Wednesday 19 June 2013 03:55 UTC
Where have you been? What have you seen?
Alaska has long been on my list of places to visit and working in L.A. with a Vans RV-8, I was running out of excuses not to go. It meant missing Oshkosh, but there's always next year.
I hooked up with Let's Fly Alaska, a set-up run by Dale Hemman in Olympia WA to guide groups of pilots and crew on an organised tour through British Columbia and the Yukon to Alaska and take in some of the best sights and flying that you can imagine.
Usually they split into separate slow (110 knot) and fast (150 knot) groups, but this year problems with leaders meant that there was a consolidated group consisting of a Navajo, 3 Bonanzas, 2 SR22s, 3 C182s, a Moony M20, a Turbo Centurion, Comanche 260, Husky and our RV. The Husky needed to set off in advance and kept us updated on weather over the R/T.
Rendezvous was 21st July in Olympia WA at the Let's Fly Alaska hangar. A 5 hour run in the RV up the central valley to Oregon, past Mount Shasta:
and into the Seattle area past the peaks of Rainier, St Helens and Hood:
The first group flight was to Skagit to clear customs into Canada. A short run to get us used to each other.
This was a bit shaky and ended up with the Comanche deciding to file IFR for the next leg to Prince George BC while the rest of us took the scenic route through the valleys:
After the night stop in Prince George the plan was to take "the Trench" route up to Watson Lake, but convective activity made that dubious, so we planned an alternate rote to Whitehorse YT via Smithers (what's with naming towns after Simpsons characters?)
This was almost as scenic and spectacular flying through valleys into the Yukon and picking up the Alaska Highway - always good in an emergency as it's legal to land on Highways in Canada and Alaska.
Unfortunately I lost charging from the alternator along this leg but made it to Whitehorse by conserving power for the final radio calls and flap extension.
To be continued
At Whitehorse, we needed to get the battery charged for the next morning so as to fly with the group in to Alaska, clearing US customs at Northway. I left the battery charging with some friendly guys at the fire station and tried to diagnose the alternator issue. Recycling hadn't worked and I could see no obvious bad connections to the field terminals or the output cable of the (internally regulated) alternator. Only safe bet was to get a new alternator overnighted to our next night stop of Fairbanks and continue on carefully managed battery power for the next two legs. VFR flying as a flight of 8 using hand held radio meant electrical consumption could be minimised.
Whitehorse was a quaint and quite pleasant stop at the Gold Rush Inn with river walks. There was a Vaudville type follies show - tempting but I favoured an early night.
Next morning, the fire station guys dropped off the battery, which turned out to still be flat thanks to a duff charger. They apologised and quickly came up with a big heavy duty charger which would give me 20 amps for an hour to rescue the situation. The rest of the flight left, leaving me to catch up.
Whitehorse to Northway was easy navigation of the I Follow Roads variety as the Alaska Highway took you all the way. Clear visibility all the way and only some 500' scud over Kluane Lake was an excuse to come a bit lower for some wildlife spotting.
Finally arrived in Northway as the rest of the group were getting ready to leave. The TSA officers came over to check passports and paperwork. Ran the geigercounter over the aircraft and queried if we were bringing any food into the USA. I owned up to a bag of Safeways clementines bought up from California. But it was illegal to import citrus from Canada (he said something about protecting the Alaskan citrus industry!). So they were duly and good humouredly confiscated:
Enough charge left for a second engine start, so we joined the group take-off. Lined up left and right and launching at 5 second intervals.
Initially following the Alaska highway up the Tanama valley and the wide fertile plains after Delta Junction:
Landing on one of the 11000' runways at Fairbanks international. The floatplane landing area looks like a runway from a distance, but is best avoided without the appropriate undercarriage.
Next day was a rest day in Fairbanks. Hot weather was bringing out the mosquitoes. Some of the gang decided to flyout to Deadhorse on the coast of the Arctic ocean, but my priority was to get the alternator repaired. The new alternator arrived in the afternoon, but the problem turned out to be just wiring. So I'm now the owner of a spare alternator, but, more importantly, a fully functioning aeroplane.
Next day was to be the flight across the Denali to Homer. But little did we know of the excitement that was to follow........... (to be continued)
What a fantastic trip! Lovely photos! Alaska is one of the few US states I have yet to visit, so I'm very envious of those whom have taken the opportunity so to do, particularly in a small GA aircraft. Thanks for the wonderful trip report, Ben.
Not sure I agree with PA28-Guy about the paint job...I think imitation military markings on a non-military aircraft (unlesss on a genuine replica thereof) are a bit crass, but that's just me.
Thursday was day 6 and after the rest day at Fairbanks, we were all briefed and ready for one of the highlights - crossing the Denali range en-route to Homer. The initial flight of 8 lined up in staggered order to minimise our runway occupancy on what was really a rather busy airport (does everyone in Alaska own a plane?).
I launched at 7 and immediately heard on our company frequency "Dale is going down". As we passed the end of the runway we saw the lead aircraft had forced landed inside the airfield boundary:
Dale's Bonanza had cut out suddenly at about 200' and the only escape rote was a hard right over a ditch onto the grass. We orbitted the field with the remaining 6 aircraft (8 didn't launch) until the emergency services cleared the runway to be re-opened, but could see Dale and Jerry get out and walk around with some relief. We landed some 10 minutes later to get updated with events. Dale had a bruise the shape of a bonanza yoke on his chest and a spine compression injury, Jerry had a gash in his forehead with the missing flesh still visible in a sunvisor fastener and what turned out to be a shiner of a black eye. They were quickly released by the hospital and with them and their luggage re-distributed amongst the rest of the group, we headed off again about 4 hours later.
Dale had 5 external cameras running which provided much entertainment to the investigators, but still no clue why the motor quit so suddenly. I'm looking forward to hearing the investigation outcome and seeing the video.
Weather was perfect for flying across the Denali. We headed to the East end of the range following the George Parks Highway and then climbed over the Eldridge and Ruth Glaciers with a perfect view of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in the Western hemisphere at 20,320'. I broke off from the group to fly down the Ruth glacier (flying up glaciers is not such a good idea), after forming up with some of our new friends for a little air-to-air photography.
Some video of the glacier descent on http://youtu.be/rFfvgMYF9Xs
By the time we reached the Cook Inlet, I had caught up with the slowest of the 182s and landed at Homer 2 minutes behind the main group.
A lot of excitement for one day. We were met by some friends who work at Homer Airport FSS and checked in at the beautifully located (and expensive) Land's End resort on the spit at Homer ....................
Last edited by Ben Twings on Tue Aug 07, 2012 2:15 am, edited 1 time in total.
Homer advertises itself as the Halibut fishing capitol of the world and judging by the size of some of the hanging outside the fishing boat operators, I couldn't argue. The rest day spent on a boat ride round Kachemak Bay seeing the sea-birds, sea-otters, bald eagles etc and a quick tour of the local area. Very scenic and highly recommended.
Next day was a relatively short hop to Anchorage. The direct route is pleasant enough and can be safely done in minimum VFR conditions. But it was a bright clear day, and a short diversion right of track takes you over the Harding Ice Field and glaciers. That was not to be missed.
A brief climb up on to the interior side of the mountains avoided the claggy conditions lurking around Prince William sound and gave us these spectacular views:
A group descent of one of the glaciers dropped us out approaching the Turnagain Arm inlet and into Anchorage.
There was a big airshow on at the airbase which meant avoiding TFRs and a duck under the Class C at 1200' led us into Merrill Field where the airfield campground had been reserved for our group parking.
Anchorage was planned as a 4 night stop as a break from the flying staying beside the Lake Hood floatplane dock and a chance to take in some local activities. These included a glacier cruise from Whittier around Prince William Sound which was bristling with glaciers calving into the sea, waterfalls and abundant marine life. A low overcast and rain didn't do too much to spoil it. I'd also booked to go on a bear watching trip to redoubt bay, a remote location on the other side of the inlet where bears of the black and brown varieties reliably come down to feed on the spawning salmon as they make their way to the fresh water. And, as an additional bonus, the ride out there was in a DHC-2 Beaver on floats. The floatplane base is part of the international airport to add to the interest.
Some video too on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-tJLng-xRY
And there's more.......
Day 12 was to be the last day that we would fly together in groups. Plan was to fly the coast from Anchorage to Yakutat, refuel and lunch then to continue the coastal route to Ketchican - the southernmost large airport in Alaska. But the weather dictated otherwise with a large area of rain and cloud extending down the coast for about 100 miles. The freezing level was also below MEA ruling out that route for both VFR and IFR.
An alternative plan looked tempting; through the Tahneta pass to Gulkana and then down the Copper River which gave better options for crossing to the coast. Fortunately Alaska is awash with webcams at airports and critical locations. A check of those showed this to be a good option together with TAFs and Metars along the way.
A few delays meant we left behind the main group and three of the crews decided to chance waiting for better weather, while the two Cirri opted to go IFR and put their faith in the TKS.
This proved a good plan with only a little scud leaving Merrill field to the NE and excellent VFR and generally smooth air up the Pass to the Copper River Valley.
Down the valley, the Tana glacier spills off the Bagley icefield and opens into a side valley. This looked a good opportunity to cross to the coast finding our way through some scattered cloud layers and emerging over Yakatagas turf runway and a clear way forward down the coast.
The coast down here is quite spectacular as evidenced by the cruise ships at regular intervals. Glaciers spill directly into the ocean 15-20,000' high peaks line the coastal range, bears are scavenging along the beaches and whales can be seen frequently. The aptly named Icy Bay spills icebergs from the Yahtse glacier.
We joined the main group at Yakutat and filled up with the most expensive gas so far, other than Canada, at $7.60/usg.
The next leg to Ketchican started off mostly flying the coast at 500', getting a better view of the wildlife, just climbing to cross the islands into the Clarence Strait and dodge a few local cloud-bursts. This was proving a superb conclusion of our group tour.
Ketchican hurried our flight in ahead of an inbound 737 and we all touched down in about 3 minutes from lead to tail, while floatplanes were splashing down on the adjacent harbour simultaneously.
The airport is on a separate island to Ketchikan city so a short ferry ride takes us to our final Alaskan destination.
Next day was a rest day with a crab feast organised for the evening. Ketchican is famous as the wettest mainland city in the USA (ignoring Hawaii) and this proved itself with a 500-1000' overcast setting in with intermittent rain.
From Ketchican it's only 600NM to the Seattle area, so a flight can be made back to the lower 48 without international formalities of customs, EAPIS, CANPASS etc.. Freezing levels were up at 13000' this time, so we all filed IFR and took off into the 500' ceiling, breaking into the sunshine at 8000', just below my filed 9000' cruising level.
Breaking into clear weather after an hour down route, we had a fine run back to Olympia for a final parting from those others who came back to our start point.
Still only 2 pm we decided to push on back to L.A. with CAVOK all the way. Crater Lake greeted us with clear calm water for a final photo opportunity.
A refuel in Norcal and into darkness watching a distant intense thunderstorm over the Sierras and into the basin where a marine layer was still holding off far enough to safely return to Hawthorne.
6000 miles, 37 hrs flying, wallet depleted and one fantastic trip completed. Highly recommended.
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