Flying to Alaska

By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848

This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the October 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

As I write this update, we are on the return trip and waiting out a day in Ketchikan due to the weather. Being on the ground and watching the weather is a whole lot less stressful than flying in it, especially in Alaska. However, we have had great weather for the last week, so no complaints. We managed to fly every day except for one while in Anchorage. I mentioned in my last column that I hope to inspire many of you to make this trip, and that’s what I plan to do. So, let’s start at the beginning.

So far, all the trip preparations have paid off. We’ve had a maintenance-free trip except for a broken key in the baggage lock, which was my fault. A quick trip to Home Depot and I had a new lock, and I was able to replace it with the tools I had. My Leatherman survival tool — which has been affixed underneath the instrument panel for 11 years — had a file on it, which saved the day.

I usually start watching the weather forecasts about 10 days before the planned departure and compare them against the actual weather. Even though the destination is Alaska, it is about the journey. As we approached our departure date from Atlanta, I observed that a monthlong dry spell was coming to an end and thunderstorms were in the forecast. A lot of them.

As I looked further west, it also appeared that departing early would give us tailwinds and low tides going up the coast of Canada to Ketchikan, which is highly favorable. Low tides allow for more landing areas, as the coastline is very rocky. With some of the areas having 20-foot tides, the beaches get dramatically larger. Carol wasn’t exactly happy with me moving the departure date up by three days, but she made it work. We left at 0830 on Wednesday, June 29.

Our first-day destination was Cheyenne, Wyoming, with a stop for lunch at Springfield’s Downtown Airport (3DW). This was the same route we had traveled for the last three trips. The thunderstorms blew over Atlanta overnight but left low ceilings, so we departed into a 700-foot overcast and were IMC for about an hour. After that, it was clear all the way to 3DW.

We like 3DW because the people are so friendly. Most GA airports tell you the courtesy car is available on a first come, first served basis. When I called on Tuesday to verify that they still had a car, Lauren Lea asked what time I would be there so she could reserve the car. When we came back from lunch, one of my books was on the counter. Then she mentioned that it belonged to one of the mechanics in the hangar, so I went to speak with him. There we met Kelley Brow, EAA 818181, and saw a beautiful Cub he was restoring for the owner. He had worked for Red Bull and now had his own business. He said he gave my book to his mechanics and told them to read it. That was humbling to me, but I was glad it was being used.

The next leg to Cheyenne was a little different. There was some weather in western Nebraska, along with some weather moving out of the mountains west of Cheyenne, that could make for interesting flying. Plus, I noticed the in-flight temperatures were much hotter than normal, showing 70 degrees Fahrenheit at 6,500 feet, and even at 8,500 feet it was still 69 degrees F. Even the engine was running hotter than normal, with CHTs about 20 degrees higher than those I see in Atlanta.

The rainstorms in western Nebraska weren’t any problem at all and were typical of what we have seen on past flights — dark rain shafts all the way to the ground that were easy to circumnavigate. Cheyenne was having intermittent storms as well, but watching them on the cockpit ADS-B weather showed we should get there between storms. That worked out well, except the winds were now gusting to almost 40 knots at Cheyenne. Luckily, they were right down the runway — and only 31 knots when we landed. According to Carol, I even made a squeaker landing.

The winds got worse that evening. We walked back from dinner in 51-knot winds. We were told that when the winds stop, people in Cheyenne fall down.

The morning looked like more of the same — winds and intermittent rain but with high ceilings and great visibility, which is the norm for this part of the country, which is high desert. We departed with 30-knot winds right down the runway. The air was smooth. We could see the rain shafts, which again were easy to bypass. On to our lunch stop in Nampa, Idaho, at the Nampa Municipal Airport (KMAN).

We like stopping in Nampa. There is a great restaurant on the field, with self-serve fuel pumps at the front door. The food is great, along with the view, so it makes for a quick turn. Pretty soon we were on our way. At 12,500 feet, we were in smooth air, headed to Bellingham, Washington, for our final stop in the Lower 48. The scenery is very pretty along this route, and you can follow the interstates and don’t need to fly high if you don’t want to. You could make the whole trip below 7,000 feet.

We made Bellingham on schedule, and the weather looked good for the leg to Ketchikan in the morning, with the tailwinds and low tides keeping up their end of the deal. Filing IFR and overflying Canada is easy. The controllers are super friendly. We were intermittently on top of solid and broken layers of clouds. The routing actually takes you out over the water quite a way, as the mountains are pretty high along this route. We were in the clear on top at 8,000 feet, so early on I asked for direct, which was granted if I accepted responsibility for my terrain clearance, which I did. Through breaks in the clouds, we could see the islands and beaches in the Inside Passage. Of course, the synthetic vision of the Advanced Flight Systems electronic flight instrument system made it look like we were watching a movie.

Ketchikan was holding with a 2,900-foot ceiling, but we would still need an instrument approach, as vectoring altitudes were above 6,000 feet, and we were on top of a solid layer as we approached Prince Rupert, which is a little south of Ketchikan. We were vectored for the RNAV 11 approach, which was uneventful. Ketchikan was beautiful and remained sunny and dry for the two days we spent there.

Departing Ketchikan, we had an awesome VFR flight up the Inside Passage to Cape Spencer, which is an emergency Coast Guard station on a rock. There we turned and followed the coastline to Yakutat. The mountains along the coast were all snow-capped — and very tall. I know everyone likes to talk about how high the mountains are west of Denver, with some over 14,000 feet. Yes, they look beautiful, but the ground starts at 5,000 feet. Along the coast to Yakutat, we were at sea level, and some of the peaks, such as Mount Fairweather, are over 15,000 feet. It’s best to just fly by them and enjoy the view, which includes glaciers, rather than attempting to fly over them.

Yakutat is basically an empty World War II airfield, with one WWII hangar still standing and being used. But there is commercial flying service from Seattle and other places, multiple times a day. The fishing and hunting are great, and allegedly it is a great surfing spot. Somehow 50-degree water and surfing don’t go together in my mind. The restaurant has great food, with fresh halibut. The airport manager, Bob Miller; his wife, Christine; and their son, Tanis, were there to meet us, fuel us, and even provide fresh homemade chocolate chip cookies.

The next leg — continuing VFR up the coast to Anchorage — was just gorgeous. There are multiple glaciers, such as the Malaspina glacier, which we flew over. We also flew into Icy Bay to see the Guyot and Tyndall glaciers. In Icy Bay you try not to think about how exposed you are in a single-engine airplane. I was glad I had that Lycoming Thunderbolt engine on the front and had done all of that proactive maintenance. Sometimes you just must live on the edge if you want to see nature’s beauty.

The flight across Prince William Sound was stunning. Then we turned into the Passage Canal, crossed Whittier and the Portage Glacier, and found ourselves looking at the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. We called Anchorage approach and were given the Campbell arrival into the Merrill Field Airport. You must have the Chart Supplement Alaska with you when flying in Alaska, as there are many VFR departures and arrivals that you are expected to know. Anchorage is an extremely busy area, mostly due to the 1,000-plus aircraft based at Lake Hood. I found the controllers to be fabulous. Next month I will share with you the daily glacier flying we were able to accomplish.

The fun factor has certainly been alive and well on this trip!

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, wrote books on maintenance and prebuy inspections, and posts videos weekly on his YouTube channel. He also volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot.

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