We depart Eastern Slope Regional Airport in Fryeburg, Maine, from Runway 32.
This runway heading puts Lovewell Pond off to our right. Hunting comes into view off our right wing followed by Fryeburg Academy and the fairgrounds as we climb out and exit the traffic pattern. Banking slightly left brings us over the Saco River and Sherman Farm glides under our wings as we level off.
It won’t be long before the field below begins to take the design of the next corn maze but today we embrace the cold, clear air of winter.
Our destination is the south end of Lake Winnipesaukee — Alton Bay, to be exact, a short 20 minutes or so depending on how much we meander to take in the sights. When the conditions are right, the Alton Bay ice runway opens for traffic and over the past few years, thanks to a rediscovery of outdoor adventures and social media, the small airport on the lake has seen a lot of aircraft.
Some come to visit a nearby restaurant on the shore of the lake, some for the ice fishing, and some just for the fun and challenge of landing on ice.
The airport opens when conditions allow and stays open for that brief window. Alton Bay is a seaplane base in the summer, but it’s in the winter that it really comes alive.
The airport is sanctioned by the FAA and is the only known officially maintained ice runway in the lower 48 states.
Chalk up another unique N.H.-only landmark. Its airport identifier is B18. The runway and parking apron are plowed and operated by a volunteer force led by an airport manager, under the tutelage of the NH DOT.
This year, the ice runway opened at noon on Feb. 6 and had 29 airplanes and one helicopter land there. It’s not uncommon for ski-equipped airplanes to land in large snow-covered fields or lakes, but the plowed runway at Alton Bay allows nearly any aircraft a way in.
Yes, landing on ice can be as sketchy as it sounds, but planes have some advantages that vehicles don’t when touching down at around 60 mph on the slippery stuff.
Airplanes have flight surfaces like a rudder and ailerons to help maintain directional control, and flaps allow for slower speeds and aerodynamic braking. Propulsion for ground handling and takeoff is via the propeller rather than tire traction, a major advantage under these conditions.
On a busy weekend, the parking area fills quickly, but once on the ice with the plane buttoned up, the atmosphere is festive. Every form of winter activity seems to take place, from snow machines cruising the expanse of the lake to pickups and ATVs dashing to and fro. Pilots and observers mingle and share stories, and just walking among the diversity of aircraft on the ice is entertaining while the realization that all this is taking place on a big, frozen lake is surreal.
This is the fun side of flying. Recreational flying might not be as expensive as you think compared to other recreational pursuits. How much are sleds for a family with snow gear, helmets, a trailer, and a truck or SUV to pull them? Or a boat, trailer, and tow vehicle? How about a couple of motorcycles and gear? Don’t get me wrong, I love all powersports and would never criticize anyone’s choice for fun, I just think general aviation gets overlooked in the long list of discretionary time and income spending.
Flying doesn’t have to have a purpose anymore than riding a sled for miles on a cold winter day.
And when the ice melts there’s no shortage of remote fields perfect for camping, fishing, hiking or wedging a couple of bikes in the back of the plane for some two-wheeled adventure. An organization called the Recreational Aviation Foundation maintains remote landing strips and fosters the use of aircraft to enjoy areas that would be unreachable by other means of transportation.
Those who love the water might take to flying floatplanes. Many years ago, I got my seaplane rating with a friend on Moosehead Lake over a long weekend. I already had my private pilot license so the float rating was just an add-on and required much less time and training.
I still remember getting a pizza in Greenville and flying over to a nearby lake where we were staying in a remote cabin on the shore. There, in the middle of nowhere, we enjoyed our supper and relaxed as the sun set. Try that in your trail-rated crossover.
Aviation can be entered at all skill levels and all price points, from ultralight flying, which requires no license (but training is always a good idea) to small two-place aircraft that can be operated with a sport pilot license to larger multiseat, multi-engine aircraft that require a private pilot license and above.
Once licensed, aircraft can be rented from a business or club, purchased with partners or alone and even built from a kit or plans.
Flying is not for everyone. There is a definite investment of time and money and a commitment to learning a skill. But, as the old saying goes, a mile of road will take you a mile, but a mile of runway will take you anywhere.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 26 Portland St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies. For more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.