Diary of your editor's fabulous 1989 flying vacation trip to Alaska. A detailed account of the best flying vacation he's ever had. If you're thinking about flying to Alaska, take notes.
September 1, 1995
Monday, August 21st: SMX-BFI
After topping the tanks of
my trusty Cessna 310
and packing it with lots of charts, coats, luggage, cameras, and survival
gear, I take off with my brother-in-law Joel for a long-anticipated flying
vacation trip to Alaska. It's the first time for both of us, and something
I've dreamed about doing for 20 years. Equipped with AOPA's Alaska info
packet, Jeppesen's Canada/Alaska trip kit, and Don Downie's book Your
Alaskan Flight Plan, we're about to spend the next week and a half
checking out the land of the midnight sun and Exxon's most expensive blunder.
You bet I'm excited!
It's late in the season to visit Alaska. The best flying weather occurs in
June and July. But that's also the height of the Alaskan tourist season, and
accomodations are hard to come by without advance reservations. Our strategy
was to try to time our trip late enough that advance reservations wouldn't be
necessary, but early enough to avoid the really bad flying weather. It's a
roll of the dice, of course.
Today's leg is a routine 4+15 IFR flight from my home base of Santa Maria,
California [SMX], to Seattle's Boeing Field [BFI]. The west coast is
enshrouded in a thick stratus blanket, as it often is this time of year, so
there's not much scenery to look at.
But the flight isn't completely boring. Not long after reaching cruising
altitude, I notice the attitude indicator doing a funny little
dance, and soon it winds up settling about 10 degrees wing-low. The horizon
gradually strightens up, behaves itself for about an hour, and then the
anomaly repeats itself. Oh, great!
Touching down at BFI about 3 pm, I make a beeline for American Avionics'
instrument shop and throw myself upon the mercy of the shop supervisor,
begging him to check out my ailing horizon, and explaining that my
long-anticipated vacation trip to Alaska is in jeopardy. He agrees.
Twenty minutes later, my horizon is out of the airplane and disassembled on the
bench. "Contaminated bearings," the technician states, "needs an overhaul."
Looks at his watch. "We can probably do it for you now." I'm thrilled and
grateful. I'm even permitted to watch the entire surgical procedure, which is
was quite interesting. My instrument, complete with a fresh yellow tag, is
back in the airplane by about 6 pm. Incredible service!
We have dinner with a Seattle friend and sack out at his home, eagerly
anticipating our first sight of Alaska tomorrow.
Tuesday, August 22nd: BFI-KTN-SIT
Departed Seattle Boeing Field (BFI) about 10:30 am on an IFR flight plan
nonstop to Ketchikan, Alaska (KTN). Not even an especially long flight...
just 3:15. The 12,000' cruising altitude put us
skimming the tops of the undercast that extended from Seattle halfway up the
Canadian west coast and started to break up around Prince Rupert.
Astonishingly for this time of year, the north half of the flight was
The Canadian west coast is unbelievably desolate. I'm not sure I'd want to
fly the coastal route in a single-engine airplane. Not only isn't there any
place to make a forced landing for hundreds of miles at a stretch, but even
if you walked away unscathed it's hard to imagine who'd find you. The inland
Alcan Highway route with its numerous landing strips is by far the more
conservative choice for a single-engine flight. But we were flying a twin
and making the most of it, flying from Washington to Alaska without any need
to land in Canada and deal with customs.
Most of the flight was handled by Vancouver Center, and differed only a little
from a typical IFR flight in the U.S. Canadian ATC uses slightly different
terminology (e.g., "radar identified" instead of "radar contact"), and
emphasizes the "N" at the beginning of the aircraft tail number ("twin Cessna
NOVEMBER two six three eight x-ray"). The airways (V440, V317) are based on a
combination of VOR and NDB navaids. Otherwise, it could have been any 3-hour
IFR X-C. Although during the course of the three hours, I did not hear a
single other IFR GA aircraft; the only other IFRs were a succession of Alaska
Airlines 727s leaving contrails above me at FL350.
Arrived at Ketchikan International Airport just before 1 pm local (Alaskan)
time. What a glorious sight! The KTN runway extends right along the west
edge of the Tongass Narrows, while the city of Ketchikan is a two-block-wide
strip of civilization that extends right along the east edge of the narrows.
There is high terrain on both sides of the narrows. In the waterway
separating the runway and the town were two huge white luxury liners, dozens
of floatplanes of every description, and hundreds of boats of all sorts. The
constant flow of floatplanes in and out of the narrows was spellbinding.
Leaving 38X on the airport ramp, it was just a short walk to the ferry terminal
for the short ferry ride across the water to the town ($2 round-trip). We
took a fascinating 3-hour walking tour of Ketchikan. The most memorable
part for me was seeing the tens of thousands of salmon swimming upstream in
the Ketchikan river like a southern California freeway traffic jam. The
salmon fish hatchery is mind-boggling, and the king salmon are unbelievably
huge. Ketchikan is the salmon capital of the world.
At 5:30, we departed KTN for a one hour IFR flight to Sitka. Sitka had been
socked in all day and was quite invisible under the low undercast, so we shot
a LDA/DME approach and broke out about 1000' above the sea to the glorious
sight of the runway literally sitting in the middle of the ocean and
surrounded by water on all sides. A bridge connects the airport-island to the
city of Sitka. As we tied down at the FBO about 7 pm, the owner was about to
close up and drive home, so he offered to drive us over the bridge to our
hotel. We had a nice dinner and decided to make it a reasonably early night
in order to get up early to explore this most Russian of all American cities.
Only one minor mishap marred an otherwise perfect day of flying and
sightseeing: on climbout from KTN, my right vacuum pump failed. Since both
pumps are over 800 hours old (and the typical life of a pump is 500 hours), I
can hardly complain (the pumps are fully depreciated, that's for sure). But it
is something I'll have to take care of right away. Since my airplane requires
the larger-size 400-series vacuum pump (because of the deicing boots), the
only place I'm likely to find the needed pump is in Achorage, which is three
hours flying time from SIT. I'll make some phone calls in the morning and
figure out what to do.
Wednesday, August 23rd: SIT
Today was a non-flying day. It wasn't supposed to be, but that's the way
it turned out.
Woke up bright and early, and made a few phone calls from the hotel in Sitka
(Westmark Shee Atika, a lovely place). First call was to Wilbur's Flying
Service at Anchorage Merrill...no problem on the failed Airborne 400-series
vacuum pump, they have them in stock. Next call was to the Glacier Bay Lodge
at Gustavus (pronounced "gus-TAY-vus", not "GUS-ta-vus"!) to secure reservations for
two nights' lodging and a 9-hour boat tour of Glacier Bay tomorrow. Third
call was to FBO at Sitka asking that the airplane be fueled for a
late-afternoon departure to GST.
Spent all morning and early afternoon checking out Sitka on foot. Must've
walked seven miles. This is a fascinating town with an awful lot to see. The
Russian church and the fabulously-restored mansion of the Russian Bishop (took
16 years to restore, just fully opened to the public for the first time this
year). A wonderful National Historical Park with thickly-forested grounds
(Sitka spruce, mostly), several dozen huge Tlingit totem poles, and gorgeous
views of the city, harbor, and salmon runs. Three terrific museums. All
sorts of art galleries (one specializing in nothing but engraved seal tusks).
A little coffee house with the best espresso I've ever tasted (oh so
S-T-R-O-N-G but not at all bitter...remarkable). Breathtaking views every
direction you look. Sitka is really neat.
About 1:30 pm, phoned SIT FSS to get a weather briefing for the 30-minute
flight to Gustavus. Gustavus hasn't reported any weather all day. Hmmm.
PIREP 30 minutes ago by a PA28, unable to get into GST VFR. PIREP 90 minutes
ago, departing pilot reports 200-foot ceiling at GST. HMMMmmm... GST is an
uncontrolled airport with an NDB approach, 880' and 1-1/2 minimums for a
category B airplane like my 310.
So much for FSS. I phoned Glacier Bay Airways at GST. Some nice-sounding lady
answered the phone. I explained that I'm supposed to fly a twin Cessna into GST,
but can't get any current weather...are there any pilots around who could give
me some weather info? Lady explained that there is no certified weather
observer around so there is no "official" weather available, but looking out
the window she's guessing that its something like "5 SCT E8 BKN 14 OVC 2 L-F"!
I remarked that she sounds like she knows something about weather. She
allowed as how she used to be a certified weather observer for 10 years. I
asked her if she thinks the approach to GST could be made. She said she
guessed probably not.
I thought about filing anyway and taking a looksee, but that'd cost a couple of
hundred bucks in operating costs and I've still got only one vacuum pump. So I
think better of the whole thing and decide to stay over in Sitka another
Tomorrow we'll give GST another shot...if still below minimums, we'll just go
on to Anchorage, and hope to catch Glacier Bay on the way back. Gotta go with
the flow, I guess.
As a consolation prize, I did some more walking around
downtown Sitka, ate a large dinner of blackened prime rib (so spicy it nearly
turns my ears red) and mud pie, and hit the sack early: around 10:30 pm
(remember, it doesn't even get dark here until 9 this time of year). SIT
weather had lowered substantially with the coming of nightfall and it started
to rain heavily and steadily. I have little hope for getting into GST
Thursday, August 24th: SIT-GST
About 1:30 am I awoke with a massive bout of insomnia, due partly to the
second coming of the blackened prime rib. The rain was
still pelting down. A big cruise ship had bedded down for the night in the
channel outside my window, its lights diffused by the rain. I fired up my
laptop and did a little work. Now it was 2:30 am, the rain had tapered
off, the cruise ship lights were distinct and bright and twinkly in the
harbor. I went back to sleep.
When I awoke, it was 8:30 am, no sign of rain, ceiling about 2000' broken, and
one tantalizing spot of blue sky that was gone as soon as I spotted it, but
spoke of improving weather. A call to SIT flight service revealed that a GST
report had been received and it was quite good: 5 SCT E25 BKN 20.
Now if only I can get a reservation at Glacier Bay Lodge...I'd had to cancel
my reservations when I was weathered out last night, remember? Numerous
calls...the phone is always busy. An hour later, finally the call rings
through. Glacier Bay Lodge is almost full, but yes they can squeeze us in.
Another call to SIT FSS to file an IFR flight plan for the 38-minute flight.
After a double espresso and a pecan sticky roll at the gourmet coffee shop, I
catch a taxi to Sitka airport. Pay the tab for $220 worth of avgas...enough
to fly to GST and then 3 hours GST-ANC with IFR reserves...no fuel is
available at GST except in emergencies. Careful preflight...no water in the
fuel despite the airplane sitting in the rain for two days.
I call SIT FSS for clearance. They advise that Alaska Airlines' 727 is
departing IFR ahead of me, and a Baron is IFR inbound...possible 25-30 minute
delay. Alaska takes off. FSS calls: how soon can we be ready for departure?
"Instantly." FSS chats with Baron, convinces him to make the DME arc
transition to the LDA/DME approach, rather than the procedure turn. Then gives
me a clearance with a 2-minute void time. It takes all of those two minutes
to back-taxi to the end of the runway 29 (no parallel taxiway). I launch just
as the void time arrives. FSS hands me off to ANC Center. I thank SIT
profusely for managing to sandwich my departure between the 727 and the Baron,
then switch to center freq and thank the Baron for his cooperation.
Everybody's so nice here!
Bases 1500', tops 5300', overcast cirrus above. Not a lot of scenery cruising
at 8000' on top. Scarcely enough time to get levelled off and leaned up
before it's time to start studying the GST approach plate. Decide to try the
VOR/DME Bravo approach first (1080' minimums), then NDB Alpha as plan B (880'
The approach goes smoothly, we break out about 1400' and have the GST runway
easily in sight five miles out. Call to JNU FSS to cancel our IFR. We land
straight-in, grab the last remaining tiedown spot, and call a taxi for the
10-mile bumpy ride from the airport to Glacier Bay Lodge.
The Lodge is lovely (it should be at $130/night...no TVs or phones either). I
have a chance to wash my dirty clothes (finally) and walk around Bartlett Cove
and watch the sea birds and phone
on the one public phone that serves the whole lodge.
Time for dinner now, followed by a three-hour naturalist program put on in the
Lodge auditorium by the Park Service. Early to bed. Tomorrow I must arise
early and be on the boat at 7:00 am for a 9 1/2 hour cruise up the west arm
of Glacier Bay.
Friday, August 25th: GST
Providence works in mysterious ways. You'll recall that we planned to fly
into Gustavus Wednesday evening so we could take a boat tour of Glacier Bay on
Thursday, but that GST was below instrument minimums so we had to slip the
whole plan back 24 hours, right?
What a fantastic piece of good fortune that weather delay turned out to be!
Today turned out to be one of those incredibly rare days that the local
photographers who take the pictures for postcards of Glacier Bay wait three
years for! When I awoke at 5:30 am and looked outside, there was a tiny
break in the otherwise-overcast sky to the north, and the sun was shining
through the break and illuminating the 15,000'-high snow-covered Mt.
Fairweather like a beacon on the horizon. I dressed hastily (we were warned
to "bring lots of layers of clothing, hats, gloves, binoculars and cameras"),
ate a quick breakfast, assembled on the boat ("The Spirit of Adventure") at
6:45 am, and left the dock promptly at 7 am on the dot. By now the break in
the overcast had grown and I could see that the chances for some sunshine
up-bay was looking promising. Sunshine in Glacier Bay is nothing short of
extraordinary this time of year.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is the 5th largest of the national
parks, about the size of the state of Connecticut. Glacier Bay itself is 65
miles long and accessible only by boat, kayak, or floatplane. Since the most
interesting glaciers are at the deepest recesses of the bay, it takes a rather
fast boat to make it all the way up and back in a day. The Spirit of
Adventure is such a boat: a huge 120-foot-long three-deck-high catamaran
powered by dual 16-cylinder 2500-hp diesel engines, it cruises at nearly 25
knots, and completes the tour in 9 hours flat (including a half-dozen stops to
view glaciers and wildlife at close range and to drop off and pick up campers
and kayakers), departing at 7 am and returning at 4 pm.
I cannot begin to do justice to this boat tour of Glacier Bay. The blue-ice
tidewater glaciers were infinitely more impressive than the pictures and
videos convey, and the sounds of the ice cracking as the glaciers "calve"
off huge icebergs, and the feel of the icy wind as it blows across the
glacier before hitting your face are as much a part of the experience as the
sight of the glaciers. But there was so much more to see in Glacier Bay than
the blue-ice glaciers...
We saw one truly unique glacier composed of jet black ice! This glacier was
a so-called "galloping glacier" that advanced nearly a full mile in the last
year. Last summer, it was not even visible from the Glacier Bay... this year,
it had reached the bay and was calving incredible black icebergs into the
bay. Why black ice? Because the glacier advanced with such incredible
swiftness, it scoured black sand from the igneous rock over which it
travelled, and this black sand became so well mixed with the ice that the ice
took on a uniformly black appearance, almost like asphalt. This sight was
awesome even to the Glacier Bay regulars who live here... there has been
nothing like it for at least 20 years.
The wildlife that I saw in Glacier Bay was also fabulous and unique. South
Marble Island is a bird rookery and was covered with tufted puffins in full
mating colors (those fluorescent yellow and orange beaks that make them look
like the koala bears of bird-dom), cormorants, glaucous-wing gulls, oyster
crackers, and other rare birds seen only in this region. Further up the bay we
saw a herd of gigantic sea lions sunning themselves in the unexpected
sunshine...these critters weigh 2,000 pounds and are the size of a Toyota
pickup truck...and they bellow like lions. At the end of Johns Hopkins inlet
at the north end of the west branch of Glacier Bay, we saw no fewer than 3,000
harbor seals relaxing on the pack ice and soaking up the rays...these guys are
only about six feet long and 200 pounds, and so cute that I would have taken
one home if it wasn't illegal.
By the time we returned to the Glacier Bay Lodge, the sky had cleared all the
way to the south end of the bay. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this
weather will stick around until tomorrow so we can get some actual VFR-type
sightseeing weather for the flight to Anchorage...up until now, the flying part
of the trip has been all IFR...nice easy IFR, mind you, but let's face it: the
top of an undercast in Alaska looks pretty much the same as it does anywhere
If the weather is nice enough in the morning, we might try the 30-minute hop
to Skagway (a VFR-only strip nestled in a steep river valley and featuring a
colorful old gold-rush town) before continuing on to Anchorage. But if
"normal" weather returns, we'll just file IFR to Anchorage and miss the
scenery. Another exciting prospect: we will be arriving in Anchorage with no
reservations for either a hotel room or rental car. Wish us luck!
Saturday, August 26th: GST-SGY-ANC
Saturday morning dawned with a glorious cloudless sky at Glacier Bay and
visibility so good you could almost reach out and touch 15,000-foot Mt.
Fairweather 50 miles away. We eagerly anticipated a fabulous sightseeing
flight along the Alaskan gulf coast to Anchorage today, with glorious views of
Yakutat Bay, Prince William Sound, and the Anchorage area, landing at
Anchorage's G.A. airport, Merrill Field, and arranging to have the right
vacuum pump replaced on Monday morning. Because getting a last-minute
reservation in Anchorage is so difficult, I broke my rule about spontaneity
and made a reservation at the Anchorage Travelodge downtown. A perfect plan
for a perfect day.
The first surprise came on the 10-mile taxi ride from Glacier Bay Lodge to
Gustavus airport...about halfway to the airport, we drove into a
near-zero-zero fog bank! Not to worry...with glorious sunshine only a few
miles away, the fog at the airport can't last long, right? Anyway, if it
doesn't, I can always make an instrument takeoff...that's what twins are for,
A phone call to Juneau FSS yields the second surprise: "VFR not recommended
along the coastal route to Anchorage...low ceilings, rain, fog from Yakutat
westward...not expected to improve during the day." You've got to be
kidding! How about the inland route via Skagway, Burwash, Northway, Gulkana?
That's all good VFR up to about 100 nm from Anchorage, at which point the
weather goes to pot rapidly. Anchorage is forecasting 400 overcast in rain
and fog. OK, guess I'll take the inland route...beats watching the top of
the undercast for three hours. Maybe I'll stop at Skagway...it's supposed to
be a neat gold-rush town, and it has a runway that's only a couple of blocks
from the center of town. OK, we have a plan.
The fog is rapidly breaking up at Gustavus airport, so we depart VFR and fly
up the eastern arm of Glacier Bay (the one we didn't see by boat) at 1,500'.
Fantastic! Then we climb to 6,500' and cross over the terrain to Lynn Canal,
then follow the canal north past Haines to Skagway. The town is situated in a
steep, narrow blind canyon, with the runway literally right in the middle of
town. It feels really strange letting down into a narrow canyon with 6,500'
walls on both sides, but sort of exciting at the same time. I touch down at
SGY and spend a few hours exploring Skagway on foot. Bought a few gifts, ate a
light lunch, yacked with the locals, and located a phone to call FSS. It's
now 2 pm.
Juneau FSS indicates that the weather is about the same as indicated earlier,
except that Anchorage is down to 300 overcast in heavy rain with flood
warnings. Probably won't be able to get into Merrill Field, which is a
strictly VFR operation. We file for MRI anyway, with ANC (Anchorage Int'l) as
a first alternate and Homer as a second alternate (since ANC is forecast below
600-2). This will be a combined VFR/IFR flight plan...VFR from SGY to
Gulkana, then IFR into MRI/ANC. I've never tried this before, but it doesn't
faze the FSS specialist at all...they do it all the time here.
The VFR portion of the flight is breathtaking. I can see the snow-covered
Wrangell mountains (peaks at 15-19 thousand feet) from hundreds of miles away.
The route proceeds across a stark wilderness of lakes and mountains to
Northway, where it follows the AlCan highway into Anchorage. As I approach
Gulkana, I feel some light chop and see textbook standing lenticular
altocumulus over 16,000-foot Mt. Sanford. The turbulence quickly passes. At
Gulkana, I call Anchorage FSS through the Gulkana RCO, close our VFR flight
plan, file a PIREP on the standing lenticulars, then contact Anchorage Center
and pick up our IFR clearance into ANC.
50 miles past Gulkana, we fly into clouds. Shortly thereafter, it starts to
rain...hard. I start picking up some rime ice. I have the pitot heat, prop
heat, and windshield heat on, but don't want to use the boots...I'm down to
one vacuum pump, remember, and that's what inflates the boots. Center
descends us from 12 to 11, then from 11 to 10. The ice stops forming,
although it doesn't melt off yet. It's not enough to worry about. Center
hands us off to ANC approach, who descends us to 3 and queries us on our
destination. "We filed for Merrill, but I guess there's no way to get in
there in this weather, correct?" Affirmative. "OK, please amend our
destination to International, we have ATIS information November." Roger.
The ILS approach is right on the money, and we break out at 250' above the
touchdown zone in a driving rain (I feel us hydroplane when I touch the
brakes). We taxi to Van Dusen, shut down, and dash inside so as not to get
soaked. Nice hospitable airport, ANC: landing fee, $30/day parking fee,
$60/day if you want a hangar. Cheapest rental car is $60/day. I look at my
wristwatch: 7 pm. Omigosh! My non-guaranteed hotel reservation at the
Travelodge! A phone call confirms that the reservation became history at 6
pm. After some more calls, I obtain a room at the new Clarion hotel near the
airport... $180/night, which I manage to negotiate down to $140. Welcome to
Well, I'm about to go have dinner and a nice big glass of wine. Tomorrow is
Sunday...we'll take our $60/day rental car and explore some local stuff in the
Anchorage area. If the weather lifts to VFR (even marginal), I'll ferry the
airplane to Merrill so the vacuum pump can be replaced on Monday morning.
Sunday, August 27th: ANC-MRI
This morning in Anchorage provided a brief respite to the rain that has been
pelting and flooding the city for days on end. The weather was reported as 3
SCT 8 SCT 25 BKN 40 OVC, and since it could worsen at any moment, it seemed
like an opportune moment to ferry the aircraft from Anchorage Int'l to Merrill
Field (where an Airborne 442CW replacement right vacuum pump awaits
installation on Monday morning).
The VFR hop from ANC to MRI is hardly long enough to retract the landing gear.
As I pulled up to Wilbur's at MRI, owners Joe and Anna Wilbur were just
leaving for church, but Joe took the time to chat with me and assure me that
his son Steve would get me all fixed up first thing in the morning. Joe has
been operating out of MRI since the mid-fifties, and Wilbur's is a classic
family operation. Joe's an A&P and AI as well as a pilot, and all of his sons
are, too. I think he had four sons in the business, but one died last year in
an aviation accident. Anyway, real nice folks...salt of the earth types...the
sort of people you visit Alaska to meet.
Being at Merrill, we were only a few blocks from ANC Center at Elmendorf AFB,
so I phoned the number that the controller had given me over the air yesterday
and asked if we could drop by for a visit. The fellow at the other end
explained that they really prefer not to have visitors on weekends because
they operate the center with just a skeleton staff, but if I called Monday
morning they'd be most pleased to extend their hospitality. Since the Wilbur
brothers will be working on 38X Monday morning, that's most likely what
Drove around downtown ANC awhile...it's much smaller than I thought, but
the architecture is very modern and very innovative. Almost everything has
been built since the city center was decimated in 1964 by a monster 9+
earthquake. I stopped by the tourist-trappy "Alaska Experience Theater" and
saw a half-hour cinerama-type film on Alaska's wildernesses and a
fifteen-minute film on the '64 quake, and spent some time in an exhibit of
post-quake photographs. Checked out some art galleries and antique shops
but managed to escape without buying anything.
Then the highpoint of the day: a drive around the Lake Hood floatplane base
and a visit to the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum located adjacent to Lake
Hood. The museum is an absolute must-see for any aviation history buff. They
have a bunch of rare aircraft in various stages of restoration, and a
one-of-a-kind Stinson Trimotor airliner that is in such pristine condition
it's unbelievable...I think it's criminal that they don't have the funds to be
able to hangar this airplane.
The floatplane operation is far and away the world's busiest...it even has a
tower and an ATIS! It has two water runways (E-W and N-S) and a short gravel
strip for wheel-equipped aircraft. Thousands upon thousands of floatplanes
are based at Lake Hood...I have no idea how many, but a drive around the
perimeter of the lake is an absolute mind-blowing experience. Everything from
Super Cubs to C185s to Beavers and Otters to a couple of Twin Beech 18's are
float equipped and operate in and out of the base at a pace that is
remarkable. I think I could watch the goings on for days without getting
bored. My desire to add a floatplane rating to my pilot certificate has been
doubled and redoubled after today.
Well, now there are some mundane chores like finding a laundromat and doing
the wash and eating dinner and catching up on CIS. I'll probably try to
visit ANC ARTCC in the morning, then (if the Wilburs get 38X repumped) try to
fly somewhere where there's decent weather. Maybe north to Fairbanks, maybe
south to Homer and Kodiak Island...it all depends on what kind of weather
tomorrow brings. According to the crude weather map in today's Anchorage
Daily News, there's another front coming this way from Nome. The weather is
never dull in Alaska this time of year. At least hopefully I'll be able to
face it with two vacuum pumps.
Monday, August 28th: MRI-FAI
This morning was low overcast and rainy in Anchorage. I checked out of our
hotel and drove to Merrill Field. Checked in with Wilbur's...they had just
towed 38X into their hangar and were about to start work on changing out the
failed right vacuum pump. Stopped by ANC FSS for an in-person outlook
briefing: a cold front is moving through ANC today, all passes leading out of
ANC are expected to be IFR or very marginal VFR, best weather is to the north
in Fairbanks. Looks like we'll probably go to Fairbanks today, probably IFR,
probably risking some icing (freezing level 6000', MEA 10000'), but flying to better
I call the watch supervisor at ANC ARTCC and arrange a tour of the Center.
It's only a few minutes drive from Merrill, right at the entrance gate of
Elmendorf AFB. I've spent a fair amount of time in various ARTCCs, but
Anchorage Center is a little unusual. It covers a HUGE amount of airspace
with very few sectors...each Alaskan sector is the size of, say, all of Boston
or New York Center's jurisdiction. The equipment is also rather
unusual...Anchorage Center uses EARTS...essentially the same ARTS radar data
processing equipment normally used in a TRACON but adapted for enroute use.
(The same sort of setup is used by Honolulu Center and San Juan Center.)
Another interesting twist is that several of Anchorage Center's westernmost
sectors (Bering Strait and Aleutians) use radar data from military radar sites
that are somehow interfaced with the EARTS computer. The military radar sites
was never designed for ATC use, and as a result the Center must use 20-mile
separation (rather than 5) for those sectors that depend on these military
radars. In case you were wondering, ANC Center is only a Level 1 facility,
but is treated as an "overseas" assignment by the FAA so controllers receive a
25% tax-free cost-of-living allowance above and beyond the normal GS pay
rates...which is no windfall if you consider the astounding cost of living in
Anchorage. I spent two hours at the Center in all, and it was a very
Checked back with Wilbur's...vacuum pump swap complete. Tab: $695 for the
pump plus $42 labor. Probably could have done a little better back in SMX,
but not by much. Those Airborne 400-series pumps are expensive.
Ate lunch at a local greasy spoon near Merrill Field called Peggy's...great
meatloaf! Then drove into downtown for a visit to the Alaska Museum of Art
and History. I'm not much of a museum-goer, but this museum was absolutely
extraordinary...perhaps the most exciting art and natural history exhibits
I've ever seen. I budgeted 30 minutes, and finally tore myself out of the
museum after 90, wishing I could spend several more hours there. This museum
will be very high on my list next time I visit Anchorage. Phenomenal!
Drop off the Avis car and get a lift back to Merrill. Another visit to ANC
FSS reveals not much information. Alaskan weather reporting sites are few and
far between, and Alaskan pilots aren't very good about filing PIREPs. I
speculate that this is because most Alaskan G.A. flights are VFR in illegal
weather conditions, and filing an accurate PIREP might result in enforcement
action. [Grin!] And it appears that Alaskan G.A. pilots almost never fly
IFR...sneaking around visually at treetop level is apparently a
well-entrenched tradition of Alaskan aviation. Well, not for this chicken
pilot! I file IFR to Fairbanks International.
The flight was another outstanding IFR trip. Climbed out of ANC through
multiple wet merging layers and levelled off at 12,000' between layers with
almost unlimited visibility. A rip-roaring tailwind boosted my groundspeed to
220 knots, making the whole trip a 1:10 affair. As I reached Denali, the
higher layer of clouds above broke up just enough to provide a spectacular
view of 20,000-foot Mt. McKinley. Descending into Fairbanks, I did pick up a
little rime ice between 12,000' and 9,000' but it all melted off quickly as I
continued the descent.
About 7,000' I broke out to the sight of Fairbanks, plunked smack in the
middle of an uninhabitable sea of muskeg swamp on the bank of the Chena River.
The wind was calm, so I requested a circle-to-land visual approach to runway
19R so that I could get a bird's-eye view of the city on a wide base leg.
Fairbanks International is an interesting and uniquely laid-out airport. On
the northwest side is a 10,000x150 instrument runway with ILSs both ways. On
the southeast side is a 3,200-foot touch-and-go runway and a gravel runway used
by bush planes and ski planes that dislike asphalt. Between the runways is a
water runway for floatplanes! You fly it, FAI can accept it!
After renting a Hertz car and checking into the hotel, I drove 10 miles west
to the old gold-rush town of Ester, AK, home of the world-famous Cripple Creek
Resort and the Malamute Saloon (made famous in Robert W. Service's poem "The
Shooting of Dan McGrew"). I chowed down on a filling all-you-can-eat buffet
dinner of baked halibut, fried chicken, and reindeer stew (burp). Then I
attended a vaudeville-style show at the Malamute...a combination of
very funny slapstick comedy, Alaskan folk songs, and readings of Robert
Early tomorrow morning I'm taking a 3-hour tour of the Chena River on the
Discovery III, a huge sternwheeler riverboat. Then I'll check the weather
and decide where to go next. Wherever that is, it will be my most distant
point in Alaska...by Wednesday, I need to start working my way back toward
the lower 48.
At the hotel in Fairbanks that night, I woke up from a sound sleep at 2
am and was drawn to the window, where I witnessed a lovely and delicate
display of aurora borealis. It was not the "curtain" sort that you usually
see in pictures...rather, it looked like someone was slowly pouring luminous
milk onto the top of the sky and it was trickling down the sides to the
Tuesday, August 29th: FAI-ADQ
Up this morning at the crack of dawn to get down to the dock for the morning
cruise of the riverboat Discovery III, a 140-foot 1,000-passenger sternwheeler
riverboat which tours the Chena and Tanana rivers near Fairbanks. This was a
but more "organized touristy" than most of the activities on this trip...the
riverboat tour is populated mostly by retired folks from the Princess and Gray
Line Tours and the like...but it was so well done and so interesting that
I wound up not being offended by the touristiness, and had a very good time.
The Disovery III is operated by Captain Jim Binkley, his wife, sons, and
extended family, and they do it as well as it can be done in every respect.
Jim's a native Alaskan and has been doing this for 51 years, and learned his
trade from his grandfather and father before him. He and his sons are also
pilots...they own and fly a Baron out of Fairbanks.
After the boat trip, I checked out of the hotel in Fairbanks, ate lunch,
spent some time exploring an excellent Alaskan Lands Exhibit in the basement
of the Fairbanks courthouse building, and then headed to the airport and the
FSS. I still hadn't decided where to go next...West to Kotzebue and Nome on
the Bering Sea, or South to the Kenai and Kodiak on the Gulf of Alaska.
Checking the weather, everything looked much worse than Fairbanks...a large
low-pressure area with moist air is affecting the weather over most of Alaska.
Everything other than Fairbanks was IFR or MVFR. Under these conditions,
going west to OTZ/OME seemed risky and awfully remote, and both forecasted fog
and rain. So I decided to fly IFR to Kodiak Island (ADQ), an easy 2:45
flight even with the forecast headwinds.
Drive to FAI airport, return the rental car, and preflight '38X.
Cleared as filed at 11 thousand. Climbout is VFR but soon I'm flying over
some "stuff". The stuff gradually slopes upward until I'm skimming it,
then in it. Light rime ice...I ask for 13 and get it. But the stuff
outclimbs me and I start picking up some ice again. On go the pitot heat,
prop heat, and windshield heat. Not to mention cabin heat. Those two
100-amp alternators are humping to keep up with the electrical load.
After awhile, I start to notice a small split in the manifold pressure
needles. Couple of inches. I advance the right throttle to close up the
split. But the split redevelops...and I'm out of throttle on the right side.
The ball seems a bit off-center to the left, so apparently the loss of power
on the right side is real.
OK, what have we here? Probably induction icing, right? Or possibly some
failure in the turbocharging or induction air system. Pull the right engine
alternate air control...no change. Great.
About now, the right alternator-fail warning light comes on. Oh, terrific! I
shed some load...windshield and prop anti-ice off, leave pitot heat on. Let's
see if this is for real. Switch left (good) alternator off...left alternator
fail light comes on (as expected) and right alternator fail light goes off!
Huh? Left alternator switched back on, both fail lights off...whew, false
Back to troubleshooting the right engine partial power loss. Oops, what's
this? Right engine fuel flow suddenly reads ZERO! Then back to normal. Then
ZERO again. Wait a minute, the right engine is still running smoothly, EGT is
still there, there must be fuel flow...this is obviously an instrumentation
Now the right alternator fail light illuminates once again. Cycling the right
alternator field switch will not correct the failure. This time switching off
the left alternator results in two alternator fail lights and a low voltage
light, and the loadmeter confirms: this time, the right alternator has
actually failed for real. I pull and reset the field breaker...no change. I
try to remove the field fuse to see if it's blown, but I can't seem to unscrew
the ^&$*(!@ fuse holder.
Let's see now...partial loss of MP, failed fuel flow indication, spurious
alternator failure followed by real alternator failure, all on right engine.
These symptoms don't fit together. They don't make sense. This is not
happening to me!
OK, troubleshooting doesn't seem to be going so well, let's turn our attention
to some contingency planning. Kodiak Island is the last place we want to go
with a mechanical problem. We better start thinking about landing in
Anchorage. I call Center, advise that we seem to be having some engine and
electrical problems, request descent to the MEA (to try to stop the ice
accretion, since we can't use all our deicing gear on one alternator), and
request current ANC and MRI weather, advising that we may be diverting to ANC
or MRI. Center descends us to 10,000' and advises we cannot get lower for
quite some time. ANC weather is MVFR in rain.
Level at 10 thou, the ice isn't melting but at least it's no longer accreting.
MP split looks a little less than before, but still there. Fuel flow needle
is now indicating normally! I try recycling the right alternator once again
and, wonder of wonders, it comes back on-line...confirmed by loadmeter. Hmmm.
I fiddle with the right engine controls and discover something very strange:
if I retard the right throttle slightly, the MP actually increases just a
bit. Fiddle, fiddle. Hey, the MP split is going away! MP is now normal, EGT
is normal, fuel flow is normal, both alternators on-line, everything is
normal. Twilight Zone time. I hate to leave you in suspense, but I
honestly have no idea what went wrong or what made the problem go away. I can
only assume it has something to do with moisture getting in the wrong places
and freezing, but I've not been able to construct any scenario to account for
all those seemingly-unrelated anomalies.
I advise Center that the problems "seem to have gone into remission" and
request a climb to 13 thou again...approved, and this time we top the clouds
again. I tell Center everything looks fine and we'll plan on continuing to
Kodiak as filed. A look at the WAC chart reminds me of what unhospitable
terrain I was flying over while I was troubleshooting these problems,
and I feel glad that I'm flying a twin today.
The rest of the flight goes uneventfully. Weather starts breaking up near
Homer at the south end of the Kenai penninsula, and ADQ is good VFR as I
approach it after a long overwater leg. I elect to shoot the ILS/DME approach
with a DME arc transition anyway, just for the fun of it. I arrive on-time
at Kodiak at 8 pm, fuel the airplane, and catch a taxi into town. That
little in-flight episode took more out of me than I realized. I feel worn
out, my body is sweaty, my clothes should be burned.
I check into the hotel and eat dinner. I have a bowl of the most superb
seafood chowder that I have ever tasted anywhere...Kodiak is the largest
commercial fishing port in Alaska, and the seafood is awfully good. I take
a shower, type up my notes, and it's time to hit the rack. A loooooong
Wednesday, August 30th: ADQ-HOM-YAK
I spent this morning walking all over the town of Kodiak. This is
definitely not a tourist town...it is a working fisherman's town with one
of the largest fleets of fishing boats of anywhere in the world. Also the
world's largest U.S. Coast Guard station, believe it or not.
I passed up breakfast but stopped at a little coffee store and had some
espresso...the owner was an ex-pilot and talked all about why the Twin
Commanche is the only decent light twin and how Cessnas won't last on the
Alaskan Gulf coast because Cessna is too cheap to corrosion-proof their
aircraft. (He's right.) He also told us the story of his life, from his Navy days in
Portland in the 50's to his stint as an Alaskan marijuana distributor (he got
busted) and liquor distributor and liquor store owner to his present
semi-retirement. I'd have never gotten out of there except that the
telephone rang and we seized that opportunity to make good our escape.
I stopped at the Visitor's Center where a lovely lady spent a half hour
telling me all sorts of interesting things about what life is like on an
isolated outpost like Kodiak Island, and all about the Tsunami in '64 that
wiped out the town and its fishing fleet. I visited the Baranof museum that
had some very interesting exhibits concerning the indian and Russian heritage
of Kodiak, and the famous Kodiak Russian Orthodox church with its two
turquoise-blue onion domes.
I stopped at some stores and bought a few things, then returned to the hotel
to check out, eat some of that world-class seafood chowder for lunch, and
secure a hotel reservation for the night.
I thought I'd stop at Valdez tonight, but not a single vacancy existed in
any of the five hotels and motels in of Valdez...full-up with folks involved
in the oil-spill cleanup. So I tried Cordova (on the east end of Price
William Sound) but it was full-up, too. Things were starting to look
desperate, but I finally secured a reservation at the Yakutat Lodge, your
basic hunter/fisherman's hangout at the airport at Yakutat, Alaska, a tiny
indian town and fishing port known for its late-season fishing.
I took off VFR (!) from ADQ and spent a half-hour doing low-level sightseeing
around the back side of Kodiak Island (I'm talking Mike Busch low-level, not Alaska
low-level...about 2000'-3000'). Very rugged, lush, and wild...very lovely.
Then I headed 100 nm overwater to Homer on the southwest corner of the Kenai
Penninsula, landed at HOM, topped up the tanks, and visited with the FSS. I
was still hoping that I'd be able to fly to Yakutat VFR down low and see the
Prince William Sound from the air, but Valdez hadn't reported any weather for
three hours and Cordova was reporting IFR with 800' ceilings, rain showers,
and fog...VFR by Alaskan standards but not my cup of tea. So I filed IFR
from HOM to YAK at 11,000'.
This flight turned out to be quite similar to yesterday's FAI-ADQ flight. At
first I was well on-top at 11,000'. Eventually the tops rose to put me in
the soup and I started to pick up some rime, so I climbed to 13,000' and
amended our routing a bit. I was in-and-out at 13,000'...mostly out, but
icing when in...and I even had a mini-replay of the alternator-fail and
MP-loss scenario for just a few minutes (same altitude, same icing conditions,
same bizarreness). This time I hardly blinked.
About 90 miles east of YAK, the undercast finally broke up just in time to
give me an absolutely stunning view of the entire Wrangell Mountain range
(peaks up to 19,000'), Icy Bay, and the gigantic Malaspina glacier. Yakutat
was good VFR, although with RW- all about. I landed.
After parking the airplane, I followed some signs to the Yakutat Lodge (where
I had finally been able to make a room reservation). There was nobody in the
office, but I finally located the manager in the bar and he checked me into
the last available room. It cost $70, payable in advance, thank you.
couldn't possibly conform to the building codes anywhere in the lower 48. The
room contains five (count 'em) bunk beds. The sheets are gritty with sand (I
checked all five beds). No phone. No TV or radio. No coathangers. No
screens on the windows, and giant mosquitoes everywhere. A few feet from the
lodge, indians are packing huge containers of fresh-caught salmon and crushed
ice, and loading them into a rag-tag fleet of DC-3's, Beech 18's,
Dehavilland Beavers, Cessna 206's with huge oversized tires, and some rag-wing
radial-engined single-engine critters that I can't identify. Naturally, the
whole place reeks with fish odor.
THANK GOD...MY 5,000-MILE QUEST IS OVER AT LAST...I'VE FINALLY FOUND THE
If I survive the night, I will probably fly to Juneau in the morning and
spend the day exploring it...then back to the lower 48 on Friday.
Thursday, August 31st: YAK-JNU
I survived the night, the claustrophbic stall shower, the
not-exactly-clean towels, and the sandpaper toilet paper. Except for two
large mosquito bites on the back of my right hand, I'm not much the worse
for wear. It's raining this morning, even through the sky looks blue and
the surface visibility is unlimited (oooh, those mountains look lovely).
How it can rain when the sky is blue is just another of the many mysteries
I'll be leaving behind here in Yakutat...never to return. Why I didn't
just press on one more hour to JNU last night I'll never know. But YAK
will remain as vivid in my memories of Alaska as Sitka or Glacier Bay.
I got the heck out of YAK just as quickly as I could this morning...no
breakfast, no coffee, no nothing. To add a final insult to injury, I hiked a
half-mile through the mud with three suitcases to get an in-person briefing at
YAK flight service station, and found a locked door with a sign taped to it
saying that due to personnel shortages the FSS doesn't open until 10:30 am!
I wasn't about to hang around.
Flew YAK-JNU VFR. Weather was good enough that I decided to fly low along
the Yakutat River, hang a right at the Great Pacific glacier, and navigate to
the northern tip of Glacier Bay, fly down the bay to Gustavus, and then hang a
left into Juneau. It was a gorgeous, breathtaking, glorious flight...I got
to see most of the glaciers and ice fields in Alaska, something that very few
people ever get to see so clearly and at such close range. Visual navigation
was difficult...it's hard to tell one glacier from another...but finally I
figured out that if I read out our lat/lon from the LORAN and plotted
that lat/lon position on the Sectional chart, I could figure out where we
were. Sort of your poor man's moving map. Worked pretty well.
Once in Glacier Bay, I saw two huge cruise ships
sightseeing near the northern tip. I looked hard to find the "Spirit of
Adventure" tour boat that I had taken last week, and finally spotted it...it
looked like an insignificant speck on the lake, even though the boat seemed
enormous when I was on it.
Landed at Juneau International and it was the most convenient airport in Alaska.
Within five minutes of touchdown, the aircraft was refueled, I had a nice
Hertz rental car, the car was driven onto the ramp and over to the plane, and
baggage was unloaded from the plane and loaded into the car, and I had a
hotel room reserved! Outstanding.
I drove the 10 miles south from the airport to downtown Juneau. Had a great
lunch at a restaurant called The Fiddlehead. Then spent 90 minutes visiting
the Alaska State Museum...a fascinating and truly outstanding exhibit of
Alaskan native cultures, wildlife, and history...ranks up there with the
fabulous museum in Anchorage. Also visited a second museum...the
Juneau-Douglas city museum...with very interesting exhibits about the
gold-rush days and the huge gold mining and refining industry that used to
dominate Juneau at the turn of the century. I drove all over town, across
the bridge over Gastineau Channel to Douglas Island (where I snapped some
great pictures of Juneau), then north to the great Mendenhall Glacier. Great
day of sightseeing...very glad I decided to spend our last day in Alaska in
Tomorrow I head for Seattle (with a quick refueling stop in Ketchikan).
Friday, September 1st: JNU-KTN-BFI
Friday dawned in JNU with lovely VFR weather. Got an in-person briefing at
JNU FSS...weather couldn't be better, even a tailwind for the first portion of
the flight. Filed VFR JNU-KTN 1+15 (to top tanks) and IFR KTN-SEA 3+10.
Kicked tires and lit fires and launched.
Flew JNU-KTN about 1500' via the inside passage, detouring to see the small
logging towns of Petersburg and Wrangell on the way. The scenery was
breathtaking. Saw a remarkable number of huge cruise ships...I never imagined
that there were so many. (90% of the people who see southeast Alaska do so by
cruise ship.) It was also most interesting to view the huge "log rafts" being
towed from logging camps, although it was a bit disconcerting to see how many
areas have been clear-cut...totally stripped of trees by the loggers.
I landed at KTN
and refueled quick-turn. An IFR Alaska Airlines 727 was inbound to KTN which
would have entailed a 15 or 20 minute delay in getting an IFR departure
release (KTN is non-radar: one-in/one-out), so I departed VFR and picked up
my clearance over Annette Island VORTAC.
Level at 11,000' I was on top of everything for as far as the eye could see
and clocking better than 200k GS at 60% cruise power. LORAN reception of the
West Canada chain was good, so the autopilot flew the trip nav-coupled to the
LORAN while I drank in the views of the Canadian west coast. (Recall that I
didn't see much scenery on the SEA-KTN flight due to the undercast.)
The Canadian radar controllers use the terminology "radar identified" instead
of the American "radar contact". Surprisingly, one of the Vancouver Center
controllers accepted my handoff callup with "radar contact". I asked the
controller if they used "radar identified" and "radar contact"
interchangeably. His smart-ass reply: "Affirmative, and yes."
Once again, there was hardly anything going on on center frequency. I
listened to some news on the ADF to pass the time, but there's not much AM
radio receivable along that barren stretch. I fired up the 2-meter ham
transceiver and chatted with a couple of folks on the ground: two loggers
driving a pickup truck full of firewood near Port Hardy, and later a retired
couple in Nanaimo at the north end of Vancouver Island. Hams always seem very
excited to talk to an aeronautical mobile station.
Arriving in Seattle, I ran into the first real weather of the trip...widely
scattered thundershowers which lit up the stormscope pretty well. I only had
to deviate a little bit, but watched some pretty impressive cloud-to-ground
discharges right over downtown Seattle as I was flying the localizer into
BFI. Touched down at BFI within a minute or two of my planned 4 pm arrival
time, and taxied to Flightcraft.
Saturday, September 2nd: BFI-SMX
The flight home was smooth and uneventful. We were on top of a thick
undercast until about halfway down Oregon, but the tops were low enough that
we got a great view of Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Crater Lake, and several
other volcanic peaks that poked well up through the undercast. By Klamath
Falls, the clouds had vanished and was replaced by California haze. We
touched down at SMX at 3:15 pm with 1+30 reserves left in the tanks.
It was a fabulous, memorable vacation...one I've looked forward to for many
years...one that I'll remember for a long time. I'm glad you could ride
For Statistics Buffs...
Entries from my logbook:
8/21 SMX-BFI 762nm
4.3hr IFR/ILS 13 apch/R.O.N./attitude gyro o'hauled
8/22 BFI-KTN 586 3.6 IFR/visual
" KTN-SIT 159
1.2 IFR/LDA-DME apch/rt vac pump failed
8/24 SIT-GST 83 0.7
IFR/VOR-DME-B apch/Glacier Bay Lodge
8/26 GST-SGY 63 0.5
" SGY-ANC 447
3.4 combined VFR+IFR/ILS 6R apch/broke out at 250'
8/27 ANC-MRI 5 0.1
VFR/ferry to Merrill Field for maintenance
8/28 MRI-FAI 223 1.2 IFR/visual
apch/new vac pump OK
8/29 FAI-ADQ 444 2.9 IFR/ILS
apch/flakey alt-fail-sensor/induc icing
8/30 ADQ-HOM 118 1.0
VFR/sightseeing Kodiak Island and Kenai
" HOM-YAK 359
2.2 IFR/ILS apch/Prince William Sounds socked in
8/31 YAK-JNU 172 1.2 IFG (I
follow glaciers)/Glacier Bay sightseeing
9/1 JNU-KTN 203 1.5
VFR/fuel stop/Petersburg & Wrangell sightseeing
" KTN-BFI 586
3.3 IFR/ILS 13 apch/R.O.N. at Deakin's house
9/2 BFI-SMX 762 4.2
IFR/visual apch/home at last
TOTALS 4,972nm 31.3hr
Avgas used: approx 900 gal, $1,800, 28.7 gph, 6.5 mpg.