Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Memories Of Alaska

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

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.


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