There is a certain irony that the ability to physically taxi, takeoff, and land in sufficiently deep snow with the Cub is something I can only do in places where it snows very little. Locations that regularly receive snowfall tend to have an analogous condition that runways are plowed and cleared; hence, testing soft field skills really doesn’t get to happen. Here in Spain, I finally had the chance to do it, as we got a hefty amount of snow in La Cerdanya.
This idea of flying in the snow originated at my grandfather’s private field in upstate New York, outside of Buffalo, in prime lake effect snow regions. He would disappear to Florida for the winter, entombing aircraft in his hangar, only to return the next spring, when things started turning green. Meanwhile, I was stuck staring at an unused and snow covered runway for months at a time, driven to the point of insanity as a kid knowing there were multiple aircraft in perfectly good order sitting in a barn 300 feet away. A pilot that lived five miles away flying his Super Cub with skis all winter only made it worse.
Thus, when I obtained my student pilot permit at age 16, I would alleviate the insanity by taxiing the PA-11 around in the middle of winter, anytime the snow was shallow enough to allow it to move in the first place. First, I had to get my father’s permission, as he owned the airplane. He didn’t fly (an odd juxtaposition of concepts, I know) and had reached his prime years of middle-aged malaise, so his perpetual boredom with life had to choose between an overly-enthused miscreant teenager being in the house, or tranquility knowing that same said miscreant teenager was playing in the snow with his freshly-restored airplane. I usually got the green light after citing maintenance directives not to leave an O-200 idle for more than a month at a time, lest rust develop on the rings.
I learned very quickly how much snow the Cub can handle, and how much it cannot. Fluffy snow has no reasonable limit, if the moisture content is extremely low. Wet snow can be quite favorable, up to eight inches of the stuff, if it’s wet enough to allow the tires to roll on top of it. While the Cub doesn’t have bush tires, my grandfather did put oversized tires on the airplane, for which I am grateful. Snow drifts are pretty much a non-starter, as they are relatively compact due to wind breaking up snow crystals. By all means, if in the thick stuff, do not stop. The moment the airplane stops moving in thick snow, it is not going to resume, no matter how much power is applied. It will become necessary to pull it in reverse and ram through the blockage with some momentum.
I also had the chance to learn about carb ice the hard way, having the engine literally quit on me while taxiing around in snowy, foggy weather, having to hand prop it and get it started again.
All of these teenage boredom-driven shenanigans have come in handy in a number of places. We received over 10 inches of snow in one storm here in Spain, and another 5 inches a few days later. I was out of town, and came back to fly as soon as the weather cleared. As the flying club does not plow the runway, nor are there taxi lights due to extensive glider operations, I was greeted with a massive sea of white, as I was flying on a snowy, overcast day. To get to the takeoff point, I had to triangulate between trees, the windsock, and a chair left sitting in the field for glider operations, remembering where the runway is supposed to be.
Runway and taxiways below. La Cerdanya, Spain.
Many have expressed concerned that snow would flip an airplane on landing. My rationale, which has worked for many years, is that if the airplane cannot taxi, it isn’t going to takeoff, so flipping on landing is an unnecessary concern. If the airplane can taxi without excessive resistance, much less takeoff without flipping over, landing will more than likely be ok, presuming that tire conditions remain the same. I am sure wet snow freezing on the ground during the course of the flight, landing angle, change in speeds, and the effect of idle power versus takeoff power could have some definite impacts. So far, conservative decisions have saved me any trouble.
My larger concern at the time was the incredibly flat and diffuse light. Making out the ground was quite difficult (even while taxiing on it), and I was aware of warnings given to pilots after installing skis, that flat light can be dangerous. I decided that my landing would consist of methods used at night with a defective landing light: configured to land, making note of features on both sides to judge vertical descent. Thankfully, the tires made imprints into the snow during takeoff, providing for a short three-dimensional feature to use when landing. A video of the entire flight is below.
Aside from this particular flight frolicking in the snow, there is much about winter in the Pyrenees that is new and different. Unlike North America, weather here is bizarrely consistent. We went 3 weeks in December with full sunshine, uninterrupted, and 4 solid weeks where peaks approaching 10,000 feet did not receive a shred of additional snowfall in the middle of winter. However, when snow events do come, whether a northerly flow from France (which affects only one side of the valley), or a Levante event from the Mediterranean out of the south, it lasts for days on end, angry rain, snow, wind, or whatever atmospheric mechanism is in place. Temperatures are extremely consistent, with a daily variation that is typical of high altitude, yet relative lack of reasonable change between high and low pressure systems. I can best liken our weather to what is experienced in high altitude coastal mountains of California (which are coincidentally largely protected and therefore no one lives there).
From an aviation standpoint, air is incredibly stable vertically from late October onward, with scarcely a bump at all. Occasionally, I run into orographically-induced turbulence (rotors), though it is quite rare that it is bumpy. Even downdrafts are pleasant and tranquil, albeit still a strong warning to change course. From the lowlands of Catalonia to ridges at 9,000 feet, the air is extremely placid, similar to what I experienced when I was based in Leadville, Colorado and flew on pleasant, sunny winter days in oxygen-starved high altitude terrain.
All images below: not a single bump during these flights.
To revisit an old subject, I still haven’t landed anywhere else. Part of the problem is a record-breaking inversion present in the Catalonian lowlands (above image as an example), where Lleida saw one hour of sunshine in the month of December. That region, the easiest as far as terrain is concerned (flat like the Midwest), happens to now be the most unexplored, where the highest and craziest areas are getting greater coverage due to better weather and conditions for photography. I have thought about landing somewhere for the sake of the blog, and opted to avoid letting the tail wag the dog for the time being, as there is plenty to see in a three-hour tank of avgas. Stay tuned; I am planning a few ambitious adventures.
Snowshoes are part of my standard emergency gear in the event of an emergency over terrain with deep snow (along with a tent and three days of food stored in the baggage area). See next image for an example.