Once or twice each summer, I slip into the right seat of an airplane and help a pilot fly to an exotic destination, most often across the Atlantic from North America to Europe. I’ve done the route a few times, and I’ve already made most of the mistakes, so my clients won’t have to repeat them.
I also consult with pilots about various other destinations, and one of the most popular is Alaska. I usually advise pilots that they can do the trip themselves, though I’ve accompanied a few clients to destinations ranging from Anchorage and Fairbanks to Nome and Point Barrow. On these trips, my primary function is to advise pilots about when not to go. The big variable is weather, and fortunately, there’s excellent weather service available throughout Canada and Alaska.
I’ve made perhaps two dozen trips to or from the Far North in the last three decades. There basically are two routes from the southern 48 to the 49th state. The most popular involves “driving” through prairie Canada to Dawson Creek, then above the Alaska Highway to Tok Junction, and either southwest to Anchorage or continuing northwest to Fairbanks. The other route is through Seattle and up the Inside Passage to Ketchikan, Sitka and Yakutat, and across Prince William Sound to Anchorage.
If you don’t have very good deice equipment, 1,000 nm range and a turbo that allows you to cruise on top above 20,000 feet, you should limit yourself to VFR. Flying in the clouds isn’t an option most of the time, at least not for longer than a climb up through or a descent down under. Many experienced IFR pilots in Alaska have learned not to simply file and go unless they can cruise underneath or climb to on top.
For most GA aircraft most of the time, the Inside Passage is dicey with low clouds and limited visibility much of the year, and the worst news is that there’s nearly always ice in the clouds. Every pilot with any brains respects ice.
I’ve made several trips up or down the Inside Passage both above the overcast and flying underneath, and I’ve developed great respect for the bush pilots who fly those routes regularly. I’ve had only two successful trips out of Anchorage above the clouds, the first in a Mooney 252, and the second in a near-new Mirage from Japan.
On the latter trip (in 1998), I picked up a U.S.-registered PA46 in Anchorage that had been illegally tanked with a neoprene ferry tank and flown out of Osaka, Japan. The pilot had flown north through Sapporo, Japan, to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, then on to Provideniya Bay, Siberia, and finally to Nome and Anchorage.
One slight problem: The pilot had somehow managed to sneak out of Prov Bay without filing a flight plan or clearing customs. When he landed at Nome, he claimed he was a domestic VFR flight from Kotzebue, and U.S. Customs didn’t know any different. He was allowed to continue to Anchorage before the mistake was discovered. He was arrested shortly after landing in PANC.
Customs impounded the airplane, and a shop at Anchorage International removed the ferry tank and returned the Malibu to normal configuration. I was called in to finish the delivery to California, and after two days of working with the local FAA to get the paperwork in order, a mechanical inspection and a short test flight, I filed for FL250 to Ketchikan, launched and headed southeast.
True to the forecast, the clouds topped at 18,000 to 20,000 feet, and I was on top by the time I reached Prince William Sound. I could see the peaks of Mt. Saint Elias and Mt. Logan poking through the tops of the clouds (Logan at just under 20,000 feet) as my Malibu drifted by Yakutat in the grip of strong tailwinds. The clouds ebbed and flowed as I continued southeast above Sitka and Petersburg. I landed in Ketchikan after four hours en route, refueled and continued to Bellingham, Wash., the best trip I had made above the Inside Passage.
Flying the more typical coastal route beneath the clouds, I’ve seen everything from PC-12s and Caravans to TBM 700s and Cheyennes flying low to stay out of the ice. Airframe/wing icing is a universal threat in Alaska, and everyone respects it—or should.
Once, 10 years ago, when I was flying a Comanche down from Anchorage to Victor Aviation in Palo Alto, Calif., for an engine change, the clouds pushed me down to about 800 feet above the Pacific abeam Yakutat. Ceilings were running 1,000 to 1,500 feet, but visibility was never much below 10 miles. I passed above a Twin Otter going the opposite direction at 500 feet, followed almost immediately by a Cessna 180 on floats. I spotted another four airplanes flying beneath the clouds on the way to my fuel stop in Sitka. Heavy traffic, and all below 1,000 feet AGL—or more accurately, AWL, above water level.
For much of the year, the Alaska Highway enjoys notably better weather, not to mention more alternates, though the route can be quite a bit longer. The terrain is flat and relatively unchallenging flying north as far as Dawson Creek. Then, the road begins to wind up through the Canadian Rockies toward Whitehorse, Yukon, and on to Northway, Alaska.
You can encounter some unusual problems on that route, too. Five years ago, I accompanied a dentist from Indiana on the Alaska Highway route, and we became stalled in Whitehorse because of forest fires. Northway and Fairbanks were reporting ceilings and visibilities well below minimums as a result of smoke from huge fires that had been burning for several weeks. After three days of coordinating with fire officials and checking weather conditions, the prognosis was poor for any quick improvement. The owner finally sent me home on the airlines, rented a car and drove on to Anchorage.
People do buy airplanes in winter, and on another flight, this time a delivery, the late-fall weather in British Columbia was crystalline following several days of snow. I departed Dawson Creek in a restored Cessna 185, planning to stop for fuel at a small dirt strip a few hundred miles northwest. The GPS led me by the spinner to the airport, but when I arrived at the appropriate coordinates, there was no runway in sight.
After checking the chart and determining that all the landmarks were in proper alignment, I circled the location and finally located what had to be the runway, now totally covered by snow. I made a low pass and guesstimated the snow wasn’t that deep, made another orbit and carefully dropped in to five inches of cold, dry powder. There was a temporary whiteout as I settled onto the ground, but things cleared quickly, and I taxied slowly to the primitive fuel station, a large barrel on top of a wooden stand. The operator was all smiles, as he hadn’t seen any traffic for days and wasn’t expecting anything on wheels at that time of year.
Flying to Alaska in summer is perhaps the most rewarding vacation adventure for pilots from the southern 48. It’s not that difficult, but alternates can be scarce and weather can turn on you in 10 minutes. Be sure to allow extra time for the unexpected.