What's It Like Flying in Alaska
Jay Kelley

© 2003   Jay Kelley
All rights reserved

Flying Alaska is an very exciting adventure. It'll put a keen edge on your skills and judgment. Alaska is a visual feast. Flying in Alaska gives you a feeling of accomplishment and personal satisfaction.

You're going to land in the Kanektok River 35 miles upstream from its outlet at the Yupik Eskimo village of Quinhagak on the Bering Sea. The river is narrow, swift and shallow with rounded rocks along the bottom. There are short willows and spruce trees along both sides. There is a shallow vertical cutbank along the north side. The trees indicate a fairly strong and gusty cross wind from the southeast. The river flows west at this point. You know you'll be landing to the east, upstream into the current. This will allow you to beach the plane along the left side of the river where you'll do a quick scramble out of the airplane once it has stopped and the prop has quit turning. You'll grab the bow line, leap to shore and secure the line around a small spruce tree and then you'll load up the camp setup you'll be hauling over the Kilbuck mountains back to a lodge on the Nuyakuk River.

You make another circuit over your intended landing area looking for anything that might be a hazard to a successful approach, landing and beaching of the Beaver you're flying. As you look it over you realize that the river becomes much shallower to the west a bit down stream from the place where you plan to beach and tie up. You also observe that the river will be too narrow to turn around in when you taxi for takeoff. This means that you will have to taxi backward with power against the current using your water rudders as depth gauges. Once they start touching bottom, you will have to add power to stop and make that the point from which you'll start your takeoff run to the east up stream.

You're finally ready for your approach. At the surface you can see the gusty southeast wind causing irregular strong crosswind gusts over the trees so you elect to use a little less flap than you would for a normal landing. The approach is straight forward and is actually fun because you skillfully handle the gusts and the crosswind to a gentle touchdown on the river.

It takes more power than you anticipated to taxi against the swift current, but you come abeam the spot where you'll beach the plane, and slowly slide closer to the cutbank adjusting power to synchronize your speed with the river current. As you draw close, you see that it appears to shallow up smoothly along the edge just as it had looked on your overhead recon. You're pretty sure that you'll be able to stick it on that shallow ledge with sufficient friction to hold it there after you shut down the engine. This will make it easy to secure the plane with the bow line to the spruce tree.

It works just like you thought it would and you are able secure the airplane to the tree. You load up all the gear, tie it down with your cargo net and prepare to cast off into the river. You first do everything necessary to be able to start the airplane as quickly as possible once you scramble into the drivers seat. This might include one shot of primer, wobble pump the fuel pressure up to 5 lbs, crack the throttle, master and mags on. Now to untie the plane and push it into the current just far enough so that you can jump in, start up and easily motor to the middle of the river to begin your backward taxi down stream.

A few years later I was told of a really cool way to launch your slightly beached plane (left toe beached) into a river while sitting in the pilot seat when there is no one there to push you off. This a trick that has probably been passed down from pilot to pilot for decades You'd be facing upstream with the left front float beached. With the water rudders up, press full right, drop'em and press full hard left, pick'em up fast, full right, drop'em, full left and do it again and again. They act as paddles pulling the tails of the floats further into the current. After several repetitions, the current will catch the heels of the floats and launch the plane and away you go.

It all works quite well and with your water rudders down and your throttle adjusted for just enough power to allow about 1 kt backward against the 10 kt current, you proceed slowly backwards down the river, watching the bottom, doing your pre-takeoff checklist and feeling somewhat adrenalized with the impending takeoff which will involve getting up on the step and making a step turn to the left at the bend in the river up ahead with a possible quartering tail wind. As the river becomes increasingly shallow, you make minor throttle adjustments to slow yourself down to barely moving.

You hear the water rudders ticking the rocks along the river bottom and adjust your power to bring the plane to a dead stop. You set your flaps, adjust the trim, check the fuel tank selector valve handle, double check it again against the fuel quantity indicator gauges, raise the water rudders and you're ready to roll. You apply takeoff power and are soon up on the step and airborne before you ever get to the bend in the river. Must have been a stronger wind just then. Soon you're safely aloft over the Kagati/Pagati Lakes and climbing into the Kilbuck Range for your return flight.

You're making an approach to a brilliant turquoise colored mountain lake. You'll slide up alongside the vertical granite cliffs on your downwind leg. The only option for a go-around is to make your approach from the inlet end of the lake toward the outlet. There is a low gap in the mountains at the outlet end. At the outlet is a sheer water fall that plummets a thousand feet or more, to become a roaring white water creek cascading down to a river flowing seaward in the valley below. You must turn fairly steeply at the top of the narrow valley for your final approach to the lake. Throttle back, glide down the pink granite scree over the glacial creek that feeds the lake. The color of the lake is a brilliant chalky turquoise. As you approach closer and closer, the turquoise color becomes more and more intense. As you level off to touch down, you are completely engulfed by the amazing color. It is almost a religious experience.

You're flying a load of groceries into a gold mine in the Alaska Range. You wind along in your Cessna 207 through a deep valley with steep crevassed glaciers inching downward from side valleys. You know you'll be landing on a short dirt strip that you won't actually see until you turn onto short final. Its an uphill strip and there is no go around. You have made radio contact with the camp and they have given you wind and runway conditions. There is no go around once you've begun the approach because of steeply rising terrain on all sides of the landing strip. As you round the corner to land you've got full flaps and you've slowed to an appropriate speed for your load and wind conditions. You touch down in the first 100 feet of the 1100 foot strip and end up having to add power to taxi to the other end of the runway. Everyone is really happy to see you because you've brought their mail, groceries and maybe a couple of 6 packs of their favorite beer. They help you load and secure 4 empty propane bottles to take back for refill and you take off down hill. You make the the ninety degree right turn just past the end of the runway. You feel good to be doing something so interesting, challenging and useful as you head for town to fly another trip to another bush settlement.

Alaska flight time is a valuable resource on your resume. Alaska time is viewed with unreserved respect by the people who hire pilots for airline jobs. Flying in Alaska builds time fast, as much as 1400 hours a year. There is a constant movement of pilots in Alaska from single to multi-engine jobs, and then on to the airlines.

Alaska is awesome, gorgeous and a paradise for anyone who loves flying and outdoor adventure. The people you'll meet, especially in the bush, are resourceful and adventurous, fascinating and entrepenurial, and always glad to see you. The friends you'll make in Alaska are friends for life. The experience you'll gain as a pilot in Alaska, is invaluable from both a personal and professional standpoint, and....flying in Alaska is really fun.

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