Not surprisingly, Alaska is one of those places where cold weather is a way of life. General aviation is often the only way to get around in much of the 49th state, and sometimes, the tribulations of operating in temperatures well below zero can be a challenge for any pilot, whether he’s a seasoned backwoods professional or a weekend aviator.
Alaska isn’t the only place that suffers through frigid winters, but it’s often the most severe. Northern Minnesota and Michigan, North Dakota, Vermont and Maine get their share of truly frigid weather, sometimes lasting for several days.
Though Anchorage and southeastern Alaska are more temperate, often 20 to 30 degrees warmer than Lower 48 cold spots, that isn’t the case in the heart of Alaska’s interior, 700 miles farther north. Temperature extremes near the Arctic Circle can redefine the term “cold.”
In my freshman year at the University of Alaska, we recorded several days at -57 degrees F. Few students had cars, and considering how difficult it was to start any internal combustion engine, it wasn’t hard to understand why.
(Forgive the digression, but at the college—cleverly located in, where else, College, Alaska—plumbing, telephone and electrical lines were channeled underground through heated utilidoors, tunnels dug out of the permafrost that ran between every building on campus. When the temperature dropped below -35 degrees F in mid-winter, the utilidoors were opened to student traffic, often for weeks at a time in a bad cold snap. It was possible to travel all over campus without going outside, especially important for trips between the boys’ and girls’ dorms in the middle of the night.)
Professor Charles Keim, head of the English and Journalism department at U of A, was my early mentor in both flying and writing about it. Professor Keim wasn’t a pilot, but he was an avid hunter and fisherman, no matter what the weather, and a frequent contributor to magazines such as Argosy, Sports Afield, Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.
Chuck Keim knew practically everyone in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. He seemed to always be just leaving or returning from a USFWS mission to some remote section of the state.
Professor Keim introduced me to several pilots who flew for the Bureau of Land Management and operated year-round on wildlife conservation and other missions. Their flights nearly always required an observer, and I was exactly the kind of enthusiastic college kid they were looking for, strong enough to dig out aircraft skis, smart enough to count wolves and fur seals, assist in preheat, and willing to be a general go-fer for coffee and doughnuts when we weren’t flying.
The FWS pilots were dedicated to their jobs, and they studied every aspect of wolf predation, the Porcupine caribou herd, and the Chinook salmon migration on the Yukon River, investigating snowshoe rabbit populations and generally serving as advocates for the animals of the Far North. I shared their enthusiasm for both flying and wildlife, so we got along well.
In addition to the cold, the other challenge of flying Up North in winter was operating where the sun doesn’t shine, or at least not much. Fairbanks is in the geographic center of the state, on a wide plain north of Denali, only 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. In mid-December, the sun rose at about 11:00 a.m., and sunset was around 2:00 p.m., so flying was mostly confined to the middle of the day. The sun would sneak into view and track 30 degrees of arc barely above the horizon before dropping back below the trees and out of sight. When the light was on, we were often already aloft.
North of Fairbanks, there was little more than far-flung native villages with abbreviated runways, plus occasional off-grid cabins occupied by folks who didn’t much care for the company of other people. There were hardly any highways in those days, snowmobiles hadn’t been perfected and not everyone owned a team of huskies, so airplanes were the only viable form of transportation.
Fly north 100 miles to the Arctic Circle, and there was tiny Fort Yukon on the Yukon River and, farther north across the Brooks Range, Barrow on the Chukchi Sea.
To the west, Nome and Kotzebue marked the western edge of North America, where, had the earth been flat, former Governor Sarah Palin may have been right that she could see Russia from her house, if her house were there.
Much of our flying was in Super Cubs, so that constrained range to within 200 miles of Fairbanks, but we occasionally flew north and visited the White Mountains, cruising the near-vertical cliffs looking for Dall sheep, or we pointed west to buzz the frozen edges of the state along the Bering Sea, trying to spot polar bears, fur seals and other furry critters.
Flying with the Fish and Wildlife Service taught me a lot about operating well below zero (long before National Geographic decided to do a TV series). For a 20-year-old kid, flying in winter was the best kind of fun, and I never thought much about what would happen if the engine quit 100 miles out in the sticks at 40 below.
To emphasize the extreme nature of winter weather, Ladd AFB, a few miles north of town, was the location of the USAF Arctic Survival School. Every Air Force pilot assigned to flight duty in Alaska was required to pass the Arctic Survival Course before being allowed to fly in winter.
Naturally, as you might imagine, the hot-dog fighter and attack pilots griped continuously. I was one of five CAP cadets who took the same course, camping out in a para-teepee for two days in -40 degree F temps and thought it was great fun. I was lost between the wonder and the why of anything to do with aviation, and crash survival training in extreme cold was just another aspect of the discipline.
Flying with USFWS, I learned how to preheat an engine by building a fire beneath the cowling that wouldn’t immolate the entire airplane. I was coached on the fine art of landing on snow, though in the interest of full disclosure, I was rarely trusted with ski landings.
I grew accustomed to sometimes flying takeoffs on wheels in -30 degree F temperatures and bouncing along on the tires’ frozen flat spots until the rubber was forced into round. I became used to draining oil after a flight, pouring it back in the next morning and installing batteries that had been stored inside so there would be some electrical power available the following day.
When we had access to power, we connected internal engine heaters and light bulbs under the cowl to help fight the deep cold. Without power, thick blankets helped preserve whatever residual engine heat remained after shutdown, at least for a while.
Truly cold temperatures were common in December and January, but they were rarely a disincentive to fly. Our airplanes were mostly hard-working Super Cubs, Stinsons and Cessna 180s, airplanes with a total lack of wuss. They had been ridden hard and put away wet, and they showed it.
The airplanes nevertheless seemed to ignore the cold, even if we couldn’t. We never cared much about normal performance parameters—climb, cruise, service ceiling—but the reliability and efficacy of the heater was always of great interest, especially for the unlucky folks seated in back (usually me).
The mission was often checking for poachers or game spotting, so we cruised at 500 feet or less, usually poking along at 70 mph, nearly always looking down at the tall trees, trying to spot animals or people hiding from us.
At -40 degrees F, the air was super-dry. There usually wasn’t enough moisture to form clouds, and the sky was nearly always as smooth as cough syrup. The super-cooled air often had that amazing crisp snap to it, and visibility frequently bordered on the infinite.
On rare occasions when humidity and temperature were just right, we’d sometimes run into ice fog, usually a temporary phenomenon. If the fog was too heavy to land, we’d simply find a snowy field or frozen lake, land and wait it out, then try again a half-hour later.
What was perhaps most impressive about winter flying in the Far North was coming home after a flight south toward McKinley and spotting the lights of Fairbanks just after the sun had gone to bed. In the gathering darkness of night, the solar wind would begin painting huge, iridescent curtains of green, pink, blue and orange lights 300,000 feet above us.
Somehow, no matter what the temperature, the spectacular aurora seemed only appropriate to a short winter’s day of flying in Alaska’s outback.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. Email Bill at [email protected].