Alton Bay’s Other Flying Season
New Hampshire’s winter of 2014-2015 will stand out as one of the more severe seasons in recent memory. After a relatively warm and quiet beginning, a brutal cold snap and copious amounts of snow arrived later than usual, after the start of the new year. The sharp change in weather conditions surprised even hardened New Englanders. Lake Winnipesaukee (the large mid-state lake) froze quickly, much to the delight of winter sports enthusiasts, including aviators. Yes, I did say that – aviators!
A unique venue for New England pilots is the Alton Bay ice runway, nestled in the southeastern corner of the lake. While the aerodrome is a seaplane base during most of the year, when the bay freezes down to at least foot or so in depth, a runway is plowed for a few winter months. The State of New Hampshire owns and operates this “swing” facility, which is the only state and federally licensed aerodrome in the “lower 48” that changes its operating surface from water to ice.
The ice runway attracts a lot of attention from regionally-based pilots. A wide mix of aircraft, from helicopters, light sport aircraft, and even larger singles – like Beech Bonanzas, Cessna Centurions and Piper Saratogas arrive and depart from the base. Weekends are particularly busy… over a 100 planes per day will alight on the ice, while their pilots and passengers spend a few hours eating lunch (the ultimate $100 hamburger!) or talk aviation while watching the action around them. About 20 aircraft can be handled at a time on the ice ramp, and there are periods where an impromptu VFR holding pattern begins to fill the sky above until a parking spot opens up. A few local volunteers at the ice base noted that the winter’s traffic is much busier than the routine summertime seaplane traffic.
Landing an airplane on the ice is not unlike driving a car at times… pilots continuously warn to stay off the brakes and let the plane slow down on its own. A thin layer of snow is purposely left on the ice runway to aid with traction. In fact, pedestrians seem to have more issues with slippery ice than the planes and pilots. Winds can be a bit tricky as the bay is nestled between small hills, but the technique of keeping the windward wing low to avoid a departure rollover was repeated a few times during a mid-day visit I made in early March.
The sun is already beginning to feel warm up here in New Hampshire during the first weekend in March, and Lake Winnipesaukee’s ice will begin to melt. In fact, while this article was being written, the ice runway was closed for the season due to melting from a few days’ worth of strong sun and temperatures above freezing. Soon, it’ll be “ice out”, and inevitably a few seaplanes will converge at the same spot. Pretty interesting that a little body of water can support so much aviation diversity in just a few months!