By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the June 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
In more than 45 years of flying, our three trips to Alaska have been the most memorable. We planned on going back a couple of years ago, but COVID-19 and commitments put a damper on those plans. Things are looking more promising for this summer. We are hoping it all works out, as my wife, Carol, has already made the necessary hotel reservations in Alaska.
When it comes to big trips — such as an Alaskan venture where you might be away from home base for a long time and it’s quite a distance — I’ve learned mental preparedness is just as important as mechanical preparedness. This month I’m going to focus on the mental aspect, and next month I will share the mechanical approach.
We’ve flown to Alaska three times in the RV-10, and there’s been a lot of fantastic memories and lessons learned. Probably everyone has that vacation that you’ll always remember, wondering why it ended so soon. You can’t wait to go back, maybe even consider chucking it all and moving there. Alaska can have that effect on aviators. We’ve witnessed it firsthand, and each subsequent trip always brings back all the emotions.
Much like the Grand Canyon, I have not yet seen a picture that does the beauty of Alaska justice. From the air, the beauty is so overwhelming that at times you wish you could hit pause and just sit there and enjoy it. (Hmm — makes me wonder if we should go in the helicopter.)
As beautiful as the Rocky Mountains are in the Western United States, we joked that we found it boring crossing them during the flight home on our first trip.
It’s hard to explain the reasons, but there is a major difference in the type of flying in Alaska and mountain flying out west. There’s no doubt that the Rocky Mountains are big and tall, especially with some of the ones just due west of Denver topping out over 14,000 feet. But don’t forget that the surface elevation in that area is around 5,000 feet. Alaska has some of the tallest mountains in North America, with Mount Denali over 20,000 feet. You can see it from Anchorage, which is at sea level. Yes, it’s impressive.
When traversing the Rockies, we usually fly at 18,000 feet westbound and 17,000 feet eastbound, taking a more northerly route through Cheyenne and Boise. It’s smoother at those altitudes, the view is quite breathtaking, and there’s a comfortable margin over the tallest peaks. In Alaska, there are more factors to be concerned with. First, we are farther north, so the summer freezing levels are much lower. Occasionally we had to fly IMC on the segment from Bellingham, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska, and at 7,000 feet we were picking up ice and had to descend. Fortunately, there is an offshore airway that allows for lower routing to avoid the terrain. The view on this leg is breathtaking as well when VFR, but you do realize how exposed you are. The shoreline is mostly composed of rocky cliffs with constantly crashing waves. Translation: not many, if any, emergency landing zones. Being IMC in the clouds removes that visual stressor, although the synthetic vision in the Advanced Flight Systems electronic flight instrument system is a constant reminder.
We don’t fly to Alaska to just get there. It is truly a trip where the journey is the destination. With the freezing levels so low, along with the inhospitable terrain, IMC flying in a piston-engine aircraft is not in the cards. We are there to “fly” Alaska, so most of the flying is done at less than 1,000 feet AGL, and usually around 500 feet AGL. There are no wires or towers to be concerned about, and the mountains tower above you as you fly down the valleys. We’ve even gotten used to seeing the Dahl sheep on the side of the mountain at wingtip level, looking into the cockpit as we go by. The first time it happened it seemed hilarious. We were reminded of the Far Side cartoon with the billy goat in the clouds on the side of the mountain.
We fly on pretty days, so the air is smooth and we can enjoy the scenery. Sometimes we will fly for two or more hours without seeing any sign of civilization. It’s a constant reminder that if we go down, we are in the food chain. We saw a stark example of this one day as we were returning home along the southeast coast of Alaska between Cordova and Yakutat. We were at 180 feet AGL because the clouds were at 200 feet, and we watched this huge grizzly bear running flat out right below us. I mentioned to Carol that I wondered who was chasing him, while at the same time patting the glareshield and saying, “Lycoming, don’t fail us now.” On another trip near the same place, a whale breached straight out of the water at just about our 2 o’clock. I was thinking we were going to be the first airplane wrecked by a whale!
I know right now some of you are wondering why we’re flying so low, so let me explain. About 10 days earlier we left Bellingham on a VFR trip to Ketchikan. At Ketchikan we shot an instrument approach to minimums while the automated weather observing system was calling it VFR. ADS-B works really great in Alaska, and while on final approach I counted about a dozen airplanes on the EFIS that looked to be on the left downwind. When I broke out, I realized they were all floatplanes in the channel between the airport and the mainland. Ketchikan is the location of the infamous bridge to nowhere. Fast-forward to our departure from Anchorage, and even though I am a strong ForeFlight user and rarely call flight service anymore, I decided that a call might be appropriate this time. I was told that the flight down to Ketchikan through the Copper River Valley and into Yakutat would be great, with the possibility of some lowering ceilings as we hit the coast. That got my attention, and I explained the Ketchikan experience and asked him to explain what lowering ceilings means. Very fortunate on my part, as he explained that they would be around 200 feet when we departed the mouth of the river due to “localized” conditions.
Sure enough, the “localized” conditions were visible as we approached the gulf. If you’ve ever seen the “fog” that comes out of your freezer or refrigerator when you open the door, you can visualize what we were seeing in real time. The cold air falling down the snow-covered 6,000-plus-foot slopes was forming a cloud layer that leveled off around 200 feet AGL over the shore and water. The briefer assured me that it would stay that way, and not lower, so away we went. Alaskan pilots are much like the whole of the Alaskan people we met everywhere — always willing to talk and help. I would broadcast into the blind asking for conditions ahead and was constantly assured that it was fine. It was a little stressful, and I kept reminding myself that they were on floats, but it all worked out.
Would I do it again? I don’t know. I might be tempted to wait it out, but sometimes that wait can be unknown. When we landed at Yakutat, which is midway to Ketchikan, I met a young gentleman who pointed out he was flying a new C-182 VFR on this trip, and he had landed a week ago and had been there ever since, due to the weather. I said “bummer,” and he looked at me and replied, “Are you kidding? This is some of the best fishing in the world right here.” Then I went inside and had the best halibut sandwich I think I ever had. They had probably caught it that morning for all I know.
But I learned the most important thing about flying to Alaska in that short conversation with him: Do not go on a schedule. Patience is the biggest virtue to have, and so what if you are delayed. You came here to see the place, so enjoy it. This was driven home to me on one of the trips when a pilot flew up a canyon in poor visibility due to smoke and clouds and killed himself and two passengers. I refused to follow, landed, and figured out an alternative route that got us safely to our destination. But it sure put a damper on the rest of the trip.
Sometimes in Alaska you have to be prepared to fly two hours and then turn around and go back because the weather up ahead is just not worth the risk. One of the best investments I made in the RV-10 was the tip tanks. The extra 15 gallons is a perfect stress reliever in this department. Since we are up there to sightsee, as well as flying low, I pull the power back quite a bit so that we are cruising about 25 knots slower, which ends up burning about 3 gph less fuel. This way I can get almost eight to nine hours of airtime, with reserve.
We are really looking forward to this trip, and hoping that COVID doesn’t rear its ugly head again and that fuel prices don’t get too unreasonable. Given our age, as well as the expense, this could be our last Alaskan trip, but who knows what the future holds. We are planning to go by ourselves this time, but as mentioned earlier, I do not want to be on a schedule. One of the most enjoyable aviation experiences I do is flying veterans and flying in the Blue Angels Pensacola Beach show in July in my Stearman, which is scheduled the same week we are planning to be back. However, I have made them aware I may not be back in time, so I’ve taken that pressure monkey off my back.
Next month I will share with you the maintenance approach I am taking ahead of this trip.
I hope by the time you are reading this we are all sitting at Oshkosh swapping stories. That should keep the fun factor alive.
Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848, is a commercial pilot, A&P/IA, DAR, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more than 10,000 hours in 74 different types. Vic founded Base Leg Aviation, has authored books on maintenance and prebuy inspections, and posts videos weekly on his YouTube channel. He also volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot.