By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the December 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
The return home from Alaska got off to an interesting start. On the planned day of departure, the weather was looking pretty good for the first leg down to Ketchikan, with marginal VFR (MVFR) conditions forecast along the route. Rather than going back through Whittier and then across the Prince William Sound, we chose a different scenic route. We departed Anchorage and flew northeast along the Glenn Highway, across Palmer, up through the Matanuska River Valley and across the Tahneta Pass, then to Gulkana, and out the Copper River to the Gulf of Alaska. There were plenty of weather cams on the FAA website to help with decision-making before departure. The Copper River Valley is bounded by steep mountains and beautiful glaciers, which eased the pain of having to leave Alaska and all its beautiful scenery.
The Copper River meets the gulf at the little town of Cordova, which was forecast to be 3,300 overcast. That sounded wonderful. On our last trip eight years ago it was at 200 overcast. Sure enough, as we approached the gulf and looked to the right toward Cordova, the clouds appeared to be right at 3,300 overcast. Wonderful. As we rounded the bend and turned left, it was a different story. The clouds were much lower, around 700-800 feet. Visibility was good, with no precipitation, so we continued down the coast at 500 feet. About halfway to Yakutat we saw an aircraft on the ADS-B and initiated communications. It was an Aerostar helicopter. Its pilot assured us that it was good all the way to Yakutat.
We made Yakutat in about 2.5 hours, with the ceilings increasing to 2,200 overcast by the time we arrived. It was much colder and windier than on our trip a week earlier, but the halibut sandwich and chocolate chip cookies were just as good. I decided to call the flight service station (FSS) to get an update on the weather for the next leg to Ketchikan. While conditions were still MVFR along the route, they were a little lower at 700 feet around Cape Spencer, which is where we would make our turn from the Gulf of Alaska coast to the Inside Passage. There was a mention of potential rain showers along the way. I’m okay with low-level flying along the coast if there is good visibility.
Rain and precipitation can substantially decrease the visibility and can be a recipe for disaster. We decided that it was worth a look, filed a VFR flight plan, and departed toward Ketchikan at 700 feet AGL. We managed to get down to Dry Bay, and ironically, there was a pretty good rain shower, with a rain shaft all the way to the ground. We got down to about 450 feet, and when the visibility went to about a mile, I decided it was time to turn around, so we did. I always keep the shoreline in view, so it was a left 180-degree turn. You do not want to make the turn over the water, as pretty quickly you can lose the horizon.
Once turned around, the trip back to Yakutat was uneventful, but it was clear that the ceilings were lowering, and we could see multiple rain showers. I called Juneau FSS and verified our IFR flight plan was still on file. I gave an update on the weather, and we landed and topped off the 8 gallons we had burned. By the time we took off for the second time that day, Yakutat was almost IFR, but Ketchikan was forecast to be 1,500 overcast at our arrival time. Should be easy, right? We were solid IMC at about 700 feet on the departure from Yakutat. Things had sure changed since our arrival.
I had filed for 7,000 feet due to potential icing, and FSS gave me 9,000 feet. We were right at the freezing level, although the briefer said freezing levels were at 10,000 feet. We had a nice, smooth flight in solid IMC with a 26-knot headwind, and our eyes were glued to the temperature gauge, which was vacillating between 32-33 degrees.
I found the controllers in this neck of the woods to be super friendly and cooperative. I mentioned the temperature, and they immediately gave us a block altitude of 7,000-9,000 feet. About an hour into the flight we started picking up ice and descended to 7,000 feet. The ice immediately started shedding at 8,500 feet. It was only light icing with about a 3-knot airspeed loss, but there was no fooling around to see if it got worse. Closer to Sitka there was some weather showing, and we started getting a little more ice at 7,000 feet. Center gave us a vector out of it immediately, and that worked. Then we were cleared to an intersection and told to expect the RNAV for runway 11, which we had done on the way up last week.
Soon we were given holding instructions. After three to four turns in the hold, there was a change of plans and we were given a vector to be sent out for an ILS. Things were busy at Ketchikan, and we were number four. Vectoring was at 7,000 feet, and the glide slope intercept was at 5,000 feet. Ketchikan is at sea level. It’s 12.5 miles from the final approach fix to the runway. We had a 26-knot headwind and were asked to slow down as there was a Caravan ahead of us.
As I was intercepting the localizer, center asked if I had information Mike. I had just listened to information Lima about 15 minutes earlier, so I figured something was up. Yep, the ceiling was very low, with poor visibility. Then I heard the Caravan ahead of us say it had the runway at 400 feet and 1 mile. Yikes. That’s a huge change from the forecasted 1,500-foot overcast. I pushed the power up a little, hoping we would get in and asked FSS to make sure the lights were up all the way, which the briefer assured me they were. We started to see the strobes of the “rabbit” at about 700 feet and 1 mile, and I called out “runway environment” to Carol and then caught the runway at 400 feet and 1 mile. By the time we tied down in the soaking rain, you could not see across the waterway to Ketchikan, and when we got there, we could no longer see the airport. I think we were lucky on the timing. I also think we were the last ones in.
The weather at Ketchikan was a stark contrast to our visit a week earlier. The next day it poured rain, with low ceilings and poor visibility. We rarely saw the airport from our hotel room across the water and made the decision to wait a day. The winds were also gusting quite strongly. The normal bustle of seaplanes was nonexistent all day.
The following morning we awoke to a great view of the airport. As forecasted, the ceilings were around 1,500 feet. There were no reports of icing, which was forecast to be around 7,000 feet, with the winds around 26 knots at 5,000 feet. Bellingham, Washington, our destination, was forecast to be clear, and the weather up and down Vancouver Island was good VFR. I filed for the offshore route so we could stay lower. Yes, it’s a little riskier in a single-engine airplane, but I don’t like icing — unless it’s chocolate and on a chocolate cake.
Center gave us 7,000 feet. Sure enough, as soon as we leveled off, we started picking up icing. Funny enough, we were getting it only on the horizontal stabilizer (I always watch it for the first signs of icing as it has a sharper radius) and on the wings outboard of the wing tanks. Then it dawned on me. We had climbed so fast that the fuel in the tanks was still above freezing and preventing that part of the wing from icing. After a quick call to center, we were immediately cleared down to 6,000 feet, and the ice shed right away. We were solid IMC with light rain and 50-knot winds for more than 2.5 hours. Around the northern part of Vancouver Island, we started to break out. We were given a climb to 9,000 feet. By this time, we were much further southeast and the temperatures had risen almost 10 degrees, so icing was no longer a problem. We were on top for a while, and then finally the skies cleared around Campbell River and we had a gorgeous view flying down the Strait of Georgia, with Vancouver Island on our right and mainland Canada on our left.
We landed in Bellingham after four hours. A quick check of the weather showed it was clear over the Rockies, with a light tailwind at 13,500 feet. No sense wasting time. After lunch we headed off to Logan, Utah, arriving there four hours later. That leg was beautiful, with clear views of Mount Rainier, Hood, Baker, and Adams as we departed Bellingham.
The following day looked great for a straight shot to home, with two fuel stops, so that’s what we did. We arrived home at 8:30 p.m.
The GPS meter showed 7,595 nm traveled, with an average groundspeed of 156 knots. That’s one-third of the way around the world. Flight time was right at 54.8 hours, with an average of 11.7 gph of fuel consumed. It was the best trip we’ve ever had, with 14 days of fantastic scenery and memories that will last a lifetime.
It’s fair to say that the fun factor was maxed out. Next month, I am going to close this out with some lessons learned and things you should think about if you plan to fly to Alaska.
Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848, is a commercial pilot, A&P/IA, designated airworthiness representative, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more than 10,000 hours in 74 different types. Vic founded Base Leg Aviation, has authored books on maintenance and prebuy inspections, and posts videos weekly on his YouTube channel. He also volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot.