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Video: Trike flying over Knik Arm

Rob Stapleton

There is something about flying above the upper Knik Arm that attracts hundreds of pilots. Many are just transiting the area to and from Palmer. Others are flying up the Knik River Valley, and still others are heading up the Susitna valley following the highway.

But some pilots like flying specifically in the Chugach to the east, which -- during the late spring and summer months of the year -- has some of the greatest thermal soaring to be found in the state.

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The late Mike Jacober taught dozens of pilots to fly Weightshift trikes also known as flex wings. Flex wings look like a hang glider, with a pod hanging below the wings that is fitted with a pusher engine. Technically they are a “Rogallo wing” aircraft with no tail that relies on angle of attack for its lift, while the wingtips and varying the weight from side to side gives it directional flight control.

With these lightweight wings, many of the “trike” -- as the flex wings are also known, due to their three-wheeled (two in back and one in front) configuration on the pod hanging below the wings -- pilots spent hours circling over Mirror Lake in and around Bear Mountain looking for lift, something that has been missing from the skyline in recent years.

Part of the routine is to climb to above 3,000 feet, shut off the engine and try to find lift. If you find it, you get a free ride to a higher elevation. If you don’t, you restart or head back to Birchwood.

The Peters Creek area is perfect for this kind of flying, as the ridgeline that run east west along the east side of Bear Mountain rises to over 6,000 feet. The face and buttress along the west and southwest near the Peters Creek Canyon is perfect for afternoon mechanical lift.

With the possibility of thermals and mechanical ridge lift, it is pretty certain that you can sustain your altitude for some time without having to return to the runway at Birchwood, or to re-start your engine.

Sport Pilot Certified Flight Instructor Pete Marsh, who started flying “trikes” in the mid-1990s, recently flew his Antares MA-33 trike with a specially built new wing called a Profi Topless.

“This is a very clean wing that stalls at about 40 mph and cruises at 90 mph, and has one of the best glide ratios I have ever flown,” said Pete Marsh.

Marsh demonstrated the wings quick takeoff and glide aspects for Alaska Dispatch with a mini-high definition camera mounted to his wing, and helmet for the accompanying video.

Built by Aeros Mfg Ltd. of Kiev, Ukraine, the wing has no wires or topside king post with luff lines to the trailing edge of the wing. This lack of hardware in the wing cuts down on lots of drag, aiding the wing in long -- and fast -- glides.

“Another beauty of this wing is that it can be folded and stored, making the trike easy to keep in a hangar, garage or for trailering around to fly from different spots in Alaska,” Marsh added.

Marsh, a sport pilot instructor with thousands of hours of experience, is one of only five “weightshift” trike instructors in the State of Alaska, and is the only practicing WSC/trike instructor at Birchwood Airport.

“If the weather cooperates, flying this summer is my number one priority every day,” said Marsh. “What I’m looking forward to now are lots of people to go flying with.”

Contact Rob Stapleton at robstapleton(at)alaska.net.