IFR Adventure: Alaska

By Peter Schlieck, Aviation News Journal, Autumn 2010


Record freezing temperatures, landscapes frozen in time and polar bears larger than life: that is Alaska - at least that's our picture of this outpost of civilization.



In summer — just for a few weeks —this part of the world boasts some of the most beautiful and incredible scenery one can ever hope to behold.We like to give students the opportunity to experience 'real world' IFR flying. In this case, we decided a trip to Alaska would provide just that!

Our student Vince needed multi engine time for his job application with the UN in Afghanistan, and this trip would be perfect training for him. By design, it would be a mix of IFR and VFR flying, with a focus on air traffic services and procedures in remote areas.

We took off early in July to explore the 49th state. Our Seneca III was loaded to the max. Five people on board: Vince, his wife, two more friends and myself. Our 'cargo' included clothing for a week and all the photo and video gear necessary for a trip of a lifetime. Barely enough room for full tanks!

Our goal was ambitious: we wanted to visit the northern most point of Alaska: Point Barrows. Leaving Boundary Bay on a sunny day we went VFR to Prince Rupert. After refueling we notified US customs of our upcoming arrival in Juneau. With that, the official adventure began.

Since we couldn't get all IFR charts in Vancouver, we had to fly VFR to our first stop: Juneau, Alaska. With ceilings lowering from 3,000 ft. to about 1000 ft. we were lucky to have the large display of the Garmin 530 to assist with navigation between the islands. It felt good when we finally saw the cruise ship terminal, indicating that we were nearing our destination. From the circuit we were able to see one of the well -known landmarks, the Mendenhall Glacier.

Customs was informal and friendly — a local hockey mom took some time off from the game to welcome us and pro-vide us with the necessary stamps. FBOs in Alaska deserve the highest praise for excellence in service. In Juneau it meant quick refueling, a full supply of charts (some they had to borrow from their competitor), and last, but not least, a free van that allowed us to explore the glacier and find a decent motel.

The route for the next day took us to Glacier Bay, a dream destination for those on board Alaska cruise ships. To enjoy the breathtaking scenery, we filed a VFR flight plan and flew low level, keeping a good listening watch for the numerous sightseeing operators in the area.

As we left the cruise ships behind us, we entered the fascinating world of the Grand Pacific Glacier and the Melbern Glacier, which led us to an environmentalist's mecca: the Tatshenshini Valley. The end of our first leg for the day was Yakutat, a rugged outpost where civilization meets bush flying.

With ceilings coming down, we had a quick meal at the "Yakutat Lodge" which sports this sign: "FOOD, SHELTER , BOOZE". We were hoping to make it to Anchorage VFR, but after a short stop in Cordova and a cab ride to see some spectacular glaciers, we ended up in marginal conditions. Although we could navigate with visual reference to the ground, the GARMIN 530's display was a nice reassurance that we had lots of terrain clearance. Anchorage Center responded quickly to our request and within a couple of minutes we were cleared for 12,000 feet on our way to Talkeetna, our destination for the day. As we approached Anchorage an hour later, the clouds started to break up and we had a good look at the largest city in Alaska.

As we turned north we canceled IFR and headed straight for Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, with an elevation of 20,320 ft. Talkeetna, at the mountain's base, is the staging ground for attempts at the mountain, on foot or by air. As we settled down in this area known to mountaineers and other adventurers, we could truly appreciate and understand the fascination with Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park. It was here that the weather forced us to change our plans. The next day, Point Barrows was below IFR minima, with a discouraging long term forecast. However, the way to the west coast was clear and our decision to head for the Bering Strait was an easy one. Before we could set a westerly course we had to negotiate the mountain. Armed with the "Denali National Park Flight Advisory Map" we approached the towering moun-tain range that was buzzing with flight seeing operations. Careful monitoring of the Mountain Advisory Frequencies is the only way to stay safe in this unforgiving environment. Since we had no plans to use our emergency oxygen, we found a glacier field south of the summit that allowed us to cross the range at about 12,000 ft. The rest of the day was an incredible dis-play of the vast expanse of this state. Our friendly controller reminded us that for the hours to follow, we would not only be without radar coverage, but there would-n't be any radio contact either. For the first time in my flying career I depended solely on relay calls with high flying air-liners!

Huge, but almost deserted MOAs — air-ports with 8,000 ft runways in the middle of nowhere, some still with arrestor cables across the tarmac — reminded us of the role that Alaska played during the Cold War as the last fortress of the free world.

As we approached our destination, Kotzebue — and we could finally talk to a controller again — we advised that we wished to make a detour to the north. Just a few miles separated us from the Arctic Circle and we didn't want to go home without having crossed that line. After seeing "67 degrees north" on our Garmin 530 we were ready to go into Kotzebue.

As we flipped through the nine different approach plates for this deserted 6,000 ft runway, we again acknowledged the strategic significance of a town from where you can see the Russian Coast on the horizon. Since we were VFR at this time, ATC advised us to coordinate our approach directly with the only other air-craft bound for Kotzebue at this time.


We parked close to the shore of the Bering Strait, close to a lonely old DC-3. Since we were not used to the midnight sun, it was a challenge to get some rest. We also dipped our toes in the Arctic waters — surprisingly warm this time of the year!

Since the numbers of military personnel has dwindled, the population of about 3,000 is mostly natives. After the unique experience of a night in the sunshine, we headed back towards Talkeetna again. Between 10,000 and 12,000 ft we had scattered clouds and decided to go VFR. Shortly after our departure from Kotzebue, we noticed an aircraft wreck below. Since we were not talking to ATC, we decided to make a low pass. Since the age of the wreckage was impossible to determine in this barren landscape, we took the GPS coordinates. We proceeded further via the Denali Mountain Range, and settled in Talkeetna for the night. When we ran the coordinates of the downed aircraft by FSS, they found it within minutes in their database. It was eleven years old, and just one of over 3,000 aircraft left behind in the Alaskan wilderness!

The next morning — the fifth day of our dream vacation — we knew our adventure was soon coming to an end. For most of our journey home we had 1FR conditions. We were still trying to see as much of Alaska as possible and make it VFR from Talkeetna to Valdez, the most south-ern point of the Alaska pipeline. Leaving Valdez with full tanks, however, was only possible on an IFR flight plan. After the VFR portion of the "NAKED TWO DEPARTURE" we were in clouds and turbulence for the next three hours. Sitka, our next stop, was still below IFR mini-ma, although with a positive trend. I dreaded going back to our alternate of Juneau, which would have meant a total of 500 mu in pretty 'thick soup'.

But as we approached Sitka on a GPS RWY 11 approach, we broke out of clouds at 500 ft above minima. A long day — and some exceptional IFR flying by my student — was rewarded with a cold beer at the local watering hole.

Flying home the next day, with a customs and fuel stop in Port Hardy, seemed now like local sightseeing! As we passed the Queen Charlottes, we encountered good VFR conditions, a nice change after the previous day's conditions! All in all, a super trip... we encountered IFR procedures that we would never see in the Lower Mainland, and probably not anywhere in the Southern Domestic Airspace. We enjoyed the most breathtaking scenery imaginable. This six day adventure was 30 hours of flying, and total closed to 3,500 nautical miles. The total cost for five people was $12,000.... and the experience was priceless. It was the best flying holiday any of us ever had. We would all do it again!


Flight training, including IFR training, is provided at Canadian Flight Centre at Pitt Meadows Airport, B.C.


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