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Category: Alaska (page 1 of 13)

Alaska pilots: Planning to fly to Canada in January? Test a new app to cross the border

January is not generally the month of choice to fly yourself from Alaska to Canada.  But if you are planning such a trip, why not help test an app to make filing your eAPIS notices easier?  AOPA is collaborating with Jeppesen and Airside Mobile to develop an app to use when filing eAPIS reports, required when you leave or enter the US.

A free beta version of the app, Jeppesen Mobile QuickClear will be tested in the next 5-6 weeks.  If you are planning a cross-border trip in this time period, and would like to provide feedback to the developers, contact Matt York at [email protected] for details.  And don’t forget that in addition to filing an eAPIS report when leaving or returning to the US, you must also contact the Canadian and US port of entry you plan to fly to, by phone, to arrange for arrival.  See AOPA’s website for details on flying to international destinations at http://aopa.org/travel#international_travel.

Sharing Aviation with the Public—over Pizza!

Pizza—always good. Pizza at the airport, even better. Pizza with a view of the runway—fantastic!

For years pilots, airport staff and employees of local aviation businesses have hungered for a restaurant on the general aviation side of Fairbanks International Airport.  In September 2017, East Ramp Wood-Fired Pizza opened—and satisfied more than our hunger for food.  The establishment sits on the top floor of a hangar facility with a great view of the airfield.  In the background is the 11,800 foot air carrier runway, where heavy metal arrives and departs, interspersed with Beech 1900’s, the occasional  formation of military fighters making practice approaches. Every now and then the Antonov 225 drops in for a refueling stop.

Open just a little over a year, an airport restaurant is bringing a much-needed element of the general aviation side of Fairbanks International Airport.

Closer to the diner’s view, the shorter, 6,500 ft GA runway and the 2,900 ft gravel “ski” strip provide a stream of smaller aircraft—from Navajos and Cessnas to Super Cubs, landing and taking off.  Between these two is a view of the south end of the float pond with a mix of seaplanes splashing down.  In the immediate foreground is a gas pump and transient parking area, which provides diners with the opportunity to watch planes load, fuel and do their preflight checks.  All from a warm, safe, comfortable vantage point—with food!

Inspired by a local pilot and CFI, Wendy Ehnert first considered building a restaurant on airport property, but after spotting an ad in the Alaska Airmens Assocation newsletter, the Transponder, she knew she had the perfect spot.  Her initial target audience was feeding the airport crowd, but with a little more than a year in operation, she estimates that three quarters of her business is from the larger community-and not just “airport people.”

Separating the public from aviation
The growth of fences and security at airports may well be one of the factors that hinders bringing the next generation of pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers into the fold. Just by making it difficult to observe aviation in operation.  As a kid, I recall standing at the rail in front of the airline terminal at this airport and getting blasted by the prop wash of the DC-6’s as they taxied away from the gate and turned toward the runway. I wondered what it must feel like to sit in the driver’s seat and apply power to those four big engines.  Ok, I still wonder—but that’s beside the point. It made me aware of the excitement and thrill of taking off, and going to distant, exotic places.  Today, minus the prop wash, sitting over a meal and watching airplanes of different shapes and sizes provides a connection that is important to make, both with future pilots and other practitioners of this craft.  It is also something we need to share with the interested public, who votes on bond issues, ordinances and other policy matters that impact the viability of our airports.

Gathering place for social events
Beyond allowing the public a great spot for aviation viewing, East Ramp Pizza also provides a venue

Binoculars are provided to let patrons…

for groups to meet.  The local 99’s Chapter, Aviation Explorer Post, and other groups hold meetings there. The restaurant has organized several hangar flying nights, and is currently hosting a photo contest—with plans to produce a calendar in the future.  These are all activities that help bring people together, and encourage engagement, which is important to the overall community.  The restaurant is decorated with historical artifacts and pictures, most of which have

…satisfy their appetite for aviation.  (Photo pair by Chef Shawn Kerr)

been loaned by local enthusiasts, that sets it apart from other eating establishments.  So how is the food?  In the short time they have been in business, the establishment won a spot in the local paper’s 2018 Readers Choice Awards for pizza!

We need more facilities like this at our airports, to feed as well as inspire. While it often isn’t included in the list of necessary airport general aviation infrastructure, it should be.

Alaska Governor’s Forum focused on Aviation

The three leading candidates in the Alaska Governor’s race addressed an Aviation Town Hall on Monday, Oct 1st and responded to questions on a variety of aviation topics. Hosted by the Alaska Airmens Association, the forum provided the three leading candidates; Incumbent Governor Bill Walker, former State Senator Mike Dunleavy and former US Senator Mark Begich, an opportunity to explain how they would address a variety of issues.  Questions covered topics ranging from funding of the 239 airports operated by the Alaska Department of Transportation and defending access rights, to how their administration would support training the next generation of pilots and mechanics.

Held at the Alaska Aviation Museum, on Lake Hood, the event drew a crowd of close to 200 people. Airmens Association Executive Director Corey Hester, and the Director of Government Affairs, Adam White, moderated the session. Audience questions, collected in advance, were delivered by members of the Airmens NextGen Group.  Partners in the event included AOPA, Alaska Air Carriers Association, EAA Chapter 42, Women in Aviation and the Lake Hood Pilots Association.

I encourage you to watch this session and see what the candidates had to say.  To view the session hour-long forum, go to: https://youtu.be/1-boHf8SVcI

From left to right, candidates Dunleavy, Begich and Governor Walker address an aviation crowd. The session was moderated by Airmens Exec. Dir. Corey Hester and Govt. Affairs Dir. Adam White.

Flight training is no place for self loathing

The following is a story about dealing with the ups and downs of learning to fly a bigger airplane. 

It was a chilly spring morning in Talkeetna, Alaska. An uncontrollable shiver racked me as I walked up to the gleaming Garrett Turbine Otter. Set against a pale sky populated by thin cirrus, the white airplane seemed huge, remote, and utterly imposing. This was to be my first session of flight training in the beast, with the intent of culminating in my first IFR 135 checkride. As a mountain guide on Denali, I’d been a passenger in the Garrett Otter before becoming a commercial pilot, and was well aware of their capabilities. To me they’d always seemed like the mightiest weapon in the off-airport kingdom: a fire-breathing steed that behaved like a Super Cub at 8,000 pounds…yet also was able to fly through the clouds, cruise fairly fast (for a STOL airplane), and ascend to the 20,000 foot summit of Denali with ease. It seemed like a big jump for a low-time pilot like myself. My shiver, I realized, was born of nervousness and not the cold.

The mighty mountain ship in its natural habitat. Denali Basecamp, Alaska. Photo by author. 

Our two check airmen are merciless in their flight training and testing. The FAA would be proud. The main instructor is a powerful CFI and one of those pilots that has that “touch.” It’s hard to argue with such talent. He typically employs the method of negative reinforcement. We have been good friends since far prior to my employment at the air taxi, but every spring we set aside our friendship until after the checkride. My hands were shaking as I climbed into the cockpit with him. He sat there in the co-pilot’s seat, clipboard and pen in lap, sunglasses on, his jaw set sternly. And then I began my very first engine start. As I was toggling the fuel enrichment switch, he remarked “…I don’t know how you’re getting it to do this, but you’re moving the whole instrument panel with the switch. Light touch, OK? Don’t white-knuckle it.” Get a hold of yourself, I thought.

The moment I’d been waiting for: takeoff. I’d seen it done many times. Now I was the driver. The whole ship shuddered and ripped into the sky after only a few hundred feet of takeoff roll. All of a sudden we were at 6,000 feet, maneuvering above a glistening scattered layer with the emerald valley below. The session went unbelievably well. My nervousness turned to sheer joy. I’ve got this.

Due to scheduling, a week passed before my next session. My hands still shook as I climbed into the cockpit with my fearsome friend, but I was more excited than nervous. However, things went poorly from the start. I couldn’t even taxi the thing. There were about a million people out on the ramp that day, and they were all watching me, the “girl pilot,” struggle. Everyone on the field has always been very accepting of me, but I do think that I get watched more closely. “You’re not inspiring confidence in anyone,” said my instructor as he looked over at the watchers. A harsh but apt observation. It took all I had just to get the thing to the runway. Inevitably, the distraction of the difficult taxi led to me making more mistakes. We sat in silence on the runway after I’d taken the active before completing the pretakeoff checklist. I listened to the powerful, rich hum of the turbine at high idle, ready to launch into the sky. “What do you think you should do?” he said. After a few seconds, I pulled the condition lever back. “I think we’re done for today,” I replied. He nodded silently. After a fight to get the airplane back to its parking spot, we shut down the engine. “What do you think you could have done better?” The classic CFI question. “I think something is broken on the plane,” said I. His thoughts were written on his face: excuses. I don’t get this.

I lay awake all night, contemplating my failure. A terrible voice played in my head: You think you’re a pilot? You want to fly like the best? Well, you’re nothing but a little girl, and you can’t even get the thing to the runway. And you’re a terrible instrument pilot. How are you ever going to take a checkride in this thing? But another, softer voice spoke through the murk: Maybe something really is broken on the airplane. Taking chances can lead to occasional failure. If you didn’t love the thrill, you wouldn’t have chosen this path. As fate would have it, a bushing in the tailwheel was the culprit. The thing steered beautifully after its replacement. It was time to rebuild my confidence.

When I began to write this, I had intended to share some advice on exactly how I managed to come back after such doubt. But in the process of writing, I realized I was joining the ranks of self-help articles. During my troubles, I read close to a million of those things on rebuilding confidence…and unanimously found them to be annoying and inapplicable to my situation/personality. So I’m not going to proffer any advice. All I can say is this: I simply decided that flight training is no place for self loathing. The line between confidence and arrogance is thin, and one that I’d probably taken too seriously. The doubt was degrading my performance. Standing in front of the airplane before my next session, I decided to let it go. It was an experiment in personality alteration…but what did I have to lose? And that’s when things started going really well for me.

A stiff crosswind was blowing the day of my checkride. The check airman was also the owner and director of operations, a fact that I found rather intimidating. Though an affable boss, he is every bit as stern with our flying as his henchman the instructor. With my new mantle of confidence, I managed to keep it together as I preflighted the dragon. “Just remember,” said one of my colleagues as I walked out the door, “…if you don’t pass this checkride, you won’t have a job and it’ll be really hard to find another one!” And, because I had chosen to be a confident pilot, I simply laughed.

Post-checkride and fully operational.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.

What happened to Alaska’s Department of Aviation?

While still a territory, and well before achieving statehood, Alaska had a dedicated aviation department.  Acknowledging the Alaska pioneers’ foresight in creating a dedicated department speaks to the importance of aviation in Alaska’s past. And with regards to Alaska’s future, the question most importantly asked is—what happened to it?  After some digging in the shelves at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the answers to these and other questions are starting to see the light of day.  Along with some hopeful thoughts about the future.

Communications and weather came first
Going back to the 1920’s, airfields developed organically as individuals or companies acquired airplanes, and needed a place for them to take off and land. Often a ball park or agricultural field was pressed into service for early day aircraft operations, which eventually turned into a dedicated “airfield.”  While considered a luxury in some parts of the country, in Alaska airplanes were appreciated from the beginning for their potential to reach remote locations quickly—places previously only serviced by water ways, or trails.  The Territory of Alaska first invested in aviation infrastructure in 1929, when it appropriated funds to “…purchase, install and maintain radio-telephone station equipment for the larger towns.” This task was conducted under the direction of the Territorial Highway Engineer, who was soon overwhelmed, given the existing responsibilities to develop roads and harbors. At the time, this was a one-person operation, responsible for an area a fifth the size of the lower 48 states.

The Alaska Aeronautics & Communications Commission was established in 1937 to oversee installation of weather stations and radio equipment. This allowed weather reports and other information to be transmitted between communities, and to weather forecasters. In its first few years, recognizing the importance of communications, the commission also adopted regulations requiring airplanes to install radios, and to carry survival gear. https://blog.aopa.org/aopa/2018/03/14/alaska-aviation-infrastructure-history-p1/

Funding to build Alaska airports—almost
In 1946 Congress approved 10 million dollars to build or expand airports in Alaska over a seven-year period. The funding formula provided 75% of the cost of construction, requiring a 25% match by the territory or municipality that owned the airport. While that sounds like a lot of money, it was recognized by the Aeronautics Commission as “a drop in the proverbial bucket to properly expand our airfield program in a new, undeveloped country having an area equal to six western states…”.  But there was a catch.

The territory had to adopt new enabling legislation to allow the money to be accepted, either by the territorial government, or individual municipal airport owners.  This legislation was introduced but not passed in 1948. At the time municipalities could own and operate airports, but their authority did not extend from year to year, which was a requirement to enter into an agreement with the federal government for airport funding.  Frustration in the Aeronautics Commission report from 1947-48 clearly expresses this sentiment, “…the foregoing explains why Alaska has not received five cents of the ten million dollars allotted to the Territory under the Federal Airport Expansion Program…”.

Federal Funding for Alaska Airport: then and now
$10 million dollars was a significant resource for the Territory in 1946. In today’s dollars, that is about $127 million, spread over 7 years, or an average of $18 million/year.
In comparison, presently Alaska receives over $220 million/year from FAA’s Airport Improvement Program to improve airports across the state.

Territorial Department of Aviation established
The Alaska Aeronautics Act, passed by the Territorial Legislature in February 1949, finally solved this problem and established the Alaska Department of Aviation, a peer organization to the Department of Highways, effective June 1st of that year.  Revenue for the department came from allocating one third of the 2 cent tax on motor fuels then in effect.  The first report from the department, covering just six months of operation, reported 73 projects started “improving existing airports and seaplane bases, and building new air facilities.”  Having lost three of the seven years to invest the federal funding, the department was ramping up to develop airports that would support transport category aircraft operations, which were typically DC-3s at that time.

Dedication of the new air-carrier runway at Seward in 1952, from the Alaska Department of Aviation Biennial Report.

Golden Age for Aviation
By 1953, fifty years since the Wright Brothers demonstrated powered flight, the Alaska Department of Aviation was in full swing, developing the airport system across the Territory. In the biennial report for 1951-52, the Department had a hand in building many of the 360 airports and 73 seaplane facilities existing then.  The report summarizes the accomplishments of the department over the first 3½ years of operation.

A new seaplane base at Juneau was one of several similar facilities constructed in southeast Alaska by the Alaska Department of Aviation with a combination of federal and territorial funding.

Having grown from a short, type-written report to a type-set 65 page document, it contains descriptions and pictures of many of these facilities.  This document (link above) provides a flavor, not only of the range of projects, but the enthusiasm shown by the department for expanding Alaska’s airport network.  In addition to significant work on “air carriers” runways, they were building seaplane bases, emergency airstrips, and installing radio beacons. Provisions were also made for snow removal and general maintenance at the airports and seaplane bases in the Territory.

Documented in the Territorial Department of Aviation 1951-52 Biennial Report, the Alaska Department of Aviation constructed aviation infrastructure needed to support the entire system. In this case constructing an emergency landing strip east of Fairbanks, in support of the Fortymile and Chicken mining districts.

Alaska was well on its way to expanding the network of aviation facilities needed to provide access across the Territory. Alaska was on the path to become a state by the end of the decade.

Aviation under the State of Alaska
Alaska became the 49th state on January 3rd of 1959, and with that, transitioned from territorial to state government.  The territorial Alaska Department of Aviation now became the Division of Aviation under the State of Alaska, Department of Public Works.  It continued to plan, design, build and operate airports across the new state.

A relic of the Alaska Division of Aviation still exists at the Cold Bay Airport. Photo by Harold Kremer

By 1973, the division reported operating 235 airports, and had recently taken over operation of the Kodiak airport from the Navy.  This unit of state government continued to improve the aviation infrastructure across the state, until a major re-organization in state government lead to the structure more familiar to us today.

After eighteen years, the Division of Aviation was re-organized when the Department of Public Works and the Department of Highways were combined. Executive Order No. 39, signed by Governor Jay Hammond, created the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF), effective July 1, 1977.  The aviation functions previously managed under a single division were now spread across many of the seventeen divisions in the new organization. In addition, more emphasis was given to regional geographic divisions. There were five regions at the time, which have been consolidated down to only three today; Northern, Central and South Coast Regions.  Each region is managed by a Regional Director, and has separate staff who perform planning, design, construction, maintenance and operations functions.

The regional divisions of the modern Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

Needs for the Future
Today aviation roles are largely spread across the structure of the three regions that dominate our modern DOT&PF (often pronounced dot-puff).  The functions of planning, airport design, construction, and maintenance and operations are managed jointly for highways and airports—separately in each region. As an aviation advocate, it is challenging at times for a community member served by an airport to figure out where to go to address an issue. Entirely different teams from DOT&PF typically interact with a local community during the life-cycle of a project.  This is not to in any way fault the employees of the department—but is a consequence of the organizational structure.  Another difficulty with this structure is that each transportation mode has its own highly technical set of rules, regulations, and standards—defined largely by the FAA for airports.  Expecting the professional staff of the department to keep up to date on both airport regs and rules as well as highway requirements and standards is a tall order.

AOPA, along with the Alaska Airmen and other aviation organizations, has long advocated for a true division of aviation within the DOT&PF.  During the past few years, the department has taken some steps in this direction. The oversight of leasing and safety functions for the rural airport system has moved from the regions into the Statewide Aviation Division.  Lead by the Deputy Commissioner for Aviation, this group also conducts aviation system plans, and develops spending plans for the federal funding that builds and improves airports. Headquartered in Anchorage, it has staff that are based in each of the regions.    Also, under the current administration, DOT&PF is prototyping the use of cross-functional teams to work on projects in specific geographic regions, which may improve communications both within the department and for local stakeholders.

AOPA would like to see other functions become specific to transportation mode, allowing staff interested in airports to pursue that career path.  There will probably always be staff shared between highways and airports in the field, however, having the planning, design and operations performed by employees focused and trained on airport rules, regulations, and standards should help the aviation users, as well as the local communities served by each airport.

Look for more advocacy on this front in the months and years ahead!

The Darkest Hour: A Recap of the Thunder Mountain SAR

 

The following is a story about what happens after the ELT goes off. It is written from the perspective of a fellow Alaska Range Pilot… who happens to be married to the incident commander of the search-and-rescue effort.

At 6 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time on Aug. 4, a de Havilland Beaver on a scenic flight impacted the side of a jagged ridge in Denali National Park. The aircraft’s ELT was the first indication that something was amiss. Shortly following the accident, the improbable occurred: A satellite phone call was made by the pilot. Though exact details remain mysterious, the pilot indicated that there were major injuries and/or fatalities, and that the occupants were trapped in the aircraft. One irrefutable fact was taken away from that call: There were survivors. 

Thus began the largest-scale SAR the Alaska Range has seen in decades. Other scenic aircraft continued to swirl about the mountains nearby, going about business as normal, while the occupants of the Beaver were passing through their darkest hour. Yet, across south-central Alaska, forces were marshaling. Military and civilian aircraft of an astounding mix were to become involved, syncing their combined talents in a battle against the odds.

A photo taken by glacier pilot Matt Bethke, depicting conditions near the crash site shortly before it’s occurrence. Though VFR, it reinforces the old adage “… treat every cloud as if there were a mountain behind it”

The odds were about as big as they come. The crash site was just under 11,000 feet on very steep, serac (ice cliff)-filled terrain below the ridge, one of an impressive peak called Thunder Mountain. Situated about 15 miles south of 20,310-foot Denali, it is actually a fierce arm of Mt. Hunter, the third highest peak in the Range. It is one of the more inaccessible areas in a mountain range known for its vertical nature, and an improbable place to survive a crash. Yet somehow they had. But for how long?

According to other pilots who had been in the area around the time of the accident, the weather was volatile on the high ridges. “Really swirling clouds with a lot of flow,” a colleague of mine remarked. However, there was good VFR in the main glacier corridors, including the large highway of the Kahiltna. A weather camera on this glacier confirmed this for the times before and after the crash.  “We’ve all worked with less… much less,” another pilot said.

A screenshot of the Kahiltna weather camera taken approximately one hour after the event. The summits in the background are just south of the crash site, and depict a ceiling of over 10,000 feet msl. The glacier sits at 6,500 feet in this view shed. Photo by the author.

However, things were about to change. The weather began deteriorating in earnest almost immediately. The National Park Service A-star B3 helicopter was able to get within a mile of the site about one hour after the ELT was detected, but it and all other aircraft were forced to return to Talkeetna ahead of the large storm that was to impact the area for the next few days. Overnight, the rain came down in sheets. I lay awake, listening to the roar of it on our cabin roof. At 1:15 a.m., my incident-commander husband finally made it home from the SAR room. At 5 a.m., he went back to work.

Denali National Park maintains an elite team of Mountaineering Rangers and a contract helicopter for SAR during the summer. This resource is usually  more than adequate to handle incidents. Because of the potential for survivors, the number of occupants, and the location of the aircraft, this was something much larger. It required the outside resources of the military.  The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center established a Unified Command between the military and the National Park Service. The title of Incident Command fell to District Ranger Tucker Chenoweth, head of the Mountaineering Rangers… and my husband. In trying to explain the situation to our five year old, he put it very aptly. “You know, it’s like daddy is in charge of a soccer team, and I’m trying to get them to play soccer… and they all come from different teams.”

The next day passed darkly, with no further contact from the downed Beaver. It’s tracking mechanism continued to give a signal, indicating the location of the aircraft. Forecast conditions aloft indicated high winds and snowfall at the crash elevation. The rainy calm of the morning was ripped asunder by the military helicopters, bravely making their way to Talkeetna through the murk. Two CH-47 Chinooks and two UH-60 Black Hawks journeyed south from Wainwright Army Base in Fairbanks, joined by two HH-60 Pave Hawks from Elmendorf. Additionally, the company of the downed plane sent out multiple aircraft.  But no one would reach the Beaver that day. My husband came home late again, with stooped shoulders. At 4 a.m. he sat straight up in bed, clutching his iPhone. The weather camera showed unexplainable, good VFR on the glacier. “It’s happening,” he said.

A marriage of NPS, Air Force, Army, and Pararescuers surged toward the site, while a military C-130 circled overhead. The downed beaver was in a precarious site, plastered to steep snow above a 4,500-foot cliff. A ranger friend  remarked that it was not the scene they were hoping for. “About the worst-case scenario,” he said. A debate ranged over which helicopter was best for initial response. In the end, the NPS ship, dubbed the “hummingbird” by the larger aircraft, was dispatched. Talented pilot Andreas Hermansky short-hauled NPS ranger Chris Erickson to the precarious site. Hermansky has been the SAR pilot for many years, and has saved lives from as high as 19,000 feet. Ranger Erickson, like all his team, is a light in the dark for those trapped on steep mountainsides. On Thunder Mountain, they battled a fierce wind and deteriorating weather as the military ships massed on the glacier below. The Chinooks had become mobile medical/refueling sites, equipped to handle multiple injured. The Pave Hawks and their attendant Pararescuers were prepared for extrication and paramedic duties. A wave of capability was breaking on the shores of Thunder Mountain. Radio silence fell as Erickson assessed the smashed aircraft. There were no survivors.

Below the aircraft is a 4,500-foot cliff. Photo courtesy NPS.

The belle of the ball: this ship and pilot Hermansky (along with all the mountaineering rangers) specialize in high-altitude, snowy, steep, glaciated rescue.

This incident will forever mystify us glacier pilots. A jagged, snowy ridge at 11,000 feet with swirling clouds is not an improbable place for CFIT. It is, however, an improbable place for a Beaver with other options. We regularly take Beavers past Thunder Mountain on scenic tours, but it seems an odd choice given that the glacier corridor below was so good. But this was not authored to pass judgement on the actions of the pilot. The description of the aircarft’s interior was grim. It is amazing that any occupants survived for any time. Even more amazing was the SAR effort put forth by the Unified Command. The NPS returned to the site a few days later, this time with my husband on the short haul line. He braved avalanche conditions, a crevasse underneath the aircraft, jagged metal, and (of course) a huge cliff below to assess the recoverability of the bodies. Hermansky hovered for nearly an hour as Chenoweth made his inspection. The enourmous hazards precluded removal.

If there had been survivors, they would have had an amazing array of rescuers at their aid. Mountain pilots, capable aircraft, paramedics, climbing experts, extrication experts, and SAR command came together to help the downed airplane. In it’s grief, the community may not have given this the attention it deserves. I encourage detractors of the decision not to remove the bodies to imagine themselves on the end of that short haul line. So I write to highlight this fact: There are a lot of brave, capable people coming to help you after your ELT goes off. If you can survive your darkest hour, there will be light.

The final statement was not directed at family members of the deceased. As the spouse of a glacier pilot, he understands the importance of bringing a loved one home. A local detractor with no connection to the deceased has unjustly criticized our brave public servants, and, through unclear motivations, has suggested that private contractors put themselves in harm’s way to attempt removal.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.

Improving Backcountry Airstrips: New Windsock at Gold King

If you fly into Gold King (PAAN), look for the new windsock on the north east corner of the field.  The old windsock remains at the other end of the airport, giving pilots an additional “tool” to evaluate the wind before landing on this backcountry strip, on the northern flank of the Alaska Range.  While it might not seem like a big deal, this represents a collaborative effort between a small group of stakeholders that rely on the airstrip and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT), who owns the facility.  AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Dave Pott helped coordinate between DOT and the locals, to accomplish this upgrade to the airfield.  While it took over a year and two work parties to complete, this is a success story about improving a backcountry airstrip.


New windsock flys on the north east corner of the Gold King Creek airstrip.

Background
Gold King is not a typical “community airport” operated by DOT&PF. It fits into the realm of backcountry airstrips, generally located off the road system that provide access to public lands across the state.  Each backcountry airstrip has its own story, and Gold King is no exception.  Established in 1959 as the Gold King Creek Radio Relay Station, it housed a microwave radio relay tower, equipment building and ~2,000 foot airstrip. The station connected the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) at Clear Air Force Base (35 n miles west) with a chain of stations that linked defense radar stations, known as the White Alice Communication System.  These radio relay stations stretched across Canada ultimately providing communication to the NORAD headquarters in Colorado.  The unattended facility was powered by diesel generators with fuel flown in to the airstrip.  Satellite communications eventually replaced the need for the ground-based system, and the facility was closed in 1988.  When the Air Force returned the land to the State of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources made some of the surrounding property available to the public, which resulted in construction of a number of summer or year around homes in the area, with the airstrip serving as the principal source of access.

Beyond meeting the needs of local property owners, Gold King serves a much larger role in the north central Alaska Range.  Today listed as a 2,500’ airstrip, Gold King satisfies a number of needs. Due to the access provided by the airstrip, the University of Alaska utilized it as a location to locate a seismic sensor.  The Bureau of Land Management has established a Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) there, to help monitor fire danger.  Because it is situated on gravel deposits underlain by bedrock, the airstrip is quite stable, making it a good staging area for aircraft hauling gear or supplies into mines, cabins or recreation sites with smaller airstrips or off-field landing areas.  It becomes a popular staging area during hunting season in the fall.  Finally, the airstrip serves as an alternate place to land and wait when weather keeps aircraft from getting to their planned destinations.

Almost lost as an Airport
After the Air Force suspended its use of the relay station, the federal government transferred the land to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  While they made the land around the airstrip available to the public for homesites or recreational cabins, keeping the documents current for the airport was not a priority. When the Fairbanks Sectional Chart was published in 1998, Gold King had completely disappeared from the map!  Fortunately, in response to aviation industry requests, the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, and slowly re-appeared—initially in 2003 as a “closed” airport, with unknown runway length or condition.  Today the chart and entry in the Alaska Supplement, reflect more complete information, including a CTAF to use when operating in the area.

Under Air Force management, Gold King was charted as a private airstrip. After the Air Force shut down the facility and transferred it to the State of Alaska, it briefly disappeared from the charts. After the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, it has been more completely described.

 


Local equipment was used to excavate a spot for the new windsock at Gold King.

New windsock
Dave Pott is the Airport Support Network Volunteer at Gold King. He is retired and spends the majority of the year living just off the airport.  Working with other land owners, a volunteer group keeps an eye on the airport, and has banded together to do limited maintenance on the field.  Last year, he reached out to DOT and requested their assistance to replace the windsock, which was in a state of disrepair.  DOT responded by supplying a new windsock assembly. They had it delivered to the airport in the fall of 2017, along with bags of cement to properly anchor it, deep in the ground.

Volunteer crew placing the form for the base.

In early June, the locals held a work party to start the installation.  The volunteers provided a back hoe to excavate a hole for the base and flew in a cement mixer to support the project.  On July 5th, a second work party took place to put the stand on the base and raise the windsock.

We owe both DOT and the Gold King volunteers a big THANK YOU for working together to keep this

Work party two: mounting the windsock stand on the base.

airstrip in good condition.  In these times of tight budgets, collaborative efforts between stakeholders will be essential to keep our backcountry airports across Alaska in good working order.  Look for projects in your part of the state, and if possible, lend a hand!

The Human and the Pilot: A Story About Irrationality

The follwing are a low-time bush pilot’s thoughts about her irrational side… and when her greatest phobia somehow found its way into the cockpit. 

I recently read an online article titled “I Hate to Admit it, but Women Pilots Make Me Nervous.”  The piece was written and published for a periodical in the United Kingdom, and penned by a woman. And no, it was not from the 1970s: The date on the article was August 16, 2017. In it, the author acknowledges that her viewpoint is inflammatory and outdated, and apologizes for “…being an antiquated old sexist.” She goes on to list her own instabilities, and attributes them to her gender, expressing concern that a female pilot would also fall prey to such emotional vagaries. For example, she writes, “…I become a terrible driver at certain times of the month.  Might my pilot be flying when she’s pre-menstrual? Arguing with our teenagers can leave me distracted and upset for days. Could she be prone to getting flustered?”

Of course, we, as pilots, know this cannot be true. And, as a fellow female, I have never experienced the symptoms she is describing. There is no place for fluster in a cockpit, regardless of age, sex, outside stressors, and pretty much everything else. Part of being a pilot means maintaining a cool, calm, collected demeanor, especially in times of crisis. It means constant mindfulness, hyper-aware vigilance, and logical, succinct decision making. Though all the pilots I know display these traits on the job, I doubt if any of them are wholly unshakable. We may keep it together in the cockpit, but perhaps we allow unfiltered emotion and irrationality into other aspects of our lives.

I for one, am not unshakable. I was born an artist, with a free, impulsive spirit and not what you’d call a linear way of thinking. Over the decades, I have engineered a different personality inside of my mind: the pilot. I have grown to respect and admire this person: the cool, calm, competent decision maker. The PIC. And the PIC is unshakable in the cockpit (as a few crises have determined). However, the irrational side still exists, and it needs an outlet.

There is a large, black beetle that inhabits the boreal forests of my Alaskan home. And I am absolutely terrified of them. They have been my bane since childhood. Attracted to heat, they make for my dark hair as it warms in the sun. To my dismay, there seems to be a large population on our ramp. I learned to bribe the rampers with tip money to swat the beetles away from my safety briefings so my phobia would not become apparent to my passengers. My co-workers find this behavior hilarious, and query me about it often. In trying to explain it, I say that it helps me be a PIC…  because I allow this irrationality an outlet. I compartmentalize myself, keeping the pilot separate from the person that runs screaming from the beetles. It’s a harmless way to be a flustered person, I tell them. And the two shall never meet.

Last year, while on short final, my passenger started swatting at his neck. And swatted a big, fat, black beetle right onto my leg. It stuck there, looking up at me with its awful pincers and its unimaginable horns. And I realized that my phobia had somehow found its way into the cockpit. The next few seconds seemed to stretch out into eternity as the two sides of my personality faced off. The PIC won, of course, flicking the beetle down by the rudders and landing the Beaver quite nicely (despite the weird wind). My passenger never knew that he’d almost changed the outcome of the flight. However, as I was putting the  cap back on after fueling, I heard a loud “brrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzzppp.” And there a beetle was, stuck to the airplane by the filler neck. And the PIC in me just shrugged her shoulders as the flustered person ran screaming for the hangar.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.

Crashing airplanes is so yesterday

The following are a low-time bush pilot’s thoughts about the “bad old days” of Alaskan aviation.

Alaska can feel like an island sometimes. Obviously, it is separated both geographically and culturally from the rest of the nation. This can be said for the aviation community as well. Flying here is a haven of sorts, but can also leave one in an information vacuum. Seeking a broader knowledge of flying culture and collective wisdom, I have started to use social media. This is a drastic change for a young Luddite like myself, who is good with the ancient tech in a de Havilland cockpit, but is baffled by Instagram.

Being Alaskan, I gravitated to a backcountry flying group first. Right away, a debate raged over an incident at a recent fly-in, where a competitor in a STOL event damaged his aircraft. A sympathetic local had started a GoFundMe page to assist the owner in rebuilding his ship. A heated exchange raged between two factions: those who thought wrecking an airplane was ludicrous, and those who believed that crashing  was part of the overall flying process. Both sides were incensed, with the vast majority of comments in favor of accepting the wreck. I was fascinated, and it got me to thinking about the current culture of Alaskan aviation. Things have gotten a lot better since the “bad old days” when I was little.  However, there still exists a hero-worship of the hero aviator… and a rhetoric that things like bending metal, pushing weather, and high stakes are inevitable.  I’ve heard the countless war stories in bars and at fishing holes across the state.

Honestly, a different type of story dominates my thoughts: a story told to me by a western Alaska pilot friend of an elderly Yup’ik woman who would pray before every flight to her village, running rosary beads through her gnarled hand. “They’d all had someone die in a plane crash,” he said. To me, this simple tale highlighted the sinister consequences of crossing that line where risk outweighs reward.

So I joined the debate. My post went something like this:

Several years ago, I was giving a BFR to the daughter of a famous bush pilot. We were going over some ground school, discussing the subject of emergency procedures. She, naturally, was concerned about the prospect of an engine failure over Alaska’s unforgiving terrain. I tried to explain that a forced landing, if done properly, could be eminently survivable. “Your dad crashed like 20 planes and walked away from all of them, right?” To which she replied, “… it was more like 26.”

But times have changed. I feel like I speak for many in the avaition community that crashing airplanes has become passé. What used to be  a badge of honor is now a black mark: in the eyes of the FAA, most employers, and among my flying friends. Crashing a work plane is grounds for discontinuance, and crashing your own plane after hours isn’t looked on favorably either. And it’s not because my company or my friends are not bold. “There are those who have bent airplanes, and those who will,” said a remarkably empathetic POI after I had an incident in a work Super Cub. It was more sympathy than I deserved, and I felt ashamed. Early on in my flying days, I had to land dead-stick on a river bar because of carburetor ice. I was able to fly home unharmed, but badly shaken, after allowing the ice to melt. After tying the bush plane down and running my hands over the empennage gratefully, I went to find my flying mentor. I thought he’d be proud of how well I [performed] in a critical situation. Instead, he was deeply disappointed. It should have never happened in the first place. His reaction taught me a valuable lesson, one that I carry with me every time I fly.

This post elicited quite a few comments. However, the vast majority of commentors didn’t notice that my piece was meant to carry an opinion. Instead, they focused on the dead-stick landing part. My tale of caution ended up becoming a forum for all kinds of war stories celebrating dead-stick landings. My message got hijacked. People continued to celebrate the mistake.

When I was first learning to fly, my CFI walked into the room one day and dropped an enormous, squat book on the table with a thump. “Wh-what’s that?” I stammered. “That’s the rules,” he said with a laugh. At first I loathed the FAR/AIM. In my idealistic, juvenile understanding of aviation, I’d seen it as an impediment on my journey toward the freedom of the skies. These days a copy sits on my nightstand. I have grown to admire this publication and the philosophy it represents. We would never leave the ground if there didn’t live a little boldness, daring, and bravado in our hearts. But the line that cannot be crossed is more like a cliff. If recklessness should cause us to teeter over the edge, there may be no return from the void on the other side.

So give me a new rhetoric. A lack of war stories is a good thing. And with all due respect, I tire of the hero-worship of “famous pilots” that have crashed so many airplanes. That legacy has little to do with modern aviation. However, I do not think that we, as the pilots of today, are necessarily sissies, either. I think we have more information at our disposal, better equipment to fly, and (most importantly) are more cognizant of target risk. In today’s world, I would like to think that we operate at a threshold of boldness that gets the job done without bending anything. There are old, bold pilots…  and I want to be one.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park holds Listening Sessions

National Park Service (NPS) is the planning to hold listening sessions, and would like to hear from people who use any parts of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Session are scheduled for four communities in the vicinity of the park this summer, but additional sessions are anticipated later for more than a dozen communities including Anchorage and Fairbanks.  Given the importance of aviation for access to most of the park, individual pilots, as well as businesses that rely on aviation should participate in this effort.

Largest park in the nation, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is holding listening sessions.

Background
Management plans often drive what happens in national parks. Periodically NPS updates these plans, using the opportunity to evaluate how the park is being used and what pressures it is experiencing.  Part of that process involves hearing from the wide range of people that use the park, be it for hiking, mountain climbing, camping, flight-seeing or exploring the historic mining operations that once took place in the Wrangells.  This the largest park in the nation, at something over 13 million acres in size, with few roads and trails, making the airplane a key tool for access.

Backcountry airstrips
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park has a network of public use cabins, many of which are only available by aircraft.  The aviation community has a history of working with NPS to help maintain some of the strips used to reach these cabins.  This July 13-15, the Recreational Aviation Foundation is organizing a work party to maintain the Peavine Bar Airstrip.  For information, or to participate, see: http://theraf.org/civicrm/event/info?id=398.  This is a good opportunity to help improve this infrastructure, while having some fun at the same time.

Wrangell Plan
NPS started a “backcountry” plan in 2015, and held an initial set of listening sessions. Since that time, key positions at Wrangell-St. Elias have turned over, including the superintendent.  As the new management team evaluated the previous work, they discovered that a number of the comments received were focused on the frontcountry—or more developed and accessible parts of the park.  Consequently, Superintendent Ben Bobowski is interested in hearing from stakeholders, to learn about their issues and concerns for all parts of the park.  Once they have a better handle on stakeholder issues, they will decide what type of a plan to develop.

The first four listening sessions, scheduled for this summer. More sessions will be help in the months ahead.

How to be involved
If possible, participate in any of the listening sessions currently scheduled.  Comments may also be provided by email at: [email protected] or through the NPS planning website:  http://parkplanning.nps.gov/WRSTListens.  As the planning process proceeds, AOPA will follow it closely, and may be asking your input on aviation issues related to this park that encompasses everything from active volcanoes to massive glaciers and ice fields.  It is a national treasure, and the airplane provides one of the few ways to reach its most distant features.

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