Flying into Big Bear
by Gary Buscombe
November to March, Big Bear’s winter, can be delightful or dangerous for pilots. Dense, clear air and spectacular snow-blanketed mountain views beckon the aviator; furious storms, slippery runways, gusty winds, ice-laden clouds, and jolting turbulence conspire to endanger a flight.
Big Bear Airport observes that the biggest problem it sees with pilots flying into this high altitude airport is “inexperience.” Ignorance of wintertime hazards like frost on wings, ice on the runway, and “get-home-itis” (primarily affecting tired skiers at the end of long day on the slopes) has led to some mishaps.
Winter flying can be very enjoyable and uneventful, with deep canyons and soaring peaks passing safely under your plane. Hundreds of tiny ant-like skiers can be seen below, gliding downhill at the three ski resorts: Bear Mountain, Snow Summit, and nearby Snow Valley.
All frost must be removed from airfoil surfaces. Burlap, canvas, deicing fluid, a hair dryer, even credit cards can be used for this job. The slightest surface roughness can cause a catastrophic decrease in lift, which might not be detected until wheels have left the runway. Also, runway ice is a constant winter concern. “Aerodynamic braking” is encouraged, letting weight and surface friction slow your plane before using the toe brakes to taxi off. VFR pilots who insist on flying beyond their capabilities sometimes take off into deteriorating winter weather, often with unsuspecting, trusting passengers along. With no navigation aids available and towering mountians in all quadrants, the low visibility and changeable, gusty winds of an approaching storm can quickly create extremely dangerous flight conditions. Coupled with the real possibility of ice formation in the carburetor and/or the leading edges of wings, the blinding rain or snow, and unwary pilot is courting disaster by ever leaving the safety of the pilot’s lounge.
You’ve flown up Friday afternoon; brilliant blue, cloudless skies, and brisk, fresh mountain air greet your arrival. Saturday finds you on the slopes, skiing all day until the lifts close, with some snow flurries developing later in the day. Back at the airport, you find your airplane covered with a light layer of snow, the outside air temperature descending below freezing. The knowledgeable pilot at this point will recognize the changed conditions and TAKE THE TIME to prepare properly for a safe journey home.
First, after removing any frost from the plane and windshield, carefully check for any ice or snow buildup inside the wheelpants, and test for moisture condensation in the fuel. A pilot needs to alter his starting procedures for a “cold-weather”start. Local lore calls for hand-cranking the prop in reverse direction three times, prime three times, and hand-cranking the prop again (master and switch off), this time in the normal direction of rotation. Rarely will a cold engine then not respond to the procedure when the starter is finally engaged. A multigrade oil is strongly recommended in the winter, with its unique property of low viscosity at low temperatures. A cold battery needs all the help it can get! The overnight use of a 75-watt trouble light, blanket, a hair dryer, or an FBO’s preheat can also encourage a reluctant, sluggish engine to spin into life. The airport staff will gladly offer a parking spot near a 120-volt plug-in to accommodate any heating device.
During taxi, double-check the brakes to be sure they have not frozen up, and allow sufficient time to warm the engine and oil before takeoff. Also, be aware warm bodies tend to cause the windshield to fog up due to the difference in inside/outide air temperature. Keep a rag and windshield cleaner nearby to ensure good visibility. Watch the wing tips as you taxi; sometimes after a snowstorm, the plowed snow berms along the taxiway and runway can stand taller than a man. Another critical pretakeoff checkpoint is control movement; melting ice or deicer fluid have been known to seep into the ailerons, flaps, stabilizer, or elevator hinges and lock them up.
A final concern: cabin heat is essential at 9,000 feet during this season, as well as extra clothes, food, and some survival gear. An open expanse of white snow drifts might cushion an “off-field” landing in an emergency, but bitter cold must be dealt with until your’re found.
After you accelerate down the runway and your plane soars into the air, a reward of winterime flying into Big Bear might be sighted: the rare American bald eagle has chosen this mountain valley as its winter habitat. Gliding effortlessly above the almost frozen Big Bear Lake searching for fish and coots, the majestic bird and you for a moment share the same aerial freedom.