A humpback whale lifts its barnacle-encrusted head straight up from the icy ocean as it surveys its surroundings.
The massive mammal appears to defy gravity by staying stationary for several seconds, then splashes down into the lightly rippled Pacific Ocean in Southeast Alaska. Moments later, the whale rises again, this time holding its “spy-hopping” pose even longer.
“Do you see that?” AOPA Senior Photographer David Tulis asks giddily via the aircraft intercom. “Let’s get over there. I’m ready to make some frames.”
Tulis and I are in the midst of a three-day ferry trip taking a Cessna 208 Caravan on Wipaire amphibious floats to Anchorage, Alaska. We’re longtime friends, fellow pilots, and AOPA colleagues, and he’s come to document the journey in photos and video. We’ve seen dozens of whales from long distance since taking off from Ketchikan in extreme Southeast Alaska 90 minutes ago, but Tulis wants a whale closeup—and I’m determined to help him get it.
I point the 675-horsepower turboprop in the direction of the whale’s most recent appearance, accelerating to 140 KIAS. As we reach the expanding circle showing the whale’s big splash, I drop the flaps 10 degrees and start a hard right turn so that Tulis can look down into the clear water. It works.
“I see two whales,” he says with a camera pressed against his cheek. “Shallow the bank angle so I don’t have to shoot through the curved part of the windshield.”
One of the whales starts a deep dive, its flukes kicking completely out of the water and then sliding below the surface. The other rolls on its side and slaps the water playfully with its long right pectoral fin.
We circle until they both disappear into the depths.
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Even though this trip began a full week earlier than scheduled, I still feel pressed for time.
The Alaska coast is almost invariably cloudy and rainy in summer, and this season has been particularly cool and dreary. But a break in the gloom is predicted, and the forecast for the week prior to our scheduled departure calls for a rare 48 hours of sunshine, light winds, calm seas, and mild temperatures. Such conditions are simply too promising to pass up.
Tulis and I meet the Caravan at its home base in Minnesota and pack it with photo, camping, and flying gear. It’s amazing how baggage expands to fill the volume of any airplane, even a cavernous Caravan. We’ve got drones, coolers, and other bulky items I seldom bring on flying trips. We’re also bringing a shotgun, ammunition, cleaning supplies, motor oil, and a cook stove. The storage lockers in the floats contain a spare main wheel and tire, an extra nosewheel and tire, and an air compressor—plus a full allotment of lines, bumpers, and pumps for pulling water out of the floats.
On day one, we fly nine hours through some rain and turbulence to get to Bellingham, Washington, for the start of the excellent weather.
The meteorologists are right, and departure morning is sunny and mild—but a boneheaded blunder on my part delays our takeoff. I inadvertently left key survival gear behind in Maryland, and a friend has thoughtfully sent it to Bellingham Aviation Services, the lone FBO on the airport, via overnight delivery. It contains a personal locator beacon and satellite messenger, and it was scheduled to arrive 24 hours before us in the Caravan but didn’t get there. The delivery firm assures me it will arrive at the FBO by noon, but I’ve lost confidence. All I see is a day of exceptionally good flying conditions slipping away.
At 10:45 a.m., I can’t stand waiting any longer and walk out on the sunny ramp.
“You know the package is going to arrive five minutes after we leave no matter what time we leave,” Tulis says. “So, we may as well get going.”
Tulis has a satellite messenger of his own, and that will have to suffice. With an IFR flight plan already on file, we make the jungle-gym climb up the floats and into the Caravan, start the engine, and prepare for departure with Tulis backing me up with a checklist.
We launch at 11 and the heavily loaded Caravan trundles down Runway 16, its two front wheels conveying every bump in the concrete surface. At 70 knots, I pull hard on the yoke and the front wheels come off the pavement, followed by the main wheels about two seconds later. We turn right over the harbor and climb into a cloudless blue sky. The San Juan Islands slip by our left wing as Bellingham tower shifts us to a Canadian approach controller handling the west side of the Vancouver airspace. With the exception of substituting “decimal” for “point” and adding a spoken “November” in front of the Caravan’s registration number, the IFR radio and navigational procedures in Canada seem pretty much identical to our own.
U.S. pilots have a strong incentive when flying the coastal route to and from Alaska to cover all 550 or so nautical miles between Ketchikan and Bellingham or Seattle without stopping. Nonstop travel makes the trip a domestic flight and eliminates the need to file eAPIS forms, carry passports, or get inspections from U.S. or Canadian customs agents.
The Caravan is topped off with more than 300 gallons of jet fuel and the winds are mostly favorable, so making Ketchikan nonstop is well within its capabilities. But just to make sure, we climb to 8,000 feet for better fuel efficiency and a tailwind. With a low cruise power setting (1,500-foot pounds of torque and 1,800 propeller rpm) fuel consumption is about 300 pounds per hour (or 45 gph) and ground speed is 145 knots—good enough to arrive at Ketchikan in four hours of flying time.
Our route follows the “inside passage,” the scenic waterway protected by a long series of barrier islands and favored by mariners in everything from sailboats to cruise ships.
It seems incongruous to see the Caravan’s floats over high mountain passes where snow remains on some of the north-facing slopes all year. On this late-summer day, the often cloud-shrouded Coastal Range is crystal clear and the Whistler Blackcomb ski area is plainly visible on our right side.
About one hour from Ketchikan, after three hours of flying, we cancel IFR, click off the autopilot, and drop down to 1,000 feet to follow the canals the rest of the way.
We’ve not seen any other airplanes for the last hour, and the radio has been mostly silent.
Southeast Alaska is the place the modern ADS-B system was first tested and proven, and the Caravan’s Garmin 750 shows the benefits of in-cockpit weather, traffic, and terrain warnings that so many pilots—myself included—have come to depend on.
At Ketchikan, the harbor is bustling with cruise ships, boats, and floatplanes, and the nontowered airport is a beehive of activity, too.
The Ketchikan Flight Service Station does an excellent job of keeping track of the airplanes in the area and providing advisories, yet the procedures feel slightly foreign. The FSS isn’t “controlling” aircraft with vectors and clearances the way U.S. air traffic controllers do. Instead, pilots self-announce their positions while approaching or departing the island runway and work out their own separation.
We get in line behind an airliner and a Cessna 206 landing south. Once on the ramp, we top off the Caravan and then keep going.
We follow the channels and waterways to the northwest at 1,000 feet while dodging a few bald eagles (“Alaska pigeons”) as we wind our way toward Sitka, the historic island known to the aviation world for the high-quality spruce wood that was used for decades to produce relatively strong and light load-bearing aircraft spars. The route brings us to the open ocean at the edge of the continental Air Defense Identification Zone boundary for international flights. Fishing boats ply the area for salmon that are about to start their life-capping dashes up steep rivers and streams to spawn.
Even at 8 p.m., we’re two hours from sunset and continue our whale search. Our route takes us along the rocky and dramatic coast where black cliffs on heavily forested, volcanic islands rise almost vertically from the cold ocean. We’re now over Alaska’s unsheltered “outer coast,” but the ocean is calm and the air a mild 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Flying a seaplane over long stretches of water sometimes provides a false sense of security. If seas are rough, the waves can be too tall to touch down without severely damaging or destroying the floats and sinking or overturning the aircraft. But under these conditions, the Pacific resembles a placid lake.
At Sitka, we have our choice of touching down in the water at the seaplane base or a hard-surface airport runway, and that’s an easy decision. The airport keeps the metal floats out of corrosive saltwater, and fueling the airplane is easier and less expensive on dry land.
Securing the Caravan on the ramp overnight, we marvel at the otherworldly scenery we’ve overflown during this idyllic day and discuss our plan for tomorrow, which promises to be even better. I turn on my iPhone to check the forecast, and the first thing that pops up is the delivery notification for my tardy package. It had arrived at the FBO less than an hour after we departed.
The dawn sky is clear for the part of the trip I’ve been looking forward to the most: a low-level flight up the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage.
We’ll cross Glacier Bay, skirt the ice fields at the base of towering Mount Fairweather, get an up-close look at the even taller and more imposing Mount St. Elias, and cruise over the Malaspina and Bering glaciers. We’ll get close to waterfalls and overfly hundreds of miles of trackless beaches.
But as we arrive at the airport in Sitka, I’m strangely uneasy. I’ve only flown this route once before (in the opposite direction, from Anchorage to Juneau), and that flight nearly ended in disaster. That day started out with blue skies and a benign forecast just like this one. But it ended in heavy rain, low ceilings, and a diversion to an alternate airport in a VFR-only airplane with a dangerously little fuel in reserve (see “Alaska Misadventure,” August 2016 AOPA Pilot). Rapidly changing winds and weather and sometimes vast distances between airports are realities that Alaska pilots deal with every day, but the helpless feeling of watching the fuel gauges bounce around near empty over rough terrain and icy water that offered no place for a precautionary landing is one I’m determined never to repeat.
Tulis shoots a few photos of red-tinged, early morning clouds and jokes about the “red sky at morning, sailor take warning” truism.
Unfortunately, adverse weather really is on its way from the southwest. We’re leaving well ahead of it, yet it’s a reminder not to dawdle. The sunshine we’ve been enjoying is an aberration, and our weather window is going to slam shut in 24 hours or less.
Tulis asks for a low approach to the Sitka seaplane base before we depart so he can record it on the action cameras he’s mounted to the Caravan wing, tail, and windshield, and I’m happy to oblige. The airplane is only moderately loaded, and the cool, still morning makes it nimble as we approach the harbor from the east. We lower the flaps, cross over a bridge, and drop down to a few feet above the water. I’m tempted to touch down but instead add power, climb, and point the airplane toward Glacier Bay, our next waypoint.
Even though we’re only flying 1,000 feet above the water, a 20-knot tailwind speeds our progress toward Yakutat, a coastal town that will be our final fuel stop before Anchorage. Along the way, the scale and variety of Alaskan terrain dazzles. Fjords reminiscent of Norway; alpine peaks and braided rivers like New Zealand; ocean water with colors that rival the blues of the Bahamas; and massive glaciers sliding down to the sea like Greenland.
I grew up surfing in Southern California and am tempted to rent a board and a wetsuit and surf in Yakutat just for the pure novelty of it. But the Icy Waves surf shop there is closed, and our pathway ahead to Anchorage is still wide open.
About 75 miles from Anchorage, I climb to 6,500 feet to top the mountain pass leading to the Turnagain Arm waterway and Alaska’s largest city. The place is an aviation marvel with an international airport, U.S. Air Force base, general aviation airport, and the world’s busiest seaplane base all within a few miles of each other.
I check in with an Anchorage approach controller who vectors us to a visual approach to Runway 7 Left at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. There we follow a long line of cargo Boeing 747s and make our way to the south side of the airfield. This is the end of our ferry flight. Our journey from Minneapolis has taken 19.5 flying hours, covered about 2,500 nautical miles, and included four stops in Alaska (Ketchikan, Sitka, Yakutat, and Anchorage). The journey could have been done slightly more efficiently via one of the more direct inland routes—and it could have been done a lot faster on wheels instead of draggy amphibious floats that slow the Caravan from roughly Bonanza speed (about 170 KTAS) to Cessna 182 Skylane pace (about 135 KTAS).
Having floats was a blessing, however, because they enabled us to fly safely at low level over a remote coastal route we probably wouldn’t have followed otherwise. The floats also provided peace of mind knowing we could touch down at any seaplane base, boat dock, or cove along the way for weather, mechanical, or other reasons. To me, the floats were as good or better than having a second engine, or an airframe parachute.
Once the final day of the trip began at Sitka, I felt no more of the preflight jitters from my previous close call. The Caravan flight from Sitka to Anchorage was an IMAX movie that feels unreal in the moment, and even more so later.
Pilots are beyond fortunate to see the world from an aerial perspective. And for that, few places on Earth can match coastal Alaska.
Click images to enlarge and view captions.