Bleak. Barren. Forbidding. Lonesome. Awesome. Beautiful. Cosmopolitan. No, this isn’t one of those “pick the word that doesn’t fit” quizzes. These words all describe a three-day flight across Alaska, from Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) to Anchorage.
The Wright Flyer was my favorite topic for such study. How could two bicycle mechanics succeed in engineering an airplane, and so far away from what they called home? A plan emerged in my mind… why not fly my Cessna 172 to Kitty Hawk and land at the place where the aviation began? Seemed far-fetched initially, but when you put your mind to something, it will eventually manifest.
Call it a post-midlife crisis. Call it my bucket list. Call it absurd. Call it expensive. OK, I plead guilty to all of the above. I decided to go anyway. I was determined to fly my 1977 Piper Arrow from my home field (KEQY) near Charlotte, North Carolina, to the northernmost airfield in North America—at PABR in Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), Alaska.
If you do a search for 2020 memes, there is no shortage of graphic illustrations why this year has been FUBAR (look it up if you don’t understand) for travellers, especially those of us who prefer to journey by air. And yet, I managed to have my best flying season ever in 2020 while travel was restricted to my home province of Manitoba!
It was late July in the year of Covid that I had the opportunity to do some flying in Las Vegas. I was there for a two day Corvette Owners Driving School in Pahrump that was being heavily subsidized by the folks at GM. I took the opportunity to fly in (commercial) early so that I could do some other things while in town. And by other things I mean flying.
To fly around Australia was not an idea that happened upon me overnight. It was an idea hatched in childhood, and ultimately flown solo decades later. Eight months in planning and eighteen days in execution, I suspect the planning would have been somewhat quicker if it had not grown into such a public exercise with such a genuine, interested following.
I hope that this story can serve to encourage other aviators to stretch their wings and horizons by expanding their comfort zones, to see and experience things that are unavailable to our earthbound neighbours, and to share these with others, whether they are other pilots, your friends and family, and anyone else that needs to see what general aviation has to offer.
My wife, April, and I flew over 11,000 miles in our Cessna 206 last summer. We pretty much circumnavigated the lower 48, with a couple of “great loops” to boot. Our mission: to take our daughter’s used Ikea furniture and household items from her Houston apartment to Bangor, Maine, where she was working on assignment.
When planning this Bavarian vacation, I wanted to include some flying, perhaps an hour of dual with an instructor at a local flying club. Searching online, I came across the website of a company called Classic Wings Bavaria, offering scenic flights in a 1957 Soviet-built Antonov An-2 biplane. Here was the unique flying opportunity I was looking for, even if it did not involve actual stick time.
This little adventure is about two old pilots checking an item off their bucket list. One of the trips we have talked about for the last few years is flying to Death Valley and landing below sea level to watch the hands on the altimeter recede counter-clockwise past zero. This trip is best flown during colder months of the year because Death Valley is usually over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in warm months.
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.” But in 2013, my cousin, John, talked me into flying to Alaska. I became drawn to Alaska’s vastness and rough and natural beauty.
In the grass of Harvey Young, an airport tucked just south of Tulsa International, there appeared a beautiful 1946 Cessna 120. I couldn’t buy it, but I convinced my buddy that this was the airplane for him. Tulsa, Oklahoma to Boston, Massachusetts: a 1500-mile trip in a 30-year old airplane with no nav radio, a com radio that just barely worked, no gyro instruments except for that needle and ball, and a wet compass. This was adventure!
This past July, we joined the Alaska Airmen Association and Circumpolar Expeditions on a group flight from Nome, Alaska, to Provideniya, Russia. The trip served two purposes: one as a goodwill mission to the Chukotka region of Russia and the other to keep the route between Nome and Provideniya open.
Jim and I talked further about ferry procedures, the probable route and the likely departure date. I was grateful then, when at the end of our lunch, he agreed to accompany me on the trip. I had about two thousand hours of over-water time by then, but all of it was with four engines at high altitude.
With 30 hours of taildragger time in Brian’s logbook and 25 hours in mine, we focused in on an early model 150 hp Decathlon, and in January, found a promising 1975 example for sale. Challenge number one: we live in Surrey and Langley British Columbia, Canada, and the Decathlon was located in Kitchener, Ontario (CYKF), some 2,000 miles as the crow flies.
The purpose of the trip was to see the prize that waits at the end of a hard journey. To show my son how all the work and effort will pay off. At school. With flying. In life. And, to spend some time alone, just the two of us, before competing pressures and the passage of time naturally pull us physically apart.
“I think I might fly the BE-18 a few minutes next week. If you want a sneak peek, the left seat is yours…” Dan said in a Facebook message to me. It didn’t take long for me to say that I’d be there if I could. You know, as long as the world didn’t end or something.
Sometimes life lets you make the most of an opportunity. With my friend’s new house near Chino Airport, I could offer this trip in about two and half hours total travel time, with two of those hours in the air in a Piper Arrow II. There was the opportunity: a trip made-to-order for a VFR pilot.
A Piper Cub is the essence of seat of the pants flying, with a stick, a throttle, and practically nothing else (OK, there is a tach, altimeter, magnetic compass, and airspeed indicator if you can see them through your instructor). It’s as close to being a 1920s barnstormer as I’ll ever get!
Our trip started off at Hampton Roads Executive Airport (KPVG) in Chesapeake, Virginia. This adventure was planned as a father-daughter trip for some much needed bonding time. Plan A was in effect, which was to be gone nine days and visit some very prestigious locations or a pilot’s bucket list of places to fly to.