Alaska Chronicles

As posted on Compuserve AVSIG Forum.

Alaska is the only state in the union I've never visited- up until now. Opportunity came with a conference in Fairbanks. I flew up from the Bay Area with one of my physicist colleagues. My wife arrives on Alaska 101 on Wednesday and we'll spend the week after the conference, seeing Alaska (a little bit anyway) and working our way home...

This trip took a lot more planning than most. I got a Jepp trip-kit,a stack of WACs, a few sectionals, and "The Aviator's guide to Alaska"- which I recommend, though at $49.95, it's a little pricey.

One popular route is into BC from the Seattle area, then a jog to the East and up the Frazier River valley to Prince George, up the "trench" to the Alcan Highway, through Whitehorse Yukon to Fairbanks. Being shielded from the coast moisture by a lot of mountains, the weather is usually pretty good.

The coastal route is much more demanding. Both my passenger and I had a strong preference for that route if it were feasible. However, airports are not abundant and have poor instrument approaches because of the terrain, and even in summer get a lot of weather.

Day 1: Livermore CA- Scappoose OR- Harvey field WA 5:05

Good VFR weather. Stopped at Scappoose for cheap gas. Big forest fires in Oregon.

Day 2: Harvey WA- Victoria BC- Port Hardy BC- Ketchikan AK- Gustavus AK.

Called FSS at 7:00: Port Hardy, Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Prince George all below IFR mins in fog. Prince Rupert is 0/0, Ketchikan has 100/ 1/8! However, except for a weak stationary front around Juneau, the weather is dominated by a high. The coastal fog is supposed to burn off around noon. I decide to go for the coast route, keeping options open if the weather doesn't cooperate.

Filed IFR to Victoria because Harvey is fogged in. However by launch time, the fog is gone, so we pick up our clearance in the air.Clearing customs was a breeze. We'd given the info by phone (888-CANPASS) prior to departure. On arrival we called again from a phone on the ramp. We were given a code number and told we were cleared into the country!

Called weather again. Port Hardy, on the Northern tip of Vancouver Island, was now 500/5. With a 517ft AGL ILS DH, they were presumably close to minimums. No improvement in the panhandle, but the interior airports had opened up to severe clear.

Filed IFR to Port Hardy with a backtrack to Campbell River (which was CAVOK) as an alternate.

If Port Hardy closed up, I would have considered flying over the coastal range (which were severe clear) to an interior airport. I really hate to backtrack! Exactly how I'd negotiate a direct clearance with no radar and no navaid through uncontrolled airspace was an interesting question. In the US I'd just cancel IFR, but in Canada, I couldn't legally fly on top, which would have been required for a while... I was sure I could dream up something acceptable!

About 50nm from Port Hardy the fog layer came into sight. It stretched as far as we could see out over the ocean and tucked itself into every little inlet along the coast.

The overcast had lifted to 800ft at Port Hardy by the time we arrived, so we shot the VOR/DME 25 and landed without difficulty. We filled up with >$3/gal 100LL, grabbed our packed lunches and headed for the on-site FSS.

The panhandle weather was improving: Prince Rupert BC had opened up, but had a fog bank obscuring the approach end of one runway. Just to the North, in the US, Ketchikan was now 3SCT 12BKN. Not great for the ILS/DME, which has 1000/3 mins, but clearly improving. From Port Hardy we had the range to put interior airports as alternates, so I filed to Ketchikan, ADCUS, with an alternate several hours inland at Prince George. In reality, if Ketchikan didn't clear up, I expected to be able to get into Prince Rupert (which had a real 200/ 1/2ILS), on the coast, or into Terrace (which has a LOC/DME and an interesting NDB/DME!), or Smithers, both of which are far enough inland that the sea fog shouldn't be a problem.

The leg from Port Hardy to Ketchikan requires some faith in the machinery. Forced landings are uninviting! The best one could do much of the time would be to ditch beside the shore, or by a passing cruise ship.

Prince Rupert was as advertised. When we passed by we could see 90% ofthe runway. The remaining 10% vanished into a fog bank. However Ketchikan had behaved itself and was 50BKN/50, so we pressed on and landed.

The town of Ketchikan stretches along one side of a narrow shipping channel, with steeply rising terrain on each side. The airport runway is carved into the side of the hills on the opposite side of the channel. The approach plate remark: "Do not permit full scale deflection" looked to be very good advice!

At Ketchikan, you are mandated to get advisories from the FSS, who act as aquasi-tower. We were the only land plane flying in, but there were a gaggle of sea-planes flying around the harbor.

We squeezed a into tight spot between a Citation and a Baron on the crowded ramp and shut down. The custom's lady found us immediately and cleared us back into the US. Fortunately she had no interest in our baggage. We had 230 pounds of gear in the back of the airplane to unpack onto the ramp. She did want $25 though.

Next decision: where to spend the night? The next day was supposed to be a repeat of the day: heavy fog in the morning with various layers above. Clear weather was expected in the interior, but deteriorating weather along the coast towards Anchorage. It looked like our best bet was going to be an IFR departure, VFR or IFR over Chilkoot or White pass towards Whitehorse, and then along the Alcan. This ruled out my first choices, Skagway and Haines. We could get in OK, but IFR departure looked to be out of the question- too much close-in terrain for my taste.

So we headed to Gustavus, which is East of Skagway/Haines with the airport on the water. It's the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. VFR looked the best bet. Ceilings were 5000 lowering to 3000 as we went North. At 4500 we could fly almost direct, making tiny doglegs to avoid the biggest peaks on the various islands.

Scenery was spectacular! As we approached Gustavus, the weather deteriorated slightly. We ended up landing in light rain.

We called for a taxi, but in the end the B&B owner showed up, because the one taxi was off on a run! He dropped us at the one restaurant and took our stuff to his cabin/guest house. Had dinner, walked out of the restaurant and saw my first Alaskan bear rummaging in the compost heap! The cooks came out, armed with brooms, and shooed it away.

We then walked the four or five miles to the guest house and settled for the night.

Day 3: Gustavus- Fairbanks 5:05

Got up at 7:00 and looking out the window, it was obviously pretty foggy, with the tops of the trees disappearing in the mist. I had a long talk with Juneau FSS. Crossing the mountains IFR over to Whitehorse and good VFR looked thebest bet. My only real concern was icing. The forecast was for occasional light rime, but I don't put much stock in them, either way!

The MEA was 10000, the freezing level 7000. It seemed to me that with the weather apparently stacked up against the mountains, and stable, 10-12K should put me on top, but if I was wrong, I'd like to have an open airport close by to duck into. So I decided to launch when either Gustavus or Juneau went above minimums. Filed SSR (Sister's Island) V428 YXY (Whitehorse YT) V444 ORT (Northway AK), alternate FAI at 12000.

Launched at 10:15 into a 300 foot overcast which topped out at 1500 feet, with multiple layers above. Hit SSR exactly at the minimum crossing altitude, 8600, and debated asking for a turn, but was climbing well, so continued. Popped out on top at 10300, no ice.

ANC center gave me a new frequency and told me to check in at Haines NDB, if unable, call Juneau FSS. I was unable of course!

By this time, it was clear the tops were dead flat, and that I could safely cut the corner, angling away from the mountains, rather than flying directly away towards Whitehorse. Via Juneau radio I negotiated "Haines, Amber 15, Burwash, FPR at 12000". This route was interesting, being an NDB airway (I'm grateful for GPS!), and for the entire Canadian segment was in uncontrolled airspace!

Do it yourself IFR separation, with position reporting on 126.7. Never heard a word from anyone after my initial report to Whitehorse FSS, but dutifully sent some more position reports into the ether.

About forty five minutes out from Northway, I decided to give Anchorage Center a call, so they wouldn't be too surprised when I showed up in controlled airspace after a couple of hours of incommunicado. They asked for an estimate for my entry point and cleared me onward to Fairbanks. With the shortcut and the good weather, I now had ample reserves for a non-stop.

There were great views of the mountains at this point. Mount Logan at over 19000 feet was exceptionally photogenic!

Northway to Delta Junction was brutally turbulent- continuous moderate turbulence was what I termed it when I asked for a block 8-9000 from center. The rest of the days' flights had been smooth, as was the remaining leg into Fairbanks.

Fairbanks was interesting. As I came in there were three of us on parallel finals: myself to the short runway, an air carrier to the long one and a floatplane to the pond in between!

I spent five days in Fairbanks attending my conference. I ended up a little short on sleep because the nights were clear and I drove out of town at 1:00AM three nights in a row to view the Aurora!

We spent Saturday and Sunday in Denali National Park. We debated flying down to the Mt McKinley airstrip, but extending the car for two more days was almost free and I had visioned of being weathered in surrounded by close in mountains. We took the "wildlife" bus the first day and saw grizzlies, caribou, moose, golden eagles and arctic foxes. We then took the "camper" bus back into the park and camped overnight.

9/1 Fairbanks-Homer 2.7hr

Back to flying... On our return to Fairbanks, we decided to head for Homer, out on the Kenai peninsula, over the Alaska range, past Anchorage. Weather on the Anchorage side of the mountains was excellent. In Fairbanks it was 45BKN 80OVC with rain showers in the vicinity. There was a low pressure over the Brooks range, to the North. We departed VFR. The bases looked quite uniform, and flying towards better weather following the highway through the park, would be straightforward if we were not blocked by a local shower. On Alaska standards, there were lots of airports to bail out.

We GPS'ed our way to Healy, at the entrance to the "tunnel". However, I've clearly done too good a job teaching my wife the evils of scud-running, so I was persuaded to try going over "on top". If we couldn't, we could then go back to plan A. We worked our way up through the holes and finally got clear at 12500 and were rewarded by an outstanding view of the top 8000 feet or so of Mt McKinley poking up through the clouds off our right wing.

Once over the Alaska range, the clouds faded away and we flew in clear skies the rest of the way to Homer.

9/2 Homer-Seldovia-Homer 1.0hr:

VFR day trip to the gorgeous little fishing village Seldovia, on the tip of the Kenai peninsula. Visited with AVSIG's Bill Butler and his charming wife Gina, who own a hotel overlooking the harbor. After chiding Bill for not reading his email, we had all had lunch together and swapped tall tales!

9/3 Homer-Seward-McCarthy 3.0hr:

VFR over the glaciers and up the coast to Seward where we went on a boat tour of Resurrection bay. We were again rewarded with lots of interesting wildlife- sea otters, seals, sea-lions and bald eagles.

From there we headed on to McCarthy, recommended by Bill Butler. He warned me that when he had last visited it, the first half of the dirt/gravel runway had 3" rocks on it, but that if you landed long it was OK for his Arrow, and presumably also for my 182. We decided we'd check it out for ourselves and fly back to Cordova if we didn't like it.

I set up for a low level inspection run and flew with half flaps a few feet above the right edge of the runway. The whole runway looked just fine with nothing but a smooth layer of pea-sized gravel, in fact it it looked a whole lot better than Seldovia's runway and was longer to boot. I pulled up, flew around the pattern and made a really pleasing textbook-demo soft-field landing. We taxied around looking for tiedown rings and finally found some. Apparently the winds prevail from all over as every airplane (all three of them) faced a different direction! We then hiked into town looking for a phone to arrange for accomodations. If that failed, we'd camp. "Town" has a year round population of twelve, but sports a little hotel, a B&B and a pizza parlour in summer. We ordered a pizza, which appears to be the Alaskan State Food, and called around. As it was by now 8:30PM, and tourists are in short supply at the end of the season, we managed to negotiate a good deal at the relatively lux Kennecott Hotel, five miles up the hill towards the glaciers of the 16000ft+ Wrangell-St Elias mountains. We explained that we'd need a ride, since we had no car, to which the retort was "Of course you don't have a car!". It turns out you don't *have* to fly in, but, the other way, four and a half hours of potholes from the Richardson highway leaves you on the other side of the Copper River from McCarthy. From there you cross the river by pulling yourself across in a gondola! There were vehicles in town, they'd got there by driving across the ice in mid-winter.

We met another couple at the hotel and with them hired a mountain guide from the local guide service to take us out on the glaciers, show us the sights and teach us "crampons and ice axes 101". Lily had blue eyed, red-hair, about 2% body fat and perpetually bubbled with enthusiasm. She grew up in Berkeley, had been guiding for ten years, and living in McCarthy for five years and was in the process of setting up a satellite guide service over on the other side of the mountains. We learned about moulins. (OK, what are they?)

If McCarthy sounds to be about as far out in the Wilderness as you can get it isn't. Fred Potts' Spruce Creek cabin shows up on the Park maps about twenty miles away, beyond the back of beyond. :-) We were short of time so I didn't go fly and look for it...

9/4 McCarthy-Yakutat-Sitka 3.2hr

Clear and a million again, we're having great fortune with the weather! Crossed over the coastal range, flying over some *huge* glaciers (the Malaspina is the largest in the N. Hemisphere), dropped down to the coast, and flew South to Yakutat. Finally get some cheap gas in Alaska, a mere 2.05/gal self-service. Ketchikan was $2.78, Port Hardy in Canada even higher. Filled up and flew on to Sitka. This section of the Alaskan Coast has a beach, which in the log-free sections looks almost landable as opposed to merely survivable. This invited a George Braly style low level run with the CD player blasting. So we complied for a while, passing a yellow Super Cub enroute.

Passing Mt. Fairweather and Glacier Bay National Park, approaching Icy Strait, some low level stratus started building below us. A check of the Sitka weather told us that it would be an easy IFR, difficult VFR. We raised Anchorage Center and got a clearance for the LDA-DME 11 approach into Sitka. Just as I roll onto the LDA course the GPS beeps that it's lost position. First time it's done that in at least fifty hours. It's only receiving one satellite out of eight! I resign myself to tracking the LDA by the old fashioned cut and try method. Then it cuts back in with 6/8 and then loses position again! Time to stop messing with the GPS and concentrate on nailing the approach. We break out below the clouds and circle to 29. At Sitka we are actually met by a lineman and flagged into a parking spot- a first in Alaska! Not only does the lineman offer us fuel, but whips out his cellular phone, books us a room in town (with 10% discount) and drives us to it!

9/6 Sitka-Ketchikan-Everett WA 6.7hrs

It's time to start heading home. The FBO sends a car into town to bring us out to the airport. Having hiked about thirty miles in the last week to and from airports, this is delicious service. We taxi over to Sitka FSS to get briefed. A Baron on the way home to TEB is first in line. Get a great briefing. Now I think about it, the FSS guy had to be a pilot, everyone in Alaska is... The only problem area seems to be in the vicinity of Vancouver Island where a trough will be coming onshore in the afternoon bringing rain and low ceilings. Beyond, in Washington State, it looks MVFR/IFR in their typical drizzle and stratus.

Hop down to Ketchikan VFR at 7500 with a SCT-BKN layer below us. Grit my teeth and fill the plane up at 2.78/gal. I've already filed to Bellingham via Annette Island V317 Vancouver direct, so I just get the updated weather- nothing new of interest. I depart VFR and work my way on top at 11000 before picking up my clearance over ANN VOR. This avoids a lengthy departure procedure through some icy looking cumulus clouds. The Sitka Baron departs Ketchikan behind me and wants 15000, but without radar coverage can't get through my 11000. However, he gets me in sight and negotiates a VFR climb through my altitude and is on his way. As we work our way South we request and receive 12,13,14 and finally 15K to stay on top. I hog the oxygen and Marlene seems unaffected without it. The winds are no worse than forecast, so I change my clearance to V317 Port Hardy V440 Victoria direct Paine to land at Everett, my real destination.

The critical section of the flight is across Vancouver Island from Port Hardy to Comox. The tops are rising ahead of me. I figure I can probably get to 17. It's warm (-8C at 15K), but I've burnt off about two hundred pounds of fuel. However the MEA on this 108nm section is 9600 and I elicit a PIREP that the temperature at 10K is -1C. Stable, but nasty. It's not clear that even 17K will top the weather and I don't want to be faced with entering the clouds fifty miles from the nearest airport. So I first get deviations to stay on top until I'm abeam Port Hardy, then get a clearance to lower to look for a space between layers. If the plan doesn't work I can bail into Port Hardy. With 15000 feet to play with I can handle a pretty good load of ice if it shows up.

The clouds are icy. I pick up about 1/4" descending to 13000, where indeed I'm between layers and ice-free. I elect to continue onward toward Comox. Over Campbell River, about 20 miles from Comox the cloud gap squeezes shut and we start to get some more ice. The droplets are quite large and ice the windshield as well as the struts and leading edge. Decision time. It's not clear that even the 7800 MEA from COMOX to Victoria will be below the freezing level. Here in the frontal zone there's even the nasty possibility of multiple freezing levels. Route change. I request and receive COMOX V317 Vancouver direct Paine at 5000. This puts me over the water between Vancouver Island and the mainland, with a 4000 ft MEA. The ice starts coming off around 7500 feet and we level off in light rain below the clouds. Another fifteen minutes and we are radar contact from Victoria terminal and are vectored over the San Juans to Paine field in Everett where we shoot the ILS.

On the trip up we had to fuel up in Canada, and therefore had to do Customs twice, in Canada and back into the US. The presence of suitable alternates in this direction allowed a non-stop, overflying Canada, even though the weather was in fact worse!

9/7 Everett-Scappoose-Livermore 5.6hrs.

Routine IFR to Scappoose, then VFR to Livermore. The forest fires in Oregon are still burning two weeks later...

Grand total: 39.7 hours, 3.6 hours IMC, 452 gallons, 6 bears, 3 moose, 5000+ salmon, 2 good times ...

Home page