Aerostar trip to Alaska – June 2011

Larry F. Baum 

Ithaca, NY USA, Wed. June 29, 2011 @22:25 ET: OK, I couldn’t resist running this picture. It’s a five shot panorama of Lake Louise, Alberta stitched together by my good friend Mike Milley who lives in Los Altos, California. Mike’s created several stitched panoramas for me during this trip.  I guess I might have to learn how to do this, but Mike turned this picture around in less than 45 minutes.  GREAT service!! Thanks Mike.

This was taken Monday morning just as we left Lake Louise at about 7:00am. I should have taken it earlier in the morning when the light was even better.  There’s already haze in the air coming from fires burning hundreds of miles away.

A quick piece of Mike Milley trivia.  Mike grew up on an air strip in western NY where his Dad had a number of airplanes including a Cub, Stinson Stationwagon, and a Cessna 140.  We met at Cornell and he flew with me to California in a 1968 Piper Arrow the first time we crossed the continent in a GA airplane during the summer of 1977.  We visited Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, California, and Montana on that trip.  Mike and I share some other flying adventures together including one very interesting Tri-Pacer trip from Florida that involved a dinner wager…but that story is for another day.

Ithaca, NY USA, Tue. June 28, 2011 @18:00 ET:  We’re back home in Ithaca after dropping  Bruce and Cyndy off in Burlington, VT.  The run from International Falls to Burlington took just four hours nearly to the minute.  We needed to fly around a couple of storm cells in the middle of Lake Superior and near Ottawa.  Like most of the flight across North America, this flight was done in Canadian airspace.  And unlike the trip from Calgary to International Falls, there were lots of GA airplanes flying in the Great Lakes today.  The weather down low wasn’t very good for part of the way and we got to listen to a couple of airplanes execute missed non-precision approaches and head for alternates with ILSs.

I learned something new about NEXRAD weather radar coverage today as well.  We have Nexrad delivered to an XMRadio receiver in the Aerostar.  Radar returns show up on our Garmin GPS receivers and overlays on the navigation screens.  Makes planning for strategic weather avoidance quite straight forward.  There is both Canadian and US coverage, both showing composite images of the Nexrad radar.  As you might expect, the US radar stations cover just over into Canada and vice-versa.   However, since both systems are near the edges of their coverage limits, they don’t show the same weather return information.  It was quite surprising how different the US and Canadian Nexrads looked for supposedly looking at the same areas. In some areas the Canadian Nexrad tended to be more conservative (showed more weather) than the US system for the same areas.  In other places it was just the opposite. And in one area, west of Ottawa, there was this one bright red return that had no weather associated with it at all.  We flew over what was supposedly a heavy rain shower and could see all the way to the ground!  While at the same time there were a couple of storm cells to the north of our position that showed up well on Canadian Nexrad, on our on-board weather radar, and were easily visible.

It’s a long way across the North American continent.  The trip out and back was 5,171nm not counting the flying in Alaska. It took 14 hours to get to Olympia, Wa averaging 187knots (including the diversion to Pa) and 11.7 hours to fly from Ketchikan, AK to Ithaca via Burlington where we averaged 218knots.  We spent another 16.8 hours flying with the Let’s Fly Alaska group.  I haven’t figured out all the rest of the numbers yet, nor the total amount of fuel burned.  (I’m not ready to face that quite yet!)

Now to the unpacking and getting back to work.  The plane needs to be washed, vacuumed out and can use an oil change!

International Falls, Mn USA, Mon. June 27, 2011 @21:40 CT:  On the home stretch today.  On Sunday, we hiked up to Agnes Lake above Lake Louise.  About a 1260ft rise in a bit over 2 miles. When the Fairmont was first conceived over a century ago, the founders got advice from Swiss mountaineers.  Hence, a couple of tea houses located up on the mountain.  Very civilized and welcoming!!

The prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan are a whole lot like the prairies of the US…not a lot too see, especially from 21,000ft. We had a 20-30knot tailwind which was great making the trip of 831nm happen in only 3:30.  No GA aircraft on any of the frequencies except around Calgary and on descent into International Falls. Kind of sad and lonely to be the only GA aircraft along the route in center airspace which covers practically to the surface in most areas.

International Falls appears to be known for being a border town with Canada, a wood and paper processor, rail terminal, one of the entrances to Voyageurs National Park, and a walleye capital!  From the moment we stepped into the FBO, we were met with all sorts of walleye paraphernalia for sale. And it’s known for being one of the coldest places during winter in the lower 48 states.

Customs here was very straight forward.  A quick check of our passports, my pilot’s license and medical and we were on our way. Fuel is a bit on the expensive side, but we have a crew car for the night and very friendly and efficient service from the FBO.

The last legs tomorrow – on to Burlington to drop off Bruce and Cyndy and then home!

Lake Louise, AB Canada, Sat. June 25, 2011 @22:30 MT: The scenery around Lake Louise is spectacular.  The lake is a deep turquoise and there are glaciers and snow-covered mountains along with dense forests everywhere you look.  We took a ride up a ski-lift and discovered the rapidly changing weather here running into a quick snow shower on the way down.  At the bottom of the lift it was sunny!

There’s a nature center at top of the lift as well with great information about the bears and other wildlife that make Banff National Park their home.  On our walk along the lake, this little guy came around looking for a handout. And just like the bears, it’s best not to feed them.

Speaking of food, we had a spectacular celebratory dinner at the Fairmont Lake Louise dining room overlooking the lake.  It’s a joint anniversary – Cyndy and Bruce celebrating 40 years and Trudy and I with 30 years of marriage.   Overall, a great day.

Sunday – more of the same, with a possible longer hike.

Lake Louise, AB Canada, Fri. June 24, 2011 @21:30 MT:  After 12 days of flying mostly among the glaciers, through the valleys between the mountains and along completely deserted coastlines, flying over the Canadian Rockies at 23,000ft was a different kind of fun.  In the east, it’s not often that we get to fly the Aerostar that high.  Lots of ATC restrictions generally keep us a lot lower.  However, with the pressurization, a slight tailwind, a true airspeed in the 240knot range, and virtually no traffic at those altitudes, why not!

It took us 3:17 from Ketchikan to Calgary Springbank (CYBW).  I sure wish US Customs operated like CanPass in Canada.  We had our inbound customs clearance over the phone by the time we taxied into the ramp.  And in less than 1/2 hour, we were off on our two hour jaunt to Lake Louise, located in Banff National Park.

We’re staying at the Fairmont, located right on the lakeshore. An amazing place, one of the Canadian “grand hotels”. We booked this hotel as a place to unwind a bit after our Alaskan adventure and it’s a celebration for Bruce, Cyndy, Trudy and me. It’s Bruce and Cyndy’s 40th wedding anniversary on Sunday and our 30th anniversary is on July 5th.

As predicted, this is very different than the “wilds” of Alaska and the Yukon. Lots of well-healed tourists from all over the world.  Still a great place for a celebration.

Ketchikan, AK Thu, June 23, 2011 @2030 AKT: Today was our last day with the Let’s Fly Alaska group. Our group is going their separate ways on Friday; anywhere from back to Olympia, Wa, to Illinois, California, Michigan, and Nevada. One plane is going to Glacier Park where we stopped on the way out. Tomorrow, instead of flying above glaciers, over moraines, rivers, and through mountain passes at 500ft with eight other airplanes, it’s back to the world of high flight and IFR clearances.

Ketchikan is a town of two cultures.  The first is of fishing, crabbing, and trying to eke out a quiet living along the beautiful Alaska coastline. The second is that of cruise ships and several thousand tourists descending on the community nearly each day during the season.  There’s no question that the money the cruise ships bring in helps the local economy tremendously.   But now you have to look carefully to find the real community.  In speaking with some of the locals, more than a few people left town when the cruise ships came.  They headed to smaller communities where they could find the simpler life they craved.  Others stayed and still others came to Ketchikan.

It’s still very beautiful with eagles flying through the city like crows and perching in trees looking for fish. Salmon still run-up the Ketchikan Creek to their spawning grounds in a week or so.  But to me, something of Alaska is lost. We’ve only been in Alaska for a bit over a week, but I sense it from some of the people living in Ketchikan.

For our last evening, Dale puts on an “all you can eat” crab feast. For most of us who had never met just 12 days ago, now it’s a tight-knit group with a set of shared experiences.

We’re starting to head back to the eastern US tomorrow.  We’re off to Calgary, BC and Lake Louise.  After a trip through Alaska, that should be pretty different!

Ketchikan, AK Wed, June 22, 2011 @22:30AKT:  Imagine a flight of over 715nm at rarely above 500ft AGL spanning 4.3 flying hours with a stop for lunch.  That’s what we did today!  We flew from Anchorage to Ketchikan over a lot of country that few people ever get to see.  

We flew over what some call the “surface of Mars” an ice field glacier. For about 15 minutes, we really felt like we were flying over an alien planet.

And only  50-75 miles beyond were incredibly beautiful vistas. The weather for all of this was perfect.  Dale told us that this was the first time in three years that the weather was decent for this entire run.  Normally, the weather down near Ketchikan is rainy and misty.  Not today.  As we descended toward Glacier Bay and headed for the Sister’s Island VOR, the sky and the water turned an amazing blue.

Picking pictures is nearly impossible. Everywhere you turn, there is another great view. We all stopped for lunch in Yakutat where you get fresh grilled halibut sandwich’s to die for (Trudy’s words)!  Here are our Aerostars on the ramp there along with Dale’s beautiful Bonanza.

This post is kind of disjointed because we saw and did so much on this flight.  Just a few of the other amazing sights and experiences:
– An old Dew Line radar facility long abandoned.
– Whales, sea lions, eagles flying at our altitude!
– Fishing boats, abandoned and beached boats.
– A lone taildragger sitting on a beach.
– Several former logging strips and abandoned roads
– Some of the college glaciers.
– The “backside” of the moon (to go with surface of Mars).
– More glaciers than we could count!
– Cruise ships headed for Ketchikan – we beat them of course and had a MUCH better view. I imagine the people on deck were surprised as nine airplanes passed by.
– Hand flying the Aerostar for nearly the entire trip.
– Flying into the wake turbulence of the Bonanza and a couple of Aerostars. They are surprisingly strong and long lasting, even 1/4 to 1/2 mile back. The folks in the seven through nine positions tended to fly 100 ft of so higher just to get into calm air.

Oh yeah…the sun sets here about 10:00pm and rises again around 3:30am.  Ketchikan is on the 55th north parallel, while Anchorage is on the 61st.  Makes a big difference.

Additional pictures are posted at:  I haven’t had the chance to go these photos very carefully and only a few have been appropriately enhanced and cropped.  Bruce hasn’t uploaded his yet, so the in-tight pictures of the glaciers taken while we were turning aren’t up yet.  For obvious reasons, I’m not trying to make pictures at those times!

This was a totally amazing trip to cap off our Alaskan adventure. Tomorrow, we have a day in Ketchikan and then we head off to Calgary and Lake Louise.

Anchorage AK, Tue June 21, 2011 @23:45 AKT: Today is the summer solstice. And what a beautiful day. After not seeing the sun for the last couple of days (except on top), it cleared up late this afternoon. This photo is tagged as being taken at 22:53 AKT. The plane is a DeHavilland Beaver just in front of our hotel on Lake Hood. People are out on the deck enjoying the twenty-four hours of daylight that occurs here for most of June.  I can’t imagine what December 21st must be like here!

This was a down day for us.  Some of the group went bear watching, others went fishing.  We did some shopping and hiking. We also went to dinner at one of the best restaurants in Anchorage, Orso.  Not only was dinner excellent (I had Copper River King Salmon – not to be missed), they have an extraordinary wines program.  The restaurant manager, who by the way went to school right near Burlington, VT and the owner came up with this wonderful idea for wines.  Charge a consistent markup over their cost, not retail.  There is a bottle of Penfold’s Grange 2001 on the table.  We purchased it for far less than we’d pay in a wine shop or online. It made for an extraordinary evening even though I could only have a glass since I’m flying on Wednesday.  This has to be a “must stop” for anyone who comes to Anchorage that loves great wines and good restaurants!

Tomorrow – on to Ketchikan, hopefully the VFR weather will continue!

Prince William Sound, Ak Mon, June 20, 2011 @20:00 AKT: Planes, trains, motorcoaches, cars, and now boats.  A tour boat of some of Alaskan glaciers was on today’s agenda.  The counts vary, but there are over 100,000 glaciers in Alaska.  We got to see several, a few of them from up-close.  Above is the Blackstone Glacier…it doesn’t look it, but the face well over 1/2 mile wide.  Thanks to my friend Mike Milley for stitching together the three images to make this picture. These masses of ice move very slowly, about 500ft each year. Some of the ice is thousands of years old.  These glaciers in Blackstone Bay are “young”, only a few thousand years old.  That’s because this area receives about 110ft (not a typo) of snow each winter!  The glaciers up toward Fairbanks have ice tens of thousands of years old because there is much less precipitation up there. To get to Prince William Sound, you need to get to Whittier from Anchorage.  To do that takes you through an amazing 2.2 mile single lane tunnel with a railroad track in the middle that was built by the Army Corp of Engineers during WWII.  Whittier was kind of founded around the same time as a secret deep water port.  In looking at charts, back then unless you knew exactly where to look, it would be impossible to find. And generally the weather over Whittier is cloudy to boot!!  The abandoned barracks are still there.  Today about 177 people live in Whittier during the winter.

The sound and the bay are home to over a dozen glaciers, lots of birds, various sea lions, otters, and several species of whales it’s a bit early for the whales, particularly the orcas, so the otters have nothing to fear.  Several pods of them were floating on their backs as we traveled among the glaciers.

The Northland Glacier has a waterfall coming from it.  To give a sense of size and perspective in the photo on the right, the first section of the waterfall is about the same height as Taughannock Falls, 375ft or so.  The entire waterfall is about 500ft high and the glacier above it is another 500ft or so.  Behind it the glacier rises to nearly a mile above sea level.

Glaciers also talk.  They groan, crack, sound like shotguns, etc. as they move slowly toward the bay.  Ultimately, they drop chucks of ice into water, known as calving.  You never know when a glacier is going to calve. As Trudy and I were having our photo taken, the Beloit Glacier dropped several hundred tons of ice into the water.  Most of this is pretty benign unless you get too close!

Tomorrow is going to be down day for us.  No real traveling, just checking out Anchorage, doing some shopping and maybe some hiking.

Anchorage Ak, Sun, June 19, 2011 @ 21:45 AKT: What better thing to do on a Father’s Day than go flying on the glaciers in the Kanai National Wildlife Refuge and the Harding Ice Field southeast of Anchorage??!!  Cyndy and Trudy headed to the downtown markets and shopping for the day along with several others and most of the pilots along with Dale briefed for a flight to the glaciers. Every group flight starts with a complete briefing of the local weather, the route we are intending to take, possible alternates, and what happens if we get separated or inadvertently fly into IMC (instrument conditions).   It’s surprising how quickly we’ve become accustomed to flying in a group.  We’ve learned how the Bonanza performs as a lead airplane and that the Cessna 414 can’t keep up with the Aerostars unless it’s pretty light.  We’re also becoming comfortable with the flying habits of our fellow pilots. More on the flight in a moment. Trudy and I took a walk around the south and west side of Lake Hood this morning before breakfast. There’s a really nice path around the lake and it’s right outside of our hotel. Lake Hood (PALH) is the worlds largest seaplane base. For those who have been to AirVenture in Oshkosh, their seaplane base gives only a very tiny taste of what happens at Lake Hood every day in the summer. If the winds are right, planes land right over our hotel! There is nearly every type of seaplane based on the lake from Cubs and Supercubs on floats all the way up to turbine Beavers along with everything in between.  There’s a gravel strip right along side of the seaplane base that’s used for taildraggers of every stripe and ski equipped airplanes in the winter when the lake hasn’t yet frozen.  Oh, by the way…all of this is right across the street from Anchorage International (PANC) with three ten thousand foot runways, one having a Cat III ILS approach!  What’s completely incredible is that the three airports share taxiways. On the one side are commercial jets from all over the world.  On the other are some of the best working planes that general aviation has to offer.  What a great walk! Like many times in Alaska, the weather today was incredibly variable. What’s good VFR in one place can be totally different 50-75nm away. We experienced all of that today and more.  After taking off from Merrill and turning to the southeast, the flight of seven headed toward Seward (PAWD) with the hope of flying between a couple of layers of clouds which were supposed to break up just as we reached the Harding Ice Field. Well, that didn’t happen.  We found ourselves getting squeezed in by the clouds.  As it became obvious that we’d end up in IMC in a few miles, Dale, our lead, called for a climb through the broken layer to VFR conditions on top and to separate.  Dale as lead flew the same heading, us as #2 turned 30 degrees to the right, #3 turned 30 degrees to the left and so on.  In less than two minutes, all of us were on top at 10,500ft. A quick check of the AWOSes in the area told us that the weather at Homer (PAHO) (which is right on the coast) was about 4,000ft broken.  Dale told us to head there, shoot approaches to Runway 21 and then we’d regroup.  So, I’m thinking what would Anchorage Center think of seven planes all within about ten or so miles of each other asking for pop-up IFR clearances and IFR approaches into the same airport?  As most IFR pilots know, in the east, you’d likely get a hold till next week or stay on top in VFR conditions till you ran out of gas 🙂 !!  Here, Anchorage Center quickly and efficiently gave each one of us an IFR clearance, got some altitude between us and spread the approaches between the GPS and LOC/DME backcourse to Runway 21.  Only one airplane had to do a hold and then only for five minutes.  It was handled by ATC like this sort of thing happened every day! Totally amazing! As advertised, once we descended to the initial approach fix altitude and headed inbound, we broke out of the clouds.  On our internal frequency, Dale told us that we could cancel IFR, fly up the Kachemak Bay and he’d recover the group there.  Below the clouds, we had more than 30 miles visibility, so we formed back up into our loose trail formation.  It took about three turns around the inlet and about 15 minutes to do so. It was obvious that we weren’t going to get to the Harding Ice Field, but we were still going to get to fly a glacier. There is a glacier just to the southeast of Homer.  The ceilings on the southeast side of Kachemak Bay were nearly 6,000 AGL, so up the glacier we flew at 4,000ft. Dale had briefed up on how you never try to outclimb a glacier.  You can’t do it! However, you can “ride” one down.  We flew up about four or so miles and made a left turn where you see the two peaks.  It’s over five miles wide right there, an easy standard rate turn at 140-145knots.  As we made the turn, we reduced power to nearly idle, pushed the nose over and headed down at nearly 2,000ft per minute.   We were above and behind the lead  and tried not to pass him.  We never got within a thousand feet of the surface of the glacier.  What a wonderful ride and a fabulous experience!! In the interest of full disclosure, these photos and most of the other ones that I’ve posted online today were made by Bruce. I was too busy flying to shoot pictures! Tomorrow, more glaciers, this time by boat!

Denali National Park, Ak Sat, June 18, 2011 @ 22:15 AKT:  Denali, Koyukon Athabaskan for “The High One” is the highest mountain peak in North America at 20,300 ft.  It’s also known as Mt. McKinley.  Today we got the chance to get up close and personal with it. The weather was nearly perfect and having a pressurized airplane allowed us to get a unique perspective.  There were a bunch of clouds at about 12,000ft and most of the touring planes fly at about 8,000ft.  So to get some time with the mountain without a lot of interference, most of our group flew from 16,500 – 17,000ft. The amazing thing about Denali is how it just rises up above the surrounding peaks. You go from 7-8,000ft hills very quickly to 12,000 and then right up to 20K, all in about 15-20 miles.  At our closest pass, we were about 5-7 miles east of Denali flying 5-7 thousand feet above the terrain below. Today was extraordinarily peaceful as well.  There was no turbulence at all.  There was a bit of wind from the north, but as we passed from the east side to the southern exposure where we would have expected a bit of downdraft, there was none. Like so much in Alaska, there’s incredible beauty and vistas where ever you turn.  But at the same time, I found myself not able to totally relax, just in case.  However for today, no surprises! Once we left Denali, we descended down for the Wasila (3K9), home of Sarah Palin, then swung over to Birchwood (PABV) and into Merrill Field (PAMR).  There are five airports in Anchorage (six if you count the seaplane base on Lake Hood) all within five miles of each other.  Merrill Field is all GA with almost one-thousand airplanes based there!! There’s a camping area at the east end of the field where we parked our planes – no we didn’t camp there.  Our hotel is right on Lake Hood and we have grand views of the seaplane base. I quickly discovered that Anchorage puts Fairbanks to shame as to the amount and variation of GA aircraft here.  Nearly every flying machine that can do a job is located here. Tomorrow, we do more glacier flying.  Hopefully the weather will be good!

Fairbanks, Ak Fri, June 17, 2011 @ 22:10 AKT:  Only a few of our group decided to fly up to the Arctic Circle today.  Most took Friday as a down day to do sightseeing, fishing, or just to kick back.  We did some sightseeing, but were still never very far from aviation.  I have never experienced a city where general aviation is woven right into its fabric. Everywhere we went and no matter to with whom we spoke, nearly everyone knew GA, had flown in small planes, and everyone understood its importance and value. The four of us decided to go on a riverboat tour that leaves right behind the airport.  Less than a mile from where the riverboat Discovery departs, there’s a grass strip right along the riverbank.  If it wasn’t for the airplanes in the yards of houses, you would never recognize it as a strip.  And this strip is less than two miles from Fairbanks International. Shortly after seeing the strip, a supercub on floats did a couple of takeoffs and landings right in front of the riverboat.  Seeing that supercub takeoff from the river made my day.  The day was just perfect and having a supercub come right at the boat was fabulous. We visited a re-creation of an Athabaskan Indian village and off in a corner was the fuselage of another supercub on display.   On the way back up river we passed a Cessna 182 on floats docked right next to a boat dock in the river.  It’s owned by a retired Alaska Airlines captain.  And on the way to a lunch spot along the river, we passed this ice cream and candy store along the roadside. The rest of the day was spent shopping and taking it easy.  I spoke with a shopkeeper who noticed my Aerostar shirt and immediately regaled me with a story of flying around Denali in an Aerostar in the early 70s.  We headed out to dinner at an old gold mine complex about 30 minutes northeast of Fairbanks with the group.  The old mine has been recently reopened and the miners are pulling out 600 ounces of gold a day! As I’m finishing this post, it’s nearly 11pm.  The sun is still streaming into our windows!  I just saw a float plane heading for PAFA and their water “runway” with a DC-6 freighter passing overhead to the long runway at the end of a busy day. What a grand place to be as a pilot! Tomorrow, we head for Denali, the highest peak in North America and on to Anchorage.

Fairbanks, Ak June 16, 2011 @ 22:00 AKT (Alaska Time): Finally, a day where things pretty much went as planned!  We flew from Whitehorse, BC to Fairbanks Alaska, stopping at Northway, (PAOR) Alaska for customs. Only one of our group didn’t go with us…he had left his passport behind and had to have it overnighted to him.  It arrived after we left and he flew IFR over to Fairbanks (PAFA). Flying loose trail behind a Bonanza is pretty interesting.  Each plane is about 1/2 to 1 mile behind the other in two lines with the odd-numbered planes directly behind the lead and the even-numbered planes offset to the right by about the same distance and behind.  We were in the #2 position, so the only plane in front of us is lead.  The correct position looks about like this.  The #3 aircraft keys on us at the same relative position about 1/2 behind on our left directly behind the lead and so on. What’s hard is that the acceleration and deceleration profile of a Bonanza is vastly different from an Aerostar.  The Aerostar weighs nearly 2,000 pounds more than a Bonanza, so there is lots more inertia.  Dale, as lead maintained 160knots in level flight.  Finding a power setting that worked consistently took a lot of tinkering.  After an hour or so, I started figuring it out what the Bonanza could do, when Dale called for an airspeed change, a turn, climb or decent and began adjusting accordingly.  It was much easier for the rest of the Aerostars to fly along with each other since our performance is nearly identical, even with some different models and engine combinations. Takeoffs and landings were the most interesting.   We travel as a flight of eight.  Dale has led flights of up to 16, but only rarely.  For takeoff, all planes line up on the runway in order on the left and right side of the runway.  As #2 we were the front aircraft on the right side of the runway. We begin our takeoff roll as lead breaks ground and so on…when it works it puts everyone in the right relative position right away.   For landing,  the leading airplanes land long, using the entire runway length and both the left and right side of the runway.  At Northway, the runway is 5,100ft with no parallel taxiway.  So as planes rolled out at the end, we moved over to the edge of the runway.    All of this is perfectly legal when flying as a flight eight of with a designated lead airplane.  We use an internal frequency among us and only lead talks with ATC.  For me, it was some of the most fun, I’ve ever had flying. At Fairbanks, we landed on 2R and taxied off at the end.  If you have a moment, take a look at the Fairbanks (PAFA) taxi chart.  In addition to several “regular” runways, there is a floatplane strip and a “skid” strip for landing planes on skis in the winter. We did get to fly up a glacier today.  The Kaskawolsh glacier empties into Klauane Lake.  We flew up the terminal moraine at 6,000ft with the idea  of coming around the other side.  Depending on the weather, there were two routes planned and briefed.  The weather didn’t quite cooperate, so we had to turn around and come back the way we came. From the photo, we turned right, flew about six miles and then turned around.  Although it doesn’t look it, the area up ahead is eight miles wide, an easy turn.  I need to get some of Bruce’s pictures to show the glacier itself…I was driving at the time! The rest of the flight into Northway and into Fairbanks was totally uneventful. The “rivers” created by the melting glaciers were quite fascinating.  Although we didn’t see any, some of the other planes reported seeing moose in the rivers and ponds (lakes) that are on either side of the Alaska Highway which we followed into Fairbanks. We’ve decided to stay in Fairbanks tomorrow and see the local sites.

Whitehorse, YT June 15, 2011 @ 23:15PT:  The sun basically doesn’t set this time of year.  At least I haven’t seen it dark since we’ve gotten to Whitehorse!!  People are on the street and the bars are full late into the evening.  A very different kind of experience.  Today, we got to drive on the Alaska Highway in a motorcoach and take the narrow gauge railway from Fraser, BC down to Skagway, AK.  For those who have done Alaska cruises, you’ve probably been to Skagway and traveled up to Fraser on the White Pass and Yukon Route railway.  We just did it the opposite way. The Alaska highway is no longer what we’ve read about.  What used to take several days of arduous travel along a barely improved road is now still a long trip, but on a very well constructed roadway.  What’s interesting is that some of the bridges still have wood decking.  They handle the harsh winters better and is easier to replace.  Our driver Mike, drove trucks (they can get up to 100 tons on the Alaska highway) and tour buses.  He is a “real” ice road trucker (don’t believe what you see on the TV show) and regaled us with stories of the road. You still need to watch out for the bears…this one wasn’t very cooperative, but it’s a nice smooth trip. After a couple of hours feeling like we were in a Caribbean port on a very cold day (it was about 60 degrees), we headed back to Whitehorse. Picking a photo of this area is not easy.  Everywhere you look, there’s one vista after another.  The mountains here aren’t all that high, 7-9000ft MSL for the most part.  Just very rugged with a lot of diverse landscapes.  There are more photos at: A few of us, being hockey fans along with about 100 or so boisterous,  but ultimately subdued Vancouver fans watched the Stanley Cup final game at the bar.  (There…I didn’t say the “B” word!) Whitehorse has a lot of young people and we talked a lot about our flying adventure.  We might have made the beginnings of a pilot or two along the way.  Fairbanks tomorrow with a stop at Northway, Alaska for customs.

Whitehorse, YT Tue June 14, 2011 @ 20:00PT:  The best laid plans Part 2 … Sometimes, mechanical devices just fail.  So it was with us today.  The left fuel boost pump on the Aerostar quit today as we were leaving from Prince George to Whitehorse.  Obviously a “no-go” item.  Most big engines have an electrical backup boost pump in case of failure of the engine driven fuel pump.  That pump is also used for starting and to boost fuel pressure if needed at higher altitudes.   It was most frustrating to watch the rest of the group depart for Watson Lake, our first a stop. Fortunately, there is a GREAT shop in Whitehorse.  Bobby did a fabulous job replacing the brushes in the pump.   We had brought an extra set along “just in case” thanks to Joel at Juliet Delta Aviation. So we were on a way in a record 1.5 hours.  Given the rest of the group was stopping for lunch and fuel, we thought we could catch-up. The route to Watson Lake from Prince George follows a river up to Williston Lake, then through a relatively narrow area called “The Trench”. The lake itself was beautiful with very few roads or any signs of civilization. The weather forecast was pretty good for the morning with lowering ceilings and rain by mid-day.  By the time we got to the north end of Williston Lake, the ceilings had dropped to less than a thousand feet and the visibility was about three miles.  The Trench is about five miles wide with six to seven thousand mountains on either side with the river floor at about 2500ft MSL.  We were flying at about 1500 ft above ground (AGL) and there was a wall of grey that appeared to extend all the way to the ground. I knew Dale had led planes through there over a hundred times, but we were alone and the forecast was for worsening weather for that area.  So we turned around and headed back towards the lake.  Now a new adventure began. There was a pretty good sized hole in the clouds over the lake.  We climbed to 12,000ft and began looking for an appropriate frequency to get an IFR clearance.  In Canada, you need to have some kind of clearance over 12,000ft.  There were clouds all around, but we knew we were above any terrain.  After not seeing anything that looked like a center frequency, I called Flight Service on 126.7.  That frequency is used throughout Canada and is both used by FSS and for position reporting.   There are remote transmitters all over British Columbia and the Yukon.  Whitehorse radio told me that this area of Canada is totally non-radar and we were below Edmonton Center’s airspace.  So after giving him our position and waiting a few minutes, we got an IFR clearance at 16,000ft direct Whitehorse, about 320nm away.  With GPS, we knew exactly where we were and by communicating that to the controllers, it was easy for them to coordinate us with other traffic.  Of course there was no other traffic!  You were either VFR down low (with decent weather) or way up high.  We did not see or hear another airplane on the common frequency all the way to Whitehorse. It was kind of eerie!  Even after we got into Edmonton Center’s airspace, there were no planes flying IFR down low.  And it is still non-radar.  We got cleared to a fix and an altitude about 24 miles from Whitehorse while still 70 miles out.  VERY different. Of course, by the time we got into the Whitehorse area, the clouds broke up and we had great views on decent. And we ended up arriving before the rest of the group.  They stopped for lunch at Watson Lake and took a more scenic route into Whitehorse.  We had radioed Dale on the Let’s Fly Alaska frequency, so everyone knew we were back in the air. Once on the ground, we had a fueling conga line at the ONE self service fuel pump.  Took nearly 1.5 hours to fuel everyone!  Of course, we got to go first and were done when the others arrived.  Small consolation! We’re traveling by train and motor coach tomorrow headed for Skagway, then back to Whitehorse for dinner.

Prince George, BC Mon June 13, 2011 @ 22:00PT:  As predicted, we all needed to fly from Olympia to Prince George IFR today.  After 2000 miles of high altitude cross country flying, another 450nm flight of the same didn’t feel very exciting.  There was great scenery below us that we didn’t get to see. Oh well.  The weather always wins!  The flight took just over two hours with easy CanPass customs as we landed in Prince George. During the flight, the US air traffic controllers were all asking us questions about what seven Aerostars and one Cessna 414 were doing all flying up to Prince George. We explained about Let’s Fly Alaska and that normally, these flights are done VFR down low and that ATC radar controllers aren’t involved.  We also gave them a heads up that a Bonanza would be following us up as well. Canadians are known for being extremely polite and friendly.  So are their air traffic controllers.  We were up at 16,000ft and it looked it was going to take about Flight Level 180-200 to top the weather.  We had a tailwind, so going higher seemed like a good idea.  When I asked the controller for flight level 180 or 190, she told me that flight level 180 wasn’t available because the barometric pressure was too low and that flight level 190 was in the wrong direction of flight.  Then without missing a beat, this wonderful controller “offered” us a block altitude from 17,000 to flight level 200.  Two firsts for me:

  • In 38 years of flying, I had never had been in a block altitude where you own all the airspace between the two altitudes assigned.  For us in the northeast with its congested airspace, block altitude clearances are pretty rare.
  • I had never heard a controller “offer” a block altitude to anyone. Typically you have to request it.  When we got to Prince George, our other pilots were also quite surprised at the exchange over the radio – pretty neat.

Prince George is a nice town located where the Fraser and Nechako rivers come together.   Tomorrow is supposed to be VFR (finally) as we continue north to Watson Lake and Whitehorse, YT.

Mt. RanierOlympia, Wa – Sun June 12, 2011 @ 21:00 PT:  We made it to Olympia with no issues late Sunday morning.  A two hour flight across the Rockies from Kalispel and Glacier Park, Mt.  Here’s the view of Mt. Rainier from our Aerostar on the way into the Seattle area.   Once we landed we met Dale Hemman, the owner of Let’s Fly Alaska and the rest of our fellow travelers.  Quite a group – seven Aerostars, one Cessna 414 and our leader is flying a Bonanza.  The group speed will be 175 knots. Should be quite interesting.  At the evening briefing, we talked a lot about “loose trail” group flying and the safety aspects of flying in a group as well as the differences in Canadian and US air regulations.  More about loose trail flying after we experience it!!! The Let’s Fly Alaska hangar is a bit different than what we are generally used to.  Yes, there’s a beautiful Bonanza, but as you can see a whole lot more.  This is Dale’s office that has a kitchen, full bath, pool table and plenty of work and meeting space. We leave for Prince George, BC Monday morning, however the weather forecast isn’t in our favor, so right now it looks like we’ll be flying up there IFR individually and not as a group. I have posted more photos of Mt. Ranier and other pictures of our trip at:

Kalispel and Glacier Park, Mt: Sun June 12, 2011 @11:30am MT: I didn’t get a chance to post Saturday’s flights till Sunday.  We stayed at the Lake McDonald Lodge on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.  There is no Internet or cell service at this area – I needed to use a pay phone for the first time in what seems like forever to call the FBO with our fuel order!! How quaint!!! The trip from Green Bay (KGRB) to Glacier Park International Airport (KGPI) took almost exactly 6 hours with a stop in Bismark, ND (KBIS) for fuel and lunch.  It’s a long way with many changes in scenery.  We dodged some thunderstorms and heavy rain showers throughout eastern Montana and ended up at Flight Level 220 for the last part of the trip to be able to top some of the lower level rain showers and to see the cells clearly enough to fly around them.  The locals call these “popcorn” thunderstorms, single cells with not frontal association.  They also didn’t move much. KGPI is in a large valley and the only rain that we actually experienced on the way in was on the ILS into the airport.  Kind of a difference experience starting an ILS at 12,000ft, intercepting the localizer about 20 miles from the airport at 9,000ft, and intercepting the  glideslope at 7,800ft. Glacier Park  and Lake McDonald are nearly indescribable in their beauty. We didn’t have a lot of time there, but we were able to take a short hike Sunday morning.  In just three miles we saw a small lake (called a pond in the east) and a creek that’s the size of most rivers in the east.  The large snowpack this year has kept the rivers and creeks really high. I’ve uploaded a batch of photos (unedited) at:

Green Bay, Wi – Fri June 10, 2011 @ 21:30 CT:  “The Best Laid Plans…” Things didn’t go as planned today.  When we got out to the plane this morning, we discovered a minor problem that could have become a significant issue later in our trip.  So, after a quick call to our Aerostar mechanic near Harrisburg, Pa, (Mt. Joy, Pa – N71) we headed southwest – not exactly the direction we were supposed to be flying. After a straightforward fix and a reroute to Fargo, ND through Erie, Pa, we were on our way, or so we thought.  About 20 minutes into the flight, the artificial horizon that drives the autopilot failed.  Although not dangerous and because we have two backup horizons, we could have gone on. However, the thought of “hand flying” the plane for several thousand miles or having to deal with shipping a replacement horizon out to Washington, or Alaska was pretty unappealing, so back to N71.  Fortunately Joel at Juliet Delta Aviation was able to quickly find us replacement artificial horizon that connects to our autopilot.  So, at about 16:00ET we headed for Erie (KERI).  (By the way, for those of you following our progress on FlightAware ( and our plane number of N60LM), the system kept the original flight and added the second!) After getting a full load of fuel at KERI, we set off for Fargo, ND (KFAR), about 4:30 away. About an hour into the flight, it was evident that we were all pretty tired, so we decided to stop for the night at Green Bay, Wi (KGRB). We were on an IFR flight plan and told ATC of our change in destination. The controller asked us the reason for the diversion.  “We’re tired! – It’s been a long day!” I told them, chuckling.  To which the controller responded: “I completely understand – so are we!”  So, our 4:30 planned flight turned into a 2:10 flight ending with an ILS to Runway 6 at KGRB. Turns out that a Radisson Casino Hotel is right across from the airport FBO. A quick dinner and no gambling for us!  On to Kalispell, MT in the morning.

Burlington, VT – Thu, June 9, 2011 @ 21:15 ET: Our first stop – picking up our friends Bruce and Cyndy.  For all you weather geeks, there was a coldfront that passed through the northeast today breaking the hot and sticky weather we’ve had for the past two days. It kicked off a bunch of thunderstorms which had mostly passed by the time we took off for Burlington.  We had a couple of small cells to fly around – they showed up nicely on the Nexrad, our weather radar, and my “Mark I” eyeballs!  We begin to head west Friday morning. Trip Log – Distance  187nm – Flight time 0:55

Ithaca, NY – Wed, June 8, 2011 @ 11:00 am: About two years ago, we learned through the Aerostar Association of a guided self-fly tour program called Let’s Fly Alaska.  (  We along with six other Aerostar owners connected with Dale Hemmen, the owner of the company and after a lot of preparation will be traveling to Alaska beginning on June 10, 2011.  By we, it’s myself, my wife Trudy and our friends Bruce and Cyndy McGeoch.  I met Bruce our first day at Cornell as freshman and I introduced him to Cyndy to whom he’s been married to for 40 years.   This Blog will help us chronicle the trip and will be connected to additional photographs of the trip. Our Itinerary The trip begins in Olympia, Washington.  So, for us, we start with a transcontinental flight of just over 2000nm.  The last time I flew a small plane across the United State was in 1977.  Our plan is to stop in North Dakota the first evening, then fly on to Glacier National Park the second day arriving in Olympia Sunday mid-day.  In the Aerostar, it will be about 10.5 flying hours.  The trip first heads up to Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, then to White Horse in the Yukon Territory. We return to the US, flying into Fairbanks.  There’s an optional flight one day up to Prudhoe Bay. From Fairbanks, we head south past Denali (Mt. McKinley) and into Anchorage. Our last Alaskan stop will be in Ketchikan.   In all we’ll spend 12 days with the tour.  On the way back, our plan is to stop in Calgary Alberta and spend three days at the Fairmont in Lake Louise for a bit of pampering!  It’s Bruce and Cyndy’s 40th wedding anniversary and our 30th, so a celebration will be in order!  The trip back should only take about 7.5-8 flying hours (with a tailwind).   Then back to reality! As some of you know, I was a photojournalist back in the 1970s, so the plan is to take and publish photos and to write about the trip as it happens.    I’ve also been a private pilot since 1973 and have co-owned our Aerostar, N60LM with Mike Newman since 1996.  So, this should be quite an adventure. Please pass the East Hill Flying Club address along to others who might find this interesting.  Also, if you have any questions or comments that you’d like to pass along to me privately, my email is Lots more to come! Add a comment to this post

17 thoughts on “Aerostar to Alaska

  1. Wow, what a trip! Look forward to reading your updates/seeing the great photos along the route…

  2. I shall enjoy following you and remembering Dave’s and my trip to Alaska in 1983 and thinking of the young photo journalist with our hockey players in Finland! Go Larry! Best regards, Marian

    1. Marian, I remember your talk about the amazing time that you and Dave had on your trip – thanks so much! I too remember Larry’s Finland trip – I had to wait till 0400 for his return to ITH to print those shots!
      Have a great trip Larry and Trudy!

  3. Larry – thank you for posting a log of your trip. We watched Flight Aware all week-end to follow everyone’s progress to WA.

    Hello to everyone – God Speed – Safe Flying – from Ken & Burd

  4. Wow, what a great thing to do, Larry. I will be following with interest. Good luck and say hi to the bears for me!

  5. Hey Larry, what an amazing adventure! If I still had the Pitts Special, I would have tagged along. 🙂

  6. Hi Larry, what a great trip. Donna and I did the Canadian Rockies by train and Alaska by train and ship. No pictures as spectacular as yours. Sounds like you are having a great adventure.

  7. What a wonderful blog, Larry! Although I couldn’t join the group due to unforseen circumstances, I am livin’ it thru your blow by blow description of the incredible adventure! Keep safe.

  8. Thanks for all the great comments – we just got into Anchorage. Denali was fabulous!!! So far, doing these posts have been a lot of fun.

  9. What an amazing adventure…from the scenery to the very interesting details of formation flight. Thanks Larry, a great read!

  10. Spernak Airways PAMR is an awesome place to get fuel! their prices are competitive and there customer service is to die for!

  11. The photos and stories are wonderful. I am so glad you are enjoying the trip. Thanks for sharing with us all!

  12. Larry,
    Thanks for journaling our trip. Through your eyes and words, the trip comes to life. It was an amazing trip-great vistas and great people. It truly was -a trip of a lifetime.
    Layna Lakey

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