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August 1, 2004
Michael T. Vivion
Denali and The Great One are both descriptors for the Alaska peak officially referred to as Mount McKinley. The highest point in North America, McKinley rises to 20,320 feet in the Alaska Range, about halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. One quickly runs out of superlatives when describing this mountain, for its massif, its glaciers, its scenery, and its weather are unique and truly spectacular.
One rather unusual feature of the McKinley scene is the diverse and somewhat eclectic collection of aircraft and aviators, sometimes referred to as the "Denali Flyers," who work this mountain, supporting the climbers and sightseeing tourists attracted to McKinley.
To learn how diverse this operation is one need only spend a spring day in Talkeetna, a town some 50 miles southeast of the mountain. Talkeetna is the primary jumping-off point to McKinley for alpinists and tourists alike. A visit to Talkeetna Airport during the busy season reveals Cessna 185s and 206s, de Havilland Beavers, and turbine-powered single-engine de Havilland Otters, all on retractable-wheel skis, being loaded with amazing quantities of gear and people for the short, spectacular flight to the mountain. Piper Navajos depart for circuits of the mountain with sightseers who choose to see it only from the air. Helicopters ascend vertically on sightseeing tours as well as on park management missions. At the peak of the season this is Denali central, with hundreds of departures and arrivals a day from this small airport.
Everywhere you look, you'll see colorfully clothed climbers sorting and packing gear for their upcoming adventures, many of them conversing in foreign tongues. Hangar floors become mountaineering warehouses, and during bad weather there is considerable waiting and fidgeting. Each year some 1,100 individual climbers register with the National Park Service (Mount McKinley lies within the Denali National Park and Preserve) to climb McKinley. An additional 100 to 200 participate in guided climbs of the mountain. The vast majority of these climbers reach the slopes of the mountain via one of the GA aircraft based in Talkeetna. As I stood outside Hudson's Flying Service on an April day talking to owner Jay Hudson, pilot Randy Armstrong loaded a Cessna 185 on Fluidyne retractable-wheel skis with supplies and equipment belonging to a party of Korean climbers. Climbers are limited to 120 pounds of baggage each, and this load had three climbers and all their gear. In addition to flying ability, strategic packing of an airplane is a vital skill for pilots here. Fortunately, the trip to the mountain takes only 30 minutes each way, so fuel loads can be kept to a minimum, affording maximum payload.
Recently, the air tour business has developed into a major growth industry around the mountain. Cruise lines and tour operators have increased their activity in Alaska, and air tours are a popular adjunct to these land- and sea-based tours. Thousands of tourists visit the mountain each season, courtesy of the several fixed-wing operators who fly from Talkeetna, Denali Private (a strip near the east edge of the park), Healy River (northeast of the mountain), and Kantishna, just north of the mountain. But Talkeetna is to this operation what Los Angeles International is to flight activity in the L.A. Basin.
Tourists line up at the air taxi operations on the small ramp area for their preflight briefings. Tours may include a short overflight of some of the glaciers, a wildlife tour, or a complete circuit of the mountain. For an extra fee, the flight-seeing tourist can actually land on one of several glaciers to gain bragging rights of having walked on the mountain. Nearly everyone has at least one camera: This is, after all, one of the most scenic places on the planet.
The country surrounding McKinley on its north and south flanks lies at an elevation of 1,000 to 1,500 feet, and the valleys a short distance farther from the mountain lie at 400 to 500 feet msl. By comparison, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming rise to 13,000 feet, but the surrounding countryside lies at 6,000-plus feet. In effect, these mountains appear to the eye to be only 7,000 feet tall, whereas McKinley rises some 19,000 feet above the surrounding terrain.
En route to the mountain, flights pass through the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier, the deepest canyon in North America. Yes, deeper than the Grand Canyon. As you fly up the gorge, well below its rim, you gain a fuller appreciation of the immensity of this mountain.
As we approach the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, which lies at the head of the Ruth Glacier, the rock formation known as the Moose's Tooth comes into view, and finally, we see the Mountain House built by Talkeetna pilot Don Sheldon. Made famous by his exploits on the mountain (documented in Jim Greiner's book, The Don Sheldon Story: Wager With the Wind, Sheldon also left a visible legacy on the mountain in the form of the Mountain House, which occupies a ridge near the center of the amphitheater.
The Sheldon Amphitheater is one of the most popular landing sites for tourists because of its scenery, so at times the glacier ice here actually looks a bit like an airport. Departing the Ruth, your tour may move on via passes with colorful names such as One Shot Gap and 747, or North Hunter Pass, over the Tokositna Glacier, to the Kahiltna Glacier. As you fly up the Kahiltna on a clear day, Mount McKinley lies ahead, with Mount Hunter (14,573 feet) to the right and Mount Foraker (17,400 feet) to the left. Near the upper end of the Kahiltna Glacier, a right-hand fork of the glacier comes into view. This is the northeast fork, home to the Kahiltna Base Camp and a beehive of climbing activity from April through early June.
Rounding the bend into the base camp for landing, your altitude needs to be about 7,000 feet msl. The northeast fork ends in a sheer wall of rock that goes up thousands of feet. A go-around from a botched landing may not be real pretty here. Landing here is a bit different than most of us are used to: Check skis down; maintain altitude at 7,000 with a Talkeetna altimeter setting while slowing to approach speed; configure the airplane for landing; and as you intercept the slope, pitch the nose up, and add power to fly onto the rising slope (see " Rookie on the Mountain," page 81). The arrival concludes with a fast taxi to the top of the landing zone, followed by a quick turn around, and a stop with the airplane facing almost directly downhill, to facilitate the departure.
The Kahiltna Base Camp, at 7,200 feet, is the most popular starting point for climbers. Staging from here, most traverse the West Buttress Route to the summit. Only about half of the climbers who attempt McKinley succeed in reaching its summit. The Kahiltna Base Camp is operated by the air taxi services and the National Park Service. A base camp coordinator, employed by the air services, is stationed here during the climbing season. The coordinator facilitates communication between the mountain and Talkeetna, with weather updates, as well as advising when customers are ready for pickup, or if they need supplies.
Many of the sightseers on McKinley choose not to land on the mountain. Their view of the mountain is from an aerial perch afforded by another type of GA aircraft. The Piper Navajo is a popular workhorse for the Alaska scene, and it is used on McKinley for its altitude capability and reliability. With its turbocharged Lycoming engines, the Navajo Chieftain can easily fly to the top of McKinley with an eight-passenger load. The reliable Cessna 206 and 207 provide other options for the operator who has no interest in landing on the glaciers.
Legends abound here, and many of the characters who have flown the mountain appear larger than life. Among the most successful McKinley pilots is Cliff Hudson whose brother founded Hudson Air in 1946. Cliff joined the company in 1948 and flew the mountain regularly until his retirement in 1977. Hudson flew all those years in this difficult environment without a single accident, accomplishing many dramatic rescues in the process.
Hudson's son, Jay, runs the air service today, and is an accomplished mountain pilot. Hudson Air operates two Cessna 185s, a Piper Super Cub, and a Cessna TU 206, equipped with Fli-Lite hydraulic retractable-wheel skis. When a high-altitude rescue effort gets under way, Hudson and the TU 206 are frequently called on to provide high cover and a communications link for the rescue helicopter.
K-2 Aviation was started by Jim Okonek, and is now owned by Rust's Flying Service of Anchorage. K-2 is the largest operator in Talkeetna, with two 185s, two Beavers, one Navajo, and two turbine-converted single-engine Otters. The Otters are currently the biggest airplanes routinely landed on the mountain. All of K-2's airplanes have intercoms and headsets at each seat, and many play background music over the intercoms. The bright-red fleet of aircraft, most of which sport registration numbers ending in KT, is readily recognizable around the mountain and at the airport. Chief pilot Randy Kilbourn, a native of Fairbanks, runs a busy operation, keeping it all together and functioning smoothly.
Other operators on the field are Talkeetna Air Taxi, the outfit started by Don Sheldon in 1948 and owned for a number of years by former Lt. Gov. Lowell Thomas Jr.; Doug Geeting Aviation, owned by Doug Geeting; and several other smaller operations. Seven fixed-wing operators have Park Service permits to land on glaciers within the park.
McKinley's weather can be unforgiving. In June 2000, longtime McKinley pilot Don Dawson and his three climbing ranger passengers were killed when their Cessna 185 suffered an in-flight breakup after encountering severe weather on an aborted trip to the base camp. In 2003, Keli Mahoney of McKinley Air Service and her three passengers were killed when their Cessna 185 struck terrain near South Hunter Pass. Weather on McKinley is an ever-present factor in every flight, and experienced mountain pilots will testify that weather, not glacier landings, is the great equalizer here.
Helicopters work McKinley as well, ranging from Bell 206 JetRangers and Aerospatiale AS 350s to the ultimate McKinley helicopter, an Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama, which has actually landed on the summit of McKinley. The U.S. Army also works the mountain with its giant Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters.
The busy season kicks off with the arrival in Talkeetna of the Army's High Altitude Rescue Team (HART) CH-47 heavy-lift helicopters. The HART provides assistance to the climbing community and to the National Park Service by setting up seasonal climbing camps at 7,200 feet, 14,200 feet, and 17,200 feet on McKinley. This is a training exercise for the big Boeing machines and their crews, who are assigned to B Company, 4th Battalion, 123rd Aviation Regiment ("Sugar Bears") at Fort Wainwright, in Fairbanks, 110 miles north of the mountain. By the end of the week, the four CH-47s belonging to the Sugar Bears will have delivered tons of equipment and supplies to the climbing camps on McKinley's slopes, and the crews return home with substantial high-altitude mountain time under their belts.
The camps provide living quarters and support for the climbing rangers of the Park Service, and emergency assistance for climbers. Mountaineering rangers cycle between duty at the base camp (7,200 feet), the 14,200-foot camp, and the 17,200-foot camp to ensure that there are rescue personnel available who are acclimated to the altitudes where most rescues occur.
In 1976, Buddy Woods of Palmer used a Soloy turbine-converted Hiller Model 12J to rescue two climbers in distress near the summit. During the rescue, Woods landed twice above 20,000 feet, and six times above 18,000 feet.
The primary asset of the McKinley rescue force is the SA-315B Lama helicopter, contracted by the National Park Service to provide high-altitude-rescue capability on the mountain. The Lama is based in Talkeetna during the season. The high-altitude rescue operations on McKinley are the stuff of legend, and the Lama features prominently in that legend. This helicopter was landed on the summit of McKinley, at 20,320 feet msl, by Doug Drury in 1995.
McKinley is a dangerous place, and climbers frequently suffer from pulmonary edema and other forms of altitude sickness, as well as broken body parts caused by falls. When the call comes to Talkeetna that climbers need assistance, the Lama quickly launches to the mountain. The key to the Lama's high-altitude performance is power. Equipped with a Turbomeca Artouste IIIB engine of 858 shaft horsepower, and with 563 horsepower available for takeoff, the Lama is a high-altitude workhorse. The penalty of all that power, of course, is fuel burn, which is prodigious, at 55 gallons per hour. Once on the mountain, the Lama has about 25 minutes of working time, but fuel is cached at the Kahiltna Base Camp for rescues.
Mountains are not characterized by a lot of level ground, and climbers tend to get in trouble in some of the least landable spots. The Lama is not equipped with a winch, so a procedure known as "helicopter short haul" has been developed for making rescues at sites that preclude landings. "Short haul" is an appellation for a procedure involving a climbing harness rigged through the helicopter via a rig called a "three-ring circus," with a release mechanism under the helicopter, and a long line to which a climbing ranger attaches his torso harness. The helicopter lands near the rescue site, the ranger harnesses himself to the short-haul rig, and the helicopter flies the ranger as a sling load into the otherwise-inaccessible site. The ranger rigs the injured climber with a harness, and hooks back up to the helicopter for a long-line ride to a landable site. Typically, the Lama carries injured climbers as far as the base camp, where they are transferred to a medevac helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft for the flight to Talkeetna or to hospitals in Anchorage.
If the Lama is unavailable, the Sugar Bears can have a Chinook on the mountain in a matter of hours. The Chinook crews utilize winch techniques for their rescue operations. In 1988, Myron Babcock and Randy Mullen had the highest winch rescue in history, at 18,200 feet, with an 80-foot hoist off the Cassin Ridge.
More mundane helicopter operations are conducted by a fleet of flight-seeing helicopters based near the east entrance to the park and in Talkeetna. The helicopter of choice seems to be the Aerospatiale AS 350 A-Star. Since the Park Service does not permit routine helicopter landings within the park, these are strictly sightseeing operations while in the park. The helicopter tour operators do visit a number of glacier landing sites east of the park in other parts of the Alaska Range. Other helicopters operate within the park in support of wildlife research and survey efforts by Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey researchers.
By mid-June the busiest portion of the climbing season comes to a close. Snow on the glaciers becomes punchy, and snow bridges over crevasses become unreliable, making skiplane operations too risky. Without the airplanes for support, climbing activity drops.
The Denali Flyers are a diverse and colorful group. The skills and knowledge required to fly this mountain safely are somewhat different than aviators utilize in more "normal" flying operations. For many, this is seasonal work, but most log mountain time not for the money but because they simply wouldn't miss the opportunity to fly around the tallest mountain on the continent.
Michael T. Vivion is a Master CFI. He lives and flies in Alaska.
So you want to be a mountain pilot and fly the glaciers of Mount McKinley? What does it take to work here? I had the opportunity to gain some insight into the environment on McKinley in April 2003, as part of a mountain-flying clinic conducted by my employer. As part of this clinic, we landed a variety of aircraft at several locations on the mountain and, in the process, learned a bit about what it's like to log mountain time.
This isn't a place for the inexperienced pilot to cut his or her teeth in aviation. K-2 Aviation requires a minimum of 2,000 hours pilot-in-command time, and 500 in type for new-hire pilots. Most operators have similar requirements. New-hire pilots fly air tours around the mountain for some time before an operator tasks them with glacier landings. For air tours, of course, the pilot is also the guide, and the ability to give the "spiel" is a big part of the skills required here.
Departing Talkeetna, we file a flight plan with Jim Lindeman of the Talkeetna Flight Service Station. Unlike in the rest of the world, air-filed flight plans are the norm here. The operators have master flight plans on file with Talkeetna FSS, so pilots just spit out the basics and Lindeman records and opens the flight plan. This is a busy station at the peak of the season, but the flight service specialists provide personal and friendly service.
McKinley's airspace is busy. This isn't New York City, but sometimes it seems almost as crowded as the air taxi operators shuttle climbers, sightseers, and a huge quantity of supplies to the mountain. Because of the volume of air traffic around McKinley, recommended routes and visual checkpoints have been established along with traffic advisory frequencies, one each for the south and north sides of the mountain. On a good-weather day at the peak of the season, as many as 200 aircraft may pass such common checkpoints as Alder Gap. Maps of these routes and checkpoints are available from flight service stations, airports, the Park Service, and most of the air services. Any pilot who plans to fly around McKinley really should acquire a copy of this map and observe its recommendations carefully.
A typical position report might be: "Mountain Traffic, Cessna One-Two-Three, Ruth Icefall, 6,500 feet, up-glacier for landing the Amphitheater." To date, there have been no midairs around McKinley, but frequent position reports help to let everyone know who might be sharing the airspace. Also, this is wilderness, and in the event of an accident, it's nice to know that there are a number of pilots out there who may have heard your last position report, reducing search time.
For new pilots the weather here can be nearly overwhelming. My first visit to the mountain took place in restricted visibility, in the company of a pilot with experience on McKinley. Operating in this incredible array of peaks and tiny slots referred to loosely as passes can be disorienting on a clear day, but with any restriction to visibility or significant wind, this is no place for a stranger to the mountain's moods.
In the glacier-landing business, the chief pilot or director of operations does all the pioneering, both early in the season and after any appreciable amount of new snow. Getting stuck is entirely possible, which can ruin one's day as well as trash the schedule.
Glacier landings aren't high science, but they are probably different than anything you've ever done before. Virtually all these sites lie on slopes, some rather steep, so the landing approach is generally at a level altitude, with no descent during the approach. The slope of the landing surface creates the illusion that you are very high during the approach, and most of these sites feature a large rock wall at the upper end of the landing area, so go-arounds range from exciting to deadly. As you fly into the slope, pitch up, intercept the slope, and add power to land up-slope. Keep the power up as you taxi to the top of the landing zone, execute a 180-degree turn, and park.
The base camp rests at an elevation of 7,200 feet, so the mixture is set prior to approach, and left there throughout. Prior to shutdown, the pilot notes the mixture setting before selecting idle cutoff, or simply shuts the engine down with the magnetos, leaving the mixture set for the takeoff.
Takeoffs can be more "interesting" than landings. With a high density altitude (temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit aren't unheard of on the glaciers) and sticky snow, aircraft performance is sluggish, even for these high-performance airplanes. As you slowly accelerate down the mountain (literally down the mountain, as in vertically), a fine touch on the elevator is necessary to avoid dragging the tailwheel, or stubbing the toe of the skis. On some of the steeper slopes, it seems that you are literally in a vertical dive prior to liftoff, since slopes steepen rapidly as you go downhill.
If the airplane isn't accelerating as it should, it's time to call it quits and try again. Stop the airplane straight ahead, deplane all passengers, then turn the airplane around, point it uphill, and begin the agonizingly slow taxi back to the top. At least one air taxi airplane got upside down in the 2003 season when the pilot failed to slow adequately prior to turning.
Most of the glacier pilots operating out of Talkeetna will make five to six glacier landings a day during the peak season, so practice makes perfect.
The vast majority of the Denali Flyers are seasonal employees. Most of the air services cut back to just one or two pilots outside the busy season, so flying here is generally for those with some other source of income during the rest of the year. It may be seasonal work, but it's intense work, with challenges and rewards unlike those virtually anywhere else.
And the workplace is fabulous. — MTV
On October 22, 2003, the FAA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for new National Air Tour Safety Standards that if passed would affect Hudson's Flying Service and other similar operations. The FAA claims the change is for safety reasons, but provides no safety data or statistics to justify it. AOPA is questioning the need for this regulation and is concerned about the impact it would have on thousands of general aviation businesses. In fact, AOPA created a video demonstrating the impact of the ruling on a flight-seeing business in California. The video was used in AOPA testimony before Congress against the proposed regulation.
The proposed rule would force all sightseeing and air tour operators to comply with Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 135, driving, by the FAA's own estimation, close to 1,000 operators out of business. It would also more than double the minimum required flight hours from 200 to 500 for volunteer pilots helping a charity with fund-raising flights, and impose expensive new requirements on existing Part 135 air tour operators. This proposed rule eliminates the option exercised by thousands of businesses and flight schools to conduct sightseeing operations under FAR Part 91 that depart and return to the same airport and remain within 25 miles of that airport. The FAA now proposes that the majority of these operators obtain Part 135 certification. Only a few charitable types of operations would remain exempt under this proposal. These exempt operations also face new and limiting requirements under the proposal.
Private pilots participating in charitable or community fund-raising events would now also need a minimum of 500 hours of flight time and be limited to four events per calendar year. "Unfortunately, this new requirement eliminates the opportunity for many pilots to contribute their time and services to worthy causes," said AOPA Director of Regulatory and Certification Policy Luis Gutierrez. "The new flight-time requirement appears to be arbitrary; the FAA does not provide any safety data or statistics to support it."
The FAA is also proposing to create a new subpart A in Part 136 of the FARs, which "would apply to any person operating or intending to operate a commercial air tour." This would include persons conducting commercial air tours for charitable or community events. The FAA anticipates that Part 136 would be dedicated to air tour regulation. Included in this part would be the regulations pertaining to Grand Canyon National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, and the regulations implementing the National Parks Air Tour Management Act. The new standards for commercial air tour operators would include adoption of minimum altitudes, terrain stand-off distances, visibility limits, cloud clearance standards, and new requirements for equipment upgrades for helicopters used in overwater operations. The FAA proposes to impose these regulations on all commercial air tours including those occurring in Alaska. Alaska sightseeing operators have expressed concerns that the FAA's proposal will have an adverse economic impact on their businesses. One operator estimates the cost to his company at $15 million to $18 million over a 10-year period. — AOPA Government and Technical Affairs
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