Trapped in Alaskan soup (sprinkled with rock)

Clouds pack up against the windward sides of the Alaska Range, the mountain range that surrounds South Central Alaska. Mountain Obscuration AIRMETs are quite often current. That is predictable considering the Range rises upwards over 20,000 feet. Luckily, many of the Range’s popular mountain pass elevations are below 4,000 feet. That’s not always good enough to get through underneath and some VFR pilots try to top the clouds that plug the mountain passes, knowing or hoping they can find breaks and VFR conditions on the other side of the Range.

As a flight service specialist in the 1980s, I knew that when the weather was marginal, I would get my most challenging workouts.

bad weather out window
In the soup…

Marginal weather meant potentially getting a call from an aircraft lost in the clouds or stuck on top. Our area of responsibility was huge, so we always had some work to do. This is the story of one of those days.

On March 6, 1987, I was working the Inflight One radio position at the Anchorage Flight Service Station. It was a nice day around Anchorage, which is less than 200 feet above sea level, but surrounded by the Alaska Range and the Talkeetna, Chugach and Kenai Mountains.The Susitna Valley, north of Anchorage, is bordered by the Alaska Range which acts as a catcher’s mitt for the clouds and moisture brought overhead from the Gulf of Alaska.

Cessna 98 Golf had somehow made it above the Alaska Range and now at high altitude, with no clearance and with minimal navigational gear or flight instrumentation, and possibly no supplemental oxygen, found himself in the soup and called on my frequency.

The radio call excerpts that follow are not from official transcription or per FAA transcription protocols, but are a good faith effort at portraying the communications.  They are edited to exclude the full call sign of the aircraft in need of assistance and other aircraft who called during the event, and also reflect significant deletions of communications for the purposes of brevity.

Initial Contact

N98G                       …anchorage radio ah nine eight golf on one two two point three how do you hear me

Radio                       nine eight golf anchorage radio loud and clear

N98G                       ah nine eight golf i’m in the soup ah i’m above the overcast maintaining heading of east and ah last known position was over shell lake over

Radio                       nine eight golf anchorage radio roger maintain straight and level flight ah say your altitude and your fuel remaining

N98G                       i have approximately two hours of fuel, maintaining east heading and i’m at fourteen thousand now

Radio                       roger understand one four thousand the ah merrill field altimeter two niner eight eight and ah reset your d-g to agree with your magnetic compass and advise me of your mag or correction your d-g at this time

N98G                       negative d-g, i just have magnetic compass, i’m maintaining about one four zero

Radio                       nine eight golf roger understand ah one four zero heading confirm one four thousand

N98G                       that’s affirmative one four thousand and I’m maintaining heading of one four zero at this time

Radio                       nine eight golf roger continue heading one four zero, say type aircraft you’re flying

N98G                       cessna ag truck one eighty eight

Radio                       roger sir are you transponder equipped

N98G                       negative

The 1980s were not the safest period in Alaska aviation. It was before GPS. Navigation off or below the airways was not so easy. IFR stood for “I follow rivers.” Wiz wheels and computing wind triangles for wind correction were still the norm, when they were even used. Weather reporting was not as extensive as it is today. On a flight from Anchorage to Whitehorse, Canada, a distance of over 400 nautical miles, there might be only departure/destination weather observations available, nothing in between for a route over several mountain ranges.

Pilots needed to make the best decisions they could based on what they knew. Trouble was there were wide gaps in the weather forecasting and reporting system. Flying legal IFR was and still is tough to do; with icing potential below much of the airway minimum en route altitudes summer or winter, there was a tendency to go VFR. Navigation was dependent on ADFs and VORs when you could tune them in, as well as LORAN if you were equipped. Plus there was a mentality called the Bush Pilot Syndrome, a certain bravado affecting decision making that some pilots labored under or swaggered with until their untimely deaths.

Today there are many more weather reporting sites made possible by automating the observation systems. Pilots also now avidly use FAA weather cameras to actually see the weather conditions before they go. And with GPS-based satellite navigation, it is a lot harder to get lost, if the aircraft is fully equipped.

Lines of position
Plotting lines of position – X marks the spot.

Bearings from the Talkeetna and Anchorage DFs were used to quickly cross-fix the aircraft’s location. Lines of position (bearings) were drawn from DF sites on a plotting board chart using a grease pencil.  Where the lines intersect is the approximate location of the aircraft.  The position fix is less accurate with distance as the bearing widens further from the DF site.

Radio                       nine eight golf anchorage radio roger I have you southwest of the talkeetna airport ah bearing off the talkeetna d-f, continue heading one four zero

transmit for 5 seconds followed by your aircraft ident for position fixing

N98G                       (sound of transmitter carrier with no modulation)

Radio                       nine eight golf nine eight golf you are approximately five east of skwentna the current anchorage weather is vfr we’re showing at anchorage middle level scattered clouds nine ah correction five thousand five hundred scattered and niner thousand overcast  we are reporting breaks in the overcast in the area ah recommend a heading to ah anchorage over…

Oscillating Compass

N98G                       …anchorage radio this magnetic compass is oscillating going back and forth ah its not operative

Radio                       roger have you got a turn coordinator or a turn and bank

N98G                       i got a turn coordinator two minute turn coordinator

Radio                       roger ah confirm your altitude are you maintaining one four thousand

N98G                       negative, I climbed to about fourteen eight off my ah left there’s ah breaks in overcast trying to see if I can find a hole

Radio                       nine eight golf roger understand you have ah no landmarks in sight but you do have breaks to your left

N98G                       well all I can do is see blue sky i’m at fifteen thousand maintaining one two zero according to this ah magnetic compass…

Radio                       roger ah for position fixing again transmit for five seconds followed by your aircraft ident

N98G                       nine eight golf five minutes five seconds (sound of transmitter no modulation) anchorage radio ah nine eight golf were you able to pick me up

Radio                       nine eight golf roger you are over ah mount yenlo now recommend a heading to talkeetna a heading would be ah approximately zero four zero confirm you’re on a heading of zero four zero now

nine eight golf ah anchorage radio do you copy

N98G                       nine eight golf ah that’s affirmative

Radio                       roger say your heading zero four zero will take you ah direct talkeetna

N49A                        one eighty eight four nine alpha cessna one seventy about forty north of Palmer there’s a hole here about twenty miles across

Radio                       and nine eight Golf nine eight golf anchorage radio you copy

Back Toward the Mountains or Graveyard Turns?

N98G                       that’s affirmative now maintaining a heading of west the gyro is just going all around I’m maintaining straight and level flight and (garbled) anchorage radio whats the height of ceiling…

Radio                       break nine eight golf nine eight golf anchorage radio ah the last reported weather at talkeetna indicated broken clouds bases eight thousand with a lower scattered layer ah how copy

N98G                       ah that’s affirmative… anchorage radio can you give a fix on me once again I’m maintaining a east heading at this time straight and level east

Radio                       nine eight golf nine eight golf anchorage radio we’ve got another position fix on you west of skwentna we’re showing ah approximately one seven miles west of skwentna… do you have d-f ah a-d-f on board

N98G                       negative

Radio                       have you got a v-o-r on board

N98G                       that’s affirmative

Tracking the VOR Inbound Would Help

Radio                       ok tune your ah v-o-r  to the talkeetna v-o-r its frequency one one six point two one one six point two check your volume up and advise me when you’ve identified talkeetna v-o-r

N98G                       say again the frequency

Radio                       its ah one one six point two

N98G                       anchorage radio ah negative contact on one one six point two

Radio                       roger maintain heading now ah zero four zero are you able correction turn left heading of zero four zero and ah that’ll take you direct talkeetna over

N98G                       turning to zero four zero

Radio                       make that a standard rate turn and ah (pause or break in recording) and nine eight golf nine eight golf have you rolled level yet

N98G                       that’s affirmative maintaining zero four zero

Radio                       roger continue heading zero four zero we’ll be tracking you on the d-f inbound talkeetna should encounter broken clouds enroute have you got any breaks below you at this time

N98G                       ah negative

Radio                       roger are you ah do you have forward visibility

N98G                       ah still climbing a little almost at sixteen thousand coming out of it at this time

Radio                       roger understand one six thousand and heading zero four zero continue heading zero four zero advise vfr conditions when you reach them

N98G                       zero four zero

N293                        anchorage radio cessna two niner three on one two two point three

Radio                       calling one two two point three come up one two two point two one two two point two

nine eight golf anchorage radio ah press your mic for ah five seconds followed by your aircraft ident

nine eight golf nine eight golf anchorage radio do you copy ah anchorage radio

N98G                      ah say again anchorage radio

Radio                       roger ah just press your mic nine eight golf press your mic for five seconds

N98G                       nine eight golf (sound of carrier no modulation) nine eight golf

Heading Away – Unable to Comply With Instructions

Radio                       nine eight golf nine eight golf anchorage radio I’m showing you a little bit further west of where I had you before confirm you’re heading zero four zero heading zero four zero

N98G                       anchorage radio I’m maintaining heading heading zero correction its heading three zero zero

Radio                       ok make standard rate right turn zero four zero that’s going to take you about ah for that make it about twenty five seconds and then ah roll out I’ll give you a call

execute that turn now standard rate turn to the right

and nine eight golf nine eight golf anchorage radio confirm you’re making that right turn now right turn standard rate

N98G                       nine eight golf turning right ah standard rate

Radio                       ok nine eight golf ah roll out wings level now roll out wings level give your compass ah time to stabilize and give me your heading once you have done that

N98G                       anchorage radio maintaining i’m maintaining two one zero right into sun and I’m at sixteen thousand feet straight and level

Radio                       ok ah nine eight golf nine eight golf which way were you turning advise me which way you were turning

N98G                       I was turning to the right

Radio                       ok and understand you’re straight and level at ah heading of two one zero

N98G                       ah straight and level at two six zero

Radio                       ok  ah nine eight Golf ah make standard rate right turn for about ah eight seconds eight seconds ah begin turn now.  I’ll advise you when to stop

N98G                       ok eight seconds

Radio                       nine eight golf anchorage radio stop turn and advise me of your ah heading when the compass stabilizes

and nine eight golf anchorage radio confirm your ah confirm your wings level wings level and advise me how your compass looks is it stabilized

N98G                       ok wings are level i’m at sixteen thousand and its zero seven zero

IFR at 16,000 Feet  and Creeping Around to the Right

Hole in clouds
Just a little daylight – is it a hole in the clouds?

Radio                       roger continue heading zero seven zero and are you in VFR conditions

N98G                       negative IFR

Radio                       roger continue heading zero seven zero

and nine eight golf ah anchorage radio transmit for five seconds followed by your aircraft ident

N98G                       (sound of carrier no modulation) nine eight Golf

Radio                       zero correction nine eight golf anchorage radio confirm your wings level heading zero seven zero

N98G                       (garbled) level (garbled) heading zero nine zero

Radio                       roger continue heading zero niner zero nine eight golf zero niner zero go ahead and maintain that zero nine zero we got you northwest of ah skwentna

nine eight golf anchorage radio continue heading nine correction heading zero nine zero and ah what is the color of  your aircraft

N98G                       red white and blue

Radio                       and nine eight golf anchorage radio maintain wings level and ah advise me your compass reading now

N98G                       my wings are level and i’m at ah let’s see one zero zero

Radio                       ok you are creeping around a little bit to the right try to maintain that ah one zero zero  heading now the weather is going to get better to the east and confirm you’re at one six thousand

N98G                       i’m at one six thousand and I’m maintaining one zero zero…

Spiral Through a Hole

N98G                       …nine eight golf I see a break underneath me I’m going to spiral down underneath it it’s a good break (garbled)

Radio                       nine eight golf I’m beginning to lose radio contact you’re starting to break up on me what i’m going to have you come up one two two point two one two two point two if unable to contact me on one two two point two that’s the talkeetna remote frequency try me again one two two point three come up for radio check one two two point two nine eight golf

N98G                       nine eight golf roger

Radio                       nine eight golf nine eight golf anchorage radio do you copy

nine eight golf nine eight golf anchorage radio do you copy

N98G                       anchorage radio nine eight golf I hear you loud and clear

Radio                       nine eight golf roger have you started to spiral yet

N98G                       i’m out of it and i’m vfr

Radio                       roger understand you are vfr understand that you are below bases now is that correct

N98G                       that’s affirmative i have ah see mount susitna anchorage in sight descending through nine thousand feet

Radio                       ok i missed your altitude there zero one zero zero one zero is the heading that will take you into the airport talkeetna airport and nine eight golf anchorage did you copy that heading

N98G                       nine eight golf that’s affirmative

Radio                       ok ah do you require any further assistance at this time

N98G                       ah negative I have it in sight ah what is your name operator

Radio                       ah mike sierra

N98G                       mike sierra thank you very much

Radio                       ok we’re going to terminate the orientation service ah i don’t have a current wind for you or that condition report there at talkeetna understand you are going to go to the village strip at this time is that affirm

N98G                       negative I have enough fuel i go right back to anchorage

Radio                       ok give flight service a call when you after arrival here in the local area

N98G                       nine eight golf roger well thank you

Radio                       ok the ah merrill field altimeter two nine eight eight

N98G                       nine eight golf

Making the Go/No-Go Decision

Ag-truck
The Ag Truck is a rugged airplane, but not much of an instrument platform.

Twenty seven years after the event, I think back to what I believed had influenced the pilot to enter into harm’s way and to what I think today. While I questioned the preflight decision making that led to the event, that subject was not my primary area of concern back then, nor as I mentioned previously, did pilots have as extensive decision making supports as are available today. Many times, not having the benefit of today’s weather cameras, a pilot needed to “take a look” to find out if the flight could actually be accomplished.

I was most interested in the tactical aspects of the actual incident as it played out real time and after, as FAA management and I dissected the services I provided. I did consider pilot hypoxia affects, compass lead/ lag, climb/descent and turbulence sensitivities as well as incipient stall/spin entry in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). Spatial Disorientation (the leans) was a significant concern. Many prompts regarding level flight were communicated.  It would not have surprised me if the pilot had entered a spin during the incident.

I also was aware that although FAA training for FSS emergency services was thorough and to high standards, it did not contain no-gyro exercises. As a pilot, I was comfortable with giving timed turn instructions. It was a blessing to have VHF direction finder (DF) equipment, the best friend of lost airmen and flight service specialists. Today, the DFs are decommissioned; their need had evaporated as pilots adopted GPS navigation technology.

The services provided were a team effort with FSS staff, other facilities, pilots and indeed, every component of the national airspace system that supports flight safety. Military radar coordination was accomplished, position information was correlated with the DF bearings and the aircraft remained on my frequency rather than attempting to transfer communications to Center.

Throughout my career it has been my privilege to be a part of a team dedicated to aviation safety and an honor to be of service to pilots, something I tried to live up to by being professional, learning all I could about aviation and standing at the ready for emergencies to the best of my abilities.

Outcome

I never spoke to the pilot again.  I am sure we both learned a lot from our time together.  My supervisor said the ski equipped Ag Truck was later found unattended, having landed safely at Big Lake, Alaska.

6 Comments

    • Thanks for taking the time to read, your kind words are appreciated! I do plan on sharing a few more stories if Air Facts accepts them, including one about when I experienced a catastrophic engine failure in my Piper Colt, as well as one about our family flying tradition. Blue skies!

  • Well done. Far too many pilots, often with limited experience, place themselves in situations they are unprepared to handle – usually weather related. Even with today’s more advanced technologies, human error will often pevail. If not for the professionalism of Alaska Air Traffic Controllers, countless additional lives would have been lost.

    • Greg, thanks for recognizing the life saving contributions of our Air Traffic folks! I have learned from and admire your work tremendously, so it is a great honor to hear from you. Your “Aviation Mysteries of the North” and “Broken Wings” are classic must reads!

  • If they can pilots should find a military airfield and request a no gyro approach. It is amazing what they can do with instructions using timed turns to bring you down to ILS minimums.

    • Thanks, Joe, I agree, in an emergency, a Precision Approach Radar operator could guide an aircraft in through some really low conditions. There was one at Elmendorf AFB, and it was on my list of options for when the weather was low and other options were limited.

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