My dad flew F4U Corsairs off of aircraft carriers in WWII. I grew up listening to his stories and though he never flew in combat, airplanes and flying were conversations that held my attention. Not much else did at the time. It made no sense to me that he never pushed or even suggested aviation as a career choice on any of his three sons. As he flew in different times, when dying in an airplane was relatively commonplace, his view of what was safe in aviation may have been tainted by WWII standards. Nevertheless, it never came up as he certainly sought something safer and more profitable for his kids. I showed him. I became a cop. He didn’t see that one coming.
He is long gone but his stories remain. For a lifetime I’ve always been fascinated with anything that flies. It doesn’t have to go fast or shoot things down, but the idea of soaring, gliding, climbing or hovering has never escaped me. What did escape me for a very long time was the belief that doing something like that was even possible for someone like me.
In 2007 I brought aviation into my life where it was to become a part of me. At that time I was 52 years old and Dad had been dead for 25 years. I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I never would. One day in January of that year I walked into the office at Creve Coeur Airport just outside St. Louis and asked, “What do you have to do to learn how to fly one of these contraptions?
The kid behind the counter made a quick phone call to Bill, a local CFI. In about 15 minutes I learned that this was not only a very real and possible goal, it could be even more exciting and satisfying than anything I have ever done. Fast forward to the summer of 2014, when I found that both of these things were true and to a level I never could have imagined.
Starting that day and for the next seven years, my brother and I learned to fly, bought a 1966 Piper Cherokee 180, and realized the first part of what Bill told me: that it was possible. And in 2014, I flew that same Cherokee to Alaska and back to fulfill the second part of what Bill told me, which took it to that level I never could have foreseen or imagined. That was my trip of a lifetime.
I am a very average pilot. I got my Private Pilot’s license in 2008, my instrument rating a year later, and have since been “working on my Commercial/CFI.” A lot of flying but not much work. I’m still in that process. But in 2013, my cousin, John, talked me into flying to Alaska. We had been talking about driving the Alaska Highway for a long time, long before I started flying. I’ve been up there a number of times. I became drawn to Alaska’s vastness and rough and natural beauty. It’s the only place outside St. Louis that I ever knocked on doors to try to find work. I never found work but it still remains my favorite place on earth.
Cousin John and I started planning in February of 2014 and probably overthought and over-planned the whole trip. That’s not to say that we did anything wrong, but this was an undertaking. I, like most pilots, am huge on safety and I didn’t want any surprises. My normal flying involved a lot of hundred dollar hamburgers and a few SEC football games but not a lot more. Up to that point, the most I ever flew in the mountains were in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, the hills of eastern Tennessee at Knoxville and the Green Mountains in Vermont. So arrangements were made for mountain flying training in Centennial, Colorado, which we decided would be our starting and ending point for Alaska.
I took the time to learn about Customs, both US and Canadian. I got a radio license for the airplane (remember ARROW from private training?) and a Customs sticker allowing for international travel. It was necessary that my ForeFlight be updated with a Canadian subscription so we had all the states, provinces and territories along our route on the iPad. I also got the Canadian version of the FAR/AIM along with all the paper charts for the entire flight. A lot of time was spent putting together a survival kit, required by law when flying in Alaska and just plain a good idea when flying in any mountainous area.
We envisioned flying up east of the Canadian Rockies and into central Alaska, following the Alaska Highway then returning down the coast to Seattle. However, weather along the coast was considered too unpredictable and there would be zero forgiveness for the loss of an engine. Therefore we acceded to those who assured that doing this without two engines or pontoons was not really a good idea. Ultimately we decided to follow the Alaska Highway up and back. It’s all about flying safe.
The next issue was what we were going to take and how it affected weight and balance. A Piper Cherokee is just not that big. I tell non-pilots to think of it as a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. You just don’t have a lot of room in there. We had to be very conscious of our gross weight which, after quite a bit of finagling, we got to our legal limit of 2,400 lbs. with full tanks. Just fitting everything into this bug was also a task but we did it.
The mountain flying training was the best idea of the whole trip. Flying in the mountains is not like flying in the flat lands. All of a sudden, performance charts become exceedingly important; the need to accurately interpret the weather is amplified several fold and decision-making leaves much less room for error than we are used to here in the Midwest. We would be flying at the limits of the airplane’s capabilities.
We came into Centennial as “Flatlanders,” a distinction the locals are not shy about making. And one I now understand. After receiving the training and after flying the Colorado Rockies, I fully realize that flying in the mountains is a finely tuned skill, one that can’t be mastered with just 12 hours of training. There is a lot to know about it but most of it reverts back at least in part to basic private pilot training.
Mike Shannon of Aspen Flying Club did a great job in getting me indoctrinated and making this Alaska dream as safe as it could possibly be for us. And, in this process, I got to see the Colorado Rockies from above and land at Leadville and Aspen. This is some of the most beautiful ground in the lower 48. As a sidenote, the truth is that we flew at much higher altitudes in Colorado than we had to for the entire rest of the trip all the way to Alaska and back. I will return to Colorado for more training and flying as soon as I can convince my wife there are sunny beaches out there where she can lay out. That may be a while but the effort continues.
The trip to Alaska is a long one. There was truly never a dull moment but the trip was completed safely and with minimal surprises. We flew legs of around three hours, doing a couple of these legs any day possible or practical. We were prisoners of the weather and that was taken seriously. There was no due back date and that was important. We did not want to be forced onto a schedule that had us flying when it was not safe to do so. Hopefully I would never do that, but it never came up as an issue on this trip.
As it turned out, on the days we chose not to fly (there were a number of these days), we were able to find something fun and interesting to do on the ground. Each stop had something remarkable we would have never experienced otherwise.
We were not bored for a minute. We were always able to find something to do or see. All through Canada and Alaska as well, we were treated very well. For the most part we weren’t so much on the tourist routes as we were just passing through. We met and dealt with salt of the earth people everywhere and enjoyed everyone. Nothing plastic or false in their demeanor as they seemed as interested in us as we were in them.
Our toughest challenge was to find a place to stay each night. When we got into an airport, we talked to the locals when possible and started calling around. The closest we came to not finding a room was in Red Deer, Alberta, when the Latter Day Saints were in town for a convention. That was close. Nevertheless we were always able to find a place and get to it.
The routing we finally decided upon took us east of the Rockies through Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and into the Yukon. We caught the corner of British Columbia, where we stayed the night at Dawson Creek. This is mile marker zero for the Alaska Highway. From here, we followed the “ALCAN” into the mountains through the Yukon and into Alaska. In essence we followed what turned out to be the Northwest Staging Route created in WWII for supplying Alaska with troops, aircraft and supplies, as well as ferrying Lend Lease P-39 Airacobra fighters, among other aircraft, to the Russians.
These airports were used before the highway was built and were primarily responsible for the routing of the Alaska Highway, which was built over a nine-month period during WWII. There is a lot of history both from WWII and the Gold Rush at the turn of the century in each of these towns and airports. Ultimately, we parked the airplane at Palmer in the Mat-Su Valley, just a few miles north of Anchorage.
Of interest is the fact that at each of these airports we stopped—Lethbridge, Red Deer, Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse—there was a Flight Service Station (FSS) right on the field. This was true at some places in Alaska as well. We were able to walk right into the FSS office and get a personal, yet accurate, depiction of the weather. We still picked up the full standard briefing from the 800-number but in speaking face-to-face with the FSS specialists, it was easier to make fly or no-fly decisions. These were very helpful people, each one of whom treated us as respected guests. I can’t say enough about how well we were received and treated.
Sitting at the restaurant at the Dawson Creek Airport in British Columbia, we were watching weather and trying to decide on whether to fly out when we were engaged by a couple sitting two tables over. Within fifteen minutes we were invited that should we decide not to fly, we could stay in a cabin on their property, grill some steaks and drink some beer into the evening sitting outside by a bonfire. Dan and Tammy Simmons treated us like royalty and we had an absolutely great time as advertised. Dan flies a Husky off a grass strip on his property.
All of Canada (with the exception of one Customs agent in Whitehorse with a bad attitude and worse French accent) treated us likewise. Western Canada seems to love Americans. We stayed again with the Simmons on the return trip and had an even better time, eating, drinking and hanging out at their son’s corral to watch a couple of cowboys practicing calf roping skills for a rodeo the next morning in Fort St. John.
Canada is beautiful. We were never out of sight of the mountains, though we really did not get into them until we left Fort Nelson. As beautiful as the terrain is, so too are the skies much of the time. Weather was interesting to say the least. We spent the best part of the trip up and much of the trip back flying around isolated cumulus towers. As soon as we got around one into what we thought was going to be clear flying for a while, we were greeted by three more. Between the unstable air, the cumulus cells and ceilings sometimes just a thousand or so feet above us, we were always conscious of weather. That’s just how it rolls up there.
Very rarely did we have smooth air or clear skies. It was often a constant fight to hold heading and altitude. This was aggravating because it went on for hours. It was just a challenge I have never experienced before. It was not unmanageable or unsafe but definitely not like going to Mattoon, Illinois, for a tenderloin sandwich and peanut butter pie on a Sunday morning.
The cloud formations and the ceilings just added to the beauty of what we were seeing. Every leg was different from each of the others in one way or another and we never lost interest or incentive to go forward. It just got more and more exciting the further we got.
Once well into the Canadian Rockies, we found ourselves in complete astonishment in what we were seeing. There is nothing I know of east of the Divide that comes close to the sights we saw. Colorado is beautiful, but this is different. Not necessarily bigger or better. Different. The mountains here are inconceivable. The vastness of the terrain was overwhelming and pretty much all of it with no sign of anything man-made for miles and miles on end. This was true no matter what direction we looked. And we weren’t even out of Canada yet!
As we continued, it just got better and better. The Canadian Rockies and Alaska have lots of mountains, rivers, valleys, lakes and glaciers. Except for the highway, occasional settlements and an air strip here and there, we saw very little in the way of human habitation. It is a frontier that will never be settled. From our vantage point two or three thousand feet above the valley floors and sometimes three or four thousand feet below and between the mountain peaks, it is indescribable!
By the time we got to Palmer, Alaska, and parked the airplane for a while, we were exhausted but awestruck. And with yet the best to come (though we didn’t know it at the time).
There had been a forest fire in the Kenai Peninsula so we decided to leave the plane and rent a car. We spent a week seeing the sights of Palmer, Wasilla, Anchorage, Girdwood, and Seward on the ground for a week or so. We didn’t see the sun once in that week until the day we left.
That day when we started our way back to Colorado was clear and turned out to be incredibly smooth, at least for the first half of the day. Jeni Hunter, the FSS Specialist at Palmer, suggested we fly Knik and Lake George Glaciers, which are only about half an hour away rather than go all the way up to Talkeetna, our original plan. She made a good call there. On that day, I enjoyed the best flying day of my life. By far.
We overflew these glaciers in what I still see as a surreal blur. John commented to me while we were circling above these glaciers that this was so beautiful and so incredible that if we ended up crashing and dying here, he’d die happy. I have to say, that was disturbing. Though I know exactly what he was saying. I knew at that time that if this flight were my ultimate goal after, which I would never fly again, it would still be worth all the time, money, and effort. Very few people get to see what we saw that day over those glaciers. There are no words for this and the pictures we took can only remind me of what I saw and why aviation is now a very real part of me.
I’d like to say the day got better but I can’t. I also can’t say that it got worse. We flew to Whitehorse by a different route than we came in and that turned out to show us even more in the way of the beauty of this part of the world that we hadn’t yet seen. We made our way following a couple of different highways (not the ALCAN) and working our way through a number of different valleys to see a collage of mountains and terrain that was even better than what we saw little more than a week earlier. Again, there are no words for this.
Ultimately we found our way back to the US and met up with friends at Cody, Wyoming, for a couple of days in Yellowstone. That was two days that would have justified the entire effort of this trip, but in the big picture was just a side show. We got back to Colorado and spent almost a week visiting with friends and seeing the sights of the Front Range including Boulder, Lyons, Castle Rock, and Estes Park.
The entire trip took 31 days. But we spent several days visiting friends along the way. There were several no-fly days, but even with those, it could have fairly easily have been done in three weeks or less without having to push the envelope. This trip can be made safely by anybody with a Private Pilot license, a good and reliable airplane (my Cherokee was 48 years old at the time but very well maintained), a couple of hundred hours of good flight experience, a propensity for sound decision making, and an aggressive learning attitude.
I would not suggest it for the pilot that only flies on “perfect” days, someone who doesn’t fly regularly or to anyone intimidated by moderate turbulence or significant crosswind components. I filed a VFR flight plan on every leg, which I had not done since my private solo cross country six years prior. I would suggest that vigilance in learning everything possible about weather would be a good thing to have in your pocket for any flying more than 100 miles from home anytime, but this type of trip for sure. I would also suggest taking this trip with another pilot or arrange for another airplane or two in the group.
We had no problems but I would have preferred having another pilot there to bounce thoughts off of as we were planning each leg.
After I got back and with the help of Larry Sportsman, I made a 50-minute Blu-ray slide show video to music selected from the more than 3,000 pictures that were taken on this trip. Larry is a close pilot friend who, with his wife, Brenda, showed us around Yellowstone National Park for two days. I still look at that video two or three times a week and it brings me right back to the mountains for 50 minutes at a time.
I want to go back to Alaska at some point, but other trips like this are on deck for the time being. I want to take my wife on a similar but scaled back trip through the Smoky Mountains and into upstate New York. I’ll try to find her a beach, but I think she’ll go even if I can’t. I have given some thought to Arizona and Utah. Going back to Colorado and getting some more mountain flying training and flying Rocky Mountain National again is high on my list, as is flying Yellowstone and into Idaho. I’m not sure when I can get back to Alaska, but I will because now I know I can do it.