Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Memories Of Alaska


The Far North is one of the most popular vacation destinations for pilots



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.




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