Flying in Alaska
Alaska Chapter member Mio Johnson's Maule gets a thorough preflight at a small airstrip near Alexander Lake.
Flying within Alaska can offer the most memorable adventures of your lifetime. Alaska has near rain forest landscapes in the southeast, with lush forests and high mountain ranges. It also has treeless tundra that has been frozen for millennia. Glaciers are bountiful and beautiful archipelagos provide entry into some of the most remote wilderness areas of the United States.
Flying to and from the lower 48 United States to Alaska requires good planning and preparation. There are several common routes you can take: the Alaska Highway, the “Trench”, the coastline, and combinations of these. The route you select will be dependent on where your flight originates, the weather, the equipment you fly, and your personal capabilities and limits. Here are a few tips to help you prepare and execute your dream trip.
Aviation touches all aspects of life in Alaska, and is a basic mode of transportation because approximately 90% of Alaska is not served by roads. Alaska has six times as many pilots per capita and 16 times as many aircraft per capita when compared to the rest of the United States. In the state of Alaska, there are fewer than 12,000 miles of paved roads. Aviation is not only the state pastime; it is the state's major form of transportation.
There are about 600 airports available for public use in Alaska and 3,000+ airstrips, many of which are private. Many private strips are also seasonal and not maintained on a regular basis. More than 256 public airports are owned and operated by the state of Alaska making it one of the largest state run programs in the nation. In the map above, each yellow dot represents a public airport in Alaska.
THE ALASKA HIGHWAY ROUTE
The Alaska Highway starts in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada (not to be confused with Dawson City, Yukon, which would be a great side trip either coming or going to Anchorage). The Alaska Highway, also known as the Al-Can, was built in WWII and terminates at Fairbanks, Alaska, about 260 miles north of Anchorage. It is a relatively straight-forward landmark to follow as it progresses north and west into Alaska.
Getting to Dawson Creek will require that you enter Canada at an Airport of Entry, then fly the most logical route on to join the Al-Can Highway. A common route of flight for Alaskans flying home is to enter at Lethbridge, Alberta, south of Calgary. If you are coming from the eastern states, you may want to enter Canada further east. If your flight is originating on the west coast, you may want to enter at Abbotsford, BC. There are many alternatives, so plan on one that is most convenient for you with hours of operation that will best fit your time schedule.
After entering Canadian airspace, there are some larger cities such as Calgary or Edmonton with full aircraft services but lots of air traffic. Other smaller airports are easier to get into and often have hotels and fuel services conveniently located. Nice stops enroute to Dawson Creek are Whitecourt and Grande Prairie, Alberta.
fter reaching Dawson Creek, there are nicely-spaced stops along the way to Alaska: Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, and Whitehorse all have good airport services with plenty of fuel, clean, comfortable lodging and restaurants. There is a nice campground at the western end of the ramp at Watson Lake. This is especially convenient since the hotels are off-airport in town, a drive of several miles. The air routes generally fly above or parallel to the highway with one notable exception. The highway route from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake takes a scenic twist up through the Canadian Rockies to Muncho Lake, then turns 90 degrees to the north and on to the Liard River crossing. While beautiful, this route can be treacherous, especially if unexpected clouds are down at the Muncho Lake summit area. You can bypass this portion of the highway easily, weather permitting, by flying direct from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake. This route takes you over some rugged but relatively low terrain with good checkpoints along the route. About half way through is the Liard River NDB at the point where the highway emerges from the mountains.
Once you leave Watson Lake, the highway enters another section of spectacular mountains. The highway generally follows the bottom of fairly wide valleys to Teslin on the north shore of Teslin Lake. After a couple of turns, the highway meets Marsh Lake, just a few miles southeast of Whitehorse which will likely be your Canadian Airport of Entry on your return flight from Anchorage.
The highway northwest of Whitehorse and on into Alaska again follows spectacular valleys with a few small Canadian communities such as Haines Junction, Burwash, and Beaver Creek scattered along the route. You may want to take a side trip north from Whitehorse up to Dawson on the Yukon River. If you do, you can rejoin the Alaska Highway route at Northway, Alaska.
Once you have passed Beaver Creek, Yukon, you enter U. S. airspace and will likely choose to land at Northway for U. S. Customs. Once you have cleared, refueled, and had a bite to eat at the café (good burgers and pie!) at the Northway airport, you will leave the Alaska Highway if you are flying on to Anchorage and not to Fairbanks first. Now you will be following the Glenn Highway which you can pick up northwest of Northway near Tok. This route follows the highway through Mentasta Pass to Duffy’s Tavern, then on to Gulkana. Alternative routes to Duffy’s Tavern include following the Nabesna River southwest from Northway to Nabesna, then turning northwest to pick up the highway at Duffy’s Tavern. This is a wide, relatively low-level alternative route. Another good route is Suslota Pass, the shortest route between Northway and Duffy’s Tavern. If the weather permits, this is a good alternative and requires about 3,000’ MSL for terrain clearance.
The route from Gulkana to Anchorage follows the highway through Chickaloon Pass which you will enter at Tahneta Pass. There are a couple of notable glaciers easily viewed along this route: Tazlina Glacier, south of Tazlina Lake, and the Matanuska Glacier just west of Sheep Mountain. When you emerge from the pass, you will be flying over the Palmer Flats where huge vegetables are grown under the midnight sun!
We’re almost to Anchorage, only 40 more miles west. You are entering high air traffic again. There are several active airports in the Anchorage bowl including Birchwood, Ted Stevens International, Elmendorf AFB, Fort Richardson’s Bryant Field, and your likely destination of Merrill Field. Once you have passed the Birchwood airport, stay south of the highway to avoid Fort Richardson and Elmendorf AFB air traffic. Approach Control will be your friend here regardless of which airport is your destination. Merrill Field is just east of downtown and only about a mile from the Anchorage Hilton, our headquarters hotel.
If your flight originates on the west coast, you may want to fly up the “Trench”. Enter Canada east of Vancouver, BC, to avoid heavy air traffic. Abbottsford is a good location to land for Canadian Customs. Proceed east to Hope, then north along the Fraser River to Wiliams Lake and Prince George. From here, you will fly north to MacKenzie at the southern end of Williston Lake, then follow the lake and valley directly on to Watson Lake. Fuel management is especially important on this route as refueling stops are far apart. Once you have reached Watson Lake, you are on the Alaska Highway route.
If the weather doesn’t permit continued flight up the Trench, you can divert along the highway from MacKenzie to Fort St. John, east of the mountains, and proceed north to Fort Nelson, then west to Watson Lake.
If you have plenty of time and patience and the weather systems cooperate, a flight up the coast of British Columbia and Alaska may be for you. Be aware, however, that icing can be a problem at any time of the year in these latitudes. The coastline is relatively sparsely populated, and emergency landing areas are few. With the right conditions, however, this route is spectacular with its mountains and glaciers, quaint fishing villages, and abundant wildlife.
Some of the communities you will see include Victoria and Vancouver, BC just north of the border; Port Hardy, Bella Bella, and Prince Rupert, BC; and, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Skagway, and Haines in Alaska. You may choose to fly north from Haines to join the Alaska Highway route at Haines Junction, Yukon, Canada, or you may want to proceed via the coastline to Yakutat, Cordova, Whittier and on to Anchorage arriving from the southeast along Turnagain Arm. A short side trip to Valdez, north of Cordova, is recommended. Valdez is the terminus of the oil pipeline which begins over 800 miles north in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The pipeline has been in operation over 30 years. Be aware of flight restrictions in the area over the oil pipeline terminal.
In the far north, there are wide variations in the amount of daylight and night in summer and winter. Even in the summer with lots of daylight hours, the number of those hours varies within the state, depending upon your location. If you are not night current, the amount of daylight must figure in your flight planning, even in the summer. Even when it is technically daylight at 10 p.m., the sun may be low on the horizon, creating problems with glare and depth perception.
Most Alaskan pilots would say that when you average flying conditions out over the whole year, you could say they are good. Much of the state enjoys good weather most of the time, but there are areas where rapid, temporary weather changes pose inherent danger. Coastal and Arctic areas, in particular, experience low ceilings, poor visibility, and icing conditions. Weather reporting stations (manual or automated) are far apart and cannot sample the weather between stations. Pilot reports are the only good source for that.
Alaska's four, distinct climatic zones are the Maritime, Continental, Transition, and Arctic. The zones are usually separated by mountain ranges.
The Maritime Climatic Zone
This zone includes the Aleutian Chain, the Southeast, and the South-central regions. Winter here offers mild temperatures, and summer is cool. However, there is 50 to 200 inches (yup, 200) of precipitation per year. Fall and winter are the seasons for frequent storms with high winds. Fronts are more prevalent here than in the interior, with occluded fronts being the rule--that means low clouds, precipitation, poor visibility, sudden fog. Ice fog, blowing snow, and turbulence are also winter aviation hazards in the Maritime Zone.
In summer the main weather hazard is fog. In spring and fall, icing and frontal zone turbulence is predominant, and advection fog can cause severe icing problems. Some of the communities in this zone are Unalaska, Kodiak Island and communities, King Salmon, Dillingham.
The Continental Climatic Zone
This zone covers most of Alaska. Although it has low precipitation (five to 15 inches per year), it has extreme temperatures. Fewer clouds mean more warming in the summer sun but more cooling in the long, winter nights. Summer months provide the best flying weather in terms of ceilings and visibility. Ice fog is the major winter hazard, and summer brings widely scattered, brief thunderstorms.
The Transitional Climatic Zones
These zones lie along Alaska's western coast and in the area between the coastal mountains and the Alaska Range. The temperature spreads are wider, although there is less precipitation. The major hazard to aviation is high wind, followed by ice fog and blowing snow. Mountain passes have the worst flying conditions. This would be the community of Bethel, McGrath, Grayling, and Good News Bay.
The Arctic Climatic Zone
Cold winters, cool summers, and low precipitation characterize this zone, which lies north of the Brooks Range. The top layer of permafrost melts in the summer, leaving behind a muddy goo. Areas of open water increase, so you need to check flight charts for seasonal lakes.
Strong winds and blowing snow are fall and winter hazards. The conditions are ripe for the "whiteout" phenomenon--a uniform ceiling over a snow- or ice-covered surface reflect the parallel rays of the sun creating a diffusion that can cause a complete loss of the horizon, no shadows or horizontal references, and reduced depth perception.
The Ring of Fire
There are over 80 potentially active volcanoes in Alaska, and the most recent eruption of one was in September 1993. Evidence of volcanic ash damage to aircraft engines is inconclusive, but volcanic ash accumulations can and do cause air traffic delays, sometimes for days.
One final note about the Alaskan climate. The National Center for Atmospheric Research has determined that the Aleutians have the worst aviation weather of anywhere else on earth that can be accessed. This is followed closely by Cold Bay, then Yakutat, Barrow, Cordova, Bethel, Nome, Ketchikan, Sitka, Iliamna, and Dillingham, all of which are mostly low-lying or coastal areas.
Aviation Services in Alaska
You'll find most every aviation service in Alaska as in the Lower 48 -they just may be fewer and farther apart than what you're accustomed to. Automated Flight Service Stations (AFSS) are open 24 hours a day are in Juneau, Fairbanks, and Kenai and there are 14 outlying FSS. Juneau AFSS is the hub for FSS's in Ketchikan and Sitka; Kenai for Palmer, Homer, Iliamna, Dillingham, Cold Bay, McGrath, and Talkeetna; and Fairbanks for Barrow, Deadhorse, Nome, and Kotzebue. Outlying FSS's may be seasonal, so hours of operation will vary with the season and with staffing. The AFSS will have current information on the outlying FSS's status. To purchase Alaska sectional charts prior to flying to Alaska, go to the FAA website aviation system standards office. for information about canadian airspace and flying in canada, visit the NAV CANADA website or contact them at: 1-800-876-4693-4.
Alaska only has eight airports with air traffic control towers- Anchorage International (ANC), Merrill Field in Anchorage (MRI), Fairbanks International (FAI), Juneau International (JNU), Kodiak (ADQ), and Kenai (ENA). The control towers at Kodiak (ADQ), Bethel and King Salmon are contract, non-FAA personnel towers. Not all are open 24 hours, and you can obtain the latest information on their hours of operation from the AFSS.
Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks have FAA Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO), and each has a Safety Program Manager who has invaluable safety information on flying in Alaska. (What a kick it would be to earn your Wings by fulfilling the safety seminar requirement in Alaska!)
FAA maintains more than 400 navigation and communication aids across the state of Alaska. Among these aids are Remote Communications Outlets (RCO), Remote Communication Air/Ground Facilities (RCAG), instrument landing systems (ILS), VOR's, NDB's, and Automated Weather Observation Stations (AWOS).Because of the distances between navigation aids, VFR navigation means pilotage.
Entering Canada requires that you call 1-888-CANPASS (1-888-226-7277) with information about your flight to receive permission from a Customs or Immigration officer to enter Canada. This must be done at least 2 hours, but not more than 48 hours, before you plan to arrive. You must also file a flight plan before any transborder crossing, even if you do not intend to land. You may no longer rely upon the old “ADCUS” (Advise Customs) instruction on a flight plan. Notifying Customs is now the pilot’s sole responsibility.
Once you do land, you will either be greeted by a Customs officer or be directed to again call 1-888-CANPASS to be issued a number that authorizes you to enter Canada. In any case, you need to carry a passport for every occupant (even infants and children are now required to have a passport), your pilot’s license, aircraft registration and airworthiness certificate, and an FCC radiotelephone operator permit. Although the permit is no longer required in the U.S., it is in Canada. Most pilots I know say they have never been asked to produce it, however.
Your cell phone may not work in all places in Canada (or Alaska), but there are usually pay phones nearby that allow toll-free calls to Customs or Flight Service.
U.S. Customs is usually a bit more rigorous than Canadian Customs. Many of the guidelines are the same, however. You must notify U.S. Customs at least 2 hours in advance by phone prior to arrival, must have your and your passengers’ passports and documents available, must file a flight plan for the transborder crossing, and must make a radio call to Customs just prior to crossing the border into the U.S. The U.S. Customs Service also requires that you purchase a $25 decal for each airplane each year that you fly it into the U. S. For a complete list of requirements, see the Customs and border protection website
In Canada, flight plans are required for all flights. Pick up a flight plan form at your first stop to see what is required information and what codes are used in Canada. Weather information, observations, and forecasts are disseminated by NAV CANADA. Canadian Flight Service Stations provide surface weather observing, flight plans, and numerous other services including passing along all weather information and forecasts provided by NAV CANADA. Canada is phasing in Flight Information Centres (FIC) that combine FSS services with other services. 1-866-WXBRIEF (1-866-992-7433) will get you to the nearest FSS or FIC in Canada. In person weather briefing is being phased out, so be prepared to get needed information by phone. Flight plans can be closed by radio once you have landed, but sometimes, the Tower personnel will coordinate with FSS to close your flight plan and notify you they have done so.
Since Canada has user fees, the registered owner of your aircraft can expect to get a small bill which will have to be paid in Canadian funds (credit card is OK).
Being prepared with adequate survival gear is a must. Not only may you need it in case of an emergency, but you may also want it in case you find a delightful spot to land and camp! If you want to be comfortable, you will need a tent, sleeping bag, ground pad, food, water, plenty of layers of clothing for warmth, fire starter, mosquito repellant and/or headnet, signaling devices, washcloth and towel, fishing gear, soap, cookware, first aid kit, axe or hatchet, and more. To see a complete list of what is legally required for you to carry in Alaska and in Canada, see this website: http://www.equipped.com/ak_cnda.htm
Alaska Statutes. Title 2. Aeronautics Chapter 35. Uniform Air Licensing Act Section 110. Emergency Rations and Equipment. previous: Section 100. Temporary Permit. [Repealed, Sec. 14 Ch 56 SLA 2001]. next: Section 115. Downed Aircraft Transmitting Devices. [Repealed, Sec. 14 Ch 56 SLA 2001]. AS 02.35.110. Emergency Rations and Equipment.
(a) An airman may not make a flight inside the state with an aircraft unless emergency equipment is carried as follows:(1) the following minimum equipment must be carried during the summer months:
- rations for each occupant sufficient to sustain life for one week;
- one axe or hatchet;
- one first aid kit;
- an assortment of tackle such as hooks, flies, lines, and sinkers;
- one knife;
- fire starter;
- one mosquito headnet for each occupant;
- two small signaling devices such as colored smoke bombs, railroad fuses, or Very pistol shells, in sealed metal containers;
- one pair of snowshoes;
- one sleeping bag;
- one wool blanket or equivalent for each occupant over four.
(b) However, operators of multi-engine aircraft licensed to carry more than 15 passengers need carry only the food, mosquito nets, and signalling equipment at all times other than the period from October 15 to April 1 of each year, when two sleeping bags, and one blanket for every two passengers shall also be carried. All of the above requirements as to emergency rations and equipment are considered to be minimum requirements which are to remain in full force and effect, except as further safety measures may be from time to time imposed by the department.
A Firearm is no longer required as of 2001. The law referencing a firearm had been on the books since the 1940's and never referenced what type of firearm (shotgun/handgun etc) therefore due to the challenges of flying to Alaska through Canadian airspace and on to Eastern countries where firearms were not allowed to be carried in an aircraft, this law was changed.
Flying IFR in Alaska
There is one Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) in Alaska and it's in Anchorage. Satellite, ground, and microwave senders and receivers provide communication and radar coverage, with the accompanying "line of sight" problems. Lots of mountainous terrain means areas with marginal or no communications abilities; many more have no radar coverage at all. Flying IFR under non-radar rules means position reporting at all compulsory reporting points. If you haven't seen one of those on a low altitude chart in a while, review them while you're still in the Lower 48. As well, ATC may ask you to make more DME position reports in Alaska, so it is important to monitor your assigned frequency. Going long periods of time without a message from a controller is common, but it could also mean you are out of frequency coverage. You may then have to communicate with Center via relay through other aircraft, an outlying FSS, or through VOR voice features where available.
MEA's run high in Alaska, commonly 8,000 to 13,000 feet with some as high as 23,000 feet. Current charts are important, as is supplemental oxygen. There are also "MEA gaps" where NAVAID reception is spotty.
Airways in Alaska are derived primarily from NDB's. Red, Blue, Green, and Amber airways are still in use as both primary routes and as back-ups to VOR's.
Many towns and villages in Alaska have only NDB approaches, so some practice at them in the Lower 48 will help you prepare for flying in Alaska. There are plenty of ILS and VOR approaches, just don't expect vectors to the ILS final approach course. Since many areas are non-radar, rules require greater spacing or time sequencing, so you could encounter delays on takeoff and arrival.
Because NAVAID's are spread so widely, heeding NOTAM's that report NAVAID outages is very important.
Float Plane Flying and Float Ratings
With the largest Seaplane base in the world Lake Hood located in Anchorage, a private pilot will often pursue a float plane rating. Float flying offers an Alaska experience to remember as well as so many more opportunities to fly to remote areas of Alaska. If you are interested in pursuing a float rating please check with the Seaplane Pilots Association for rates and recommended training options. There are a number of places that give float instruction in anchorage and the surrounding areas. several lodges in great settings offer float instruction on the kenai peninsula and in the talkeetna area should you be interested in spending several extra days in alaska.
Touch and Go Operations
Touch and go operations involve an aircraft making a landing and an immediate take-off without coming to a full or complete stop or exiting the runway. Commonly associated with flight training schools and military training exercises touch and go operations comprise a negligible portion of total annual operations at an Airport.
Taxi channels for small seaplanes should have a minimum width 125 feet. The channel should provide direct access to onshore facilities and oriented so the approach to the ramp or float will be into the prevailing wind or current.