When I became involved in international aircraft delivery in 1975 as a supplement to magazine writing, I learned rather quickly that the two disciplines are exactly reversed. Writing about airplanes was often simpler than the task of actually flying them across oceans.
I also found that there was money to be made in helping clients pilot their own airplanes to exotic locations. I called it “professional co-pilot service.”
A few years into the business, I discovered that Alaska was a popular destination, but many pilots feared the 2,000- to 4,000-mile overland hop to the Far North more than a simple milk-run route through Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland to Europe and the Mediterranean countries.
I grew up in Anchorage, where I took my first flight in a Cub on skis and logged my first 20 hours (none of them legal—the airplane’s owner was generous in letting me fly, but he wasn’t an instructor) and had no idea how I’d ever be able to pay for legal flight time when I came of age.
One doctor I had worked with before on a trip from Indianapolis to Normandy, France, had a very ambitious flight planned across the Bering Sea from Nome, Alaska, to Provideniya Bay, Siberia. I checked with the Alaska Airmen’s Association in Anchorage, and they commented that there wasn’t much to see in Prov Bay, Russia. The village is right on the Soviet east coast and only 250 nm from Nome, so we wouldn’t need to refuel, a good thing since there was no avgas available. (Later, I learned there was little if any avgas for sale anywhere in Russia unless you propositioned it. Not much demand when there are so few airplanes that can burn it. Car gas would have to suffice.)
There are several ways to enter Canada from the U.S. If you’re flying up the West Coast, you can always elect to route through the Inside Passage, though weather can often be a problem. I’ve flown that route a half-dozen times and never encountered any significant low weather. I know a few bush pilots who simply operate over the water with double or triple GPS and never fly much above 200-300 feet. I’m not quite that brave.
The more favored flight plan is the Fraser River out of Abbotsford, just a few miles into Canada near Vancouver. This winds north in a fairly tight canyon obliquely out of the Canadian Rockies and eventually dumps you out onto the Great Plains of Alberta.
If you’re approaching from the central U.S., you’ll cross the same plains to Calgary, then route toward Dawson Creek, the official start of the famous Alaska Highway. This road was constructed in 1942, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They invaded the Aleutian out-islands six months later. The initial road was dirt and fairly primitive, but contrary to what you may have imagined, the 1,523-mile AlCan became fully paved and well maintained, with several dozen airports within a few miles of the famous road. You’ll cross back through the Canadian Rockies to Watson Lake. (Plan an overnight to enjoy the famous sign tree in Watson. Some years ago, tourists began tacking signs to a bulletin board in the village, and today, several thousand signs attest to the distance from Watson Lake to every home base from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to Cape Town, South Africa.)
The trip northwest out of Watson Lake was uneventful, though the weather briefer’s warning of “clouds” turned out to be a gross understatement. As we snuck up on Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, for a planned fuel stop, we received a weather update that what was lowering visibility was actually the smoke from forest fires burning in central Alaska and rapidly expanding east into Canada and west toward Fairbanks. Conditions were still marginal VFR at Whitehorse, but the prevailing was expected to drop condition ceiling and visibility below minimums by dark.
As it turned out, the man-made weather beyond Whitehorse was pretty much 0-0 throughout most of central Alaska. Our visas for the trip across the Bering Sea into Russia were limited to two specific days, and after sitting in Whitehorse for two days, it became obvious we couldn’t make it to Nome before our time window closed, and we were shut out completely, a combination of weather and politics.
When Dr. Grider learned that we probably couldn’t fly much beyond Whitehorse that day and the forecast for the next day was for worse weather, we knew the trip was in jeopardy.
The doctor tried everything he could think of to extend our Russian visas, but the Russians were adamant that there wasn’t enough time remaining to get through the paperwork, hope for good weather (a little rain to put out the forest fires would have been great) and make the round trip across Little Diomede Island (U.S.), Big Diomede Island (Russia) and the rest of the Bering Sea, and return to Nome. I told him I’d be happy to continue the trip IFR above the smoke clouds to Fairbanks. The doctor commented that he wanted to see Alaska, not just smell it.
(Incidentally, if you’re playing trivia and someone asks, “How far is it from America to Russia?,” the answer is 2 miles. That’s the distance between the Diomede Islands.)
Unfortunately, after several days of considering alternatives and watching the Yukon River racing by our hotel at 10 knots, the doctor ran out of time. Like any busy professional, he had a schedule to keep.
We’d checked the weather along our proposed route, and the only problem we were advised of was continued dense smoke across much of the North Slope. Alaska is so large (about a third the size of the rest of the U.S.). that forestry officials sometimes simply let fires burn themselves out. The trip was to end prematurely at Whitehorse. He hangared his airplane there until either he or I could return and fly it back to Indianapolis.
Last time I talked to him, however, he asked an interesting question:
“Hey, Bill, have you ever visited the town of Churchill, Canada, to see the polar bears?”
My kind of guy.