They say Alaska is like nowhere else. Not just big, though it is that — with a total area of more than 550,000 square miles, it's more than twice the size of Texas. Alaska is also sparsely populated; it counts just 400,000, about the same as Oklahoma City. Alaska is also a land of wildly contrasting geography and climate, from the lush and wet southeast to the harsh, foreboding permafrost of the north.
Through it all, general aviation makes Alaska tick. Without it, according to the locals, some 70 percent of the state would be without immediate contact with the outside world. Food, mail, commerce, people — all connect through aircraft, ranging from Cessna 185s and Piper Super Cubs to turbine de Havilland Otters, Douglas DC-6s, and Boeing 737s. The Alaska commercial pilot's role is more complex and demanding than being just an aerial taxi driver. Rapidly changing weather combined with difficult terrain and often rudimentary airfields make the Alaska pilot's task challenging, his judgment and local savvy the crucial elements in making the system work. Of course, that's true whether he's flying for money or for recreation.
This system parts ways with those of the rest of the United States in many ways, so managing Alaska with the same hand (and philosophies) used elsewhere is inappropriate. Alaskan pilots know this, and AOPA knew this, but there's nothing like experience to shine a light on the dissimilarities, to breathe life into the fact and legend of flying in Alaska.
As AOPA President Phil Boyer wrote in " President's Position: One Size Doesn't Fit All" (October Pilot), five of us spent six days visiting a total of 12 locations. This grueling schedule was punctuated with a series of AOPA Pilot Town Meetings, gatherings ranging in attendance from a handful to 200, which provided us a chance to give pilots a personalized report of what the association has been up to and, more important in this instance, to find out what was on the minds of Alaska's aviators.
Along for the trip besides Boyer is AOPA Senior Vice President of Government and Technical Affairs Steven J. Brown, AOPA Pacific Northwest Regional Representative Ray Costello, longtime Alaska aviator and head of the Alaska Air Safety Foundation Tom Wardleigh, and yours truly. Three of us are Alaska tenderfeet, with either little or no experience in what is arguably our wildest and most spectacular state. Costello maintains a summertime residence in Alaska, and to fliers there, Wardleigh needs no introduction. But for everyone else's benefit, Wardleigh has plied the Alaskan skies, sand bars, gravel strips, glaciers, and what have you since 1951, when he moved from the Seattle area to take a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, he hosts a public-television program, Hangar Flying, which emphasizes safety and good judgment above all; it is also distributed via satellite on the Rural Alaska Television Network, or Ratnet.
Wardleigh, whose carefully considered speech makes him sound like a mellow Garrison Keillor, is our guide.
We board the association's Cessna twin on a clear, crisp Seattle morning, settling in for what we know will be a long haul. The flight to Ketchikan is less than 600 nautical miles, but it might as well be halfway to the moon for all the differences. Though bright and balmy at Boeing Field, we punch into the tops of an overcast about an hour into the trip.
Weather at our destination is unseasonably good, according to Wardleigh: Scattered layers at 2,000 and 3,000 feet, with high overcast and light rain. Boyer and Wardleigh brief for the instrument approach into Ketchikan, an ILS with a DME arc. Wardleigh warns that many pilots have come to grief forgetting to switch the DME from the arc portion, based on a local vortac, to the ILS channel, subsequently running into the mountain just west of the airport. "Just over there, a Baron went in some years ago," Wardleigh comments evenly, gesturing toward jagged peaks just visible through the murk.
Boyer's landing on the Ketchikan runway marks the last of the 50 states in which he's flown a light airplane. As three of us comment, "Well, we're finally in Alaska," we notice that the ramp holds not just a gaggle of seaplanes or hoard of Cessna 185s on tundra tires, but also a clan of big-dollar business jets.
We meet with Jerry Scadera, president of Taquan Air, a local charter operator flying everything from the ubiquitous Cessna 185 to a Caravan on wheels. His business departs from the norm in Alaska in that its pilots are paid regardless of whether they fly their muklucks off or sit with a warm cup of coffee, waiting for the ceiling to raise to minimums. Such freedom removes the financial impetus to push weather (or pilot skill) with potentially dire results. Wardleigh comments that were more charters run the same way, the safety record in Alaska, nonetheless steadily improving, would reap big dividends.
Our first town meeting, with a half dozen participants, promises to be intimate. (Wardleigh points to the gray drizzle and says, "Well, you can't expect too many pilots to come out on such a beautiful summer day.")
Among the concerns voiced by this group — items to be reiterated time and again during our travels — is the closing of flight service stations in Alaska. The Federal Aviation Administration had a plan to streamline weather dissemination, intended to consolidate 26 local FSSs in the state to just three automated FSSs (AFSSs). In this place of fast- changing weather and sparse population, such changes created tremendous concern. What may work in the Lower 48 wasn't going to work in Alaska, the locals said.
Though the consolidation isn't yet complete — and the FAA altered its plans under pressure from AOPA and local pilots — scars remain. The three AFSSs in Juneau, Fairbanks, and Kenai will remain, bolstered with 14 auxiliary FSSs (XFSSs) and six supplemental weather facilities, manned by contract weather observers.
Pilots at the meeting suggest that they have been given the cold end of the roast by the FAA and that traditional, vital services — weather information, traffic advisories, and flight-plan processing — of the FSSs cannot be adequately served by the proposed system. In Alaska, at the high-traffic airports not served by control towers, the FSS personnel have provided valuable assistance in de-facto traffic separation.
The weather clears for the same afternoon's jaunt to Juneau, state capital and lovely seaport. Nestled below the Taku Glacier, Juneau and its airport fairly sparkle in the late-day sunlight when we arrive. Thanks to the bright skies, we don't avail ourselves of the instrument approach into Juneau, an LDA to Runway 8 with high minimums — no lower than 1,560 feet agl and 2.5 miles' visibility for Category A aircraft. Thanks to local terrain and the orientation of the runway, creating a useful precision approach at Juneau has been a difficult, and thus far impossible, task. "A fellah could spend a lifetime trying to make the approach work here," Wardleigh says, speaking from experience. He spent several years with the FAA in Alaska as a line pilot, frequently making facility checks in the state. "Juneau is a tough nut to crack."
So it was no surprise when the locals at the Pilot Town Meeting that night got excited watching videotaped precision GPS approaches being demonstrated at AOPA's Frederick, Maryland, headquarters. Differential GPS could make approaches into Juneau a whole new deal; for example, the missed approach to Runway 8 could be run up the Gastineau Channel, which angles off southeast from Juneau. What's more, an approach for Runway 26 could be constructed, which would be a real boon for those many days when the wind whips out of the west.
Differential GPS's possibilities have not been lost on Juneau's airport manager, Paul Bowers. He has been working hard with the FAA to begin a DGPS demonstration program at Juneau; the agency has agreed to begin the tests soon.
With clear skies and a chamber-of-commerce sunset in action at the time of our visit, it's not hard to imagine how tourism, in Juneau and nearly everywhere in Alaska, is the state's leading growth industry. Whether it's fishing and hunting expeditions or local sightseeing flights over Denali State Park, general aviation has become a prime beneficiary — and mover — of this influx of tourists.
Our next stop takes us 360 nm west-northwest to Cordova. Hitched between the Gulf of Alaska and a series of glaciers swirling down from Mt. Williams, Cordova seems harsher than Juneau, and even in the summer, there's a hint of hard winters and high winds.
Lunching at the Reluctant Fisherman, a lovely restaurant and lodge overlooking the Orca Inlet in downtown Cordova, Alaska still seems idyllic. We hear from local pilots about the FSS mess and also get an earful on the practices of U.S. Customs officials. Familiar are the complaints — poor social skills on the part of the agents and serious problems with the prior-notice policies. It's not uncommon for weather in Alaska to force a pilot to make several diversions, which can add dramatically to time enroute. Further, communications facilities are often few and far between, so getting the word to Customs on accurate arrival times can be difficult or impossible. Though these travails are well known, say the pilots, Customs will not bend.
Fairbanks is a quick, 270-nm jaunt from Cordova, so we elect to take the scenic route. Coaxed by Wardleigh to choose an altitude somewhat below the flight levels, Boyer agrees to a lower level tour of the famed Alaskan Pipeline; we meet it over the town of Valdez. To see the pipeline traverse the rugged terrain is but to scarcely imagine the work put into its construction — as an engineering feat, it is astonishing, and as a windfall to the state's economy, the oil tube is singularly important.
Fairbanks International arrives in the windshield on schedule. Imagine the ideal airport, where jet, light fixed-wing, helicopter, seaplane, and ski-shod aircraft all have a place — that's Fairbanks. Along with a large, ILS-served main runway, there's a small parallel, a gravel ski strip, and a commodious seaplane channel, right in between. If it's got wings (or rotors), you can probably find a place to land it and park it in Fairbanks.
We are met with a capacity crowd of more than 150 at Richard Wien's hangar for the evening meeting. Parked on the airport side are a brace of Grumman Widgeons, one with a pair of 350-horsepower turbocharged engines taken from a Piper Navajo. Also at hand is the Bushmaster trimotor (see "Bushmaster 2000: Tri Again, January 1991 _Pilot_), which has been doing a successful stint "flightseeing" around Denali in the summer months. As night begins to fall and the question-and-answer session winds down, a few hardcore aviation aficionados near the door begin to sneak out at the sound of the first of the trimotor's radials coming to life. By number two, a line of onlookers watch the new/old bushplane silhouetted against the dusk sky as it coughs smoke and shakes itself awake.
If Juneau and Ketchikan are the more tropical of Alaska's settlements, then Kotzebue is among the more foreboding, arctic. Here you can see the harshness of the winters as you stamp about on the permafrost. It is our first stop above the Arctic Circle, where in the height of summer, there's nearly 24-hour sunlight. And, conversely, in the dead of winter (a tired old phrase correctly applied), that fiery globe appears over the horizon for a mere two or three hours.
Pilots fly year-round, weather permitting, hauling cargo and passengers; the difficulties flying in minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures with 20 knots of wind boggle the mind. We decide we won't stay around long enough for the weather to turn. (It's either Boyer's Alaskan beginner's luck or Wardleigh's connections that make the weather marvelous; we arrive in Kotzebue and, later that day — as a bonus stop, not on the official itinerary — in Nome, to clear skies.)
In Nome, we chat with FSS personnel, some of which are expecting to be transferred to Juneau when the Nome facility shuts down in the near future. Downstairs is the National Weather Service office, where we discuss the pros and cons of the AWOS system with the technicians there. They echo the general sentiments of Alaska pilots that the devices, while certainly useful, should not be relied upon to give the whole weather picture, especially not in locations where one end of the runway could be zero-zero in fog and the other end CAVU.
Boyer gets some actual instrument conditions on the way into Dillingham, 389 nm southeast of Nome. The city lies at the head of the Nushagak Bay, a fishing town, as evidenced by the scores of fishing boats landlocked for the off season. (The season is short, not quite a month long; many residents work the season and take the rest of the year off.)
We don't expect to set any attendance records, appearing as we do in the basement of the Holy Rosary Mission Parish house, but more than 30 local pilots come out in the drizzly night. One of them is Will Johnson, president of Yute Air Alaska; he pulls me aside after the presentation. "What are we going to do about new airplanes?" he asks, somewhat rhetorically. "We have 10,000- and 20,000-hour Cessna 206s out here. We are finding problems with them you'd never think would become problems. Do you think Cessna will ever build another 206?"
Johnson's question, one heard often in the Lower 48 but thus far not terribly often on our Alaska tour, is a good one. The kind of flying done here puts stresses and cycles and hours on airplanes their makers never intended. Having to make due with 15- and 20-year-old airframes doesn't help. For the pilots in Alaska, potential product-liability reforms — specifically a statute of repose that would cut off the liability tail after 15 or 20 years — which would stimulate airplane production, cannot come too soon. Alas, Cessna Chairman Russ Meyer recently announced that if this statute of repose succeeds, his company will resume production of the 172, 182, and 206 models. Should Meyer follow up on this promise, it will come as welcome news to the Will Johnsons of Alaska.
We meet informally with Tim and Nancy LaPort, owners of Iliamna Air Taxi, and take time to walk around the superbly maintained gravel runways there. In the fixed-base-operation building, hunters await their rides, gear stacked in overflowing bags, already joking about the ones that got away.
Glen Alsworth provides the quick trip out to a smaller gravel strip — one too rough and short for our particular heavy twin.
The strip at Port Alsworth ends at a bay on Lake Clark, thus you get landplanes parked practically "wing tip to tailfeathers" with the seaplanes. This is the image of Alaska you get from the postcards and travel guides. The Aleutian Range rises all around; the high stratus layer has a leaden cast. Seaplanes rock gently in the current; it all makes you want to chuck the city life and buy a Super Cub on the spot. Such an urge is only strengthened by an all-too-brief flight around the area in an Otter on floats — to see the terrain from the old de Havilland's graceful perch is truly living.
Steve Brown takes the controls for a while; we begin to wonder if we'll have to pry him loose from the flight deck.
Boyer's luck and/or Wardleigh's connections fail us coming into Kodiak. Weather there has been at minimums for a day or more, with ragged bases. "Yep, just like Kodiak," says Wardleigh.
We set up for the VOR approach, intending to circle into the wind, which is coming out of the southeast at 20 gusting to 30. One small complication: a rock, 2,500 feet tall, at the departure end of Runway 25. You don't dally on the missed approach, and a circle-to-land in low visibility calls for the utmost care.
At decision height the first time around, we see nothing, just cloud and rain on the windshield. Wardleigh's voice rises an octave and several notches in intensity, "You'll be wanting to make that climbing left turn now, Phil. A little steeper, if you will, please...." Those of us facing backwards are less than thrilled with our views.
The next approach was to a downwind landing to take advantage of lower minimums. That proves to be the trick, and we plop down onto the runway gracefully despite the hefty quartering tailwind.
At the Anchorage Air Museum, the audience fills the theater to the brim, and a new set of questions and comments from resident pilots emerges. Topics range from land use and environmental issues to airspace and medical exams.
Over the course of the trip, several things have become clear to us. First, pilots in Alaska aren't the devil-may-care cowboys somehow so omnipresent in Alaska lore; they are careful, conscientious, and highly concerned about safety. Second, necessity truly is the mother of invention. Accurate and timely weather reporting is crucial to survival in Alaska, and some interesting measures have been taken toward that end — measures like remote television cameras pointed at commonly used passes that can give the FSS personnel an important piece of the weather puzzle. To have the FSS network disintegrate will, according to those we have chatted with, seriously hurt aviation in Alaska. It's an issue among many in Alaska that Brown vows his Washington, D.C., staff will work fervently as it goes about its daily business of making the federal government aware of members' needs.
Third, and perhaps most important, we saw demonstrated to us the true, enduring value of general aviation. It's too easy to complain about the rising costs, increasing regulation, and declining numbers of new pilots and new airplanes. But to see light aircraft providing not just important but utterly vital services works wonders uplifting the spirits.
We came away from Alaska educated, enlightened, and optimistic. And for those of us making homes in other states, we left with a strong desire to return to Alaska.