North to Alaska

I had full-time, 8 to 5 employment in Columbus, Ohio, but on evenings and weekends I enjoyed my professional avocation: flying, much of it flight instruction at The Ohio State University Flight Training Clinic. Our flight students were not enrolled in the University. Multiengine instruction was in the Piper Twin Comanche, which is a fun and economical airplane.

A friend and I discussed flying to Alaska as he knew a fellow who had expressed a desire to see the northern state. I called a pilot friend who became the other front seat. He was not yet multiengine-rated although he was a competent instrument-rated pilot. I reserved the Twin Comanche for mid-July 1982 for our flight.

Our adventurous foursome had a planning meeting which was primarily to restrict carry-on weight. We had a trial flight for dinner to make sure the fellow I had not met previously understood the transportation, and we all enjoyed the flying.

We planned to leave after work on Friday at 6 pm, and the route would be OSU airport to North Dakota for the remainder of the night. Day 2 was to Canada for fuel and to clear Customs and Immigration. Ground and flight planning would be adjusted as we progressed after entering Canada. Administration was simplified: each of the four of us contributed an equal amount to a central fund from which one person paid all trip expenses. There would be little variation in spending among us during the trip.

Crew by Comanche
Ready to blast off on a long trip up north.

On Friday evening, we loaded the Comanche, received our clearance and then it was throttles forward on runway 27. Thirty minutes west, we entered clouds which we did not exit for the remainder of our truncated flight. Approaching Madison, Wisconsin, Center informed us of a squall line “blocking” our flight path so we diverted to Madison. We had been flying through heavy rain, and stepping off the wing at the ramp, water was over my shoes. We sat it out for about two hours and then refueled and headed for Grand Forks, North Dakota.

We had good IFR flying and landed about 2 am. Two of us slept the remainder of the night in the Comanche on the reclined front seats (not a bad bed) and two of us moved into the FBO office – one selected the lounge-type chair and I occupied the window area, in which the lineman had constructed a bed from newspapers and magazines. He was not happy with my occupying his unique bunk; he slammed the door violently each entrance and exit. During the night he commenced to fuel the Comanche, which abruptly awakened Hank Coughlin, the other pilot sleeping in the left seat, who opened the small left side window and shouted thinking someone was attempting to steal the plane. The lineman was very startled, not expecting the aircraft to be occupied. It was not a good night for the linemen.

We had an early morning file and it was gear up to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Center handed us off to Saskatoon tower, a visual approach. The tower began to castigate us for something of which I understood nothing. I told him we would discuss when on the ground. Upon taxiing to the very nice terminal, we were met by a senior gentleman in uniform. He was Customs and Immigration and he explained the potential problem: our flight plan listed arrival before 8:00 am, and if we had landed before this time we were required to fly to Ottawa (capital of Canada), a long flight east.

I did not inquire the action expected there – perhaps imprisoned, fined and the aircraft confiscated. However, as the gentleman explained, we landed at 8:02. If the tower had told me the problem, I would have held somewhere until certain we were legal. We had breakfast and were then off to Alaska.

When we were flying over Saskatchewan, large red barns and pot-hole lakes were the scenery. I realized that is where the ducks of the Central Flyway started out. We selected a direct route from Saskatoon to the Alaskan entrance at the Yukon border. We refueled in Alberta, continuing to our overnight in Fort Nelson, British Columbia. The small village appeared to be in celebration: pennants waving, games for children in the park. The Alcan Highway had been closed for about a week, so far, due to a bridge wash-out; the Lions Club hosted those stranded. Good mark for the Canadians.

We had a hotel plan: two arrive at reception and arrange a room for the night, four enter said room, mattress relocated to the floor, two there and two resting on the box springs. We utilized this arrangement every night except one.

The next morning we were off to White Horse, Yukon, and now really felt we were going North to Alaska. We bounced several times landing, a bad landing, since the CG was a bit past the rear of the envelope. Our loading was adjusted and monitored closely with the Jepp chart case now between the front seats for landing. This was the only appalling landing of the aircraft. Fuel and then the first leg of the flight where the freezing level was a restriction.

Crew in Alaska
Now it’s starting to look like Alaska.

We filed for 8000 with the freezing level just above, almost. Thirty minutes out, we collected mixed ice, a white pyramid across the leading edge and some clear on the windshield. As with the single Comanche, the IAS decreased 10 knots, and we returned to White Horse. As with our previous atmospheric challenge, after about a two-hour delay, we were in the air landing at US Customs and Immigration airfield and Alcan Highway Welcome Center. We were welcomed as old friends, as they did not have much flight activity. In fact, we later learned the airfield was eliminated.

We found flying the same in Canada as the United States, except for VFR altitudes. Hank and I switched seats each flight, and he was my proficient student flying the Twin as if long acquainted with it. (Hank later added MEL and, with friends, bought the plane that was our Alaskan transportation.)

Continuing on, we headed to Fairbanks, which was the furthest north (64.47N) we flew. The desire was to land beyond the Arctic Circle at 66.33N, which was about a one hour flight. However, there were no towns with airports near so we deleted visiting the polar region. At each location we rented a car to tour the local scenery. We found the Alaskan Pipeline and climbed upon it to view its serpentine design. After two nights in Fairbanks, we flew to Anchorage, landing at the big airport. On that flight, we had magnificent views of snow-covered mountains, the Alaska Range, not much over 3000 msl under most of our flight path.

Anchorage was a small, modern city compared to Fairbanks. An interesting relic of the 1964 earthquake: the top of the roof of a building was at street level, the building elevation after the quake. We drove to a nearby glacier, and we all had our first walk on a blue monster. We then departed the “big city” for Homer. Fred Kile knew a friend who had migrated there from Plain City, Ohio, who owned a sporting equipment store in the village. Homer is the beginning for many of those hunting and fishing, local or on Kodiak Island.

We enjoyed a guided tour of Homer and then back to the airfield, where we filed for Kodiak Island. We started the engines and called Flight Service: “Kodiak Zero-Zero. What are your intentions?” We shut down and called our friend who organized a successful salmon fishing trip for us. We stayed the night at a hotel at the tip of the Spit, a narrow projection of land into the ocean. Our friend and guide later learned to fly, but soon after he and his son crashed flying to Kodiak, killing both of them.

In the morning, we flew to Mt. McKinley National Park in the Alaska Range. Free, big yellow school buses travel the roads in the granitic nature reserve, and we rode the entire journey, saw the wildlife big and small. Daylight was almost 24 hours at this latitude, so we departed south to the village of Talkeetna, less than an hour flight. We landed at 10 pm and a fellow with his station wagon met us at the tiedown area. He owned the hotel which had a very nice dining room and bar. He made us sandwiches, assigned rooms and said good night. He told us that, if we had anything from the bar, we should record it on the tablet provided. The small rooms had no lock, the price was very inexpensive, and this was the occasion where each of us had a room.

Fishing in Alaska
They don’t have fish like that in Ohio.

After a fine breakfast, we left for Anchorage, where we refueled and filed for Juneau, Alaska’s capital. This was an extended, over-water flight though close to the coast with its many glaciers. The NDB was utilized until receiving the VOR located off shore, a busy airport. Juneau is landlocked, no roads or rails. We rented a car and drove the short distance to visit our last glacier. The town is small, and we saw it all. Tour boats were in the harbor, and there were no hotel rooms, not even one for all us so two of us slept in the Comanche and two of us in the car – rather a symbolic arrangement for our last night in Alaska.

We pointed our faithful Comanche south, landed at Ketchikan, refueled and were over the Pacific for much of our 4.9 hour flight at 5000 msl – real msl. We landed at Bellingham, Washington, which was selected because it was near the Canadian border. We taxied to the FBO only to discover it was closed because of a gas shortage so we returned to the air, flying the short distance to Everett. When landing, we passed many 747s parked wingtip to wingtip, staged for painting.

We stayed for the night, and then headed east with a fuel stop at Worland, Wyoming, where we had lunch. When we started the engine to depart, only the right one started – the left had no response. Worland is a small airport in the mountains and had no starter for the Lycoming; the mechanic found one and flew to collect it and then installed it. We had an enjoyable evening in the Far West.

We took off again late morning and decided to see Mt. Rushmore. The approach to Rapid City, South Dakota, was as busy as I wanted to experience with strong, gusting wind. The next landing was Mitchell, South Dakota. The company I used to work for had a plant in Mitchell so I knew the area. Chef Carl’s in Mitchell was and remains a restaurant worth experiencing.

Our foursome headed for home, refueled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, then landing on runway 27 at OSU – 13 days after departing. Total flight hours were 51.8, 35% of them IFR, with the longest leg at 4.9 hours (Alaska to Washington). Our highest flight was 12,000 msl. We burned 15 US gallons per hour for the two 160 hp IO320 engines of the PA-39 – the total Comanche cost was $2330. Personal cash flow was minimal.

3 Comments

  • Great story, I live in Switzerland and intend to rent a C 172 probably in Florida and fly around part of the US for two to three weeks. Don’t think Alaska will be on the menu just yet but your article is an inspiration. Any advice or words of wisdom about where or how to go around the US from anybody would be appreciated. Any advice on renting an aquaplane in Alaska or Canada gratefully received. Most places will certify you on aquaplanes but renting you one is a different matter. Thanks, Duncan

  • I would like to know How to get AIR FACTS on e-mail to my brother. He doesn’t live in my town, but loves good old Stories like you send (for propeller-heads like us….) Thank You!! Eddie Hunter Tampa, Fl.

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