27 July 1999

North to Alaska

June 30 - July 27, 1999
63.4 hours, 8500 miles (7300 miles as plotted plus 1200 miles extra flightseeing)

I have always said a long cross-country is nothing more that a series of short cross-countries. But there is something different about flying to Alaska. Maybe it's the remoteness. Over the mountains or tundra, frequently the closest airport is more than a hundred miles away. The weather varied from severe clear to 250 overcast 1/4 mile visibility in rain and fog. My brand new stormscope (it detects lightning) never saw a thunderstorm closer that 150 miles! Amazingly the only equipment that broke was the autopilot and a vacuum pump (more on that later).

Alaska in the summer is a land of endless daylight. For three weeks we never saw darkness. In Fairbanks, Alaska the sun set at midnight and rose at 4:00. I loved it! Here are some of the highlights. All the cities and airports are in Alaska unless otherwise noted.

June 30: The drive. Ironically the trip began with a hundred-mile drive to Muncie, IN. I had flown the plane there six days prior for a last-minute repair of the GPS (Global Position Satellite navigation radio) and installation of a new stormscope. We then flew to Davenport, IA to pick up Liz's parents, John and Phola.

July 2: Oh Canada. We had obtained CANPASS and GATE permits. They are the Canadian and US customs authorizations that allow one to clear customs with a phone call. When we landed at Lethbridge, Alberta, the customs officials told us they had not seen a CANPASS though they had heard of it. The officials were cordial but their questioning of us and searching of the plane seemed more thorough than the usual few questions and "Have a nice holiday." So it seemed that the CANPASS acquisition was a waste of time and money. More customs stories later.

July 6: Mountains, rules, smoke and bugs. After three days in Banff and Jasper National Parks it was time to fly north. The weather had been mostly cloudy. I was hoping for better weather so we could flightsee through the parks en route, but the morning skies were 3000 overcast. Oh well, maybe another trip. After waiting for three airliners and five small planes, we were finally cleared for takeoff. Calgary approach led us due west. Once clear of their airspace, I climbed through a break in the clouds only to discover that the mountains to the west were clear with 100 mile visibility!

I followed Canada's Route 1 as it entered the mountains. We were at 8500 feet, 2000 feet below the mountain peaks. We finally got to see Banff and Jasper in their full glory. Lake Louise and Moraine Lake really did have mountains and glaciers behind them! Clear skies revealed the entire 125-square-mile Columbia Icefield feeding multiple glaciers including Athabaska and Saskatchewan. After circling Mt. Edith Cavell and flying by the city of Jasper, we left the mountains.

Thirty miles south of Grand Prairie, Alberta, smoke from forest fires from the northwest reduced visibility from 100 to 15 miles. Many pilots were complaining but I was thankful that the weather was otherwise good. Fifteen miles is pretty good visibility by Ohio standards.

After landing at Grand Prairie, we flew to Fort Nelson, British Columbia. On the roll out, flight service asked me to call Edmonton Center. Air traffic control (ATC) doesn't ask one to call for social purposes. I had no idea what foul I had committed.

ATC, "We tracked you flying at 14,500 feet en route to Grand Prairie. Did you know that in Canada a clearance is required above 12,500 feet in controlled airspace?"

Oops! In the US, you can fly up to 18,000 feet VFR without a clearance from ATC. Not so in Canada. I admitted that ignorance was no excuse and begged forgiveness. They told me I was not the first US pilot and probably not the last to transgress.

We crossed the 60th parallel into the Yukon Territory landing at Watson Lake. We were greeted by every blackfly and mosquito in Canada. Luckily the bugs were never that bad the rest of the trip. The final leg to Whitehorse, Yukon completed the day's 1000 miles of aviation fun.

July 7: I tried to use our US GATE permit to clear customs at Northway, Alaska. I was on hold for 20 minutes so I gave up and cleared customs in the usual manner. The customs official was very pleasant, clearing us without any difficulty. It looked like the GATE permit was useless also.

The Fairbanks airport is unique. It has an 11,800 x 150 foot runway for large aircraft. Parallel to that runway is a 5,400 x 200 foot float pond for seaplanes. The next parallel runway over is split. The north 3200 feet is a paved general aviation runway. There is a short break, then the south 4000 feet is covered with snow in the winter for ski planes.

July 9: Top of the world. We flew from Fairbanks to Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. On this flight we crossed N 66 degrees 30 minutes, the arctic circle. We toured the oil facilities, saw the beginning of the Alaska Pipeline and waded in the Arctic Ocean. Next time I'll swim. (The water was a balmy 50 degrees.) The ice pack was about five miles offshore. The airplane reached its farthest point north at just above N 70 degrees 33 minutes (less than 1200 miles from the North Pole). We flew south to Fort Yukon, the only gravel runway this trip. It is just north of the arctic circle. Ironically it was hot, 76 degrees and sunny. We found a dusty road, unfriendly people, a cemetery and a calm river.

July 13: Denali and me. The weather had cleared at the end of our third day in Denali National Park. Our Bed and Breakfast was a short drive from the airport. Mount McKinley (aka Denali) at 20,320 feet, is the highest mountain in North America and it was clear. It was the third time in four days I would flight-see the mountain. Liz and her parents had had enough of the plane. (I just don't understand how anyone could get too much flying!) So I went alone to the airport, where I ran into Jess, a guy that flies tours of the mountain in Cessna 172s. I invited Jess and Ray (the van driver who rarely gets to fly) to go along. I told Jess I would takeoff and land but the rest of the flight was his. He knew the mountain and all the tour reporting points. Jess's eyes lit up eyeing the 210. He had little or no time in a high-performance plane like mine. Jess got the plane, Ray got the ride, I got the tour. A serendipitous win-win situation. He flew into glacial valleys that I would have avoided without more local experience. I was amazed how excited Jess was just to see the mountain. I suppose it would never get old.

July 20: Bears at Brooks Falls. We went on a round-trip to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park to see the grizzly bears fish for salmon. We flew our plane to King Salmon, bought floatplane tickets to Brooks Camp, and hiked a mile to Brooks Falls. Then we reversed the process to return to Wasilla.

The autopilot had failed completely so I got to practice hand flying. Headwinds and a bathroom stop (Kenai) stretched the 300-mile King Salmon leg to four hours. For you instrument pilots, it was 1200 overcast with good visibility. It was a challenge to fly the DME arc to a localizer back course after four hours of hand flying.

A stretch Cessna 207 floatplane with a turbine engine flew us thirty miles to Brooks Camp. The return trip was in an Otter on floats. I was amazed by the smoothness of the takeoffs and landings.

After a bear briefing by the ranger we hiked one mile to Brooks Falls. There were at least ten different bears of all ages and sizes. No less than three bears were fishing at any time. There was nothing but a wooden hand railing between the bears and us. This is the only place in the world you can get within ten feet of grizzly bears and be reasonably safe. No one on the trail or viewing platform has ever been attacked.

We returned home that evening in less than two hours from King Salmon. The only downside of this day was that we did not have as much time with the bears as we wanted. If you make this a day trip like we did, be sure you leave as early as possible. If you are in Alaska with an airplane this is a must-do.

July 21: A day in the clouds. Flying involves risk management. I try to minimize the risk by choosing the conditions in which I will fly. The greatest risk we took this trip was the flights from Wasilla to Yakutat then to Gustavus near Juneau. Most of the time we were over near-freezing ocean, next to mountainous terrain with very low clouds and visibility. If the engine had suddenly quit, probability of surviving would have been near zero. Also Yakutat was the most remote airport on the trip. The closest airport was 100 miles into a headwind. On arrival it was 250 overcast, 1/4 mile visibility. Fortunately, Yakutat had an ILS approach.

Another problem was icing. Above 10,000 feet it was below freezing. The MEA (minimum en route altitude) was 10,000 feet to Yakutat and 15,000 feet to Gustavus. The wings picked up 1/4-inch ice on the first flight and 1/2-inch ice on the second flight. The right vacuum pump had failed before the King Salmon trip, and I had not had an opportunity to get it repaired. The left vacuum pump was enough to run the gyros, but the right pump was required to run the ice boots. The ice was more problematic on the second flight. Fortunately, we broke out of the clouds next to Mount Fairweather (how ironic) with an undercast at 12,000. We carried our ice for another 30 minutes until we descended below 10,000 feet during the approach.

We had originally planned to land at Juneau, sightsee for a few hours and then fly 30 miles to Gustavus. Juneau sits in a hole and has 2000 foot minimums. (The clouds must be at least 2000 feet above the ground to land.) No traffic had been in or out of Juneau for at least two days. Our only choice was Gustavus. Anchorage Center asked what approach we wanted. My approach book showed only two approaches into Gustavus. (I had had current approaches mailed to Wasilla.) I asked for the GPS alpha approach because it had lower minimums (800 feet). The weather was already that low and probably getting lower. Center said they could not authorize the GPS approach nor explain why. That left only the VOR DME approach. (Why did they ask?) For you instrument pilots, the VOR is twenty miles from the airport. The odds of finding the airport in poor visibility with the VOR was very small. Using the GPS as a "back up" was handy. At 850 feet two miles from the airport we could see the coastline. Just beyond the beach there was a cloud beneath us. I followed the GPS, oh I mean the VOR, to the airport. In a break in the cloud I saw the "28" at the end of the runway. I circled the airport and descended to an uneventful landing. July 23: Goodbye to Canada and Alaska. Our last day in Alaska began with clear weather. We flew into Glacier Bay following the route of our boat cruise the day prior. The plane offered fantastic vistas of the huge tidewater glaciers. Grand Pacific Glacier is two miles wide and 250 feet tall at the beginning of Glacier Bay. It is five miles wide higher on the mountain. That view could only be seen from the airplane.

We slipped under a 2500-foot overcast to land at Juneau. Departing Juneau we flew by Mendenhall Glacier, the town, then among the many small islands of the inside passage. Fifty miles later I climbed above the clouds and activated an IFR plan to Ketchican.

We were now 600 miles from Auburn, Washington (near Seattle). The tailwind was not strong enough to comfortably fly nonstop (fuel and bladder wise). We would have to land at Port Hardy, British Columbia on the northern end of Vancouver Island. I thought I would give CANPASS another try.

Over the ocean at 2700 feet, when I was intercepting the DME arc on the ILS at Port Hardy, I saw the airport. The DME arc went toward lower clouds over the island. I canceled IFR and descended directly to the airport. While taxiing I asked flight service for the location of customs.

"Customs? We don't have customs here. The only way to clear customs is with CANPASS. Just call them from the terminal."

Go figure. They have just vaguely heard of CANPASS at Lethbridge, and it's the only act in town at Port Hardy. Ok, inspired, I would give GATE another try. There is no customs office at Auburn, WA but it was an approved GATE airport.

We were in or above the clouds until we crossed the US border. Suddenly it was clear. The Canadian Rockies, Cascades, Olympic mountains, Islands of the San Juan Strait, Victoria and Seattle were on display. A hundred miles ahead of us, Mount Rainier's 14,100 feet were lit by the low sun in the west.

Over the San Juan Islands Seattle approach asked me at least twice what my destination was. I told them Auburn, WA, Sierra 50 (S50, the airport code). Our direct flight path took us over Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac). I knew that was not going to happen. Eventually Seattle approach vectored us to the east. Once clear of Sea-Tac, he said, "The airport is at 12:00, report it in sight and cancel IFR on this frequency."

I replied, "I have an airport but it's the wrong one." "What's your destination?" "Auburn, S50. I'm abeam Crest. Auburn is six miles west. Let me turn 90 degrees right and find it, then I'll cancel IFR."

Crest has nearly the same runway length and orientation as Auburn. It might fool a pilot but the controller knew exactly where I was, but apparently not where I was going! I would never land at the wrong airport... OK no one is perfect! (July 11, 1987)

There was a short pause. I got my turn, found the airport and canceled IFR. We tied down next to the customs parking spot. We waited the required fifteen minutes. When no one came to inspect the plane, we were free to go. GATE worked like a charm. Go figure.

July 26-27: Rainer and St Helens revisited then the trip home. This morning was clear so Liz's Uncle Ernie (Grayson's dad) and I went flight-seeing for an hour and a half around Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens. Liz, John and Phola declined the flight-seeing. They weren't looking forward to a long flight today. We planned to fly 1000 miles to Mitchell, SD or maybe 1150 miles to Omaha, NE.

By 9:00 we were airborne eastbound from Auburn. It was severe clear with a ground speed of 200-210 knots all day. During lunch at Pioneer Pie (highly recommended), the mechanics at Helana, Montana did a long-overdue oil change and replaced the right vacuum pump. We had planned to land near Rapid City, SD. About an hour into the flight, I convinced everyone that we could fly less than three hours this flight to Pierre, SD and then another 2.5 hours to Davenport, IA. The flights from Auburn to Davenport totaled eight hours, 1480 miles, the most miles ever covered in one day! (Not including the flightsee around the mountains.) Who knew the tailwind would be so good? We landed at Davenport at 11pm. We lost two hours in time changes. The next day Liz and I had an uneventful 1.8 hour flight home. Liz claims that when she flies there is always a headwind, or at least a tailwind less than forecasted. For the record, every flight from King Salmon, Alaska all the way to Ohio had significant tailwinds!

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