They’re On The Ice in Alton Bay!
Alton Bay, New Hampshire is a finger of water off of the southeastern end of Lake Winnipesaukee, in the center of the state. It boasts of a summer seaplane base, which becomes the FAA’s only certified ice runway in the “Lower 48” during wintertime. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation carefully grooms and operates the airport, which becomes available to the public once a foot of ice forms in the bay. “Ice in” never occurred in 2020, but in 2021, the ice formed sufficiently for the runway to open for President’s Day weekend. I spent a few hours on the ice that sunny Saturday, watching an impromptu aviation festival proceed.
The runway began this year as a 2600 foot by 150 foot ice surface. It runs north to south… Runway 01 (landing to the north) is the only landing and takeoff runway due to topography. A parking area is at the south end of the runway, large enough for two dozen or so planes at a time. There is plenty of ungroomed ice and snow to the east of the runway, and ski-only aircraft (there were around nine present while I was there) could taxi off of the ice and onto snow for better ground control.
There is no parallel taxiway (yet), so a back taxi operation is needed. Three turnoffs are made for clearing the runway so more arrivals or departures are delayed as little as possible. With assistance from a ground coordinator, a group of aircraft would back-taxi to the parking area, then any departures would leave, then a stream of three to five arrivals got their chance to land. During the busy day, this choreography occurred almost hourly.
The aircraft parking area is accessible on foot from the automobile parking lots nearby. No persons except air crew and passengers, along with up to four parking volunteers, are allowed in the parking area and runway. New Hampshire rules reinforce anti-COVID-19 social distancing measures this year too. A steady stream of walking spectators, snowmobilers and ice fisher-people are able to travel around the aircraft parking area though, and the landing restriction into the cove from the south gives one a rather unique perspective as aircraft are a few hundred feet from touchdown abeam of the parking area.
Interesting aircraft that flew into the airport on Saturday included a Varga Kachina, A Eurocopter EC-120B Colibri, and a Bellanca Viking, to name just a few. The largest aircraft on hand was a Beech A36 Bonanza, the smallest I saw was a Flight Design CTLSi Light Sport Aircraft, which flew in from Chester CT. In two hours, I saw some forty or so arrivals and departures.
The opportunity to land on ice seems to be on many pilot’s “bucket lists”, and I overheard three different pilots mention they flew up from Connecticut just to experience something new. The ice landing isn’t for everyone though, as a discussion ensued about airframe insurance companies which prohibit flight operations from anything but a paved runway.
What a great way to showcase aviation in front of a diverse group of spectators. There was lots of interaction between air crew and vacationers (this is President’s Day weekend too.) Many socially-distanced discussions began with “What made you get into flying?” Or, “Where are you from and how long did it take you to fly from there to here?” And finally, the food question… “Have you ever flown into Sanford, Maine airport (or elsewhere) and ate at the diner there? (It seems that watching or flying airplanes and food have something in common).
Well, the Alton Bay ice airport allowed a good-sized group of people to be outdoors and be social… something pretty rare during this pandemic-affected winter in New Hampshire. Plus, watching planes come and go is a fun pastime that many people took advantage of during a nice, sunny day. The ice runway will remain open while the weather and ice surface cooperates; although it will close by mid-March at the latest (the State mandates that the ice runway closes then in any event). Postcript: the runway closed before the last weekend in February due to ice melting, but enjoyed almost three full weeks of operation in 2021!
Here are a few images of the opening Saturday at this year’s ice runway, enjoy!