Seaplane pilots need to speak up to preserve access in Whitehorse

Seaplane base at Whitehorse on Schwatka Lake, a section of the Yukon River.

Seaplane base at Whitehorse on Schwatka Lake, a section of the Yukon River.

Seaplane pilots who fly to and from Alaska through Canada need to speak up if they want to continue to use Schwatka Lake, the seaplane base at Whitehorse, Yukon Territories.  While the facility directory indicates there are tiedowns and fuel available, pilots often have a difficult time getting access to either one.

The City of Whitehorse is conducting an Area Plan for Schwatka Lake that will impact the future of the lake for aviation as well as marine users.  Planners are conducting an online survey, which only runs through November 5th.  Pilots who have, or plan to use this facility need to speak up, to counter non-aviation interests.

The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association’s Yukon Chapter is asking Alaskan and other U.S. seaplane pilots to participate in the survey to help the planners understand the importance of this facility—the only suitable float plane lake in the city.  COPA Yukon Chapter Director Jean-Michel Sauve says that support from pilots outside Whitehorse is critical to helping them explain the value of the seaplane base to pilots transiting along the Alaska Highway.  Sauve was one of the organizers of the highly successful Atlin Flyin in 2012, which attracted pilots from across Canada, Alaska and even a few western US states.  If seaplane pilots need more information on the Whitehorse Seaplane Base, they may contact him directly.

Please take the survey today to help protect this seaplane facility!

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.

Visiting our Canadian friends: the Atlin Fly-In

This article is re-printed from the Alaska Airmen’s Association Transponder.

Looking down the flight line at the Atlin Fly-In

The last day of June saw the birth of a new northern aviation activity that I hope to see continued for many years: the Atlin Fly-In.  Organized by a gung-ho group in Whitehorse, this three-day event was a fun-packed combination of aviation and local activities at the historic community of Atlin, British Columbia, on the eastern shore of the 65 mile-long Atlin Lake. About half way between Whitehorse and Juneau, but on the dry side of the coastal mountains, this is a scenic location for a flying, camping and all-around fun place to be.  Fifty aircraft from all directions made the trip to Atlin, with close to 100 people enjoying the weather, scenery, food, events and chance to interact with other aviation minded folks.

Getting there is half the fun

After filing our eAPIS report, and calling Canadian Customs, my wife and I departed Fairbanks on Friday, June 29, in our Cessna 185. We were flying with Canadian friends and colleagues Bram Tilroe from Edmonton and Bob Kirby from Calgary, in a Piper Dakota (you will read more about the purpose of their trip in future reports).  Skirting rain showers, we headed down the Alaska Highway. Our first stop was at Beaver Creek, just east of the border, where we painlessly cleared customs before continuing down the highway toward Whitehorse.  Conditions were not so nice along Kluane Lake and around Haines Junction, but picked up the closer we got to Whitehorse.  After refueling both ourselves and the airplanes, we continued down the valley to Atlin. We felt right at home landing on their gravel runway, taxied past an impressive array of aircraft, and parked along the old runway which would be home for the next three days.  The GPS track later showed we had covered 644 nautical miles.  The Fly-In was also billed as a camp-in, as there are not many commercial establishments in Atlin, a community of about 300 residents. After pitching our tent, we took in the variety of aircraft, ranging from big tired Cubs and Cessnas to a number of low-wing Piper products, even a Mooney. For accent, a beautiful Staggerwing Beech and a resident Skyvan, a handful of float planes tied down at the lake, and at a couple helicopters added flavor to the mix. This is a serious flying community!

Taking in the aircraft at Atlin

This was organized!

The event was organized by members of the Canadian Pilots and Owners Association (COPA) based in Whitehorse.  COPA encourages the establishment of local units called Flights, and the Yukon Flight 106 happens to be the Whitehorse group.  An energetic and very organized member, Jean Michel Sauve, and a small committee from Flight 106 did the legwork that made this event a pleasure for the participants.  But maybe that is just the Canadian way, eh?

If you didn’t wish to cook, arrangements had been made for locally prepared meals, which provided an instant social occasion, and the opportunity to meet other participants.  The food was provided, for a donation, by local establishments, who set up and cooked in hangars at the airport.  Picnic tables owned by the COPA Yukon Flight, had been trucked down from Whitehorse, making a dining facility.

On Saturday, the tables served as a class room for a talk on mountain flying by veteran Whitehorse pilot Rick Nielsen, and local Atlin pilot Jamie Tait.  This orientation to the local area was the lead-in to a fly-out to the Llewellyn Glacier, Juneau Icefield and Taku River, with a landing at a remote strip.

An evening program included a talk by glassier pilot Andy Williams, who flew a Helio Courier for the Kluane Lake Research station, supporting projects deep in the St. Elias Mountains. Tim Cole, the COPA Regional Director for the Yukon and BC, gave an extensive update on COPA activities.

But it wasn’t just about airplanes.

The Taranhe, which plied the waters of Atlin Lake starting in 1907, and site of the annual high-tea.

Similar to Dawson, Fairbanks, Eagle and other northern communities, Atlin is a gold rush town.  An offshoot of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, mining still plays a significant role in the area.  Like many surviving gold rush era towns, there is an interest in history.  The Tarahne is an old lake boat that used to haul people and supplies along the lake, but today is drydocked, and in the process of being restored.  Once a year, in true British tradition, a high tea is held on the boat. A fund-raiser for the restoration process, locals and visitors alike don their 1890’s attire and come aboard.  For women that didn’t happen to bring a suitable hat, they were available to use for the occasion, for a small donation. We went, and met some fascinating local residents—and had a great time!

Sunday was Canada Day. A pancake breakfast (with REAL Canadian maple syrup) was served downtown, which also provided a ring-side seat for the Atlin Canada Day Parade.  Leading the procession were a sharp looking group of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in full dress uniform.  The Mountie in the second row looked familiar—oh wait, that is our fly-in organizer, Jean Michel, in the uniform of his day job!

The Canada Day Parade in downtown Atlin

Sunday afternoon following the parade it was back to the airport for another aviation activity.  COPA has a program similar to the EAA Young Eagles program called COPA for Kids, where they provide free flights to youth, to introduce them to general aviation.  COPA Kids was a hit in Atlin, with flights provided for 30 youngsters.  While that may not sound like a huge number, remember, this is a community of a little more than 300 people. On a per capita basis, that beats the pants off of any other event I am familiar with.  The local Lions Club provided lunch, both for the kids and the fly-in participants, another example of community involvement.

To wrap up the Fly-In, a banquet was held in a hangar at the airport. In addition to great food and a three piece band to provide live music, a raffle for a host of goods and services was conducted.  The raffle along with a live auction for a travel package of hotel, RV, car rental, and air travel raised something over $5,000. The raffle and auction provided the income to cover the costs of the fly-in leaving a healthy surplus, which was donated to a local Atlin youth group.

Returning to Alaska

While the weather held nicely at Atlin, Monday morning saw rain and five mile visibility in Whitehorse, as we motored back north.  Neither weather reports nor forecasts looked good further along the Alaska Highway route, so we were treated to two ‘bonus days’ in Whitehorse, which also proved delightful.  If you have time spend in Whitehorse, right next to the airport is a transportation museum with a nice collection of historic aviation photos and information.  Next door is the Beringia Interpretive Centre, also worth a visit. Clouds finally lifted, and we were able to fly back to Alaska on July 4th.  We cleared customs in Northway, which was another lesson in logistics.  While we had no difficulty filing an eAPIS report, the Alcan Border Station is short staffed at the moment, and they ask pilots to clear only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (two hours less than the normal published times). This makes an already short window for entering Alaska even smaller. If you combine weather conditions with customs hours of operations, it makes getting into Alaska more challenging, now that Eagle has no customs officer to allow clearing there.  Folks with longer range (and good weather) can fly on into Fairbanks, or Anchorage, but that doesn’t help a lot of the general aviation community.  This is an issue we need to address if we want to see more cross-border GA activities.

Community Involvement

In reflecting on the Atlin Fly-In, there were several aspects of the event that are noteworthy. First, pilots came from all points on the compass.  Of the fifty, ten were from the US.  Alaska pilots from Juneau, Sitka, Healy and Fairbanks were joined by a Cessna 172 from Idaho and an Austrian couple that keep a C-182 in the states, who were flying on to Alaska.  As we got talking with the Canadian participants, in addition to the locals from Whitehorse, we discovered groups of airplanes from Fort St. John, and as far south as Vancouver.  Not everyone who started out made it. A Cessna 140 had departed from Quebec, but encountered strong headwinds, and turned back when they realized that at their current rate of progress, the event would be over before they arrived.  These Canadians are a flying bunch of people!

The mountain flying seminar and fly-out over to the Juneau ice field was not only fun for those that participated, but provided an introduction to that type of flying for those not used to this terrain and local weather. While not billed as a safety program, this was an aviation educational element designed into the event.

This fly-in was also well integrated into the Atlin community.  By engaging the services of the businesses in Atlin to cater meals, and plug into the local events, the citizens of Atlin were aware that the infusion of visitors (and dollars) into their community that weekend was tied to the Atlin airport.  Hopefully, that will help when it comes time to support the airport in the future.  Having the proceeds for the fundraiser not only pay off the event expenses, but creating a significant contribution to the local youth centre, also provides another connection for general aviation to the community.

Finally, I would like to recognize the hours and effort that the Whitehorse group invested in making the arrangements, soliciting donations for raffle items and door prizes, and hauling all those picnic tables back and forth from Whitehorse! A big thank you to Jean Michel and the COPA Yukon Flight 106 for starting what I hope will become an annual tradition. You can see more details about the Atlin Fly-In, and the sponsors that supported it at  To have 20% of the aircraft at the Fly-In possessing N numbers was an impressive showing. The challenge I throw out to Alaskan pilots, and our neighbors in the “lower 48” states, is to improve upon that percentage next year. You won’t regret it!


Additional  Atlin pictures from the Fly-in

Podcast covering the Atlin Fly-in by My Yukon Life podcast host Jennifer Hawkins