No pilot should contemplate a general aviation flight to Alaska without pondering the possibility of running into difficult weather on long routes that may lack access to weather reports. But for some parts of the state, there are other complications that pilots need to know about to successfully fly the skies of the forty-ninth state.
Different regions present unique challenges: The panhandle in Alaska’s southeastern region is defined by fjords, rocky islands, and coastal ranges with peaks that rise to almost 10,000 feet. In this flight environment a pilot must anticipate frequent low clouds, coastal fog, and unpredictable turbulence along with those other typically Alaskan weather challenges—and be ready to manage the workload while in some locations sharing very constricted airspace with large jets descending or climbing rapidly on IFR arrival and departure profiles and GA aircraft flying charter trips and seasonal sightseeing outings under VFR.
How does an out-of-state pilot learn how to blend in safely? A good resource for preparing to fly in this part of Alaska is the Flying in Southeast Alaska overview available in the Travel area of the AOPA website. (Navigate to International and Cross-Border Travel, then scroll down and select Alaska from the choices you see.)
“Southeast Alaska has some unique flying conditions that pilots should become acquainted with before arriving in the region. Like much of the state, most communities here are not connected by roads. Combined with a relatively low frequency of service from the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, this makes air travel a primary means of transportation,” the overview’s introduction notes.
Unlike in the Lower 48, it explains, common traffic advisory frequencies may be assigned to regions, rather than individual airports, in Southeast Alaska. These so-called area CTAFs are also available for reference in the Notices section of the Alaska Chart Supplement.
A graphic depicts airspace classes, communications frequencies, and reporting points in the Juneau High Density Traffic Area. Safe operating practices in the Juneau area are explained in a detailed 28-page letter of agreement endorsed by local operators.
“A rash of aircraft accidents during the summer of 2018 highlighted the need for additional safety information on flying in southeast Alaska,” George said.
He added that AOPA has reached out to the FAA to consider reissuing safety publications that have not been updated since 2002.
In the meantime, information maintained online by aircraft operators can be accessed from the AOPA website’s Travel tab to help fill this void. Important documents such as those maintained by local aviation organizations cover the Juneau area at the northern end of the Alaska Panhandle, and the Ketchikan area at the southern end of the panhandle.
Southeast Alaska has breathtaking landscapes, and can be a very rewarding place to visit by GA. Take advantage of the local knowledge captured in these documents before you arrive to understand how to abide by the local conventions adopted to support aviation safety in this unique part of Alaska.