Plane & Pilot
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Extreme Flying: Winter, Part 1


Lessons learned from an Alaskan bush pilot can be just as valuable to pilots in the lower 48


Extreme Flying: Winter, Part IIt’s Gary Chamberlain’s second cup of coffee and it’s still dark outside. For months now the sun has been rising later and later each day, only to scribe a low arc across the horizon before disappearing again just a few hours later. As the winter solstice nears in December, even the twilight hours are gone. Still, there’s flying to be done, and Chamberlain has learned the lessons that decades of living in Alaska have taught him. Despite the constant risks of whiteouts, high winds, frigid temperatures and limiting visibilities, he’s developed a set of rules that allow him to crisscross Alaska and the Yukon Territory year-round in his Cessna 185.

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Extreme Flying: Winter, Part I
Pilots who fly around the time of the winter solstice in December can experience whiteouts, high winds, frigid temperatures and limiting visibilities.
It’s Gary Chamberlain’s second cup of coffee and it’s still dark outside. For months now the sun has been rising later and later each day, only to scribe a low arc across the horizon before disappearing again just a few hours later. As the winter solstice nears in December, even the twilight hours are gone. Still, there’s flying to be done, and Chamberlain has learned the lessons that decades of living in Alaska have taught him. Despite the constant risks of whiteouts, high winds, frigid temperatures and limiting visibilities, he’s developed a set of rules that allow him to crisscross Alaska and the Yukon Territory year-round in his Cessna 185.

“The most important thing for any pilot is to get a good handle on the weather you’ll be dealing with,” Chamberlain says. “Of all the things to worry about in flying, weather should get most of your attention.” You can hear the unmistakable emphasis in his voice when he says “weather.” Over the years, he’s lost 12 friends to Alaska’s harsh flying conditions, and all but two of these accidents were because of weather.

“I start out by looking at weather on the computer,” Chamberlain says. “I want to see what the weather’s doing all around me. For example, it can be a good day here, but if there’s a low, hanging over the Gulf of Alaska, I know that the ceilings are probably coming down, and we may get heavy snow as well.” He picks up the marine forecast to help him make his go/no-go decision. A modern bush pilot on the Internet can also take advantage of live weather cams to look at real-time conditions. “You can actually get a lot of good information from those damned things,” Chamberlain muses.

Next he gets a weather briefing from the local flight service station. “I pay special attention to the pilot reports because that’s awfully good information about what’s really going on out there.” He even goes so far as to ask who made the pilot report—not just what type of aircraft, but who was actually on the flying end of the microphone. A report of low ceilings or turbulence that comes from a day-in/day-out Part 135 operator, for example, might carry more weight with Chamberlain than a report from a tourist pilot on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around Alaska.

“Then I want to talk with some real human beings,” Chamberlain says with a smile, “not robots, like ASOS or AWOS. I start calling people who are familiar with bush flying and ask them how this pass looks or what the conditions are like on the runway or landing area where I’m headed.” Even if he’s staying overnight in the bush, Chamberlain sticks to his routine of talking to people along his route and at his destination before taking off, even if it requires using the high-frequency radio that’s in the panel of his aircraft. “Talking to real human beings is very, very important,” he insists.

If, after that, he doesn’t like the information he’s collected, he waits. “We have a saying here—‘I’ll see you tomorrow, weather permitting.’ We live by that,” Chamberlain says.

Before he starts his engine, Chamberlain always checks that he’s carrying everything he might need should he experience problems along the way. There’s always a chance that mechanical problems could cause an unscheduled stop, and Chamberlain knows that Alaska’s unruly and unpredictable weather could push him into a situation in which a forced landing to await improving conditions is the only safe move. “Only a fool travels without survival gear,” he states matter-of-factly.

“You need to have whatever it takes to survive in any location that you’re flying over,” he says. “For us up here, priority one is staying warm. What’s the point of making a beautiful landing somewhere if you end up freezing to death?” His list of must-haves includes an ax, fire starter, snowshoes, a rifle, polar weight sleeping bag, a few MREs, a small gas stove (his burns avgas), a snow shovel and a change of clothes in case he gets wet. Chamberlain also carries a small Honda generator to supply power to the heaters in his airplane. When the weather improves, he can start the Cessna’s engine and take off again.

Toward the top of Chamberlain’s winter checklist is a satellite phone. He believes that anyone who flies has a responsibility to be able to contact those people who might put themselves in danger in the event of a search-and-rescue mission. He explains,“You want to be able to call people and say ‘Here’s where I am; I’m okay; you don’t need to come looking for me.’ There’s been plenty of people who’ve gone out looking for someone and gotten killed while they were looking.”




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