31 Oct Wheel Landings on Glaciers
The north country is home to thousands of glaciers and icefields that provide airplane access to some of the wildest places on earth. These landscapes are dominated by rugged terrain where ice may offer the only landing option. While glacier ops typically involve ski landings, this primer addresses wheel landings on ice.
Most pilots will never land on a glacier, but for those that do, it can be life changing. We want to open your eyes to this type of flying and urge you to tread carefully if you’re lured to land on the ice. Glaciers are dynamic and difficult to assess. We encourage you to learn as much as you can about potential hazards and to use a relevant checklist. (You can use ours or make your own.)
The best way to learn about a glacier is to spend a few days trekking around and camping on one. There’s value in exploring the different textures of ice and rock (with due caution). You’ll sense the absence of terra firma and lurking hidden danger – till-covered icy slopes, hidden crevasses, moulins, and unstable material about to give way. I’ve seen hundreds of tons of rock and ice spontaneously release from a high cliff face, spreading a debris lobe a quarter mile across – an objective hazard impossible to outrun.
Glaciers undergo constant change as ice, entrained debris, and meltwater move downslope, and the effects of accumulation and ablation take a toll. On warm summer days, there is greater movement and change. Rocks echo as they plunge into deep crevasses. Avalanches thunder and feed debris cones at the glacier’s edge. The volume of cascading meltwater also increases. Be extra careful during periods of instability and understand there are places you shouldn’t be, even if you can safely land there.
Finding Landing Zones
Since chaos is the natural order of glacier environments, expect LZs to be sparse.
Focus on areas of heavy accumulation, compression, ablation, or stagnation that are likely to have fewer crevasses.
Crevasses form when surface tension causes the ice to crack apart. This can happen when the ice flows over a convex-shaped rock bed. Crevassing is also caused when changes occur in direction, slope angle, or velocity. Fewer crevasses are found in avalanche deposition zones, inside bends, flow intersections, level areas, depressions, and glacial margins. In addition, remnant glaciers, cirque glaciers, plateau glaciers, and icefields are generally less crevassed than alpine and valley glaciers.
If you’re searching for a landing spot from the air, it helps to understand the features you’re looking at. Fly low passes over a variety of surfaces to see how they vary. Do this at different glaciers, elevations, aspects, slope angles, times of day, and seasons to observe a range of variations and develop your interpretive skills.
Low-angle sunlight will reveal the most surface detail.
Areas that look firm may be soft. That smooth-looking, white area could be deep, saturated snow hiding holes and small crevasses. In the heat of the day, blue ice near the firn line can indicate surface flooding.
Slope angles will look different depending on your perspective above the ice.
Glaciers are always rougher and steeper than they look from the air, which means you may regret landing on one if you misjudge. You may be able to ride out a rough landing but bouncing and loss of directional control could take you in a dangerous direction. As a glacier steepens, it becomes increasingly important to land and take off with the fall line. Otherwise, you could slide sideways, lose directional control and risk gear collapse.
Be extra cautious flying up-glacier at low level.
Maintain enough altitude for a 180-degree turn to avoid rising terrain. Flying low passes down-glacier may be necessary. These sites are likely to be one-way with no go-around. Land here with a headwind, and you’ll be forced to take off with a tailwind.
After touch down, keep the airplane in the takeoff configuration.
This is important in case you can’t stop or encounter a hazard and decide to take off again. Don’t taxi around. Park and assess on foot. Before shutdown, come to a complete stop and ensure the plane is stable and not prone to moving downhill. You may need to park across the fall line for stability. If there is any chance the plane could move, place an ice tool as a quick, temporary anchor, then set long ice screws or use a V-thread to secure the main gear and tail.
Evaluate downslope hazards (crevasses, rocks, steepening slopes, cliffs) and give yourself extra room for a safe takeoff – you may need it in a tailwind.
The cooling effect of a glacier will dramatically change local weather.
Reflected radiation, temperature, humidity, dew point, convective flow, and diurnal wind patterns are all affected. A damp, cold surface breeze or down-glacier wind is typical.
Observe the highest summits. They are early indicators of weather change.
Local thunderstorm activity or a larger weather event could trap you in the mountains. Fly during stable VFR conditions or when there is an improving trend. Identify escape routes as you get deeper into the mountains in case the weather deteriorates. I like to always keep at least two escape route options open.
Emergency kits are mission dependent and beyond the scope of this post but worth mentioning. In addition to other life-saving equipment, pilots should carry cold and wet weather survival gear, proper boots, gloves, a multi-fuel/iso-butane backpacking stove, enough fuel to melt snow for drinking water, and a satellite communicator.
Be prepared to spend several days camping on the glacier in stormy weather.
Also consider a large pack, upgrading to a four-season mountaineering tent, solar panel, rope and cord, carabiners, ice axe, long ice screws, V-threader, prusiks or ascenders, rescue pulleys, glacier harness, and depending on conditions, a thermos, gaiters, crampons, snowshoes, skis/ski poles, probe pole, snow shovel, and snow saw.
Tailwheel airplanes are preferred for glacier ops. They are less prone to gear failures on rough terrain and provide better prop ground clearance than nosewheel aircraft. Many Alaska mods such as engine horsepower upgrades, a climb prop, empennage gap seals, and VGs, while nice to have, are not the most important. Emphasis should be placed on the landing gear. Heavy duty main gear, main gear suspension (bush shocks), tundra tires, a fat tailwheel, and high-pressure brakes should be prioritized.
Glacier surfaces can be rough and rocky, so it’s a good idea to run a tire pressure that is lower than the manufacturer’s recommended minimum to improve shock-absorbing properties. In my opinion, 31” tundra tires will do the job, but 35s are a better choice because they offer an additional safety margin.
Where to Fly
Alaska remains the only state that permits glacier landings. Although there are about 27,000 glaciers in Alaska, finding a safe spot to land isn’t easy.
Explore the Airstrip Map to find established landing sites.
For wheel ops, look for “ice” listed in the “Surface” information field. If you’re searching for new places, you can toggle between the topo and imagery base maps to evaluate glacier elevation, slope, length, and surface details.
It’s wise to practice near a population center with good communication in case you need assistance.
Two standout areas are the Knik Glacier region southeast of Palmer and the central Alaska Range northwest of Talkeetna. These places offer easy day trip access and good support services. The high volume of bush plane traffic means there will be reliable air-to-ground radio communication with pilots flying overhead.
Before venturing out, familiarize yourself with reporting points and mountain traffic patterns.
Reporting points for the Knik and Denali areas can be displayed on the Airstrip Map. You can also download a KMZ file for use in ForeFlight or your preferred navigational device.
The airspace can get congested, especially in marginal weather that restricts where tour planes can fly. Talk to local glacier pilots about mountain weather, glacier conditions, landing sites, bottle necks, approach/departure procedures, and parking at busy glacier landing sites.
Keep right when flying valley glaciers and mountain passes.
In the Ruth Amphitheater, fly a counterclockwise pattern and remain clear of landing and departing aircraft at the Mountain House. Stay above pattern altitude when overflying established glacier landing sites and announce your location, altitude, and intentions. If you aren’t flying in these two busy areas, chances are you’ll have the glaciers to yourself.
Position Reporting – Denali and Knik Areas
Make concise position reports emulating the local vernacular. Don’t engage in non-essential communication on CTAF or you may be scolded by a local tour pilot. Here’s an example position report for NXX2AK over the Ruth Icefall at 6,500’ flying up glacier to the Ruth Amphitheater (via the Gateway): “Two Alpha Kilo Ruth Icefall at 6.5 for the Gateway.” Enough said.
When crossing the Alaska Range (Kahiltna Pass, Traleika Col, or Anderson Pass), it’s a good idea to make a final position report before switching frequencies. Indicate what frequency you’ll be switching to, then immediately report your position on the new frequency.
Most of the time, I do not land. The dynamic environment and extreme hazards make conservative decision-making imperative. But this type of exploration opens a world of opportunity to those with the desire to learn and the patience to safely gain experience. When conditions are favorable, glaciers can offer additional access points to paradise.