Alton Bay’s Airport on the Ice
By Sarah Wright
When Lake Winnipesaukee freezes over, Alton Bay begins bustling with activity—ice fishing bob houses pop up, snowmobiles turn the lake into a crossing, and pilots can start landing their planes on the ice. It’s a truly unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else in the lower 48 states. That’s right—it’s the only ice runway in the continental U.S. that is registered with the state and has federal FAA approval.
What pilots started over 30 years ago is currently managed by Paul LaRochelle, a resident of Alton Bay who volunteers his time to maintain the runway. Paul starts checking the ice in January, and when it’s 12 inches thick (usually by the end of the month), he will take his truck onto the lake and plow a runway and parking area for the planes.
The ice runway is 100 feet wide from the bandstand and about 3,000 feet long, out to Sandy Point. Fifty feet to the right on the east side is the taxiway and parking area. There also is also a special spot for helicopters. (Ice fishermen are notified to keep bob houses 50 to 75 feet away from the runway’s edge.)
When Paul has plowed all the areas, the Department of Transportation in Concord comes to do an inspection and take photos. Once it is approved, Paul is given official cones and markers along with a windsock flag that shows wind direction to the pilots.
Then the planes start flying in. Pilots from all over want to experience the novelty of landing on an ice runway, and some have been doing it for years. While most pilots are from Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and lower New Hampshire, Paul says that the runway is also a popular destination for pilots from as far as Cape Cod, Block Island, New York, New Jersey, and even Maryland. On a fair-weather day, as many as 45 to a hundred planes come in! The runway is best for smaller single-engine planes, like Pipers and Cessna’s, but Paul has seen six-passenger Cirrus and Bonanza planes land.
Once pilots have arrived, they can explore all that Alton Bay has to offer. Numerous dining options include Amilyne’s Corner Market, which sells coffee and breakfast, Olde Bay Diner, Shibley’s at the Pier (open for lunch and dinner), and J.P. China Restaurant and Lounge, which opens after noon. Pilots often visit the Winnipesaukee Cigar Company or stop at Facet Jewelers for gifts. (Paul’s wife, Donna, owns the jewelry shop and offers certificates to any pilot who lands on the ice runway.) It’s a free souvenir, but many pilots also purchase a B18 baseball cap. In fact, what was once known as a summer seaplane base, the B18 airstrip is now more popular as an ice runway.
“Years ago, Alton Bay was a seaplane base, but after the docks were built and the town beach came in, a retaining wall was added and seaplanes had nowhere to dock,” says Paul. “I’d like to eventually see docking for planes put back in the bay.”
The busiest day on the ice runway is during Alton Bay’s February winter carnival, but Paul cautions those newbies who might be thinking about flying in alone.
“Inexperienced pilots should first approach with someone who’s flown here before. The cross winds are tricky at the southern tip of the lake, and planes have been pushed into snow banks on approach which can damage landing gear. There were two incidents like that last year,” says Paul. “The best way to come in and leave is from south to north, into the wind.”
Paul tries to leave a little crust of snow on top of the ice when plowing to make things less slippery, but Mother Nature dictates conditions for the most part. The weather also determines how long the runway can be open. If conditions allow, it can remain open as late as March 15. Thanks to last year’s “polar vortex” the runway was open for nine whole weeks. Just the year before, it was only open for three. Paul updates an information line every couple of days at (603) 875-3498, but pilots should also check NOTAMs before departing.
This will be Paul’s seventh year managing the runway, and he’s grateful for the help he gets with plowing from Steve Bell of Precious Gardens, Bob Burton from Bayside Concrete, Brian Mitchell from Amilyne’s Corner Market, and Rick Finethy. Paul and his team are looking forward to this year’s ice runway season.