By Travis H. Brown
Two years ago, I had the privilege of flying ourselves in a Piper Meridian up to Talkeetna, Alaska near Denali National Park. To anyone who likes the great outdoors who has not been to Alaska, simply carpe diem and go. The main purpose of this article to lobby you a bit on why all private pilots would love it. For the non-pilots, you have been warned to expect lots of aeronautical jargon in this post.
First of all, Alaska truly is America’s final frontier for pilots, if you don’t count this skydiving in near outer space adventure. The setting, the challenges, the weather, and the logistics all make Alaska the perfect place to become or maintain your currency as an aviator. Private pilots truly are the lifelines that make Alaska function faster (no disrespect to boatsmen or crab fishermen). In fact, many towns, including their State Capitolat Juneau, are virtually unreachable by car or foot.
Getting up there is just half of the fun. We overflew Canada into Ketchikan by instrument flight rules, originating from Boeing field in Seattle. Others hopping VFR (visual flight rules) can follow the river pathways up Western Canada. Once you’re in Southeast Alaska, however, you’re still probably at least 600 nautical miles from Anchorage or many other places that most visit. Alaska’s tremendous mass makes even the fastest Sovereign jet crew appreciate it.
Alaska is so unique that it commands its own aviation laws, and separate weather operations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Following these meteorological websites, including the numerous airport webcams, is well worth doing even weeks in advance of your trip to get a sense for their seasons and varied conditions. Make sure to set aside more space and weight in your envelope to carry the mandatory equipment in your aircraft, such as fishing gear and life preservers. Personally, it was a great peace of mind having a satellite-based communicator such as SPOT© on aboard as well as an emergency backup.
I flew to Talkeetna, Alaska to meet Don Lee, a famed float and bush-plane pilot whose recent fame includes roles on Alaska Wing Men by the National Geographic channel. Within hours of exchanging my high and fast turboprop, I was stick and ruddering low and slow over the Salmon streams. When you’re flying with Don Lee, a man who hitchhiked to Alaska at 18, you’re soaking in exactly what it is be a true bush pilot – an outdoorsman, a pioneer, and a lifesaver.
Bush or floatplane flying returns all pilots to their first loves in flying: the freedom of liftoff in backcountry, aviating before navigating, and the kinship of seeing the mountains from their shoulders, not their base. At Don Lee’s headquarters, pilots could land on his lake, or journey up to Talkeetna to join the other ski planes chartered by the hour above and across Mt. McKinley.
IMC Alaskan time in your logbook quickly gives you more respect for how and why military approaches have led to wide area augmentation system (WAAS) innovations. Often, there is no margin for error when cloud layers threaten your arrival, so be prepared for a plan C or D.
Another unique aspect of floatplane flying is that all bodies of water are public in which to land. Moreover, given the limitations of dense forests, glaciers, and mountain valleys, there are many more places to land a floatplane than any wheeled make and model. For a Midwestern pilot, this makes your entire flight planning experience feel like a new adventure.
Landing on floats in uninhabited finger lakes should also refine your proficient use of depth perceptions, as well as your commitment to best practices within the numbers of your plane. Unlike your stop and goes in the patterns of the “lower 48,” you’ll want to hang out a rod and reel after you master that glassy water touchdown.
Finally, Alaskan flight time is sure to give you a full mind, body, & spirit work-out, especially if you’re having fun with a local expert who knows the terrain. It is a great place to add a rating, retain your proficiency, or build a new outdoor excursion.
My time there was in late May and early June, where hikers were ascending for mountain peaks as bears were descending for salmon rivers. I was surprised to learn how diverse their calendar year of flying has become. Many do ski plane runs near Denali in the month of March, and January is often the busiest charter plane month for those carting winter tourists out of Fairbanks. If your plane calls for fuel additives such as PRIST, remember to bring it with you as the locals may look at you funny in the old stomping grounds of Don Sheldon’s Wager with the Wind.
The cost for my professional time is at a premium. But aviator calls to me about Alaska are always free but wild roaming.
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