The Maule is back in the air, thanks to Missionary Aviation Repair Center (MARC) in Soldotna. The flight home went great (for the most part) and I plan to put the skis on soon. Maybe before Christmas but with the lack of snow and cold we will see.
After having so much work done at this annual inspection (new crankshaft, new Emergency Locator Transmitter, cleaning up some of the preheater wiring, fixing the auto pilot… the list goes on and on) we decided to do a “return to service” flight before I headed across the wilds of Alaska. Everything checked out and the trip home was uneventful, well almost…
Mechanically things went great. The weather was, well the weather was typical, it was difficult. I was able to get on top of a fog layer that had all of South Central Alaska socked in. It was clear above and the Alaska Range was out and beautiful. The Interior was covered by a thick blanket of weather too and I wasn’t going to be able to get down without picking up a clearance from Anchorage Center.
It took a little back and forth over the radio but I was able to get my clearance and start the process of shooting the instrument approach (RNAV 4L). By this time it was dark (4:15pm) and there was some light snow falling. This is where I really appreciated having the auto pilot issues resolved. I knew that I would pop out under the cloud layer in plenty of time to set up for a normal landing but I was curious about the runway conditions. When I left home the day before the city hadn’t completed the snow removal.
As I entered the holding pattern to descend to the initial approach fix I started picking up ice on the airframe and windshield. I mentioned it to Center and asked if I could expedite my decent to get out of the clouds. They gave me the latitude to do what I needed to get out of the ice. When I popped out of the clouds I could only see out of two 3″ holes in the windshield. The heater/defroster in the Maule is more suited for the tropics than the arctic. No problem, the auto pilot was doing a great job keeping me on the approach and I knew that I could keep it lined up on landing because of the runway edge lighting.
At this point I am remembering again that the runway wasn’t completely cleared when I left the day before and I knew that the ski strip was too soft to land on without skis and I was not sure what I was going to find when I needed to land. I was carrying a little extra speed (70 knots vs 50 knots) because of the ice accumulation and I could only see through what were essentially peep holes. I quickly found out what I was dealing with as I disengaged the auto pilot and started the landing sequence. You guessed it, the runway had not been finished and it appeared to have quite a bit of new snow on it. As I flared to land the runway edge lighting disappeared. It took me a bit to realize that 3′ snow berms were blocking me from seeing the only reference I had to keep moving in a straight line. I could only see two red dots (a portion of the threshold lighting) at the far end of the runway. I was dancing very lightly on the rudder pedals to keep those red lights in the center of the peep holes. My efforts to brake resulted in the tires skidding on the new snow so I had to coast to a stop. Talk about nerve-racking… I got stopped and turned around on the runway and started to taxi back to my parking area. I could only follow my tracks in the snow until the defroster started to overcome the ice on the windshield. When I got out of the airplane my knees were a little wobbly and I finished the prayer that I had been in for quite some time.
If you have seen any of the “reality” shows about Alaska I hope you understand that it is “dramatized for TV.” Life in Alaska is not always as dangerous and edge of your seat suspenseful as it is depicted on TV. However, there are times when real life is exponentially more dramatic than “reality” TV. When I first started flying in Alaska (almost 20 years ago) an older gentleman told me that “the day you fly and are not a little nervous will be your last because overconfidence will kill you.” The converse is also true. “A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations that would require the use of his superior skills.” This flight fell somewhere between these two pieces of advice.