Alaska Flying Vacation Diary
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.
Monday, August 21st: SMX-BFIAfter 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-SITDeparted 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 absolutely CAVU.
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: SITToday 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 night.
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 tomorrow.
Thursday, August 24th: SIT-GSTAbout 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' minimums).
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 Jan 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: GSTProvidence 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 else!
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-ANCSaturday 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, right?
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 Anchorage!
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-MRIThis 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 I'll do.
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-FAIThis 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 weather.
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 interesting visit.
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 Service's poetry.
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 horizon.
Tuesday, August 29th: FAI-ADQUp 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 alarm.
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 problem.
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 day.
Wednesday, August 30th: ADQ-HOM-YAKI 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.
The accomodations 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 REAL ALASKA!
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-JNUI 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 Juneau.
Tomorrow I head for Seattle (with a quick refueling stop in Ketchikan).
Friday, September 1st: JNU-KTN-BFIFriday 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-SMXThe 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 along.
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 apch
" 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 VFR/lunch stop
" 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.