Wind, Rain and Clouds: Getting a Feel for Alaska Weather

I’ve got a long way to go before I can consider myself a seasoned Alaska pilot, but I can work towards that by challenging myself and flying in less than ideal meteorological conditions. I know that pushing my limits bit by bit will expand the envelope of my piloting skills and hopefully fine tune my judgement about when to go and when to say no. My three most recent flights took place in slightly challenging conditions, and they were all great learning experience.

Wind: When I got to airport one day a couple of weeks ago, the winds were blowing pretty strong from the south. The windsock was pointing straight out, although not fully filled, so I knew that it was less than 15 knots. The ATIS said 150 at 12kt, which could potentially make for a tough crosswind landing, but I figured that I could always come back in to Merrill on Runway 16, which would have me landing directly into the strong wind. I’d done that a few times before, so I felt ok about my decision to go.

Remembering to keep my upwind side aileron up, I taxied over to Runway 25 and did a solid crosswind takeoff, and then turned over the Glenn Highway to head East. Then, funny thing happened when just a few miles north, I tuned into the Birchwood AWOS and heard something like 250 at 3kt: a very slight, almost no existent wind from the west. Just goes to show you how localized the weather can be up here around the Anchorage bowl.

Just to the north, up around Palmer, however, the view was filled with dark gray clouds, which I wasn’t about to head into, so I did one touch and go landing at Birchwood and then headed west over the water. I flew over the gravel strip at Goose Bay and completed the circle by heading back to Merrill, where the wind was still strong as ever. By the time I got back, 16 was the active runway anyway, so I concentrated on flying a smooth, controlled pattern and landed nose into the gusty headwind.

Rain: The other night I went up with another Civil Air Patrol pilot and practiced ELT searches over Wasilla. Searching for an ELT is pretty much like searching for an avalanche transceiver, essentially, you listen for and try to follow the signal on the radio as it gets louder and softer. The louder the signal, the closer you are. It’s pretty simple, but things can get a bit challenging when you’re trying to deal with the weather.

While flying our search patterns, we kept running into small patches of light rain that was scattered all over the Mat-Su valley. None of it was very thick, so it wasn’t a big deal to fly through the rain, it just caused short periods of decreased visibility. 

You wouldn’t want to fly for extended periods through rain like that, but we could pretty much see the other side of the clouds, so it wasn’t too big a deal. Plus it was late in the evening, when the air was more settled. I would be much more wary in the middle of the day when there could very well be lots of rising air and cumulous clouds. This was just light virga.

Overall, it was a beautiful, calm evening, and as the sun dropped closer towards the horizon, the orange light streamed through the virga, making it seem like the ground was on fire.

Clouds: Another CAP training mission, this time with a CFI. This time we were going to head up towards Big Lake to practice grid search navigation. The weather was somewhat marginal in Anchorage, but checking the local conditions, it seemed as if the areas to the north had high enough cloud ceilings.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get out of Anchorage. After take off, we ran into a 1,200′ cloud ceiling trying to get over the water, so asked the tower if we could turn around and try for an east departure. we turned around. He approved, so we headed out towards the Glenn Highway, but were quickly boxed in under a 1,000 layer of thick clouds that were sitting right up against the Chugach foot hills. We flew north for just a couple of minutes before turning around and heading back to Merrill for some landing takeoff and practice.

If I were by myself, I probably wouldn’t have attempted a flight in these kinds of conditions. With an instructor, though, I was able to safely push my limits a little bit, get a feel for what the weather can do around here, and gain the confidence to get out of it if needed.

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Grass runways instead of gravel in Alaska?

The University of Fairbanks is recommending that private airports in Alaska plant grass instead of spreading gravel for runways. The main reason is that pilots spend a great deal of money each year repairing gravel dings to their aircraft and propellors each year up here. Grass, is obviously much softer, and they point out that by using the right varieties, the cost to grow and maintain grass runways is minimal, compared to the cost of trying to keep your lawn green.

Click here to read the article.

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Summery Flying, Part 2.

I haven’t been flying as much as I’d like this summer, partly due to the economy, but I’ve gotten up in the air a couple of times lately. Last week, I flew out to the edge of the Tordrillo Mountains, which are visible just about every day in the clear wintertime air, but are much more hidden in the summer.

The air was exceptionally clear the other day, so having never been that far west yet, I jumped at the chance to go exploring and get a closer look at the mountains that sit between the Aleutian Range and the Alaska Range. I set a course for Beluga Lake, 55 miles west of Anchorage, and then flew out and over the lower part of the Triumvirate Glacier, which drains in the lake, and then cruised around the areas west of Mount Susuitna.

Although the sky was clear, it was obviously filled with small patches of that warm, rising air that is so prevalent in the summertime, because I kept getting bumped upwards and had trouble holding a steady altitude. Since as a relatively new pilot, every flight is pretty much a learning experience for me, I took that as a standard summer lesson. I was also reminded about the constant need to diligently scan for traffic, even in the middle of the wilderness. I saw a couple of float planes out there, one of which I didn’t see until it was crossing a few hundred feet underneath me.

I’m also still getting used to the fuel injected 180hp Cessna 172S models that I’ve been flying, after learning in a couple of older 160hp 172’s. That extra power has had me coming in a little high and fast on some of my landings, but as with any type of flying, it will just take time to become proficient with that particular aircraft.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a few touch and go’s at Birchwood, one at Wasilla, and then landed on my shortest runway yet, the 2,400 foot long gravel strip out at Big Lake. I wouldn’t say that it was a textbook landing, I definitely came in a little fast and ate up some of the runway, but I knew I had enough room to get it down and I brought the airplane to a stop with plenty of gravel in front of me. 2,400 feet is still pretty long, it’s just not 4,000 feet. After taxing back, I did a very good soft field takeoff and headed back to Merrill.

Overall, I do think my landings are getting better. After having some recent trouble with floating and skipping, I’m finding myself better able to hold it level and bleed off the airspeed as I round out in my flare, and then touchdown just as the stall horn is going off. That’s pretty much what you want, right?

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Summer Flying

After learning to fly in the wintertime, when everything was covered in white, it’s been a real treat to fly around Alaska in the summer. With help from the near 24-hour daylight, the landscape becomes incredibly lush. Flying over the lower mountain terrain is especially pretty, especially in the sub alpine environments, where you have endless expanses of green interspersed with giant patches of pink fireweed flowers and the tall white blooms of the cow parnsnip all along the hillsides.

Yesterday I took the plane out for a quick hour and flew over the town of Hope. We had mountain biked the Resurrection Pass Trail the day before, which goes south of out Hope, and so it was really neat to see part of the same area from the air.

Although this was the first time I’d been flown myself in a few weeks, I’ve been sitting right seat during for a number of days during Civil Air Patrol missions near the Chitina River, McCarthy and Logan Glacier areas. Even though I wasn’t actually flying, I still feel that I learned alot from watching the four other pilots that I had flown with during these missions. I found it quite interesting to note the differences between on pilot to the next when flying the same course to the same airport. Each one has their own way of doing things, whether it be communicating on the radio, managing fuel flow, choosing an altitude, approaching the airfield, etc…

I guess it’s like anything else, each person has their own style, so why should flying be any different?

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Flying Over the Ruth Glacier

My dad had his first visit to Alaska last weekend, and since he’s a pilot too, I took him flying. Being from Ohio, he’s never seen mountains or glaciers like we have here, so it was pretty special to take him on a flightseeing tour of the area. He’d wanted to see Mt. McKinley, and so on Monday morning when I checked the Talkeetna web cam and it showed mostly clear skies over the Alaska Range, I made the decision to try and fly into the Ruth Glacier, which is one of the biggest glaciers in Denali National Park.

Ruth Glacier, Alaska

Looking down the Ruth Glacier, Alaska

I’d been in the Ruth a few years ago on a climbing trip, and so even though it’s very remote and incredibly rugged, I felt somewhat familiar with the area. I planned the route out to make sure that we’d have enough fuel on a single tank to get there and back, filed a flight plan for the route, and then flew what was a dream flight over some of the most awesome terrain on the planet.

At this point, I haven’t done very much mountain flying, and so as we flew over the entrance to the glacier, I was well prepared to play it safe and turn around at the first sign of high winds, mountain wave turbulence, or any other weather condition that might be hazardous. We encountered nothing but smooth air and mostly clear skies, though, so we kept going up the glacier, through the Great Gorge, past the 5,000-foot tall granite north face of Mt. Dickey, past the 10,000-foot Moose’s Tooth, and all the way into the Ruth Amphitheater.

View of Mt. McKinley, from the Ruth Amphithater, Alaska

View of Mt. McKinley from the Ruth Amphitheater, Alaska

The views were incredible, and my dad clicked away with his camera as we circled around the Amphitheater at 7,500-feet and looked at Mt. McKinley, Mt. Dan Beard, Mt. Huntington, Mt. Barille and all the other peaks in the area. It was really cool to be able to show this stuff to him and it was extra special for me, since I remember flying into the Ruth with Talkeetna Air Taxi a few years ago and thinking, I am going to do this someday!

As we flew out, we turned and crossed over into the Tokositna glacier valley and flew low over the lush green valley, looking for wildlife before heading over to Talkeetna. Didn’t see any, though. I imagine all the bears and moose were basking in the shade under the thick overgrown forested areas.

Tokisitna Valley, Alaska

The Tokisitna Valley, Alaska

I’m finding that mountain flying doesn’t intimidate me as much as I would have thought. In fact, I feel quite comfortable flying in the mountains. Initially, I wondered if I was just experiencing some novice false confidence, but when I gave it some thought, I realized that having spent a great deal of time in the mountains, I’m actually pretty knowledgeable about mountain wind and weather patterns. With that knowledge, safe mountain flying seems largely rooted in common sense. As long as I leave myself a way out and and remain ready to turn around if anything changes, and as long as I know what my airplane’s capabilities are of in terms of density altitude and distance needed to climb, I feel genuinely safe and confident.

Without a doubt, it was definitely the coolest flight I’ve done yet, and it even put me over my 50-hour mark. Special thanks to my dad for helping inspire me to get my license and for being my first passenger on a fabulous blue sky Alaska summer day.

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Anchorage to Seward, past Exit Glacier

Flight time: 1.2 hours

I had the opportunity to help shuttle one of the Civil Air Patrol C172’s from Anchorage to Seward yesterday evening. Being my first time flying in a CAP plane, I flew with Chet Harris as my copilot. There are a couple of possible routes, one that follows the Seward highway, and one that goes over Hope and Resurrection pass. Due to possible turbulence over the Turnagain Arm, we chose to fly south to Skilak Lake, and then follow the valley on the other side of Resurrection pass souteast all the way to Seward.

The weather was a little bit hazy over the Kenai Peninsula, but otherwise clear and great for VFR flying. Along the way we passed over some incredible terrain and had excellent views of the Harding Ice Field and Exit glacier. As someone who is relatively new to living in Alaska, this is a great way to scope out some of the objectives that I’d like to explore further on foot and bike and get an idea of where things are in relation to each other.

Overall, the flight went great, although coming into Seward, I came in a little high and fast on my base and final turns to runway 30 and had to do a go around. My second attempt was even still a bit fast and I ate up quite a bit of runway before landing. I just didn’t execute a great pattern. Also, I’m not used to having a copilot, and it will take me a bit of time to get used to having someone help with the radios while I fly the plane. Just need more practice.

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First Time Mountain Flying

Flight time: .9 hrs

Yesterday I took my first foray into the world mountain flying. Conditions were prefect for it, the skies above the Chugach were totally clear and completely calm, so I took the opportunity to start getting myself familiar with flying in this kind of terrain. I started with a small goal, and made a short but sweet trip up and over Powerline Pass.

As part of my preflight, I used my map and flight computer to calculate the distance, airspeed and time that I’d need to climb to an altitude that would get me safely over the Pass, just so that there wouldn’t be any surprises. I wasn’t too worried, but it was good practice just to make sure.

Once in the plane, I didn’t didn’t have any problem gaining the necessary altitude, and as I flew up the valley, I was able to look down on and right at Flattop Mountain, O’Malley Peak and Turnagain Peak, and see some of the areas where I’ve hiked before. Seeing all that terrain and some of the from the air was an incredible experience.

Once over the Pass, I crossed over into the Indian Valley did a few circles, practiced my steep turns and enjoyed spectacular views of the Chugach and the Turnagain Arm. Looking across the Arm, I could see the small Hope airstrip nestled down in the trees. It’s such a change in scenery now, everything is getting so green!

After a bit, I turned back, headed over another pass right between the Suicide Peaks, flew over Rabbit Lake and down the McHugh valley before turning back towards Merrill. Unfortunately, my landing wasn’t very good. I turned late on final and was a little low, so I had to make that correction, and then I ended up floating a bit and touching down about ten of fifteen feet to the right of the centerline. The windsock hung straight as was coming down to the runway, so maybe I just got hit by a small gust of wind right when I crossed the numbers.

Oh well, Great flight, so so landing. I’ll make the next one better.

Turnagain Peak.

Turnagain Peak.

The west side of Powerline Pass.

The west side of Powerline Pass.

Indian Valley, east of Powerline Pass.

A ridge above Indian Valley, east of Powerline Pass.

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Tour Around Mt. Susitna

Flight time: 1.3 hrs

For my first flight as a licensed private pilot, I decided to do a tour around Mt. Susitna, a 4,396′ mountain that lies just west of the Susitna River, about 35 miles northwest of Anchorage. Called the “Sleeping Woman,” Mt. Susitna is clearly visible from town. I’ve looked at it many times during my flight lessons and thought that it would be a fun destination for a first flight.

I planned out a route and filled out a navigation log to determine the mileage, time and fuel required, checked the winds aloft to determine an approximate groundspeed, and then enjoyed a scenic hour and twenty minute flight out over the mud flats, the Little Su and Susitna Rivers, and over the forested terrain around the backside of the mountain. Although the skies were not as clear as they have been during the past week, the weather was great, with a layer of high clouds and good visibility. There was still a bit of snow on the higher terrain on the west side of the peak, although with most of the snow gone everywhere else, it’s an entirely different world out there. I can’t wait to see everything when it greens up. Shouldn’t bee too long, now, as buds are starting to appear on the trees in Anchorage. I heard that the area west of Mt. Susitna is full of bears! I’ll have to fly back there again later on in the summer and see if I can spot any from the air.

Once past the peak, I flew over the Susitna’s north shoulder, intercepted the 255° radial from the Big Lake VOR and followed it inbound to the station. Although I could have easily flew back to Merrill without any navigation aids, I had promised Dick Ardiaz that I’d practice the VOR stuff next time I went out. I had originally planned a landing at Big Lake, but when I passed the VOR, I realized that I only had about twenty minutes left before I had to be back so I turned and headed straight back to Merrill. I’ll have to hit Big Lake another time.

Tour around Mt. Susitna

Tour around Mt. Susitna

Mud flats on the Cook Inlet

Mud flats on the Cook Inlet

Mud flats at the mouth of the Little Su

Mud flats at the mouth of the Little Su

West side of Mt. Susitna

West side of Mt. Susitna

Private airsrip, still hanging on to winter

Private airsrip, still hanging on to winter

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Private Pilot License Issued!

Aircraft: C172 N52654

Flight Time: 1.7 hours

Total Hours: 42.8

I passed my checkride and am now an officially licensed pilot!

I felt confident and relaxed during the morning segment, and I took my time making up a cross country flight plan and completing the other tasks that Dick Ardiaz gave me to make sure that I’d be a safe and knowledgeable pilot.

At around 1:00, I rode my bike over to the other side of the airport and got the plane. After taxiing over to Aero Tech, Dick jumped in and we were off flying. He didn’t have me do that many maneuvers, and we actually spent the majority of the time on VOR navigation, which is what I’d heard that he was likely to his main area of focus.

I am fairly confident about VOR navigation, at least I thought I was, but during the ride, I got a little nervous and forgot to correct for the wind, which kept blowing me off course. I started to confuse myself a couple of times, and that’s when Dick took the yoke and explained it in very easy to understand terms. I listened to his brief lesson and it began to click a little better.

After that, we flew back to Merrill, did a couple of landings, and then he told me to make a full stop and taxi back to Aero Tech. When we got back, he told me that I passed, but to make sure I go up and practice the VOR stuff by myself when I get a chance. I would have through that he would ask me to do more things in the air, but I guess someone who has that much experience doesn’t need very much time to assess your overall piloting and safety skills. When it was all finished, I taxied the plane back and got a big congratulations from my instructor. I feel fortunate to have had such a good teacher and can easily see how not having the right fit could make this all a much different type of experience.

The really cool thing was watching him fly the plane. He’s in his 80’s, and moves slowly on the ground, but he has more years of flying experience than I have years in my entire life and he handles the plane with incredible confidence. Here I was trying to be gently and do these gentle, standard rate turns and when he flew, he made these deliberate turns with more skill and agility than I have ever seen. The guy is a legend and now I have my signature in my logbook. Next to his name, it says “Private Certificate Issued.”

It’s all a little bit surreal right now, and I’m sure that it will take time for the realization to sink in that I have actually attained my lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. It will probably start to feel different when I fly somewhere new, as it did when I flew my cross countries. There’s alot of air to cover up here in Alaska and I’m excited to start exploring and putting my license to good use!

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Final Checkride Prep

Aircraft: C172 N52654

Flight Time: 1.9 hours

Total Hours: 41.1

I have now passed my required 40 hours and as I look forward to my checkride, I can’t help but look back at the experiences that have brought me to this point. I began this journey six months ago, eager and excited, and curious about what I would learn during my months of training. It has certainly been challenging at times, and even a little frustrating during those times when I struggled, but I always kept calm and never lost my enthusiasm or my appetite for more. Jumping into the world of aviation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and the fact that I am now so close to earning my license fills me with nearly uncontrollable excitement.

With my dual lessons officially wrapped up, I took the plane up yesterday for a couple of hours of solo time in order to get myself ready for my checkride, which I have scheduled for tomorrow. I spent about 45 minutes going through all of my maneuvers, and the rest of the time I worked on my landings.

I felt comfortable doing slow flight and stalls, although I’m so light, that sometimes it’s hard to get the plane to lose its lift. I find that I have to fly VERY slow and climb quite steeply in order to get it to drop during my power on stalls.

Next I ran through my ground reference maneuvers. It had been awhile since I had done these, and they went well, although I had a little trouble holding my altitude during the S-Turns. Hopefully with vigilant control and observation, I can keep them within tolerance. I also had a bit of trouble with this during my steep turns, but found that simply looking out the window instead of at the instruments. made all the difference, which is what you’re supposed to do as a VFR pilot anyway.

After going through the procedure for making an emergency landing without power, I headed back to Merrill for a long session of touch and go’s. I’ve had a tendency to land flat sometimes and really wanted to iron this problem out before my checkride. I dropped into the pattern and cruised through 13 takeoffs and landings- some short field, some soft field, and one with no flaps and a forward slip.

They weren’t all perfect, but the practice did me good, because it seems like things are coming together here. I still occasionally float- again, probably because with just me in the plane it’s so light, but there were no hard landings or bounces and I kept it straight on the centerline every time. I worked hard on flying smooth, tight patterns and using the power and trim to keep my descent rates consistent. I imagine that I’ll be improving my landings for the rest of my flying career, but for now, I feel that they’re definitely with the private pilot tolerances.

When I was finished, Mark and I made sure that I had all my required logbook endorsements filled in, then we printed out my FAA application and went over what I’d need for the checkride. It was a strange feeling sitting there realizing that my lessons are now coming to an end, at least until I go for my next rating anyway. That was when I started thinking back to the time when I sat in his office for the first time during my very first lesson all those months ago.

I know that I’m ready and I’m not nervous at all. I think that part of that is that I’ve already met Dick Ardiaz, who will be my FAA examiner. Dick is an aviation legend around here, having moved up in 1952 with his wife and starting Aero Tech flight school shortly thereafter. They even have a road over by the tower named after him. He seems like a super cool guy and from everything I’ve heard, he just wants to make sure that you’re going to be a safe pilot. I’m not worried.

So, all that’s left for me to do is to run through some of the material a bit more, get a good night’s sleep tonight and then show up at Aero Tech tomorrow at 9:30AM for the 2-3 hour oral exam. After that, we’ll go up in the plane and do that actual checkride. After that…

…I can only imagine.

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