The year was 1867. The price was $7.2 million. The seller was Russia. The prize was Alaska. Several in Washington, D.C., saw it as a boondoggle and called it "Seward's Folly" in honor of then Secretary of State, William Seward, who negotiated the deal to buy 586,412 square miles of what most believed to be worthless wilderness for about two cents an acre. Then, as now, most people have never experienced the grandeur that is Alaska, or they'd have quickly realized it was a bargain.
What pilot hasn't dreamed of climbing into a Piper Cub or a Baron and flying to Alaska? While many do every summer, more pilots are intimidated by the thought of flying across the wilderness and settle for just thinking about it. The reality is, flying to Alaska isn't difficult, it's incredibly rewarding and well within the capabilities of most general aviation airplanes and pilots.
Last June, two friends and I set out on a 10-day trip to Alaska from Mason City, Iowa, in a 1978 Beechcraft Baron B55. Along the way, we encountered everything from corporate jets to fabric-covered homebuilts; we chose the Baron because we had one. Range is typically not an issue, unless the destination is far into the interior. Most routes have an airport every 100 miles, and fuel is seldom more than 200 miles apart.
Planning Your Route
There are three basic routes that lead to, or from, the northernmost state. Milepost 0 of the Alaska-Canada Highway, known as the ALCAN Highway, starts at Dawson Creek in British Columbia and winds its way across the prairie, through the Canadian Rockies, to Fairbanks. The other inland alternative is known as "The Trench." A geological fault line forms a nearly perfectly straight line—literally a trench—from Prince George to Watson Lake, where it joins the ALCAN Highway. It's a 400-plus nm stretch with essentially no civilization or fuel.
The other option is along the Pacific coastline. Coastal communities with airports and fuel are scattered all the way from Anchorage to Bellingham, Wash. The weather can be brutal, and the engine-out options are limited, but it's a breathtaking trip.
The big, wide highway is the simplest and arguably the safest, in fact, it was intended to be utilized as an emergency strip when needed. Our default plan was to travel up the ALCAN Highway and down the coast, utilizing the excellent engine-out performance of the Baron to mitigate the risks of flying along the tree-covered shoreline.
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.
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.
Barrow has a large reserve of 100LL, and they were selling it at the bargain price of $4.99 per gallon, with a $75 call-out fee. When that fuel is gone, it will be the end of avgas on the North Slope.
Barrow is an outpost with a population of around 4,000. The only pavement we saw was on the airport. The roads are dirt watered into mud to control the dust. The larger buildings are on piers that are refrigerated to freeze them into the tundra to prevent them from sinking. The homes are small and simple. Everything comes to Barrow by ship, in the few months of open water in the summer, or by plane.
Seaplanes at Lake Hood's shoreline.
The Flight Instructor Handbook says that, "Learning is a change of behavior as a result of experience." Standing on the frozen ice pack of the Arctic Ocean at 1 a.m., watching the sun miss the horizon, is an experience. Had Columbus seen the sun at due north at midnight and due south at high noon, he would have known for certain that the world was round.
Another goal on our short list was a stop in Unalakleet, home of the Tweto family and the television series Flying Wild Alaska. Again, just because. We stopped for fuel and food in Kotzebue. Sadly, the weather wasn't cooperating at Unalakleet, and we flew overhead looking down at the clouds that obscured the airport. Little did we know we would later learn more about Flying Wild Alaska.
We crossed the southwest corner of the state with a stop in Aniak, a night in Dillingham and over to Homer where we went fishing, hauled up some halibut and hung a dollar bill on the wall in the Salty Dawg Saloon.
The group's dollar bill at the Salty Dawg in Homer.
Next Stop, Anchorage
Anchorage isn't the capital of Alaska, but it's the gateway to the state. There are two major civil airports, Ted Stevens Anchorage International and Merrill Field, as well as Elmendorf Air Force Base. Airplanes are everywhere! Merrill is the GA-reliever airport, and across town at Stevens, you'll see two things: float planes and 747s. Adjacent to the terminal building is Lake Hood with its shoreline covered with seaplanes. The Millennium Alaskan Hotel Anchorage has a deck perfectly located to watch a stream of floatplanes land and depart. Lunch on the deck with a cool glass of Alaska's own Alaskan Amber Beer was another goal checked off our list.
The People You Meet
What wasn't on our list was meeting celebrities. Yet, sitting at the next table were Ariel and Ayla Tweto of Flying Wild Alaska. We asked if we might take a picture. They joined us, and we talked about flying and Alaska! They were as pleasant and polite in person as they are on their show. We agreed to meet them later at another goal on our list: fish and chips at F Street Station.
Meeting Ariel and Ayla Tweto of Flying Wild Alaska.
F Street is the airline-crew hangout in Anchorage. We were welcomed by a lovely waitress named Laura, who kept the Alaskan Amber flowing as we feasted on our halibut. I was wearing a warbird museum shirt, and Laura mentioned that she had an uncle who had flown a P-51 Mustang. I boisterously replied, "Who is that? I probably know him." She said, "Don Hinz." I nearly collapsed. Hinz was the leader of the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron, and we had worked together for years to get the Red Tailed P-51C "Tuskegee Airmen" flying. In 2004, Hinz was flying the Mustang when the engine failed. He landed, hit a tree and died soon after. It was chilling, but we had a great time telling stories and remembering her uncle and my friend.
Blessed By The Weather
Just north of Anchorage is a little town called Talkeetna, which is the gateway to Denali, "The High One." The mountain is almost always shrouded in clouds, but the weather was beautiful, so we decided to fly up and have a look. The peak was visible from Anchorage, and as we flew north, it just kept getting bigger. We landed and got the 411 on where to fly and how to avoid the charter ski-plane operations. We climbed up to 8,000 feet and flew up Ruth Glacier, high above the charter flight landing area, and returned down the Tokistina Glacier. We paused to consider that a wrong turn in marginal weather up one of the canyons would mean a certain crash and likely death. In the clear skies and unlimited visibility, it was effortless.
Down The Coast
The prog charts looked favorable for a return along the Pacific Coast, so we started for home. Heading southeast from Anchorage, Mount Saint Elias reaches 18,009 feet high, and the Pacific Ocean reaches 2,400 nm southwest to Hawaii. It was another emotional realization of our relative insignificance.
The first stop was Yakutat, where the sign on the FBO/Restaurant/Saloon says, "Food, Fuel, Shelter, Booze"—everything needed for survival in the wilderness. We took stock of two of the four items and headed south.
From Yakutat south are several hundred miles of endless glaciers dumping millions of tons of ice into melting pools that flow down impressive waterfalls into the ocean. Even from an airplane, the shear faces of the calving glaciers are hard to comprehend.
Farther south, the glaciers give way to inlets and fjords where numerous fishing communities live on the bounty of the sea. The flying is easy if the weather is good, and the beauty of the ever-changing scenery never ends.
The Last Stop
The Ketchikan International Airport is located on an island along an inland passage. The city is on the mainland, and a ferry connects the two. Ketchikan is within comfortable range of the U.S. mainland in the Baron, and that allows skipping Customs clearance in both Canada and the U.S. The Canadian coastline and islands are picturesque, but airports and off-airport landing sites are scarce. There's a lot of comfort in a second Continental on the Baron!
We landed back in the Lower 48 at Bellingham, Wash. Our trip was 6,000 nm and 40 hours in the Baron. We burned almost 1,000 gallons of 100LL, achieved most of our trip goals, and just like Seward's Folly, it was a bargain.
Doug Rozendaal is an ATP, CFII, MEI and Designated Pilot Examiner with ratings in WWII bombers, transports, fighters and some bizjets. He holds a surface-level aerobatic waiver in eight different types, and flies air shows for the Commemorative Air Force, Texas Flying Legends and others. This trip was his fifth to Alaska: three times in a B-25 and twice in the Baron.
Beechcraft Baron, The Perfect Bush Plane?
|All over Alaska, and now often in the Lower 48, Super Cubs, Huskys and hot-rod homebuilts with tundra tires are all the rage. Their tire size is exceeded only by their monstrous motors. They can take off and land on a dime and give back change.
Landing on gravel bars along a river or sand on the beach can be great fun, but there's risk involved with it, and in the wilderness of Alaska, a small incident can mean a night in the bush with the bears, or worse.
Those who live and fly regularly in the outback of Alaska and have a support system backing up these off-airport operations, can safely operate into, and out of, places that most of us from the Lower 48 wouldn't, or shouldn't, attempt.
Much of Alaska is accessible using the many paved, grass or gravel strips scattered liberally across the state. Operating on a gravel runway in a light twin requires careful power application during taxi and takeoff, but can be done without propeller damage. And winter operations on snow-covered runways can cause problems with ice in the brakes or the wheel wells, but most of us won't be touring Alaska in the cold dark winter.
An excursion to a secluded lake by floatplane, or gravel-bar landing on a salmon stream, can be chartered in many cities or villages.
The security of a second IO-550 Continental on the Colemill-modified President II Baron, with power that will bring its cargo home from nearly any engine failure situation, is comforting to those accustomed to flying over civilization. For a flatlander from the Lower 48, that's a perfect bush plane!