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Sunday, December 21, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Longtime Yellowstone Denizens Remember Speedy Snow Planes

Livingston (Mont.) Enterprise

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - They looked silly and cool at the same time, a plane without wings, a snowmobile with a propeller. For years in the Yellowstone National Park area, before the advent of snowmobiles and snow coaches, snow planes were kings of the white stuff.

Snow planes were mounted on skis, one in front and two in back. The cabin looked like someone had chopped a plane in two, kept the cockpit and put the propeller - which pushed the contraptions forward - behind it. In most models there was room for two people, a driver in front and a passenger in back.

The machines, used in the 1940s and '50s, had many uses. Some ranchers in southwestern Montana were said to have employed them for hunting coyotes, feeding cattle, carrying mail or just having fun.

Entrepreneurs like Walt Stewart, who ran a service station in West Yellowstone, charged visitors - including Life magazine photographers - to take them into the park on their snow planes, said Leslie Quinn, information specialist with Yellowstone concessionaire Amfac Parks & Resorts.

Park employees used them for getting around, bringing in supplies and mail, winter patrols and emergencies.

"The snow planes just made life easier," Quinn said. Helped relieve cabin fever

Bob Murphy, 79, a former park ranger who lives south of Livingston, used to make his patrols on skis. He said he'd be gone for days measuring snowfall and shoveling heavy snows from ranger-station roofs. But with a snow plane, he could go to work and return the same day.

Snow planes also helped relieve cabin fever and keep rangers in touch with the outside world.

"The nearest plowed road was Moran (Wyo.) - 24 miles," said Murphy, who was stationed at the park's south entrance.

To get away, he and his wife, Alice, would jump into the snow plane he'd bought and head for Sunday dinner at the Flag Ranch a few miles away. Periodically he'd go all the way to Moran to get mail. The trip down took only about 40 minutes.

There was no doubt the machines were fast.

Stewart, one of the first snow-plane builders, told Quinn he pushed his machine to 140 mph on frozen Yellowstone Lake.

On that run, Stewart's passenger nudged him on the shoulder and asked him to look back. Water was filling the ski tracks behind them.

"We figured there was probably more ice underneath," Stewart said later, "but we never stopped to find out!" Most didn't know speed

Retired park ranger Dale Nuss, 72, said the planes were capable of great speed, "depending on how gutsy you were."

However, lacking speedometers, most operators never knew how fast they were going. Stewart knew because he had installed an airplane's airspeed indicator on his. Other operators estimated their machines could hit only about 60 mph.

One of the first snow planes was built in Canada in 1932 by Joseph-Armand Bombardier, inventor of the Ski-Doo snowmobile. While he went on to manufacture snowmobiles and tracked snow machines - his Bombardiers are still used in the park - inventive people in communities around Yellowstone began building and using snow planes for fun and work.

Some early snow planes had automobile engines. For example, Stewart's first machine was powered by a water-cooled Model A engine, with the propeller on the front, an open cockpit and just two skis, Quinn said. It even had a plane-like rudder on the back.

"Walt said it would turn on a dime, that it was just a sassy little thing," Quinn said.

As the machines in the park area evolved, some took on four skis, two in front and two in back. The pusher propeller in the back became powered by a regular aircraft engine. Early models had wooden skis. Coverings were made of fabric.

Eventually snow planes, which went into commercial production, ended up with one ski in front and two in back. Some had a metallic skin.

Many snow planes also featured wheels that could be lowered to cross exposed asphalt.

The machines usually carried Continental or Lycoming engines ranging from 65 to 95 horsepower and burned 90 octane or higher airplane gas, according to drivers. Murphy said one snow plane operated by a mail carrier in the park area apparently had a radial engine; it was a 200-horsepower monster strong enough to carry four people.

Nuss, a Bozeman resident, said most models had automobile steering wheels that turned the front skis. The dashboards were simple, with items like a compass and tachometer.

Starting the machines on bitterly cold mornings took some ingenuity. Murphy would drain the engine oil and set it by the stove the night before. In the morning a blowtorch placed under the blanket-covered engine helped warm it up. Then he'd pour the warm oil into the crankcase, spray starter fluid into the valves and fire the thing up.

Many snow-plane models had no brakes, so drivers had to coast to a stop. And except for some guard rods on the sides of the propeller, the spinning blades were exposed and dangerous.

Snow planes are mostly gone now, replaced by the ubiquitous snowmobile. But a remnant survives in Wyoming.

Every winter, according to Grand Teton Park ranger Peter Dederich, fishermen use snow planes to go ice fishing on Jackson Lake. The park regulates the use of the mostly home-made machines, making sure they are used only when the ice is safe and charging a $5 annual permit fee for their use.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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