In July 2017 I took a cruise to Alaska with family & friends. 1 week N on the ship, 1 week inland, then flew home from Fairbanks. It was a fun trip, but I told myself that one day I would fly my own plane up there to visit the real Alaska outside the corporate padded room of cruise ships, trains and buses. Later that winter I started planning what would become the Alaska trip of July 2018, described here. The planning in all its aspects would consume more than 6 months.
This is the first of 12 journal entries, each detailing part of the 14-day adventure: this introduction, one entry for each of the 7 flying days, plus one entry for each of the 4 blocks of days we stayed in each place. The next covers day 1.
- Day 1: fly KBFI-CYXY Whitehorse
- Days 2-3: Whitehorse
- Day 4: fly CYXY-PATK Talkeetna
- Day 5: fly Denali
- Day 6-7: Talkeetna
- Day 8: fly PATK-PAGK Gulkana
- Day 9: fly PAGK-CYXY Whitehorse
- Days 10-11: Whitehorse
- Day 12: fly CYXY-CYXJ Ft. St. John
- Day 13: Ft. St. John
- Day 14: fly CYXJ-KBFI Seattle
Flying a small plane (my 1980 Cessna 172 Superhawk) to Alaska requires some planning. I started with local advice from a guy who lives on Kodiak Island and had flown a 1952 Cessna 170 there from Los Angeles. Then used AOPA resources like their forums and videos. Also used sites like Skyvector, Weather Underground, and aviation apps like Naviator and Droid EFB. I tried to use Flight Plan Go, but it crashed so frequently it was unusable on all 4 of my Android devices (3 different tablets and my phone). Another essential resource was the Alaska Aviator Handbook. I also ordered a set of paper charts from Nav Canda (8 VFR sectional charts, the Vancouver terminal chart, and the Canada Flight Supplement), and measured & marked the routes the old fashioned way with pencil, highlighter, ruler & protractor. This became essential during the trip because Flight Plan Go is the only Android app with electronic Canadian charts, and it was an unusable steaming pile of bloat-ware.
My favorite flight app is Droid EFB for Android (formerly known as Avilution). But it is strictly US-only; it doesn’t have Canadian charts, airports, airspace or navaids (VORs & NDBs). Naviator is my next-favorite app; it works well but has sluggish response and drains the battery faster than Droid EFB. Naviator doesn’t have Canadian charts either, but it does have Canadian airports, airspace and navaids. And it also has high-res terrain for all of N America including Canada. Both work well with my Stratux, having ADS-B In with a WaaS GPS. So for this trip, I used Naviator alongside my Canadian paper charts and CFS for airport details. My navigation, both planning and in flight, was primarily by Mark VII eyeball and compass. But I mapped all my routes to follow VORs and NDBs where possible, and I had 2 navaid fixes for every airport we’d land at.
At the end of the day I had planned about 15 different flights, considering terrain, airspace, range between fuel stops, each with individual legs, headings, waypoints, timing, altitude, airspeed, fuel burn rates, etc. Printed them hardcopy so I could use during flight. For each of these, I also had a matching electronic flight plan in Naviator. This covered the 3 basic routes to Alaska: from W to E they are coast, trench, and Al-Can highway. It also covered transition points between these routes, and planned flights around points in Alaska like Fairbanks, Gulkana, Talkeetna, King Salmon and Kodiak Island.
The Alaska Aviator Handbook is a great resource. Not only does it describe all the RCOs, special flight areas with their frequencies & rules (like Denali and the Anchorage corridor), but it also recommends survival equipment to carry on board for summer & winter. We carried everything recommended–and more–but kept it light. The survival gear included everything we’d need to camp for a week (tent, sleeping bags, fire starting gear, camp stove with fuel, etc.), plus extra Alaska-specific stuff like mosquito head nets, fishing kit, bear repellent, etc. Note: Mountain House makes a 5-day pack of dried rations that weighs just under 5 lbs. We got the total camping & survival gear for the 3 of us down to 50 lbs, including a 12 gauge shotgun with ammo (Brenneke 3″ mag slugs and 3″ mag #4s). This would enable us to camp comfortably for a week, if necessary. But we didn’t plan to camp at all.
Flying over thousands of miles of northern wilderness in a small plane, bear defense is a thing. We took a big can of bear spray and a 12 gauge shotgun with Brenneke Black Magic ammo (3″ mag, 602 grain slug, 1500 fps). A 12 gauge is about .73 caliber so imagine the hitting power of a supersonic “C” cell battery and you will not be too far off. This is what some of the rangers carry in Alaska and Canada. They are supposedly able to stop any animal in N America (including polar bears) with a single shot. That is quite a claim! We took it to the range to test the consistency and accuracy and were impressed. At 50 yards, fired from a Mossberg 500 pump, bench rested, we got a 5 slug group with holes that were nearly touching. It makes a stout blast that turns heads at the shooting range, but it’s quite controllable. Common sense (and US and Canadian law) requires that it be unloaded during flight and locked inside the airplane when unattended.
I had recently installed a new engine, the Penn Yan Superhawk O-360 upgrade. I flew it through the break-in protocol for 50 hours and measured its performance and efficiency over a variety of conditions. Just before the trip, the new engine had 62 hours and a fresh oil change to Philips 20w50 AD. We expected to fly about 40 hours on this trip, so it would not need an oil change. I brought 3 extra quarts of oil and ended up using 2 of them over about 35 total hours of flying, which makes an oil consumption rate of 17.5 hours per quart. This is normal and healthy for this model of engine.
Flying a small plane to Alaska means crossing back and forth between Canada and the USA. Advance preparation for this includes the following. Some of these steps require several weeks, so get an early start!
- Get a passport
- Buy a US Customs sticker: https://dtops.cbp.dhs.gov
- Open a US EAPIS account: https://eapis.cbp.dhs.gov
- Ensure your airplane has a radio station license, and the pilot has a radio operator license.
- Ensure your airplane is insured to Canadian requirements, and bring written proof
- If you are bringing a firearm
- Ensure it’s legal in Canada (bolt/pump/lever action rifle or shotgun)
- Ensure it’s sufficient protection from large bears (high caliber rifle or 12 gauge with slugs)
- Get the RCMP form 5589: fill it out but don’t sign or submit it yet
- for purpose: say “in transit” or “protection from wildlife”
- Get the US Customs form 4457
After you’ve done the above advance prep, here’s what you do to cross the border:
- At least 1 hour before the flight, file an EAPIS manifest describing your airplane, passengers, date, time and airports you’ll use to cross the border.
- You will need passport #s and dates of birth for every passenger.
- There is no advance time limit, so you can file a day or a week beforehand, if you want to.
- Within 5-10 minutes you’ll receive the EAPIS email confirmation – keep it just in case.
- Ensure your first landing in the country you’re entering, is an airport of entry.
- Call Customs of the country you’re entering, 2-48 hours before you land there.
- File an international flight plan with the country you’re departing.
- After takeoff, before crossing the border, contact flight service or RCO to activate your flight plan and get a discrete squawk code.
- Note: before flying across any international border you should be squawking a discrete code. The exception to this is Alaska. You can cross Alaska to Canada and vice versa while squawking 1200.
Canadian GA flight rules are similar to the US, but just different enough to trip you up. Here is a brief summary of the differences. Of course, these are not all the differences, just the main ones most relevant to VFR pilots:
- VFR flight plan required for all flights > 25nm
- Plan activates at filed start time – no need to activate after takeoff
- Must call to close plan upon landing
- Altitude: 10,000 – 13,000 limited to 30 mins without oxygen
- VFR over the top is restricted
- VFR night is restricted
- MF: mandatory frequency; like CTAF
- Class “E” airports (untowered) have mandatory reporting before entering their airspace
- Monitor 126.7 continuously, en route. Also monitored by FSS.
- Nav Canada: 1-866-992-7433
- 866 541-4101 (Canada & USA)
- Canada Customs: 1-888-226-7277
- 1-905-679-2073 outside Canada
- Nav Canada: 1-866-992-7433
Last but not least, we researched our activities — where to stay, what to do, in each spot. How to get around, etc. The stuff you’d do for any normal vacation. We did this for several spots, knowing that weather might prevent us from doing all of them. Hotel reservations get tricky when you can’t know exactly what day you might get there or how long you’ll stay (due to weather delays). Car reservations or ground transportation also gets tricky when flying around small, remote airports.
Choose carefully who to invite on a trip like this! You may have to make a forced landing and camp out. Or spend days holed up in remote locations with few or no services, waiting for weather to improve. Or fly through turbulent or marginal conditions, or severe terrain, that can make nervous passengers cringe. In situations like this, day after day, the social veneer wears thin revealing what people are really like. And on a trip like this, flying a small plane is not just a way to get there, it’s a big part of the trip and reason for coming. My good friend Bernd whom I’ve known for over 25 years, my father Dave, and myself constituted a perfect trio for such a trip. Everyone maintained a good natured optimism making the best of the situations and people that fate threw at us. Sharing the trip this way made it even more enjoyable.
Click here for Day 1.