By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the November 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
The wonderful thing about flying to Alaska is that every day on the journey the scenery just keeps getting better. Honest. Then, you arrive, and it still keeps getting better. Be sure to bring a camera with a large memory card because you will take pictures nonstop. But don’t forget to enjoy it as well, as I have yet to see a picture that does the beauty justice. On top of all the beauty are the long 18-plus hour days, so there is plenty of time to enjoy the natural beauty. Usually, we are up early, as our body clocks are still on Eastern Daylight Time, and the sun doesn’t set until 11:30 p.m. local.
Our favorite place to stay is The Lakefront Anchorage by Millennium Hotels. For aviators, it is the place to be. The patio faces the Lake Hood Seaplane Base, the busiest seaplane base in the world with more than 1,000 general aviation aircraft based there. It is right at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and is even controlled by the Anchorage tower. Most of the day there are seaplanes taking off and landing every minute, sometimes directly over your head. Many times, they are lined up three and four for takeoff. Most of them are Beavers, Otters, and Cessna 206s on floats. It’s a hoot to watch — and we spend hours there every day doing just that.
Our base of operations while in Anchorage is at the Merrill Field airport. It has great transient parking and self-serve fuel, and the controllers are wonderful. In and out every day was easy, but, again, have your Alaska chart supplement with you for departures and arrivals.
Weather permitting, we fly every day. There are glaciers and ice packs in all directions. On a clear day you can see Denali from the ground in Anchorage. We’ve only seen that once in four trips. Denali makes its own weather, so most of the time it is cloudy. However, it does feed many glaciers, and that is usually our first destination. There are four glaciers that are just gorgeous. They are the destinations of the local sightseeing tour companies as well, so you need to pay attention to the rules of the sky, monitor the proper frequencies, and call out the checkpoints. The FAA puts the maps online, so be sure to download them before you go.
Basically, you stay on the right side of the valleys. Sometimes the ADS-B works, and you can see the traffic, but not everyone has ADS-B. Your head needs to be on a swivel, and so do the passengers. Carol calls out as much traffic as I do. We’ve only been able to get up to about the 6,000-foot level on our trips due to the clouds, but the glaciers are wide enough to safely turn around. Just plan your turns. And there’s no need to fly at cruising speed; slowing down will shorten your turn radius. No sense making the passengers nervous with a windshield full of mountain as you are turning around. Most of the glaciers are an easy climb, but quickly you can be up to 6,000 feet or higher, so pay attention to your airspeed and climb rate if you are heavy. I like to go up with half fuel, as most of the glacier flights are only one-and-a-half to two hours.
Pay attention to the winds and try to go in the morning when they are calmer, but do expect some winds coming down the valleys. Most of the time it is smooth, but once in a while it can get bumpy. Since everyone is monitoring the same frequency, don’t hesitate to ask for reports. The pilots up in Alaska are super friendly, as are the controllers, and they are more than happy to provide reports.
At Denali, the Eldridge, Ruth, Tokositna, and Kahiltna glaciers are our favorites, as they can all be seen on one flight from Anchorage that will take about two hours. Traffic can be busy, as there are a lot of airplanes and helicopters out of Talkeetna operating in this area. I have found being airborne by 8 a.m. has less traffic.