concern about winter flying? Winter landing. “You have to watch out for snow banks especially in a low-wing airplane,” he says. “A lot of airports don't push the snow banks back far enough so you gotta watch the tips of your wings.”
The only potential issue landing on Alton Bay’s Ice Runway, he tells me – involves the brakes. The fact that you can’t use them. “So it all depends on whether or not you need braking. If you need braking you're in trouble!” Bob says, laughing.
No brakes then. Watch for snowbanks. Old planes and winter - both good. But I don’t have a lot of time for nerves. Our 20 mile flight from Moultonbourough Airport, takes just 11 minutes.
Before landing, Bob brings the plane up to 500 feet – and then we dip away in a slow wide arc, circling down toward the southernmost finger of Lake Winnipesaukee – and the Alton Bay Ice Runway. Yellow cones mark the 100 foot wide, 2800 foot long landing strip - and as we lower over the trees and shops, I watch an ice fisherman, as he watches us come in for a brakeless, perfect landing …
“Well, you’ve landed on the ice at Alton Bay,” Bob says as he taxies us back down the frosty runway.
We park, get out of the plane, slip on our ice spikes - and head to nearby Facet Jewelers to talk with store owner - and airport manager - Paul La Rochelle. “So this is basically our central spot where everybody comes in,” La Rochelle says. “This is a guestbook that they come in and sign. So you're going to have to sign - you'll be the first of the year!”
La Rochelle says Alton Bay has been a sea-plane base since the 1940’s. In the late 60’s, he says, local pilots began landing their planes on the ice in the winter – and for the last 30 years or so, it’s been the only FAA recognized ice runway in the continental US.
“We have to have at least 12 inches of ice for us to get our trucks out there in order to maintain it, plow it, and take care of it,” he says. “Last year we were only open 10 days and 390 planes came in in that short period of time. A lot of the pilots tell me the same thing. They love to just come for the experience of landing on the ice.”
But that unusual experience is not without problems. “Every year we have at least one incident,” La Rochelle says, “where someone may slide into a snowbank and either do a prop strike or are breaking a front nose landing gear or clipping a wing on a snowbank or something like that.”
When Bob spots a Cessna Skyhawk out the store window, we head back out to the ice to watch it land.
Pilots Charley Valera - and his passenger and fellow pilot Richard Gersh, both from Lunenberg, Massachusetts - say they make it a point to land at Alton Bay every year.
“It's such a unique opportunity,” Valera says. “We're so lucky to be able to come here and do this.”
“For pilots,” Richard Gersh adds, “there are certain things you have to do. You have to go to Oshkosh to the big air show - and you have to land on Alton Bay.”
Valera hands Bob his phone and asks him to take their picture. The two pilot friends stand together on the ice and raise their hands in ice runway victory -
“Alton Bay!” Gersh calls.
“This is it!” Valera shouts.
“Here we go!” Bob says, as he takes the photo.
Alton Bay. This is it. And here Bob and I go, in his old Piper Cherokee, slip sliding away down the ice runway and back into the air.