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'Brakes were my enemy': Landing a one-way airstrip in Southcentral Alaska

  • Author: Matt Keller
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published November 29, 2012
Blue Ice Aviation

It doesn't look challenging -- it looks like a huge airstrip with a tiny bit of snow. I could try to be cool, and say "ya, it was no big deal," but the truth is, it was hard work. The runway is plenty long enough, but it's a one-way landing because of that mountain dominating the uphill end.

One-way airstrips are standard, it just means you've gotta get it right the first time. It's not a rough strip, but it's not exactly smooth either. There are 3 lazy humps that wait eagerly to exercise the spring steel landing gear of my gross weight Cessna 185, diminishing my plane to a three-legged pogo stick.

This particular job had me earning my pay. The runway is about 30-feet wide, which is a mammoth compared to most of our strips. But with nil braking and a 15 mph crosswind, I made it a point to set down on the upwind side of the runway, knowing I was going to drift as I rolled out.

This was a good choice because the wind had me nipping at the edges of the downwind ditch by the time I got the plane stopped.

When the tires have no traction there is really nothing you can do to prevent drift except stop the bird before you run out of runway width, because performing a sliding crab in a gross weight taildragger is a really poor idea.

I learned on my first landing that the brakes were my enemy and not my friend. Applying pressure to the brakes offered no response whatsoever, until one tire would grip the rocks beneath the snow and kick the plane slightly sideways. The opposing brake would then offer no correction as it slid on top of the snow and toward the ditch. Only with excessive use of the throttle and some fancy footwork did I avoid a total disaster on my first arrival.

I made 18 fully loaded trips into this strip over a 4 day period, and there were a few exciting moments. I went home at the end of each day to eat nachos, drink a beer, and think about slippery, heavy, windy landings.

Matthew Keller is the owner and operator of Blue Ice Aviation. He was born and raised in Alaska and his office is the cockpit of his Super Cub. His goal is to transport everyone into Alaska's vast wilderness. See more of his videos and writing at Blue Ice Aviation.