Proficient Pilot

All-time high

September 1, 2006

Aviation writer Barry Schiff flies from Santa Monica Airport in California.

At a recent gathering of pilots, I was asked about my all-time favorite general aviation flight. It was difficult to select one because I have been fortunate to have had many memorable ones.

I have gone on flying safaris in East and South Africa and viewed incredible wildlife from above and abeam. There have been flights over the Middle East where I did pylon turns around biblical landmarks, flights now impossible given the region's volatility. There have been wonderful flights made over oceans and continents all over the world.

It finally dawned on me that my all-time favorite was one that can be flown by almost anyone but seldom is. The destination is a place where almost no one goes, but flying there provides great adventure and a gratifying sense of accomplishment. It was a flight across the Canadian Arctic to Inuvik, a town near the northern edge of North America.

The Arctic is envisioned as a frigid wasteland, the birthplace of blizzards, but the summer Arctic is much different. Daytime temperatures can soar to 90 degrees Fahrenheit but average only 57.

I made the flight in a Piper Comanche (N9428P) and took my wife and another couple with a similar sense of adventure. We flew from Santa Monica Municipal Airport in Southern California to Edmonton, Alberta, which is where the adventure truly began.

We had been advised to bring survival gear, a rifle, and enough insect repellent to kill a caribou. Some of the Arctic's mosquitoes are so big that they deploy flaps for landing. Without such protection, the most difficult aspect of a forced landing would be surviving their bites. We also brought tents and sleeping bags but did not need them. Frontier-style hotels were available at our stops, but reservations are strongly suggested.

There is nothing foreboding or challenging about the flight, but the legs can be long and lonely. Although Canada's Northwest Territories is almost as large as Alaska, the population there would not fill Yankee Stadium. If you want to escape the maddening crowd and head for places whose names you cannot pronounce, this is a way to do it. I recommend, though, that the flight be made with a friend flying another aircraft. Fly in loose formation as a team so that if one goes down, the other can arrange for timely rescue.

GPS makes navigation a breeze, but it was not that easy when I made the flight in 1970. We used a combination of low-frequency ranges, radio beacons, sparsely located vortacs, and lots of dead reckoning and pilotage. Aeronautical charts were and still are your best friends.

After leaving Edmonton, we flew north across rolling farmland reminiscent of the Midwest and made a fuel stop at Peace River. Our next leg took us over seemingly endless stretches of pine trees that provided little opportunity for a safe forced landing in the event of engine failure. We felt like ants crawling across an endless green carpet. The view went all the way to the horizon and in all directions.

Our first day ended at Hay River at the southern edge of the Great Slave Lake, which is larger than Lake Erie. The town has dirt roads and centers on an old Indian village. It is a fisherman's paradise and where we first visited the Hudson's Bay Co., the Sears of the north, for additional supplies.

Navigation from here was a breeze. All we had to do was follow the broad Mackenzie River, Canada's longest, from Great Slave Lake to where the Mackenzie empties into the Arctic Ocean. Not too long after leaving Hay River, we made a food-and-fuel stop at Fort Simpson, where we were approached by a band of friendly and curious Slave Indian children wanting to inspect our airplane and hoping to sell curios.

We then flew farther north along the Mackenzie and encountered the semipermanent polar front. This forced us to fly less than 1,000 feet over the river. Visibility remained good even in the scattered rain showers, and shafts of sunlight ahead encouraged us to continue. Severe clear was reported at our next stop, Norman Wells. We followed the river as carefully as a cartographer's pen. The terrain is relatively flat, and the eastern slopes of the Rockies, which we had been more or less paralleling, were never closer than 30 miles. We landed an hour later under a sky of brilliant arctic blue.

Although invited to spend the night in the recreation hall of this petroleum town, we realized that it would not get dark for another month and that Inuvik, our destination, was only an additional 284 miles ahead. We continued north.

A sandbar in the river marked our crossing of the Arctic Circle, the invisible gateway to the Land of the Midnight Sun. It was anticlimactic because nothing changed. The circle is simply a line drawn on a map to satisfy man's need for order and definition.

We flew over the Mackenzie River delta. Trees became shorter and then nonexistent; the tundra is griddle flat. There are lakes, thousands of them; it is the world's largest fresh-water reserve.

Inuvik is Eskimo for "the place of man." There are no roads leading there, only a river and an airway. After landing, we were greeted by Squadron 43 of Her Majesty's Mosquito Forces and donned the latest in Arctic fedora fashions, a mosquito net. The attack was short-lived. Follow the remainder of our journey next month.

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