Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Alaska Adventure

With proper planning, a dream trip to the northernmost state is easier than you think

The icepack in mid-June at Barrow.
Planning is an important aspect of a trip to Alaska, but everything should be flexible. IFR capability can make the trip more predictable, and summer flying in Canada and Alaska is easy with low minimum en route altitudes on most segments. But, flying in the clouds misses the best part of the trip: taking in the amazing scenery along the way.

Even if the route choice is the highway in both directions, northern Canada and Alaska are wilderness, so having some survival gear on board is warranted. An EPIRB or some other personal locator, in addition to the aircraft ELT, is prudent. We had a "go bag" with food, water, fire starters, first aid kit, mosquito nets and repellent, and a handheld VHF radio, as well as sleeping bags and a shotgun.

The crew: Doug Rozendaal, Adam Glowaski and Mark Holt.
Don't Rush…
All too often, we get caught up in the fast pace of life, and we feel compelled to push. Getting weathered in along the way has actually been the highlight of some of my trips north. It's a chance to dig deeper into the local culture. An unscheduled two-day delay can provide the chance to get acquainted and make friends in a more meaningful way than a one-hour fuel and food stop.

The real flying adventure on the highway route starts at Fort St. John. The forests begin, the Rockies define the western horizon, and the highway becomes the primary, if not only, indication of human intervention. Fort Nelson is where the road enters the mountains. The leg to Whitehorse is breathtaking, with a more magnificent vista around every corner. A thousand feet above the road is safe and comfortable, and the view is beyond words. Flying low is the way to go!

All flying in Canada, VFR or IFR, requires a flight plan, and Flight Service weather observers and RCOs are scattered along the route, so communication is never an issue. Pilots are generous with pilot reports, and webcams that are located in the passes along the way can be called up at kiosks at almost every airport. Sadly, the last face-to-face weather briefing in North America was at the Whitehorse airport, and it, too, is now a kiosk with a phone.

Glacial lakes brighten the vast Alaskan landscape.
We had a short list of goals for our trip. One was Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States at 71.17N latitude, 437 nm north of Fairbanks. Why? Just because. The weather at Barrow was marginal, and there are no alternates on the northern slope with avgas. We stopped at Bettles for fuel and filed IFR for Barrow. On top of the cloud layer, at 10,000 feet, we could see the tundra in the breaks, and we wanted to see the terrain, but knew if we descended too low we'd lose radio contact and not be able to get clearance to climb back up. We asked for a block clearance from 4,000 to 10,000 feet and descended below the clouds.

It was surreal and unsettling. The visibility was good, and yet from horizon to horizon in all quadrants, there was tundra with no sign of human intervention anywhere. As we approached Barrow on the coast, an undercast developed, and we shot an RNAV approach. Arriving at this small outpost of humanity in the middle of the expanse of void was an emotional experience.


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