Color is starting to paint the eastern sky as we preflight N50ET, and we take off from Runway 20 Right in the predawn light. Just after liftoff we cross the tree-lined Tanana River; most of the trees already bear the golden yellow of fall, and the vignette is beautiful.
Climbing eastward above the river’s broad valley, we watch as the sun rises in front of us and slowly drizzles golden light from the tops of the tall, snow-capped mountain range to our south. Glancing down I see Allen Army Airfield (PABI) in Delta Junction, still slumbering in the valley’s shadows.
Further to the south, even taller peaks jut spectacularly into the sunshine, and the low morning sun gives their snow caps an orange glow. For a while I just sit and watch, taking in the beauty as the majesty of Alaska glides by at 275 knots less than 25,000 feet below.
The sky clouds up, however, as we approach Canada and cross the Yukon Territory as we make our way to Ketchikan, Alaska, for our fuel stop. Unfavorable winds aloft push our groundspeed on this 812-nautical-mile leg down to 245 knots, about the slowest we’ve seen on the trip. We’re in and out of the clouds, with continual light chop at our cruising altitude of Flight Level 250, about 25,000 feet.
“Two hundred thirty! Unbelievable!” exclaims Mike a little later, after our progress slows further. “Sixty knots of headwind. Oh, well, we’re a lot quicker than a lot of airplanes.” Ironically, our true airspeed is a sprightly 296 knots, on a fuel burn of 70 gallons per hour. “For our fuel burn, that’s an incredible true airspeed,” he notes. To conserve fuel Mike is not cruising at full power, even when the headwind pushes our groundspeed to 225 knots.
The sun marches higher in the sky, accelerated by our relentless push to the east-southeast–across three more time zones today. Can you say 21-hour day? We pass to the west of Juneau, which is obscured by clouds. A couple of times we find ourselves flying through cloud valleys almost as expansive as what we saw on the Earth’s surface earlier.
We shoot an approach to Ketchikan and break out of the clouds into the center of a fjord that points to the airport. We land on Runway 11 as a de Havilland Beaver on floats touches down abeam us on the parallel City Harbor. At least three large cruise ships are docked on the other side of the harbor, and a steady stream of floatplanes–I think they’re all Beavers–stays busy giving scenic flights that, for many passengers, are their own flight of a lifetime.
Next to us on the ramp a FedEx twin turboprop unloads freight into an array of trucks. But there’s no time to watch these shows; the fuel truck has two nozzles and two fuelers, and they replenish our supply of Jet-A in each tank simultaneously–not only saving time but also avoiding the need to alternate the filling of the airplane’s wingtip tanks. We are able to land, fuel, pay the bill, use the restroom, and take off again–all in about 24 minutes.
We climb through low clouds into bright sunshine as we begin our next leg, 1,228 nautical miles from Ketchikan to Minot, North Dakota. We’re handed off almost immediately to Vancouver Center, which clears us to the Edmonton VOR, located 633 nautical miles to the east. Well before we get there, we’re cleared direct to Minot.
Clouds over the mountains of western Canada give way to Alberta’s vast, partly cloudy plains between Edmonton and Calgary, with their endless pattern of checkerboard fields. Somewhere else, aircraft are asking Edmonton Center for deviations around weather. We don’t have any rain or menacing clouds, but the winds for this portion of the flight are not at all what was forecast; the winds aloft have not shifted and instead of being neutral for us, we find an increasing headwind. Mike spends a lot of time checking his fuel calculations, tweaking the power settings, and then double-checking, to be certain we’ll land with at least an hour’s fuel reserve in Minot. We hold a hefty right crab into the quartering flow, which resulted in headwinds of 30 knots or more before the wind finally dropped off.
The skies are mostly clear as we fly across the large wheat fields of Saskatchewan. The sun is sinking in the west as we pass near Riverhurst, Saskatchewan, reflecting off the lazy waters of the wide Lake Diefenbaker. We’re less than an hour from Minot now and unlike yesterday, we’ll get there before the sun sets.
At Regina we turn right for the last 180 miles to Minot. When we land, we refuel the airplane and go to the hotel; no Customs, immigration, or other procedures are required. Because we did not land in Canada, and were just overflying it, technically we never left the United States–so it’s not necessary to reenter the country. We could have planned a fuel stop in Canada, but that would have required entry into Canada and a return to the United States. Mike felt that by now we’d be tired of the whole process. He was right.
Dinner is at a Mexican restaurant, and we try to turn in early to rest for the last day of our odyssey–and my final leg back to Frederick. Then Mike will have a fairly short flight back to his home base, in Aiken, South Carolina.