North to Alaska
Flying with bush pilots above the Arctic Circle
“I’m crossing the river,” radioed the Kingdom Air Corps pilot flying a Cessna 182. He had departed Fairbanks a half hour before us, where our six airplanes—a Cessna 206, the Skylane, two Skyhawks, a Cessna 150, and a 152—flying together on our way north from King Ranch (AK59), had stopped for fuel. An Aeronca Champ and a Taylorcraft were already at our destination, and a Piper Aztec would fly up in a couple of days.
We were headed north, way north—60 miles beyond the Arctic Circle—to a private grass strip in the middle of the mountains of the Brooks Range. The 150 and the 152 had a couple hours head start from our base in Chickaloon, Alaska, east of Anchorage; the two Skyhawks had departed next; and the Cessna 182 shortly after. I was flying dual with our chief pilot, Dwayne King, founder of Kingdom Air Corps, in the heavy of the group: a Cessna 206 with six on board and an assortment of luggage in the tail. This bird can haul. Sure enough, I saw the Yukon River snaking its way in the distance at my nine o’clock to intersect with our course not far ahead. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline clearly marked our course on the ground, matching the black line on the sectional on my lap, and we followed it as it crossed the river and headed to its next pumping station at Prospect Creek.
Over the Fish remote communications outlet, just south of Prospect Creek, we contacted the Fairbanks Flight Service Station for an updated briefing. We stopped at Bettles, where Brooks Range Aviation expedited our fueling and we were warmly welcomed on the ramp by Rich Thorne (Bettles' weather chief, mayor, pastor, and friend) and his wife, “Mama Bird” Paula. They would personally see to all of our needs over the next two weeks, including passing on messages and providing a continuous supply of ice cream treats, as aircraft in our fleet stopped for fuel.
After our fill of Klondike Bars (no kidding), we packed ourselves back into the 206 and headed for our final destination, 37 miles north. Two brothers, Matt and Tim Fickus, had offered Kingdom Air Corps use of their property to build a summer camp for native youth living in the surrounding isolated villages. Inaccessible by road, these villages maintain their runways and are within an hour by air from the camp. We were part of the staff of 22—cooks, counselors, directors, and pilots—who would fly to the villages in a couple of days to bring the kids back for a week of fun and flying at the aviation-themed Brooks Range Bible Camp. The path from the runway to the lodge was marked by a hand-carved sign, “Sky Lane”; the campers’ tents were “Champ,” “Cub,” “Skyhawk,” and “Stationaire.” These kids love to fly.
The splendor of the wilderness is matched with challenges. Weather information is scarce, aircraft need to be maintained with minimal equipment, fuel is carefully monitored, and mountain flying knowledge is crucial. The nearest source for weather information was Bettles. However, at our remote location we had no satellite phone and no cell service, so we could not call them for a briefing. While Alaska has 179 weather cams around the state, including one at Anaktuvuk Pass (an hour north, to which we flew several times), we could not access them, as we had no Internet. So, when weather was marginal, the chief pilot would take off in one of the smaller airplanes to take a look at the conditions. He would fly toward Bettles, if conditions allowed; contact Bettles 10 miles out for a briefing; and bring us back the report.
The best bush pilots are also airframe and powerplant mechanics, able to fix squawks wherever they occur. Our Cessna 206, which had been working perfectly on arrival at camp, showed no manifold pressure on the second day. Fortunately, we had Dan Swenson, our chief mechanic, with us. Swenson saw that the copper tube had broken where the B-nut slides over the feral (a small metal ring placed on the end of the tube). In minutes, he was able to cut and reconnect the tubing with the tools available at camp. Sometimes it’s not that easy, and another aircraft has to fly out to pick up or deliver a part. But in all cases, an A&P needs to be able to work in the location, weather, and circumstances where the airplane has landed—and get the aircraft flying again.
Fuel is a daunting challenge in the bush. It costs more in the large cities of Alaska than in the Lower 48 and the price increases proportionately to your distance from civilization. Avgas at Bettles Airport was $8.80 a gallon. Managing fuel was paramount where we were based—there needed to be enough in each tank for the ongoing flights.
Flying in the secluded Brooks Range, home to bear, moose, and Dall sheep, isn’t for flatlanders without training. When the weather between the ridges is VFR, it’s not unusual for the 6,000-foot peaks to be obscured. There is some instrument guidance in the state for actual instrument meteorological conditions with high minimum en route altitudes over the tops, but in Alaska, most flying is through the passes. I did some flying myself, off the private grass strip. The sectional became my closest friend as I studied it carefully, visualizing the route I’d fly and becoming familiar with landmarks. I hugged the mountainsides, avoiding the middle of the valley, so I’d have room to turn around, if necessary.
In the absence of weather briefings, automated surface observation systems, automated weather observation systems, or weather cams, I scrutinized clouds and lake ripples for wind direction and speed. GPS was great for backup, as it gave my position relative to my destination, helpful as I wound my way above rivers, gaping at sheep on the ridges, the hills pink with blooming Fireweed.
On our last day at camp, the weather was marginal visual flight rules (VFR). All airplanes were loaded for the return trip, and we waited on the runway for a weather briefing. Just as our chief pilot was getting ready to take off for a look at the weather, he heard a Cessna Caravan overhead and was able to contact the pilot on the Bettles frequency to ask for a pilot report. Improving VFR lay between us and Bettles. Immediately, all 21 staff members boarded the airplanes. The parade of aircraft departed, with the fastest airplane—the Aztec—leading the way and the others following according to their cruise speed. This was opposite to the order we had flown two weeks earlier on our way north, when we had had a blue-skies VFR forecast for the entire route. The Aztec pilot sent pireps back to the rest of the fleet every few minutes; if conditions deteriorated, we all would turn around. However, the weather was consistent with the Caravan pilot’s report; we had improving conditions en route to Bettles, and 10 miles out contacted them to verify
what our eyes saw.
As we refueled at Bettles for the long flight south, we enjoyed hamburgers and fish and chips on the porch of the hospitable Bettles Lodge. It was a memorable send-off as our fleet departed south, following the pipeline to Fairbanks.