About Tom George

Tom George serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Regional Manager for Alaska. He resides in Fairbanks, and flies a Cessna 185. Follow Alaska aviation activities and events on Twitter at http://www.twitter/AOPAAlaska or at: http://www.aopa.org/region/ak

SouthEast Alaska Panhandle Fly-In features Canadian SAR Team

Last weekend the SouthEast Alaska Aviation Association (SEAKAA) hosted their second annual Panhandle Fly-In.  The two-day event, held at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport, included activities for pilots as well as the public, and brought over 600 people to see what happens “behind the fence” at an airport.  Saturday turned out to be a dreary weather day (at least by my interior Alaska standards) that kept pilots from other parts of the the region from flying in, but that didn’t keep the local community from turning out to look at an array of display aircraft and a number of classic cars, courtesy of a local auto club.  Guardian Flight generously provided the use of their hangar to host the event.

A Coast Guard Jayhawk and RCAF Cormorant Helicopter were popular attractions.

A Coast Guard Jayhawk and RCAF Cormorant Helicopter were popular attractions.

A 1937 Chevrolet delivery van was among the vintage cars also on display at the PanHandle Fly-In

A 1937 Chevrolet delivery van was among the vintage cars also on display at the PanHandle Fly-In
Coloring books and an innovative "rocking plane" complete with runway centerline marking and lights kept the youngest set entertained.

Coloring books and an innovative “rocking plane” complete with runway centerline marking and runway lights kept the youngest set entertained.

Burgers and hotdogs fueled the participants, as they studied the display aircraft. Inside the hangar Civil Air Patrol opened the doors of their Cessna 172, allowing kids to sit inside, manipulate the controls and get what for many was the first taste of sitting in the pilot’s seat.  Larger aircraft on the ramp were also open for inspection.  Perhaps the aircraft that drew the most attention were the Search and Rescue aircraft provided by the Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Airforce.  Air Station Sitka provided a Jayhawk helicopter which complemented two aircraft from the Canadian Search and Rescue counterpart from Canadian Forces Base Comax, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.  The Canadians flew a Cormorant helicopter and de Havilland Buffalo almost 600 miles to take part in the event, and participate in joint exercises with the Coast Guard (more on that later).  On Saturday, the public was welcome to come aboard all three of these aircraft, and visit with flight crews and SAR Techs.  It was a great way to become acquainted with the folks who are will fly out and save our bacon if we have a problem.

Rescue helicopters from a joint training mission made a pass infront of the crowd.

Rescue helicopters from a joint training mission made a pass in front of the crowd.

Sunday brought a welcome commodity to Sitka—sunshine!  Activities begin with a breakfast for SEAKAA members at the airport café, followed by a presentation on survival signaling conducted by the Coast Guard.  Shortly after noon the flying activities got underway, with the start of the second annual flour bombing contest.  As the participants had their pre-flight briefing, community members began to arrive at a viewing area, just outside the fence at the airport. A few miles to the east, we watched the Buffalo and the rescue helicopters orbit in a joint training exercise where Coast Guard crew members got to ride with and observe the Canadian procedures, and visa-versa.

The RCAF Buffalo was a serious contender in the flourbombing contest.

The RCAF Buffalo was a serious contender in the flour bombing contest.

Each flour bombing crew got two tries to hit the target, an orange basket just off the edge of the taxiway.  The first few attempts were a little wide, but slowly they begin to find their range.  About that time, the Buffalo landed, and picked up their flour bombs…  Just watching the big STOL transport aircraft land, with a decidedly nose-down attitude on short final, is enough to get your attention.  Having it pass in front of the crowd at a few hundred feet above ground to deploy an 8 oz flour bomb is just plane exciting!  At that point in the contest, the Canadian bombs were closest to the target, but that must have challenged the civilian entrants to new heights, who in the final runs of the day edged the Canadians out of the top positions.  In a show of good will and appreciation coming to the event, the Canadian team was awarded a much appreciated prize—a keg of locally brewed Sitka beer from the Baranof Island Brewing Company.

A jubilant team from Comox, BC accepts their prize.

A jubilant RCAF team from Comox, BC accepts their prize.

Following the contest, several local volunteers fired up their aircraft, and provided short flights to members of the public for a small donation, which gave a number of Sitka residents a chance to see their community from the air.  The smiles and comments from the passengers, young and old, as they left the airport made it clear that they enjoyed the chance to experience a ride in a general aviation aircraft.

Events like these take a lot of work to plan, execute and clean up after.  My hat is off to SEAKAA for undertaking this effort.  President Bill Lantz and Treasurer Jeannie Frank are but two of the team that devoted their time and talents to make this event a success.  The Civil Air Patrol Cadets and their leaders provided a lot of the people-power during the Fly-In, and a long list of sponsors donated hangar space, door prizes, display aircraft and much more.  The exposure to aviation that these events allow goes a long way to put a face on what some members of the public see as a “just a noisy airplane.”  The expression on the faces of the youngsters as they sat in the pilot seat of the Buffalo or the helicopters suggests that we are looking at the pilots of the future.

It doesn't take much imagination to tell that this young man is ready to fly!

It doesn’t take much imagination to tell that this young man is ready to fly!

Think about what you can do to help organizations like SEAKAA, or a group in your area, to share the joy of aviation with the members of your community.  As security procedures make it harder to get on an airport or close to an airplane, the importance of these events increases.  AOPA has a guide on how to organize an airport open house, which helps get started.  We need to help ourselves by inviting the public to have a glimpse of the world that we so proudly enjoy!

Centennial of Flight in Alaska

This Fourth of July marks 100 years since the first powered flight in Alaska.

Lily and James Martin with their Gage-Martin biplane in Fairbanks, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-081)

Lily and James Martin with their Gage-Martin biplane in Fairbanks, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-081)

It happened during the Fourth of July in 1913, in Fairbanks.  Early day aviator and inventor, James V. Martin and his wife Lily, (also a pilot) made the lengthy trip from Seattle to demonstrate what would come to be known as ‘the aviation.’  Sponsored by a group of local businessmen, the bi-winged Gage-Martin aircraft, with a 60 horse power motor, was crated and transported by ship through southeast Alaska to Skagway, transferred to the White Pass Railroad for the trip to Whitehorse and loaded on a stern-wheeler for the long trip down the Yukon to Tanana, The final leg up the journey was by another riverboat up the Tanana and Chena Rivers to Fairbanks.  According to aviation historian and University of Alaska Film Archivist Dirk Tordoff, the journey was made in just over twenty days—with good connections—which was quite efficient travel at that time.

The plan for Fairbanks was to make demonstration flights out of the local ball field, as part of the Fourth of July festivities. This timing was good, Tordoff asserts, as that holiday was the only time in the short summer season that the miners (which WAS the economy of the day) took time away from their diggings to celebrate.  The riverboat companies cut their fares in half, allowing miners from across the region to attend the holiday festivities.  So an audience was guaranteed. Tickets sold for $2.50 a head would cover the cost of the aerial demonstration.

Fairbanks flight on July 4, 1913.  (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-011d)

Fairbanks flight on July 4, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-011d)

Devil and details
But like most things in aviation, the devil is in the details.  Martin’s aircraft required high-octane fuel that had been ordered, but didn’t arrive for several days, forcing him to operate on low-octane fuel. The poor engine performance required securing the tail with a spring setup, which was released by his wife when full power was developed, and even then he barely made it into the air.  Another problem: it was a bad wildfire year, and the smoke in the area was thick enough that visibility was a factor (something that still plagues Fairbanks aviators on occasion).  Consequently, during his test flights on July 3rd, he only managed to climb a few hundred feet, and stayed over familiar landmarks, right over the city itself.  This allowed the population of the town, about 3,500 people at the time, to realize they didn’t need to buy a high priced ticket (almost 60 bucks in today’s dollars), but could easily view the show from their own roof or wood pile.  A series of five flights were made between July 3-5, according to Tordoff. While thrilling for Fairbanksians, it was a commercial disaster for the businessmen.  The further plan had been to sell the aircraft in Alaska, but given the limited performance, there were no takers and the plane was taken apart and shipped back to Seattle, where it disappeared from the historic record, Tordoff told an audience in Fairbanks recently.  While a commercial failure, this event signaled the start of aviation, which over the next few decades would significantly alter transportation in Alaska, with airplanes displacing mail routes otherwise served by dogsled, and transporting miners in two hours over a distance that previously took weeks to cover. This flight occurring just as the first successful climb of Mt. McKinley was completed—which required a combined total of almost 1,500 miles of dogsled, snowshoe, hiking and river travel—make the contrast of how airplanes have changed Alaska particularly noteworthy.

Commemorating that historic ‘waypoint’

AACentennial-PosterRecognizing that a century has passed since this event, the Alaska Airshow Association has organized an ambitious plan with a group of warbirds and other vintage aircraft to make the rounds of many Alaskan communities.  They started in Cordova on May 9th, and are scheduled to appear in Fairbanks to celebrate the actual first flights on July 4th.  They, and other vintage aircraft from Fairbanks, will launch just before noon and fly over celebrations in Ester, Fairbanks and North Pole before returning to the airport for further festivities.  This flight is timed to ‘parade’ over Pioneer Park at noon as part of their Fourth of July ceremony.

Back on the East Ramp at Fairbanks International Airport, The Alaska Airmen’s Association is coordinating an event in conjunction with the Airshow Association to treat the public to free hot dogs and popcorn (food you would find a hundred years ago), an opportunity to see the airplanes “up close and personal” and to meet the pilots.  At the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Facility, 3504 South University Avenue, a museum display about the centennial will be set up for viewing, youth activities are planned, and did I mention the free hot dogs?  Pilots will sign commemorative posters, and talk about the aircraft they are flying.  The finale will be at 3 p.m. when the aircraft take off and fly a race track pattern around the airport, before heading south to their next destination.  If you are in Fairbanks (or want to fly in for the occasion), come out to enjoy the fun, and reflect on how far aviation has progressed in 100 years. Or just to enjoy a free hot dog!

Fairbanks Aviation Day Draws the Public to Aviation

Neither wind, nor snow, nor record low temperatures stopped the public from turning out to see airplanes and learn about aviation at Fairbanks International Airport on Saturday, May 18th.  As Mother Nature provided what we hope was the last covering of snow for the season on Friday night, a cold front moved through and brought bright sunny skies on Saturday morning.  As the doors opened at 7 a.m. the temperature hovered at a chilly 22 degrees, with a brisk 15 gusting to 20 knot breeze dropping the chill factor to just above zero.  In spite of that, people poured in adding up to almost 1,500 visitors for the day.

Kids waiting to “take off” at the hands-on  Air Traffic Control activity. Photo by Claire Halvarson

Kids waiting to “take off” at the hands-on Air Traffic Control activity. Photo by Claire Halvarson

The cold temperatures probably contributed to making the EAA Pancake Feed a very popular activity, that raised over $2,500 for aviation scholarships and safety programs.  Older kids quickly signed up for a free Young Eagles flight, while younger children were attracted to the mini-airport (70 by 30 feet in size) where air traffic controllers issued them an N Number and instructions to taxi, take off and land.  A total of 167 youngsters “flew” in this airspace during the day.  The most popular event of the day was a face-painting table, supported by volunteers from the Cooperative Extension Service’s 4-H Program.

In spite of Mother Nature, over the course of the day almost 1,500 people came out to learn about aviation, including looking at the two-dozen display aircraft. Photo by Claire Halvarson.

In spite of Mother Nature, over the course of the day almost 1,500 people came out to learn about aviation, including looking at the two-dozen display aircraft. Photo by Claire Halvarson.

Checking out the flight engineers position on the FedEx 727, donated to UAF’s Aviation Program. Photo by Kevin Alexander.

Checking out the flight engineers position on the FedEx 727, donated to UAF’s Aviation Program. Photo by Kevin Alexander.

Outside, in the bright sun and bitter breeze, twenty three airplanes and a helicopter were on display, ranging from Everts Air’s immaculately restored 1929 Travel Air, to the FedEx Boeing 727, recently donated to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Program.  Many people had never had the chance to walk through a cargo aircraft, and very importantly on this occasion—it was warm inside!  Delcourt Aviation organized the aircraft display, which gave the public the opportunity to get an up-close and personal look at an impressive array of working aircraft.  The airport fire department complemented the display with a variety of crash/fire/rescue equipment. Due to the storm the day before the event, David Delcourt and Joey Smith got up at 3 a.m. to move the lighter aircraft to the display area. Now that is dedication!

The UAF Community and Technical College’s Aviation Program moved into its new home on the East Ramp only a few months prior to this event.  Transforming the hangar, work tables and class room into an aviation exhibition was no small feat, featuring sixteen exhibitors, a theater for aviation mini-seminars, scale model airport with runways and taxiways, and a dining area for the pancake feed.  While a few outdoor events were cancelled due to the weather, no one seemed to notice as they got free luggage tags from Alaska Airlines, talked with flight instructors, took airport tours guided by airport ops staff, learned about flight-seeing opportunities this summer, and listened to aviation historian Dirk Tordoff tell the story of the first powered flight in Alaska, 100 years ago.  The weather also limited the number of Young Eagle flights. Only 35 kids got to go flying during the day, but another 80+ signed up for a “rain check” flight when the weather improves.

It is hard to measure the impact of an event of this nature. Seeing the look on the younger faces after they “flew”—either in a real “Young Eagles” airplane, or made a simulated flight over the FAA’s mini-airport, suggests a bright future for aviation.  Exposing the younger set not only to the prospect of piloting, but to air traffic control, airport management, aircraft maintenance and other professions related to our industry was huge! It took a team of people holding bi-weekly meetings for several months to plan and organize the event.

It also required sponsorship.  Many organizations stepped up to the plate, and provided both cash and in-kind support, which provided things such as the use of the UAF Hangar, insurance coverage from the Alaska Airmen’s Association, CAP Cadets directing traffic to parking areas, shutting down a maintenance shop to move display aircraft, to name a few.  In addition, it took over $5,000 of cold, hard cash to afford the radio, newspaper and online advertising necessary to reach the public, which came from the sponsors listed below. Your membership in the Alaska Airmen’s Association, AOPA, EAA, the Fairbanks General Aviation Association and other aviation groups as well of your support of the corporate sponsors, flight schools, maintenance facilities is essential to hold events like this across the state—which quite literally, gives us a future!

A big THANK YOU to the organizations and individuals that supported this event.  Platinum: Flint Hills, Alaska Aerofuel Inc., Gold: 5th Avenue Design & Graphics, Air Arctic, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Alaska Airlines, Alaska Airmens Association, Delcourt Aviation, Era Alaska, Everts Air, Experimental Aircraft Association, Fairbanks International Airport, FAA, Nana Management Services, North Pole Coffee, Northern Alaska Tour Company, Odom Corporation, ProFlite of Alaska, Tamarack Air, Twigs Alaskan Gifts, UAF Community and Technical College Aviation Program, Warbelow’s Air Ventures, Warbelow’s Flight School, Silver:  A&W Wholesale, Civil Air Patrol

Note: This article was reprinted from the June/July 2013 issue of Alaska Airmen’s Association’s Transponder.

Aviation’s impact on Alaska: Looking back 100 years…

We take aviation so much for granted that it is hard to imagine life before airplanes appeared on the scene. A century ago, two events took place in Alaska that help illustrate just how profound some of those differences really are.

On March 13, 1913 three men in heavily loaded dog sleds departed from Fairbanks, intent on climbing Mt. McKinley.  After mushing down the Tanana River to Nenana, the party grew in size to six, and continued the 170 mile trip to the gold mining community at Kantishna.  They backhauled supplies pre-positioned the previous fall by riverboat, and advanced toward the Muldrow Glacier, on the north side of the mountain.  On April 9th the group arrived at what would be their base camp, just short of the glacier.  Unlike modern climbers, the party took several days to collect firewood (a source of fuel for heating and cooking) and to hunt caribou and sheep.  The game meat was cooked and mixed with butter, salt and pepper to make pemmican, shaped into “two-hundred baseball sized orbs” and allowed to freeze.  This locally manufactured food, along with rice and bread, would provide much of the energy needed by the four members of the team that would attempt the summit.

Book Cover3(1) These details, and much more, are recounted in Tom Walker’s new book, The Seventymile Kid. The story is an excellent read, that kept me on the edge of my seat, even though I am not normally a fan of mountain climbing stories. Along the way, I became fascinated with the logistics and modes of travel used getting to, and retreating from the mountain.  From the descriptions in Walker’s book, and a little research on the side, I decided to try mapping the route with the help of Google Earth.  The journey started the fall before when Harry Karstens (the Seventymile Kid), hauled 4,500 pounds of supplies from Fairbanks by riverboat to as close as he could get, just before rivers froze up for the season.

I won’t spoil the story of the climb for you, but will say that none of the expedition members were seasoned mountain climbers, and they faced a number of predicaments that required every bit of pioneering skill, creativity and stamina they could muster. Following the climb, the team came off the mountain on June 9th. By this time, snow had melted and the party walked about 60 miles to a boat that had been stashed the year before. They floated about 300 miles to Tanana, on the Yukon River, where “commercial” transportation (steam powered riverboats) was available.  It wasn’t until early July that Karstens made it back to his home in Fairbanks.

Map of the routes traveled by foot, snow shoe, boat and dog sled to accomplish the 1913 ascent of Mt. McKinley. Use link in text to access map directly.

Map of the routes traveled by foot, snow shoe, boat and dog sled to accomplish the 1913 ascent of Mt. McKinley. Use link in text to access map directly.

Google Earth’s distance measuring tools revealed that the party had traveled about 966 by boat; almost 100 miles on foot (hiked, snow shoed or climbed); and over 400 miles by dogsled.  By these calculations, that added up to 1,468 miles traveled to conquer Mt. McKinley the first time!  And these are just the round-trip distances, with no allowances for the relaying of gear cached on the river, or the numerous shuttles during the climb itself. This map is online if you wish to examine the route in more detail.

Post Airplane

Visitors inspect the Base Camp at about the 7,000 foot level of the Kahiltna Glacier, where most modern climbers are transported by airplane to start their journey up Mt. McKinley (Denali).

Visitors inspect the Base Camp at about the 7,000 foot level of the Kahiltna Glacier, where most modern climbers are transported by airplane to start their journey up Mt. McKinley (Denali).

Today, almost 1,200 climbers a year attempt to scale Mt. McKinley.  The lion’s share of these depart from the town of Talkeetna, on the south side of the mountain, in a wheel-ski equipped airplane. They make the sixty mile trip in about half an hour, arriving at “Base Camp” on the Kahiltna Glacier—already a third of the way up the mountain, elevation wise.  The climb is nominally a two week trip before being flown off the mountain.  A little different from the three month duration of the Karsten-Stuck Expedition, that started in Fairbanks a hundred years ago.  While many things have changed during that century, the airplane is perhaps most responsible for shortening that trip.

I mentioned that there were two events that year.  About the time Karstens was returning to Fairbanks, James and Lily Martin were in town, and between July 3rd and 5th made the first powered airplane flights in Alaska in a 60 horsepower Gage-Martin biplane.  As we approach the centennial of that occasion, events are scheduled to recognize that milestone in Alaskan aviation history.  Stay tuned for more on this historic milestone!


Post Script:

A modern view up the Muldrow Glacier, taken June 1st, where the descendents of the 1913 expedition plan to ascend. The peaks are shrouded in cloud to the left.

A modern view looking up the Muldrow Glacier, taken June 1st. The descendents of the 1913 expedition plan to ascend the glacier on the way to the peaks, shrouded in cloud on the left.

To commemorate this expedition, the University of Alaska Museum of the North has created an exhibit, Denali Legacy, 100 Years on the Mountain, that documents the climb, contains the journals of the four men who scaled the mountain, and numerous artifacts of this historic effort.  In addition, descendants of the climbing party plan to start a memorial climb on June 8th, following the original route up the Muldrow Glacier, but taking advantage of the road into the park–and a Park Service bus–to put them with hiking distance of the glacier.  Fairbanks Daily News Miner columnist Dermot Cole provides an overview of the planned climb.

Mat Su Area Traffic Frequencies: Your input needed

A group of industry and government stakeholders is working to reduce the risk of mid-air collisions in the Mat Su Valley, but they need your help to reach that objective.  Over the past five months, the working group has taken the results of last summer’s AOPA pilot survey and inputs from pilots who fly in and through the area.  The goal is to clarify the use of radio frequencies used to maintain situational awareness when operating in this busy airspace.

Home to over two hundred private and public use airports, airstrips, lakes and landing areas, the Mat Su experiences a wide range of aviation uses.  The airspace in the valley sees everything from private pilots heading to cabins or hunting and fishing areas, to commercial operators hauling visitors, groceries and supplies to remote lodges and mines. It is also used for military training flights at low-level by helicopters and C-17s, and student flight training from Anchorage and valley airports. Add to the list, those of us that fly through the Mat Su headed to more distant destinations.  One of the tools we use to share the airspace is reporting our location and listening for nearby aircraft, but on what frequency?

Rex Gray's map showing overlapping CTAF frequencies.

Rex Gray’s map showing overlapping CTAF frequencies.

During the “inventory” phase of this project, it became apparent there was a lack of agreement even among seasoned professionals on what radio frequency to use for situational awareness in different parts of this airspace.  Rex Gray, a valley resident who also serves as the President of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, took the time to sit down with the Anchorage Sectional and the Alaska Supplement and map out overlaps in CTAF coverage in the valley.  According to the AIM, a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency serves an area 10 miles around its assigned airport.  This map, coupled with other area frequency guidance in different publications highlighted the problem. Pilots who consciously used the CTAF for the airport they were headed to were often sharing airspace with aircraft on other frequencies enroute to adjacent landing areas.  A priority was identified within the working group to reduce this confusion, and promote the use of defined area frequencies, as has been done on a case by case basis in other parts of the state.

Developing a plan that would address the diversity of users is a challenge.  Over the past two months, using Google Earth as a tool, the group developed a number of scenarios to identify areas that might share a common frequency.  Subsequently, these were reduced to two scenarios which are still in need of refinement before focusing on a final course of action.

Scenario which assigns frequencies to different zones in the Mat Su Valley.

Scenario which assigns frequencies to different zones in the Mat Su Valley.

Area Frequency Scenario: This option would assign the frequency 122.9 to the zone west of the Susitna River, to the flanks of the Alaska Range. It also cuts across the lower valley, to accommodate traffic that departs Anchorage headed northwest.  A second zone, running along the Parks Highway toward Talkeetna under this scenario would use 122.8.  The zones around Palmer and Talkeetna, with part time Flight Service Stations, would use the FSS Advisory Frequency, 123.6.  These proposed zones would connect to other areas, such as the Cook Inlet Area Frequency to the west and the Knik Glacier advisory frequency, both of which use 122.7.  Northwest of Talkeetna, a Mountain Traffic Frequency of 123.65 has been in use for years to accommodate the aircraft hauling climbers and flightseeing visitors between Talkeetna and the Alaska Range.

Scenario that provides a discrete frequency above 2,000 ft to reduce congestion on 122.8.

Scenario that provides a discrete frequency above 2,000 ft to reduce congestion on 122.8.

Vertical Area Frequency Scenario:  In the second case, the zones to the west and around Palmer and Talkeetna (described above), would remain the same. The frequency 122.8 would still serve the area along the Parks Highway, but aircraft operating between 2,000 and 5,000 feet MSL would have the option to use a discrete frequency, we’ll call it 122.XX, to reduce the frequency congestion from the traffic flying in airport traffic patterns and at lower altitudes in the zone.

What happens after I leave a zone?  Several people have raised the question of what happens once you leave one of these zones. At that point, pilots would resort to the standard rules involving CTAF’s.  Chapter Four in the AIM addresses this topic. Section 4-1-9 defines the protocol for traffic advisory practices for airports without facilities:  Within 10 miles of the airport or landing area, monitor and communicate on the designated CTAF.  Section 4-1-11 indicates that an airport with no tower, FSS or Unicom should use the multi-com frequency 122.9.  Table 4-1-2 indicates that for air-to-air communication, the FCC has authorized the use of 122.75, which helps keep the chatter down on the other frequencies in congested airspace. Checking the Alaska Supplement Notices Section is a good idea, as a number of areas around the state have had special area frequencies assigned.

These scenarios are still taking shape. AOPA would like to hear your thoughts on these approaches to reducing the confusion on radio frequency usage in the Mat Su Valley. Please email your comments to: airtrafficservices@aopa.org.  If you attend the Alaska Airmen’s Great Alaskan Aviation Gathering this weekend in Anchorage, stop by the AOPA booth and look at these scenarios in more detail.  While this work continues, fly with your lights on, keep your eyes out of the cockpit and fly safe!

New “Convective Outlook” graphic planned for Alaska

In their ongoing efforts to improve the weather forecasts for the aviation community, the National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit is upgrading the seasonal “convective outlook” forecast.  These graphics are only produced during the summer convective season, and as of May 1st, the format will change.  Below is a sample showing some of the changes which include:

  • Color coding for the coverage (isolated, scatted or widespread)
  • New this year, Towering Cumulus (TCU) will be added to the product
  • The forecast bases and tops will be annotated.

sample convective outlookLink to sample product.

In addition, NWS is looking to increase temporal resolution, but in a more dynamic way. They will have the ability to produce up to eight outlook charts covering a 24 hour period, but will only generate as many as needed for the expected changes.  On very dynamic days, a user might scroll through a series of charts to see conditions develop. Under more stable conditions, fewer charts will be used to tell the story.  Check out this example  to get a better idea of what a sequence could look like.

As always, NWS would like feedback from pilots on their aviation products.  The email link at the bottom left corner of the AAWU page will let you send them an email.  Please take the time to share your thoughts—how you use them, what you like, what might be confusing.

As the snow continues to fall over parts of Alaska in April, it is nice to at least be able to anticipate summer!

Book Review: The Long Way Home

In early December, 1941 a Pan Am fly boat commanded by Captain Robert Ford and his long way home book covercrew of ten had almost completed their scheduled flight from San Francisco across the Pacific to Auckland, New Zealand. As the radio operator scanned the airwaves, he caught an AM radio station broadcast with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor—which they had left only three days before.  Shortly thereafter, a Morse Coded message (their only long range form of communication) instructed them to “Implement Plan A” a Top Secret, sealed document all Pan Am captains had carried in the preceding months. Once opened, they realized that their world had changed.  The arrival in Auckland was uneventful, but that would be their home for more than a week, until further instructions were received. Now they learned that it was no longer possible to return along their normal routes. The crew was directed to remove any identifiable markings from the aircraft, maintain radio silence, under no circumstances allow the aircraft to fall into enemy hands, and proceed west to Laguardia, New York.  At the time, the company had no routes established “to the west” until reaching the Atlantic, off the coast of Africa.  They also had no charts, weather, radio frequencies or other information any pilot, GA or airline, would want to undertake such a trip.  They were literally, in uncharted territory!

What follows is an adventure, which I found fascinating on several counts. The story is chronicled in the book, The Long Way Home, Revised Edition, by Ed Dover.  Based on interviews with surviving members of the crew, and illustrated with flight logs and photographs of the aircraft and crew members, it was written in 1999 and revised in 2007. A Flight Radio Officer for Pan Am’s flying boats from 1942-1948, Dover knows first-hand the technologies and procedures of the day. He transports you back to a time when a combination of dead reckoning, celestial navigation fixes, and drift sights— augmented with a new low-frequency direction finder— were their tools to navigate the 2,400 nautical miles from California to Hawaii.  While not a typical GA aircraft at 82,500 pounds pushed along by four 1,600 horsepower radial engines burning 100 octane avgas, the Boeing 314 flew in the same part of the atmosphere most of us do today.  So as they encountered a cold front on the way to Hawaii, Captain Ford descended to 500 feet to get below the cloud bases.  I found the story to provide enough information for those of us that are pilots to have a good sense of their operating conditions, while still making the narrative read like a mystery novel.  To avoid robbing anyone of the opportunity to enjoy the story themselves, let me just say that when they took off to cross Australia, Indonesia, India, to the middle East and over Africa, it is an adventure!  To give you a clue—before leaving New Zealand they went to the local library and borrowed some atlases to select a route… To help follow the story, I fired up Google Earth and reconstructed the route, for my own “situational awareness.”

long way home route graphicView Boeing Clipper route around the world in Google Maps

I have a personal connection to this story. My great uncle, Captain Gordon George, flew the flying boats for Pan Am in this same time period. His career started as a Navy pilot flying seaplanes before joining the airlines, eventually retiring from the Boeing 707.  As a young pilot, I enjoyed his stories of this period. He described encountering 80 and 100 mile an hour winds enroute across the Pacific, only to have dispatch not believe them. Their credibility improved when the jet stream was “discovered” by the meteorological community, and it was recognized that there are bands of winds that reached those velocities.  I also remember his saying at the time he retired from Pan Am that flying had become little more than “being passed from one air traffic controller to another,” and that in his mind, “that wasn’t really flying”  After reading this book, I have a better understanding of the world that he operated in, and what he meant by the statement.

For a look at the start of true global aviation, in a time that seaplanes were the norm, and a global network of land-based airports was still in the future, I recommend this book.  Aviation, adventure and a war story all wrapped into one. My thanks to Ed Dover for taking the time to research and share this rich journey with us!


Experimental Winds Aloft graphic for Alaska

As pilots, we are very interested in the weather.  An early lesson one gets while learning to fly is not to put total faith in weather forecasts.  I believe it was President Reagan who made famous the phrase– trust, but verify. That certainly applies to forecasts and flying.  For the last year-and-a-half AOPA has been working with our friends at the National Weather Service in Alaska to bringing together groups of seasoned pilots from different parts of Alaska to sit down with forecasters and have a discussion about aviation weather needs, primarily focused on VFR flying.  Questions asked in these sessions typically start with, “What route do you fly to get from Fairbanks to Eagle?” followed by, “Where along that route do you encounter adverse weather?”  A lively discussion regarding the nature of the weather conditions normally follows.

Don Moore manages the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit, located on Sand Lake Road, just south of the Anchorage International Airport, and has led these discussions.  After listening to pilots describe some of the conditions that plagued them, he pulled up an experimental forecast product the weather service is working on, and asked if we thought it might be helpful.  Following a look at the product, heads started to nod around the table.  A few weeks later, an experimental winds aloft forecast was added to the AAWU website, and is available for pilots to use.

sample winds aloft graphic 1

Sample output from the experimental product, showing winds at 6,000 feet for the 12 hour time period. Users can select the altitude, set through time periods, and toggle features on and off.

This product is based on a computer model, but has finer resolution in time and space than current products we are used to seeing.  The arrows indicate the direction of the wind at an altitude selected by the pilot, but the intensity is displayed as a color.  Temperature is also displayed as a contour line, with its own color scheme. The legend at the bottom provides the color codes for each feature.  Several details about this product are worth noting:

1)      The user selects the altitude at the top of the page
2)      The tabs across the top allow you to step through different forecast periods
3)      The + and – symbols on the top left corner of the image allow you to zoom in (only one step, currently)
4)      The + symbol on the upper right edge of the product lets you toggle features on and off (click to expand)
5)      The color patches represent the area forecast for each wind speed, the vectors merely show direction.

Please give this product a try.  You will find this graphic by clicking a link at the bottom of the Winds Aloft page on the AAWU’s website (see yellow arrows, below).

page to find experimental productThis product is still in development.  For now, the National Weather Service would really appreciate receiving pilot reports to help validate this product, as well as their other forecasts.  So when you are headed out to fly, please take a few minutes and file PIREPs enroute, including an estimate of the winds aloft.  Remember– trust, but verify!

FedEx donates two 727’s to University Aviation Programs in Alaska

The University of Alaska aviation programs at Anchorage and Fairbanks both offer maintenance training, and have airplanes to work on. But nothing like this…  In late February, FedEx donated two fully functional Boeing 727s that are being retired from their fleet – one to each program.  The aircraft will provide the students (our future mechanics) the opportunity to have hands-on training on a fully functional transport category airplane. These aircraft are part of a larger FedEx program that has distributed over sixty aircraft to schools, airports, museums or other organizations across the nation in the past couple years.  But the exciting part had to do with the arrival of the aircraft at the two Alaskan airports.

Merrill Field Arrival
The University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) aviation program is located at Merrill Field, the largest GA airport in Alaska.  It took an exemption from the Municipality of Anchorage to authorize the 727 to land at there, which normally limits aircraft landing weight to 12,500 pounds.  The delivery also had to occur during the winter while the ground was frozen to accommodate the landing weight without damaging the runway.  Quite a crowd was on hand to watch the much-stripped-down aircraft make two practice approaches and then put the wheels down “on the numbers” (see the photo).  Observers indicated that the aircraft was down to taxi speed by the time it reached the control tower which according to Google Earth is about 2,100 feet, using just over half of the 4,000 runway.  (News video of the landing).

Note the touchdown marks of the 727, "on the numbers."  Photo courtesy of UAA

Note the touchdown marks of the 727, “on the numbers.” (Photo courtesy of UAA)

Fairbanks International Airport Arrival
Fairbanks was a different story.  Fairbanks International Airport, where the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) aviation program is located, does it all—from the Russian Antonov An-225 freighter, to a Supercub on floats, the airport has runways that support jumbo jets, corporate, air taxi and general aviation with two paved runways, a gravel runway used by ski planes in the winter and a float pond.  The university recently acquired a hangar on the general aviation side of the airport, which provided the space to be able to accommodate the 727.  While the landing itself was not as exciting, given the 11,000 foot air carrier runway, it was the first time any jet that I am aware of was marshaled into the gate by a polar bear (See photo).  The Nanook is the mascot of UAF. No ordinary bear, this one is also a multi-talented UAF employee named Ted E. Bear, who had the credentials to perform this task. (OK, that is just the name he uses when in character.)

Nanook directing the FedEx 727 into the gate at Fairbanks International Airport. (Photo courtesy of UAF's Todd Paris).

Nanook directing the FedEx 727 into the gate at Fairbanks International Airport. (Photo courtesy of UAF’s Todd Paris).

Two records were set in Fairbanks: It was the first time any jet was marshaled by a polar bear, and the first time a FedEx jet had taxied up to a passenger jet bridge, according to David Sutton, FedEx Managing Director of Aircraft Acquisition.  The aircraft was subsequently towed across the airport, along the ski-strip to its current location on the GA side of the field.  I still do a brief double take when I drive onto the GA side of the airport, and look up to see a FedEx 727 pointed at me!

Benefits to the students
Other than having a big, shiny jet liner parked at the school, how will this help the program? The aircraft will provide hands-on training for the students on systems associated with transport category aircraft.  This is much better than only learning through computer-based training materials, according to UAF program coordinator Kevin Alexander.  Both UAA and UAF’s program have lacked large aircraft experience in the past.  UAA’s maintenance track is headed up by Paul Herrick, who indicated that their graduates have a 100 percent placement.  “They are all over the state and in high demand,” he said.

How did this happen?

Dee Hanson receiving a small token of appreciation from Kevin Alexander at an Alaska Aviation Coordination Council meeting. Signed by the students in the UAF aviation maintenance program.

Dee Hanson receiving a small token of appreciation from Kevin Alexander at an Alaska Aviation Coordination Council meeting. Signed by the students in the UAF aviation maintenance program.

We should realize this didn’t just happen.  The ball started rolling with Nicolas Yale, Senior Manager Northwest Region, FedEx Express, who serves on the UAA Aviation Advisory Board.  Dee Hanson, Executive Director of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, who also serves on the board, spoke up and asked if they didn’t have two aircraft available, so that both UAA and UAF programs could take advantage of this opportunity.  To thank her for her role in this effort, UAF presented Dee with a framed copy of a photo of the FedEx aircraft arriving in Fairbanks signed by the most important stakeholders of all—the students in the aviation technology program.  A big thank you to FedEx, and all the players that made this investment in our students, and the future of aviation!


A 50-year-old aviation survival story, with lessons for today…

From the “Looking Back” section of the Feb. 11, 2013 Fairbanks Daily News Miner.

The “Looking Back” section of yesterday’s Fairbanks Daily News Miner reported that on that day fifty years ago (February 11, 1963) an aircraft from Fairbanks was the object of an search along a Canadian stretch of the Alaska Highway.  The missing aircraft, a single engine Howard, was on its way to San Francisco. As a kid growing up in Fairbanks when this story first hit the papers, I followed with the rest of the country as the search, in severe winter conditions unfolded.  Initially searchers had no luck finding the downed aircraft.  Missing was 42 year old pilot Ralph Flores and his passenger, 21 year Helen Klaben, who had been sharing expenses for what was planned to be a three-day trip from Fairbanks down the Alaska Highway.

As the days passed, searchers found no trace of the missing pair. Winter temperatures in the areas plunged to 40 below and colder, and hopes begin to fade.  After two weeks, search efforts were called off, with the assumption that no one was able to survive in those conditions.

It definitely made headlines when 49 days after their disappearance the couple was found— ALIVE!  Not equipped with conventional survival gear, the little food they were carrying had been consumed in the first few days, leaving them to survive on melted snow and a tube of toothpaste for the better part of 40 days in the sub-Arctic wilderness.  Both had sustained injuries in the crash, so how did they survive?

Years later as a relatively new pilot, I attended a seminar organized by the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation on survival skills, taught by the late Ray Tremblay. He used the Flores/Klaben accident to illustrate several aspects of a survival situation. Having no conventional survival equipment (sleeping bags, axe, firearm, food, etc.), they managed to survive 49 days in the wilderness in sub-zero temperatures.  How did they accomplish this feat, which would today challenge seasoned professionals?  Tremblay studied the case in detail and came up with his own answers, in part from the account of the ordeal written by Helen Kalben in her book, “Hey, I’m Alive.” 

There were two aspects of this accident that Tremblay suggested held important lessons  to consider:

  1. Conventional wisdom is to stay with your airplane, in a survival situation in the wilderness.  Not only is the aircraft easier to see from the air than a human, but it may supply a wealth of materials to use if you are stuck for an extended period.  In this case, the victims could hear search aircraft, but couldn’t attract their attention due the wooded nature of the crash site.  About five weeks after the accident, they moved to a more open area, and made a signal which was spotted by a pilot making a routine flight a few days later.  His point was this: conventional wisdom is valuable, but you have to consider all the factors and come up with the best course of action for the situation you find yourself in. Had they moved sooner, rescue undoubtedly would have been earlier. Had they not moved, their survival would have been in doubt.
  2. As the ordeal progressed, Flores attempted to convert Klaben to his religion.  Both were reasonably strong willed.  The discussions and mental conflict between the two kept them occupied, and provided a continued reason not to give up.  Tremblay impressed upon us not to overlook the role mental attitude plays (not necessarily always conflict) in a survival situation.

In addition to carrying standard items like food, first aid kit, signaling devices, and a sleeping bag in my survival gear, I include reading material to occupy the mind, in the event of a forced landing.  Even in non-emergency situations, I have found it valuable to read a chapter of a book while waiting for conditions to improve, to help reduce the temptation to “push the weather.”  And if push comes to shove, I can always use the pages to light a fire…

Helen Kaben did us a favor in writing her book, published within a year of the accident, that provides a detailed first-person account of the ordeal.  There are many factors that went into the success of this situation, leading to their survival. I recommend it for those interested in survival stories.

I will be watching the “Looking Back” section of the Fairbanks paper during the weeks ahead to see if other accounts of this story surface, and how it was reported, a half century ago.