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Tag: flying in Alaska

Ptarmigan Pass gets a new name

A popular mountain pass through the Alaska Range connecting Anchorage and McGrath just got a “facelift.”  The flight route that has for many years been known as Ptarmigan Pass is the longer, lower, and more open pathway through the Alaska Range. It provides an alternative to Rainy Pass, which is at a higher elevation along a more confined route.  As the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Services is reviewing Alaska mountain passes, discrepancies are being corrected.  During this process, two issues were discovered regarding the route formerly associated with Ptarmigan Pass, which are resulting in significant changes to features on the McGrath Sectional, including renaming and relocating Ptarmigan to Houston Pass.

Background
Pilots flying VFR through the Alaska Range between Anchorage and McGrath for many years have used either Rainy Pass—if the weather was really good—or the longer, lower route that goes up the Happy River into Ptarmigan Valley, down Ptarmigan Creek before taking a turn to the west and following the South Fork of the Kuskoskwim River out of the mountains and on to McGrath.  This route is frequently used when clouds limit more direct pathways across the range.  The description from a 1934 Naval Air Pilot publication provides a compelling comparison of the two routes, which was probably relevant for the capabilities of the airplanes of that time– in addition to many that we fly today.

This description of the air routes between Anchorage and McGrath was published in the Naval Air Pilot, Hydrographic Office Publication No 188, published June 1, 1934. (Thanks to Marshall Severson for locating this document.)

In the interest of providing more information to pilots to improve safety, the FAA is currently looking at mountain passes in Alaska and the information presented to pilots on flight charts.  In the course of this review, two problems were discovered regarding the location that had for years been labeled as Ptarmigan Pass:

  • the U.S. Geological Survey’s recognized name for this landmark is Hellsgate Canyon, not Ptarmigan Pass and,
  • further inspection revealed that while it may be the narrowest segment of the route, it is not a pass.

Where IS the Pass?
A “pass” represents the highest point along the lowest route between two drainages.  For VFR flight planning, pilots need to know the location and elevation of that point.  Adding the altitude needed to comfortably fly the route based on their personal flight minimums, a pilot can now evaluate the weather enroute.  When flying up a valley toward a pass, a pilot encountering ceilings lower than needed to cross the pass now have a basis to make the decision to turn around—while they still have the opportunity to do so.

Changes to the McGrath Sectional as of the August 12, 2021 chart cycle. After this date, Houston Pass is added to the chart, while Hellsgate is changed to a VFR checkpoint.

Along this route through the Alaska Range, the actual pass is about 10 nautical miles northeast of Hellsgate Canyon. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s place names dictionary, Houston Pass is the name of that location.  Houston Pass has an elevation of 2,749 feet and sits in a wide valley, providing an alternative to the higher and more confined terrain along the route that goes through Rainy Pass, which sits at an elevation of 3,524 feet.  As of the charting cycle starting on August 12, changes to the McGrath Sectional include adding Houston Pass  and converting Hellsgate Canyon from a pass symbol to a VFR checkpoint.

A comparison of the elevations of three features along the Rainy and Huston Pass routes.

Looking ahead
As part of the FAA review of Alaskan mountain passes, it was noted that the pass elevation data normally found on sectionals in other parts of the country is missing for Alaska.  The FAA charting team has already added elevation data to a few passes and is working to add it to a large number of other passes across the state later this fall. For now, with regard to these passes, please make it a point to:

  • Update your databases or buy a new paper chart with the August 12 revisions
  • Note these changes and use the new placenames when making CTAF calls along the route, allowing other pilots to know your location relative to these features, reducing the likelihood of mid-air collisions
  • Help pass the word–as this represents a significant change along a route that has been used since the earliest days of flying in Alaska

When we’re talking about Houston Pass or Hellsgate Canyon, let’s help keep everyone on the same page – especially when that page is a sectional chart.  Fly safe!

Alaska IFR Survey: What do we need?

The FAA is undertaking a modernization of the National Airspace System (NAS) , and is moving to a space-based system.  While we will have ground based navigation aids for the foreseeable future, GPS based navigation has clearly become the dominant technology, and is changing the nature of our IFR enroute navigation structure.  Plans are already underway to update the low and high altitude system in the lower 48 states, but as we all know, well—Alaska is different.

Alaska's low altitude enroute infrastructure is the topic of a survey for IFR pilots who fly there.

Alaska’s low altitude enroute infrastructure is the topic of a survey for IFR pilots who fly there.

Recognizing that we have strong reliance on aviation for basic transportation in the state, the FAA is taking Alaska’s specific needs into account by establishing an advisory group to consider the needs of Alaska’s low-altitude (below 18,000’) IFR enroute system.  To prepare for this undertaking, AOPA and the Alaska Airmen Association are partnering on a survey of IFR pilots who fly in Alaska.  The survey will help define how you use the low altitude enroute IFR system today, and what your needs are for the future.

This information will help us advocate for your needs as the FAA looks at options to make changes to the NAS in Alaska.  While this effort is focused only on Alaska, the results will be integrated into other efforts around the country as we move to a space-based system.

If you are an active IFR pilot, please take the few minutes to take this online survey.  Click here to take the survey now.

Learning about Flying in Alaska

No matter how many certificates or ratings a pilot has in their pocket, when planning to fly in a part of the world you’re not familiar with, it has always been good advice to talk with a local pilot to get the “lay of the land.” But who do you ask?

A number of years ago members of the Interior Alaska Flight Instructors Association, based in Fairbanks, partnered with the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and the Fairbanks FAA Flight Standards District Office to create a program for pilots who flew themselves to the state. During the summer months of June to August, pilots camped in the Air Park (a camp ground for airplanes) at Fairbanks International Airport may take advantage of this program. Three nights a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) at 6 p.m. a member of the CFI group drops by to chat with visitors in the Air Park, and answer questions about flying in Alaska. They are armed with a full case of charts, pamphlets, special maps and information specific to Alaska aviation.

An aerial view of the Air Park during an aviation event.

An aerial view of the Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport during an aviation event.

Why Fairbanks?
Fairbanks is a popular destination for pilots who fly up the Alaska Highway, along the historic Northwest Staging Route from Montana that was established during World War II for the Lend Lease program. Being centrally located in the state, Fairbanks makes a good jump-off location for visitors wishing to explore the state, whether planning to venture north into the Brooks Range and more arctic environs, west to the gold-rich beaches of Nome, or south to Mt. McKinley and southcentral Alaska. Many of the visitors that arrive in Fairbanks are looking for ideas on places to go, things to see and what to watch out for.

What is different about Alaska?
Yes, the laws of physics are the same when it comes to lift and drag—but Alaskan infrastructure is perhaps different, depending on what you may be familiar with at home. Most communities in Alaska have airports, however very few have gas, maintenance facilities or even a phone to call Flight Service for a weather briefing. In fact, 82% of Alaskan communities are not connected to the state’s road system. While they represent the primary access to those communities, many consist of a 3,000 foot plus gravel runway, a small pad for aircraft parking and a road to town. No FBO, no fuel, no airport loaner car, no phone. You are on your own, which is fine so long as you planned for those conditions.

Another difference is the density of our aviation facilities. Weather reporting stations, NEXRAD weather radar, RCO’s, and nav aids are all in very short supply in contrast to the rest of the country.  Let’s dig into weather just a bit. According to the FAA’s listing, there are 133 AWOS and ASOS stations in Alaska. We would need 183 more stations to have the same average density that is enjoyed by the “lower 48 states.” This not only limits the most basic information pilots use for planning and conducting flights, it also impacts the weather models that are used by the National Weather Service to create aviation forecasts. While our products (METARs, TAFs, Area Forecasts, winds aloft forecasts) LOOK the same as what you may be used to, they are much less ‘informationally rich’ in nature. [More info on this is available at “Alaska is a weather-poor state.”] The upshot: the weather you see out the window is what you need to deal with.

Alaska specific infrastructure
The FAA recognizes some of these differences, and has made accommodations to address certain issues. Alaska has a network of web cameras that, during daylight hours, provide an additional source of information on weather conditions. At over 220 locations across the state, you may actually look at the weather to get a better idea of conditions along a given route of flight.

Weather is just one topic. Alaska also has an incredibly large Special Use Airspace complex, with special services to make it easier to navigate; FAA still operates a network of Flight Service Stations to help pilots obtain information; and the National Weather Service has a dedicated web site for aviation weather. These services are all summarized in a document developed by the flight instructors group which is now available on AOPA’s Flight Planning website www.aopa.org/Flight-Planning/Alaska on the Alaska Info tab, in Guide to Aviation Visitors to Alaska. A second document in that section lists a number of websites with Alaskan aviation references, including the aviation weather cams, Flight Service Station map, NWS aviation weather site and a lot more.

But if you would like to learn about Alaska flying in the old fashioned way— stop by the Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday summer evening around 6 p.m. and talk with a local flight instructor, to get the low-down on flying in Alaska.

Post Script:  The Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport has 15 camp spaces, along with two covered pavilions complete with a BBQ pit, and a restroom with shower facility. That’s right—during summer months it has running water! A few bicycles are available (first come, first serve) if you want to make a quick ride to town or down the ramp to one of the airport businesses or the Flight Service Station.

Surprises all around

Jean Moule last wrote for the Flight Training blog about flying with different instructors. She is an emerita faculty member of Oregon State University, and a published writer and artist. Visit her website.—Ed.

glacierYou have spent months planning, days hiking. Your tents are pitched on a finger of land that sticks out into Bench Lake in the wilderness on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Suddenly a floatplane lands on the water and comes to a stop in the middle of the small lake you had thought your own. The plane taxis to the end of the lake to again face into the wind and takes off. You stand with others in your group wondering, as you always will, why did that plane land here? What was that all about?

Watching the airplane fly off into the distance, you see it even more mysteriously take a turn in the air. Is it wildlife? Unknown to you, the airplane circled around a snowmobile abandoned in this wilderness.

This introduction to floatplane flying by a new, young CFI certainly had its moments for both me and life on the ground. The bear we circled was as surprised as the people. My sense is that a more experienced CFI would not have caught such attention from both the wild and people life. And while he never scared me exactly, flying close to the mountains to catch the updrafts for flight caused me to not take the controls as much as I might. In the end, I controlled the flaps and the water rudder because, in the Super Cub, he could not reach them anyway. The bottom line: Did I have fun? he asked after we returned to the dock. Oh yes.

tailnumberThe views were awesome. Could I say anything but “Wow!” asked the pilot in the other airplane that held most of my family. We took off and landed together on Trail Lake; I circled Paradise Valley while my family flew over the Harding Ice Field in a bigger, faster airplane.

Alaska will never be the same for me now that I have seen the backcountry, which makes up most of Alaska anyway, from the air. So many lakes, almost always a place to land—or maybe “land” is not the correct word, when you finish up on water.

My family and I have a lively conversation the night before about how a floatplane pilot gets to the dock. Carefully, and with experience, I find out. My CFI is embarrassed when our airplane goes quiet and still several feet from the dock. Only the presence of someone who could throw him a rope saves us from other ways to make that dock.

His mentor, the 75-year-old pilot who took my family up, stands just a tad mortified as the airplane is pulled into place.

bench lake with tentsI don’t mind. I was along for the ride and scenery anyway. And I did learn a bit about floatplanes. My first pleasure was the water taxiing (no yellow line to nail) and the views, especially the images of the other airplane carrying my family were incredible. Our hour in the sky was well worth our weeks of planning, days of travelling, and getting seven people up and out on schedule for our flights. The Alaska weather cooperated. No rain and the clouds rested at about 5,000 feet. The group on the Cessna 206 sometimes seemed a tad squeezed between the Harding Icefield and the clouds. Our smaller airplane played in the hidden valleys and did a practice land and takeoff for those surprised hikers. They wonder why we landed. I wonder if I will ever get in a floatplane again. Mysteries.—Jean Moule

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