North to/from Alaska
In the fall of 2016 I had a sudden change of employment which regrettably forced me to sell DY, my ASW-27. While not something I wanted to do, it had to be done. A few short months later and with a new job, some spare change burning a hole in my pocket, and a flying addiction to feed, I was feeling the itch to buy another glider. This time I wanted to buy either a self-launch ship or a nice two-place high-performance sailplane. Unfortunately, the glider options were limited. In fact they were none.
So I started looking in another direction. One thought that kept crossing my mind was the single point of failure that currently faces CSA: the Pawnee going down for maintenance. In an effort to enhance the club’s preparedness as well as provide a better training platform for new tow pilots, I started looking for a jack-of-all-trades plane that was fun to fly, strong enough to tow the heaviest gliders, and have more than one seat to use for training tow pilots. That it could fill other fun-filled adventures like flying on floats and skis would not be a detriment. I decided I would start a search for a Maule, a high-wing two-place of relatively recent design, with of course a tail-wheel. I really didn’t care what model but knew it would need to be one of the bigger motor versions. You can never have too much power (except at the gas pumps).
After months of search I located a suitable candidate that seemed to fit the bill. The plane was giving a clean bill of health with a pre-purchase and fresh annual inspection. The only problem, if you want to call it that, was the plane’s location: Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage, Alaska. But that problem was solved when, as luck would have it, work would take me to Anchorage just a few weeks before I needed to close on the plane. I could see it in person before writing the check.
A few short weeks later my daughter Kristina and I boarded a Delta flight to Anchorage to pick up the new plane and begin the amazing journey home to CT. Kristina was working on a photography project for college and would shoot multiple rolls of black and white film in addition to thousands of digital shots for her project titled Wings and Wilderness. Although hampered by low ceilings, rain, snow, and some old crazed windows she managed to capture much of the grandeur of the beautiful scenery along our flight path. That path would take us north-east out of Anchorage through some lower mountain passes until we met up with the Alaska/Canada, or AlCan, Highway. Flying IFR ( I Follow Road) for hundreds of miles would allow us to follow the lowest terrain through mountain passes while also providing the closest thing to a runway as well as fellow travelers along the highway in case of an unscheduled landing in the vast wilderness.
We departed Anchorage with scattered low clouds and rain along the Alaskan front range. This reinforced the bush feel of flying out of Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane base in the world. Hundreds of bush planes fly in and out of the area year-round in all kinds of weather. Bush pilots must learn to adapt to the challenging conditions or face the consequences. One of the neat FAA features only found in this area is a network of weather cameras situated along the various mountain passes.
You can access these cameras during your preflight preparations, or if you call the FSS they can tell you what the weather looks like in the passes while you fly along your route. This proved valuable as the weather looked much better to the east so we continued onward.
After our first conservative fuel stop in TOK (Lake Hood to Tok, Alaska: about 260 NM ) to get an accurate fuel burn average we were quickly on our way again along the AlCan heading towards Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, where we would clear Canadian Customs. A quick phone call to Canpass and top off the plane and we were off again heading to our first overnight stop in Fort Nelson BC. We were ready to call it a night after a long day of flying and only slightly behind schedule.
We awoke the next morning with dense fog and rain so we walked a short distance from the hotel to Tim Horton’s, which is French Canadian for Dunkin Donuts. The weather held us on the ground for the next few hours, pushing us further behind schedule but better safe than sorry. The sun finally started shinning through thin spots in the fog, and we could start to see clearing to the south, so we loaded up our gear and headed back to the airport. After another top-off we were once again on our way, now heading towards the south along the Canadian Rocky Front Range. We had planned to fly into Banff National Park to add more pictures to the collection but low clouds continued to plague us. Another fuel stop just west of Calgary and we were on our way to Cut Bank, Montana where we would clear US Customs and call it quits again due to the late start. During the taxi ride to the hotel, the driver mentioned there was snow in the forecast in the morning. A quick check of the weather confirmed snow was on the way and if we didn’t get an early start we might be stuck for days.
Cut Bank turned out to be a B-17 training base during WWII.
The alarm went off at 5 am and the taxi was actually waiting for us as planned. Back out to the airport and we get started just as the snow showers started showing up to the west. A few small deviations around snow squalls and off to the east we flew. On through Montana, a fuel stop in North Dakota, and another in Minnesota. We were fighting 30-40 knot headwinds. How does that always happen? A quick check of the weather in Minnesota and the forecast sounded just like Montana: if you stay here you will be stuck here for days. We loaded back up and headed towards Chicago.
We skirted just south of Lake Michigan (above), stopped for fuel in Goshen, Indiana, then flew on to Williamsport Pennsylvania. Although only an hour or so away from home fatigue was setting in and no one would be awake for our arrival anyway.
Another short night of sleep and we went back to the airport. The timing was just about perfect as the morning fog was just breaking up as we fueled up for the last leg home.
Page 15 After the fog broke up the sun finally won over the clouds and it was clear skies the rest of the way to OXC, Oxford, CT. After 3 and a half days, 3927 miles, 34 hours of flying, and 353 gallons of 100LL we were finally home.
The full track from Lake Hood, Alaska to Oxford, Connecticut
Now that 3UM, which we have named “Denali,” is here in CT, I hope to use her to occasionally back up the Pawnee as needed. She will also make a better training platform for our Tow Pilots before their first solo tows in the Pawnee. We will be able to fly actual tows under a trained tow pilot’s supervision instead of simulated tows as in the past.
(BELOW: Kristina, the photographer, sharing flight duties over untracked wilderness.)