Flying in Alaska

By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848

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

The wonderful thing about flying to Alaska is that every day on the journey the scenery just keeps getting better. Honest. Then, you arrive, and it still keeps getting better. Be sure to bring a camera with a large memory card because you will take pictures nonstop. But don’t forget to enjoy it as well, as I have yet to see a picture that does the beauty justice. On top of all the beauty are the long 18-plus hour days, so there is plenty of time to enjoy the natural beauty. Usually, we are up early, as our body clocks are still on Eastern Daylight Time, and the sun doesn’t set until 11:30 p.m. local.

Our favorite place to stay is The Lakefront Anchorage by Millennium Hotels. For aviators, it is the place to be. The patio faces the Lake Hood Seaplane Base, the busiest seaplane base in the world with more than 1,000 general aviation aircraft based there. It is right at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and is even controlled by the Anchorage tower. Most of the day there are seaplanes taking off and landing every minute, sometimes directly over your head. Many times, they are lined up three and four for takeoff. Most of them are Beavers, Otters, and Cessna 206s on floats. It’s a hoot to watch — and we spend hours there every day doing just that.

Our base of operations while in Anchorage is at the Merrill Field airport. It has great transient parking and self-serve fuel, and the controllers are wonderful. In and out every day was easy, but, again, have your Alaska chart supplement with you for departures and arrivals.

Weather permitting, we fly every day. There are glaciers and ice packs in all directions. On a clear day you can see Denali from the ground in Anchorage. We’ve only seen that once in four trips. Denali makes its own weather, so most of the time it is cloudy. However, it does feed many glaciers, and that is usually our first destination. There are four glaciers that are just gorgeous. They are the destinations of the local sightseeing tour companies as well, so you need to pay attention to the rules of the sky, monitor the proper frequencies, and call out the checkpoints. The FAA puts the maps online, so be sure to download them before you go.

Basically, you stay on the right side of the valleys. Sometimes the ADS-B works, and you can see the traffic, but not everyone has ADS-B. Your head needs to be on a swivel, and so do the passengers. Carol calls out as much traffic as I do. We’ve only been able to get up to about the 6,000-foot level on our trips due to the clouds, but the glaciers are wide enough to safely turn around. Just plan your turns. And there’s no need to fly at cruising speed; slowing down will shorten your turn radius. No sense making the passengers nervous with a windshield full of mountain as you are turning around. Most of the glaciers are an easy climb, but quickly you can be up to 6,000 feet or higher, so pay attention to your airspeed and climb rate if you are heavy. I like to go up with half fuel, as most of the glacier flights are only one-and-a-half to two hours.

Pay attention to the winds and try to go in the morning when they are calmer, but do expect some winds coming down the valleys. Most of the time it is smooth, but once in a while it can get bumpy. Since everyone is monitoring the same frequency, don’t hesitate to ask for reports. The pilots up in Alaska are super friendly, as are the controllers, and they are more than happy to provide reports.

At Denali, the Eldridge, Ruth, Tokositna, and Kahiltna glaciers are our favorites, as they can all be seen on one flight from Anchorage that will take about two hours. Traffic can be busy, as there are a lot of airplanes and helicopters out of Talkeetna operating in this area. I have found being airborne by 8 a.m. has less traffic.

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Another fun glacier trip is to the northeast of Anchorage, following the Glenn Highway to see the Knik and Matanuska glaciers. You used to be able to walk on the Matanuska glacier. We did that one year, and it was an amazing experience. What was even more amazing was at the bottom of the glacier there were a couple of guys with wooden planks helping you get onto the glacier. I asked them why they did that, and they explained that the glacier was moving. Sure enough, when we got back two hours later, the planks were in a different spot.

Sadly, you are no longer permitted to walk on the glacier unattended. Even sadder is that the glacier has receded about a mile from where we last got on it, so there is not even a path out to it now. One of the things we noticed on this trip is that since our last trip eight years ago, all of the glaciers have dramatically receded. All of them. As they recede, you can see from the terminal moraine where they have advanced and receded multiple times prior.

Day three of this trip found us flying south over the Turnagain Arm to the Harding Icefield. The ice field tops out at 6,500 feet and feeds more than 30 glaciers. The first time you reach the top you will think you are in Antarctica. It is just beautiful and desolate at the same time, and usually you’ll get a good view of the Redoubt and Iliamna volcanoes about 90 miles to the west. You can fly over there to get a closer look, but you will be exposed over the Cook Inlet for about 25 miles. We always keep two life jackets and a life raft in the airplane. Don’t hesitate to file VFR flight plans for all of these daily excursions.

Some of the other places that are worth flying out to from Anchorage are Homer and Seward. On other trips we have gone to Fairbanks, but this year there were lots of fires that were keeping the visibilities down to 1 mile in smoke. I don’t care to fly in that, so we didn’t make Fairbanks. From Fairbanks, it is an easy trip to cross the Arctic Circle if that is a box check item for you. It was for me — and we did that on a prior trip. Bettles Airport is a good place to stop, but the runway is gravel. We’ve always wanted to get to Deadhorse Airport to hopefully see the polar ice, but it’s never worked out. You need to call ahead, as the ramp space is tight and it is really busy in the summer. The airport has self-serve fuel.

If you do get to Alaska, don’t pressure yourself to fly every day if the weather is not cooperative. We have seen people get killed doing that. There are plenty of things to see and do on the ground. There’s even a neat Alaska Aviation Museum right at Lake Hood. You can spend a day driving around Lake Hood and seeing all of the airplanes. The whole operation is mind-boggling, and quite frankly it’s the busiest GA airport to which I’ve ever been.

There was one day that was not conducive to flying, so we drove down to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage. Many of you have probably seen them on the Disney Channel. Unlike a zoo, the animals are pretty much in their natural habitats, and it was quite impressive to be right next to a rather large grizzly bear with just a fence between us.

All too soon, good things come to an end. Eventually it was time to head back. The great thing about a trip to Alaska is that the trip back is just as much fun, and I will share that part with you next month.

The fun factor during our stay in Anchorage this year was pretty much maxed out.

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.

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