Alaska!

In April of this year, I placed a deposit on a well-used A-1B Husky. The “problem” was that the aircraft was in Aniak, AK which is 2408 nautical miles from my doorstep (in a straight line). I say problem, but I have been accused of selecting this one because of, and not in spite of this fact. Those of you that know me might agree.

In my typical fashion, I began to work out the logistics of this trip WAY to late. After my half-assed attempts to sort out Customs and Immigration, route options, timelines, required equipment, etc, it was time to go. Last minute airline tickets were purchased with a few mouse clicks whilst I lied to my boss on the phone “Shouldn’t take long, I’ll be back in a few days”. I hope he didn’t believe that. Better to ask for forgiveness and blame weather delays and acts of god than risk not being given permission to go. So once it looks like it might actually happen, better tell the wife. Sure enough, she wants to go, but should I subject another person to the risks and rewards involved? I don’t have a lot of tailwheel time (a half truth), have never flown a Husky, never been to AK or Canada, etc, etc, etc. All I could do was give her the facts and try to scare her away with horror stories and tales of mechanical failures, thunderstorms, ground loops, rabid moose (meece?) and pilot error. None of my warnings were heeded, and she was going.

Despite the best efforts of Delta Airlines to prevent it, we eventually did arrive in Anchorage, AK in the evening of the 8th of June, only 24 hours late. Our base of operations in Anchorage would be the Ace Hangars at Merrill Field. General aviation is alive and well here, and of vital importance to daily life. I was blown away by the Lake Hood airport and seaplane base, with hundreds of bush planes blasting off for adventures in the back country. One thing that’s very hard to get used to is the complete lack of darkness, as the sun never sets.

Early the next morning, it was back to the airport to fly out to Aniak (PANK). My wife Ami would stay in Anchorage while I retrieve the Husky from it’s backcountry home. That would allow me to get a few landing and some experience before taking a passenger. I arrived at Aniak  without hassle and met up with the Huskies owner, Dan, who flies for the same airline I arrived on. After a brief inspection, I was pleasantly surprised at the condition of N711HY, especially considering it’s been in the bush for it’s entire 6,300 hour life. The owner purchased this aircraft new in 1999, and has been using it for every mission imaginable. Most hours were flying for Fish & Game surveys, but it’s been used as a commuter plane between villages, transport for hunters, supply ship, and most recently used for predator control. It’s been outfitted with 31 and 35″ Bushwheels, floats, skis, and was even a testbed for the Capstone program. The Husky is a heavy duty airplane, and I must say this one has held up very well. I’ve had several high time aircraft. My Cessna 150 had 14,000+ hours, and my DA-20 had 7,100 when I sold it, so I’m qualified to say, this is a well built airplane.

Prior to my arrival, I had talked Dan into taking me on a little checkout flight before I head back to Anchorage, so we jumped in and off we went. Pushing the throttle forward for takeoff, I was shocked to be off the ground and climbing before I got to full power. I’ve had longer takeoff runs in a helicopter. Having done all my flying out of airports in the 5,000-9000’MSL range, this was something new. This was going to be fun. After playing around for a bit, we headed to nearby Chuathbaluk for a touch & go on the gravel strip there. I was just as surprised as Dan was when we touched down in a near perfect 3 point landing and rolled to a stop in what seemed like about 12 inches. Yes, I’m going to like this airplane. 5 or so miles back to Aniak, and my first landing on a paved strip put my ego back in check. I won’t bore you with the details on that one.

We tied down the Husky and hopped on the ATV for a quick tour of Aniak on the way to Dans place to complete the necessary paperwork. I’d never been to a remote village like this, and they’re quite strange to an outsider. Not being connected by roads, the only way in or out is by aircraft. The Barge runs down the Kuskokwim River for a few months out of the year to deliver what can’t be stuffed into an airplane. I got a few snapshots here:

Running out of excuses, it was time to blast off. As I taxied out with Dan watching, the weather wasn’t getting any better. Scattered clouds 2000′ over Aniak would turn to a broken layer, and stay at that height while the ground levels climbed to the East. The most direct route as straight East, but the Merrill Pass weather cameras made it obvious that an alternate route was in order. Dan suggested I follow the Kuskokwim river upstream to Mcgrath (16Z). There was fuel at Mcgrath, and an FAA flight service station where I could check the weather and make a call on the route.

Headed along the wide and slow river eastbound from PANI, light rain and smooth air provided a relaxing cruise 500′ over the river. It’s impossible to describe, but the enormous expanses of wilderness passing by were staggering. The remoteness was interrupted only every 20-30 minutes by a hunters shack or small boat along the river bank. Small airstrips and villages on the sectional map tracked my progress. I inspected the runway conditions at each, so I’d know if they were viable alternates, should Mcgrath be socked in. Passing Crooked Creek, Red Devil, Sleetmule…Who names these places? The weather wasn’t getting any worse, and I was feeling optimistic about making Anchorage.

 

Upon reaching Mcgrath, I fueled up (Avgas here is $10 a gallon, and worth every penny) and walked a few blocks to the  FAA Flight service station for a weather briefing. Alaska has the hugely helpful benefit of a state-wide weather camera system. There are hundreds of cams throughout the state, in strategic locations, each location facing in several directions. I’ve linked all the airport names on this page to the appropriate camera, so click on them to check it out. All this to say…..the weather was shitty. The original plan of heading through Ptarmigan Pass didn’t look promising, according to the Rohn and Puntila Lake cameras. Further south, Merrill Pass was socked in. VFR flight not recommended, and the briefer even went so far as to say the passes were “closed”.  OK, maybe I stay the night here – Lets look at the forecast. Even worse, and probably for the next 3 days at least. Pondering my sad predicament over a ridiculously overpriced snickers bar, I came up with a plan. I’ll fly southwest to Tin Creek and have a look into the mountain pass to see what I see. If it looks good, I’ll continue. If not, I’ll head back west and catch an airline flight to Anchorage and wait for better weather. Off I go…..

Ceilings and Visibility only got worse as I continued. I remained in radio contact with the FSS at Mcgrath, checking in every few minutes to make sure my way out was not closing. Several times I considered turning back, and if I’m honest I should have. Reaching Farewell (PAFW), the strip looked to be landable, but wet. There’s no village here that I saw, and it appears as if the bears have built this strip in order to attract juicy fat pilots like myself. A booby trap. I’ll keep going. At the mouth of the pass, it appeared as if I was through the worst. Ceilings had increased to about 500’AGL (don’t ask what they were at the worst) and the rain was lighter. Even some sun was peaking through in places.

 

8KA-a

Passing Tatitna, it looked bad but not getting worse. This little strip is REALLY rough and wet, and I didn’t consider it an option for waiting out the weather. With 31″ tires and perfect weather, I could have fun here. The picture at right was taken on a good weather day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continuing on, the light rain continued as I followed the river further into the pass. Following the advice of Dan, I skipped rainy pass, as it isn’t the lowest option and has fooled better pilots than myself.  Another 20 miles south I found Ptarmigan pass, a narrow and deep cut 2 miles long to the other side. A course reversal to the North brought higher ceilings and a relief in the form of improved visibility. Clearly the moisture was coming from the West, and I was through the worst. It was smooth sailing along the Skwentna River, then across fertile valleys to Merrill field. For better or worse, I made it through and was happy to be on the ground.

I realize these pictures are terrible, but that wasn’t a priority at the time:

Here’s the tracklog from PANI to 16Z:

Anchorage would be our base of operations for the next few days. The Husky needed a transponder to make the return flight home safer and more convenient. I had brought one with me from home, with all the necessary gear to have it installed. For the next 1.5 days, Northern lights avionics did the install. Ami and I would have to find some ground based entertainment, which there was no shortage of. Our new friend and fellow Husky pilot Pierre, who had provided lots of much needed information about the trip, always made time to show us the best restaurants. Pierre also provided invaluable advice on everything from route planning, site seeing, and mechanic referral. He introduced us to the local Husky pilots, very cool people. The trip wouldn’t have been the same without Pierre, and everyone else along the way who helped. Pilots know that the best part of the aviation experience is the great people you meet along the way.

By this time I had talked myself (with encouragement from my new friends) into having a cargo pod installed while we were in Anchorage. Pierre had offered to take us on a little aerial sightseeing trip, so I hassled the guys at the Avionics shop until the Transponder install was done. We departed Merrill Field to the NorthEast, flying along the Knik River. Pierre was parked on the bank somewhere in his Husky, and when he saw us fly over, he came up to meet us at the base over the amazing Knik Glacier. We followed Pierre through some of the most amazing scenery imaginable to a nameless little dirt strip at the edge of the glacier where he landed, joining another Husky on the ground. I made several approaches, and even a half-assed touch and go before giving up. Having only landed the Husky a total of 4 times, I just wasn’t ready for a short backcountry strip. It’s important to know one’s limitations I suppose.

A few snapshots of our flight:

The interactive tracklog:

Returning to Anchorage, we landed on the dirt strip at Hood Lake so that Seaplanes North could put the Airglas cargo pod on. This job was more involved than installing the transponder. While we waited we enjoyed the sights near anchorage again. We drove down Turnagain Arm to the wildlife rehabilitation center. There we saw the typical Alaska wildlife. The next day was spent prepping for the trip home and relaxing. After my usual harassing, the Husky was finished and ready to go around 5PM. After being in Alaska for 6 days, we had no excuse to stay any longer, though I wish we had.

Climbing out of Lake Hood, we turned North East, with Gulkana in mind as a fuel stop. Passing Palmer, we stayed low over the Matanuska River as it parallels the Glenn highway. Occasional light rain and smooth air seemed to be the norm. Passing the Matanuska Glacier on the right, we made a left passed Sheep Mountain through Tahneta Pass. Further East, the original plans to follow Glenn highway were abandoned to the allure of Tazlina Lake. Pastel blue meltwater made the lake and it’s rivers and streams seem unreal. It’s also surprising how remote these places can seem , even after a short flight.

Gulkana came into view soon enough, and we stopped for fuel and took a break there. Here’s some snapshots of the flight up to this point:

After calling the Canadians to warn them of my pending arrival, we blasted off again. Our destination for the night was Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Problem is, you can’t get there from here. Gotta head NE towards Northway for a bit to cross the Alaska range at a reasonable place. After takeoff, it was a long climb to about 7,500′. Up ahead, the clouds looked a little lower, and the rain became constant. As we rounded the North side of Mt Sanford, ceilings lowered and the rain turned to sleet. My plan was to turn south after passing Mt Sanford (which we never laid eyes one due to low vis). Once we were in the Nabesna valley, however, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. If I got to far south in the valley and the weather got any worse, there would be no way out. I decided on a safer but longer plan to hug the higher terrain on the north edge of the Wrangell mountains. This way, if things got worse, I knew I could turn north to lower terrain and be at Hwy 1 in a few miles where I could land and wait it out. This plan worked out well, and soon enough we were on the East side of the Wrangells with better visibility and much higher ceilings. Even the crappy weather through this section couldn’t completely distract me from the amazing scenery. I’m still blown away by the vastness of it. Again, not a lot of great photos, but here’s a few:

From here, it was just a matter of crossing the Canadian border and heading generally South East for a bit to find Hwy 1. The highway isn’t particularly large, but it really stands out because it’s the only evidence of civilization out here. For the duration of the flight, we stayed above the highway as it wound through a spectacular valley. We passed the enourmous 17,146′ Mount Lucania on our right, and the relatively diminutive Hard Luck Peak on our left. We then passed over Kluane Lake before turning East towards our destination for the night. Headwinds through this section were brutal, with our groundspeed rarely reaching triple digits. No matter, plenty of daylight left.



The few readers that recognize the town of Whitehorse probably first heard of it on September 11th, 2001 when a Korean Air 747 was diverted and escorted there after it’s pilots accidentally transmitted a hijacked transponder code on a day when we were a bit sensitive towards that stuff. That was far from my mind as we descended into the closest thing I’d seen to a sunset in over a week. We were finally far enough South that it might get dim enough to sleep. We did make a slight detour before turning final, to see Lake Leberge. This lake among thousands in Canada isn’t especially significant, but I had to see how it compared to my imaginations version that was developed when my dad would read Robert W. Service poems to the family on Christmas. I gotta say, it’s just as I imagined it might be.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.



615 miles is not bad progress, considering we left Anchorage in the early evening. Made Whitehorse some time around midnight. The GPS Tracklog:

After waking up in what had to be the most Canadian hotel in the world, we walked back across the street to load up and blast off. We headed Southeast from Whitehorse for a bit before departing Hwy 1 in favor of a more direct route. The weather was great, best we’d seen so far.  At little Atlin Lake, we departed Hwy #1 in favor of a more direct route to our fuel destination of Dease Lake. Further south, Black Mountain, Tarfu Lake, and the amazing ponds and forests in the valley marked our entry into British Columbia. Over these forests, one can’t help but think about the engine being passed TBO, and just how much money an overhaul is worth.



Our luck with the high ceilings and sunshine was left in the Yukon. Past the shores of Teslin Lake, the visibility dropped with the temp, and snow showers formed, but the air was smooth. The high tundra here was a stark contrast to the usual terrain, but just as scenic. In no time, we were making a steep approach into Dease Lake airport. Terrain here requires you to stay about 2500′ above the airport elevation until you’re overhead. No problem, that’s what slips are for and the Husky is good at them. A bit of tailwheel shimmy on the runway was chalked up to a rough surface, but I’d later find out that wasn’t the case. After a leisurely 253 miles, it’s time for fuel and a break.



 

With the weather turning into the typical afternoon conditions, we hit the road under a grey sky. Ami was fast asleep before we leveled off at cruise. We’d follow Hwy 37, then Hwy 16 to Smithers. British Columbia is gorgeous, with dense forests and an abundance of unspoiled wilderness. Half of the Grizzly bears in Canada live in BC, about 16,000. This is a testament to the remote unmolested nature of the area. The weather enroute was typical of BC. Light rain was fairly constant, with a few patches of moderate shower. The ceilings and vis were good though, and the flight was relaxing an fun. Our fuel stop in Smithers was home to the Hungry Hill Phantom Grizzly, it’s 1000+ pound mount on display in the terminal. The link tells his story. Out on the ramp, the Husky was surrounded by some unique aircraft.  A Sikorsky Air crane, Dehaviland Beaver, and an A-Star.



We beat the worst of the weather into Smithers, and sat in the terminal while the isolated T-storms around the airport unleashed their vengeance. Back home in the Southwest, I wouldn’t consider flying near a thunderstorm, even an isolated one. Here, they’re easier to avoid and less likely to overdevelop. It was here in Smithers that a thorough post flight inspection revealed the cause of my tailwheel shimmy. Somewhere over the Yukon, my tailwheel spring had fallen off and was now being used as a toothpick by a grizzly. No matter, I found a bungee cord amongst the enormous pile of crap I had stuffed in the cargo pod. After the gusts calmed, we climbed back in the Husky with a plan to overnight in Prince George.

Off we went, weaving through the heavier showers and completely avoiding the bigger T-storms. The airport I had picked as a weather alternate had a nasty storm cell overhead, but everything else was fairly clear. As the afternoon turned to evening, and the craggy peaks turned to rolling hills, the weather began clearing up. By the time we were approaching our destination of Saint George, the weather was so perfect that I didn’t want to stop. So we didn’t…a 30 degree left turn had the nose pointed somewhere called Quesnal. Arriving in the fading light, I was to distracted by the beauty of this place that I didn’t think to take a picture. Pity too, it would have been a good one. The big runway is flanked on either side by acres of landable grass. The terminal is picturesque, and contains a fantastic pilots lounge with wifi. There’s a flight planning room and of course free camping in the grass under our wing. This was our favorite overnight stop of the trip, and the only other person we saw during our time there was the Pizza delivery guy.



We made decent progress today despite the weather. From Whitehorse to Quesnal, we’d traveled 815 miles today. Not bad for a bush plane that only does about 120 mph at economy cruise.

After a wet but restful night in the tent, we were up and back in the cockpit after checking the weather. The weather system we had outran yesterday afternoon caught up with us during the night. Low vis and low ceilings we back. We found the safest altitude was below a broken cloud layer, and above a scattered layer (if the CAA is asking). There’s was more ice accumulation here than there was below, but the ceiling was uncomfortably low. We trudged on through the muck, and eventually it cleared up around Kamloops Lake. After another few miles (sorry, Kilometers), we descended into our last stop in Canada, Vernon. We didn’t need fuel yet, but we did need to stop to call US Customs to let them know we were coming. After speaking with a CBP agent, I changed my eAPIS plan to arrive in Oroville. After that was done, we BSed with the local EAA guys who were putting on an event that was equivlent to our Young Eagles program. Apparently one guy bet with another $5  that my plane had come down from Alaska. I guess it just has that “weathered” look. I took this as a compliment, and we saddled up and hit the road. We flew South along the shore of Lake Okanagon, then several smaller lakes. Just before crossing the border, we contacted flight service and descended into Oroville, which is only 3 miles inside the U.S.

A friendly CBP agent greeted us on the ramp and inspected the plane. We fueled up at the self serve and were off again. It was a fairly direct flight from here across the mountains to our next stop in Spokane, WA. Weather for this leg was good enough, and the miles ticked by. Soon enough, we were crossing the Columbia river, then descending into Felts Field in Spokane. After a much needed lunch at the excellent Skyway Diner, we fueled up and hit the road with an open ended plan for the night.

Further South, we followed the Snake River valley between Idaho and Oregon. We skirted the Sawtooth mountains and bypassed Boise, turning more Easterly. After some review of fuel prices and range, we picked Gooding, Idaho. Luckily this sleepy little airport had a nice pilots lounge and wifi. After calling around for a courtesy car and accommodations, we settled on Brigham City, Utah. The owner of the local FBO offered us his car for the night, and said he’d even deliver it planeside, despite us flying in late at night on a Sunday.

The flight to Brigham City was a nice change of scenery and seemed to go by fast enough. We had made a lot of progress today and were anxious to get back on the ground for some much needed rest. A few low clouds scattered the light from a setting sun and the scenery near the Utah border was fantastic.



I must have been more tired than I thought, because I bounced the landing a bit. We loaded up the car, found a Wendys, and headed to the Hotel. We had made an incredible 1058 miles today and felt like it.

To Early the next morning, we were back at it. Now that we were in the Southwestern U.S. flying all day would likely not be possible. If we got started early enough, we could make it home before the winds and thermals got nasty. From my experiences as a paraglider pilot, I loved flying in the Wasatch mountains. We passed by the Salt Lake City area, passed Sandy and the Point of The Mountain Flight Park, where I’ve spent lots of time ridge soaring under a paraglider, passed Provo and through the pass to the south.

From here, the flight was less memorable. Not because the scenery was any less spectacular, but because I’d done it a thousand times, and we were weary travelers. Even so, the Canyonlands and Moab area never fail to inspire awe. The air stayed calm enough until we passed Cortez, Co and began descending into the usual mid morning thermal release of Farmington. I let the family know our arrival was pending and my mom and brother greeted us as we taxied in. I expected to be exhausted and ready to take a few days hiatus from flying, but to be honest, I wanted to keep going. I  was sure I could make it to Argentina in a few weeks time……

In total, we had traveled 3553 miles in a weekend.

 

Some reflections on the trip:

  • Don’t get caught up in the airspeed game. There’s a lot to be said for low and slow. Throttle back. Relax, enjoy. You’re still going faster than the cars.
  • Pilots in the U.S. are lucky, maybe even spoiled, even if we don’t realize it. We must be very diligent and careful to not end up with restrictive airspace and user fees (Canada enjoys the same type of airspace, but user fees for ATC make GA less safe and less affordable)
  • There’s something to be said for itineraries and research, but winging it is more fun.

 

If I had it to do again (and I hope someday I do), I would:

  • Limit my forward progress every day. Maybe not less flying, but less effort spent “getting there”. Stop and smell the avgas.
  • Do slightly (very slightly) more preparation as far as desired destinations and overnight stops
  • Take less shit
  • Land at more gravel and grass strips
  • camp under the wing more
  • Eat better food
  • Most importantly, I was a bit overconfident. If I’m honest, on at least one or two of the legs I had no business being in the air in this aircraft, and with a passenger. Just because there was no near miss or incident this time, doesn’t mean it was a good idea.

 

 

1 Comment on Alaska!

  1. Dolcie says:

    Justin, this is such a fantastic account of your travels that I read it twice and am still checking out the links. Thank you so very much for sharing not only your flight excitement but also the views of the areas you flew over.

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