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Spring Alcan Trip Diary – 2011

As I’d suggested a couple of weeks ago, my airplane was undergoing it’s annual a month early so that I could ferry it to Alaska for the summer, such that it’ll be available for use over the summer.

This wasn’t going to be a typical summer vacation trip (I’d taken one of those almost 10 years ago, and wet late-summer weather made a real challenge out of it). Instead, because of my intended schedule, this would be a spring trip, and was planned to be as quick as possible. A subarctic spring trip, no less.

Was this wise?

A year ago, I’d spoken online to a couple of folks who had done it before (one in particular had made the trip in a Citabria in early April, and even camped along the way because of financial constraints). My conversations with them convinced me that it was indeed a reasonable and practical undertaking.

I didn’t end up make the trip in 2010, but decided that it could work in 2011. This post chronicles it, starting Sunday 4/17, and ending Saturday 4/23. Fly along if you like, lets see if you enjoy the view as much as I did?

Sunday, April 17


While I had originally wanted to be on the “road” about the 13th or 14th, a combination of lack of preparation on my part (it’s always harder to get things together than I expect), and poor weather in the western US caused me to defer the departure date. I’d been watching weather for awhile, noting that the predominate weather pattern this time of year was a series of winter cold fronts spreading from Washington state across the northern Rockies, arriving approximately every 2-3 days. The trick, then would be to split between these frontal systems and try to get through into the Canadian interior, where the weather looked to be more settled.

It just didn’t work out that way. On the Friday I wanted to go, the systems spread out into a long stationary front running across Oregon, southern Idaho, Wyoming, and into the Dakotas. On Sunday, it looked as if it may have a weak phase, so it was time to go and try to make the best of it. If I could get through northern Utah and into Wyoming or Montana, I’d have the worst of it behind me, and be doing well.

(Mind you, this is a minimum 3 day trip under perfect conditions. I’m expecting 5, maybe 6 days for real-world conditions.)

My 120lbs of travel gear consisted of:

  • 2 duffles with clothing
  • A backpack with a laptop, paperwork, personal stuff
  • A big box of charts, flashlights, a handheld airband radio, batteries, and a SPOT satellite locator.
  • Limited camping and survival gear, including a 0F sleeping bag, fleece liner, and pad
  • Legally required survival gear/rations for remote Canada and Alaska
  • Extra processed foods/water in case I got stuck
  • Extra coats and raingear
  • A box of extras including a couple of parts for my pickup (already parked in Alaska)
  • Oxygen
  • A couple of spare quarts of engine oil

I wanted to take an extra empty gas can for a pinch, but space was getting pretty tight, so I skipped it (I would come to regret this late in the week).

About 9am, everything went into the airplane. I simply cut the now-old tiedown ropes, since the airplane would be gone for several months, I no longer need the tiedown. Off I went into a nice VFR sky, at least for 4-500 miles.

First fuel stop: Page, AZ (KPGA) at the southern edge of Lake Powell. Both FBO line guys come out in golf carts to greet me. I make a habit to switch FBOs with each visit; they both treat me well.

A quick cup of coffee and a break, and it’s off to the next stop. I originally plan for Springville, UT, but Flight Watch reports winds and marginal ceilings in the area. Since I have to pop through a mountain pass (and back) to go there, I decide to skip it and use Vernal, UT instead. This is farther east than I want to go, but it looks clear, fuel is reasonable, and it’s well downwind of the Wasatch. Good thing, because winds out of the west are picking up, and the ride across eastern UT isn’t at all pleasant. Bumps on the descent into VEL do a pretty good job of dynamically repacking all my stuff for me.

As I arrive, I see that the weather around the Uinta mountains to the north has degraded. To cross them on a breezy day, I really need to be to at least 13000′, but with the current winds aloft (30-35kts), I don’t think even 13K is smart or safe, and getting my little 150 past 14000′ with a load just isn’t realistic. Time to think about this a little.

The FBO offers me the use of a courtesy car (a gray Buick Park Avenue), so I head down the street for lunch and to poke around with weather on the smartphone. None of what I see is good, but it is VFR between the Wasatch and the Uintas. How far north I can hope to go is questionable; there’s just not much reporting in this area.

Back to the airport, and it’s off I go eastbound between mountain ranges. I get a miserable 55kt groundspeed working my way west, and the ride really stinks. It takes the better part of an hour to get to a point where I can go north again. I proceed north to around Evanston, WY, where a low overcast pretty much shuts things down. From the air, Evanston doesn’t look like a good place to call it a day, so I can see that it’s either back to Heber City, or towards clear weather to the east. So, I head for Rock Springs, WY, and land in 25kt winds and showers.

The FBO line guy looks at me like I just came in from the moon, fills my tanks, and points me to the phone numbers of some local hotels with shuttles. I tie the airplane down in what now is 30kt winds and rain, get my stuff, then  manage to bash my nose hard on a wingstrut while temporarily blinded by my rainslicker hood in the wind.

I really hoped to make Montana on the first day, but I’m limited to southwestern Wyoming, with the stationary front still right where I need to go. I’m wet, cold, and my face is bleeding. 4.5 hours of hefty turbulence really wears one down. Not exactly an auspicious start.

But a shower and a bed feel pretty nice for the night…

Monday, April 18

It’s a 300ft ceiling with strong winds at RKS, and the only clear place in the area is Riverton, WY. Going to the airport makes no sense.

The local Quality Inn is warm, affordable, and has great WiFi, so I just scrub and spend the day in their business area just doing my normal day job from the laptop.

Tomorrow’s TAF looks promising, so I keep my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, April 19


I awake to clear weather here and at least a couple of points north. It’s going to be another windy one, so I can’t expect a great ride, but at least I can get somewhere. And my nose doesn’t hurt anymore.

It’s about 27F when I get to the airport, so the airplane gets a long, slow warmup in the breeze. Off I go northbound, until I get to the west side of the Wind River range, and see a thick overcast piling up on the west side of the slope. So, it’s around the east side where it’s bumpy but clear.

The next obstacle is an east-west string of mountains that’s poking into another area of overcast, even though it’s clear everywhere else. Reports north of this range appear to be clear to a point. There’s a canyon where the Bighorn River cuts through, and it’s either this or nothing. I slow the airplane down to 85kts with the flaps cracked and take a peek into the notch. It’s flyable and smooth with adequate room, and a few minutes later, I’m on the other side with a scattered layer. Up the river I go, and I know that Greybull, WY has a good fuel price, so that becomes my next stop.  And that name sounds familiar for some strange reason…

As I approach, the AWOS announces winds out of the northwest 25 gusting 30. I see buildups to the northwest by 15 miles out, and see that the airport has a huge runway. About 5 miles out, I now see large hangars, and large aircraft on the ramp, and then it hits me; this is where Hawkins & Powers (the contract firebomber company) was once based. That explains the big runway.

Down I go, sticking the mains on one at a time in the crosswind. I taxi downwind back to the fuel pump, winds kicking me back through the rudder pedals all the way there. Chock the airplane, fill the tanks (this is the cheapest fuel I’ll find on the trip at $4.09/gallon, bet it doesn’t last), and try not to get avgas sprayed on me in the breeze. Although the sun is shining, the apparent line of snowfall is approaching fast, and I want to get the airplane tied down quick. A quick push back into the lee behind a 2 story office building reveals some anchors to at least ties the wings to, so out come the ropes and a heavy jacket, and we’re safe for  the approaching winds.

I call Flight Service for an update. The line of snowfall is too small (and tops too low) for them to see much on radar, and we figure it won’t last long, and I ought to just wait it out. So I walk around the ramp to photograph some of the old aircraft (staying downwind of the big hangars), and within 20 minutes, flurries begin to blow. 20 minutes later, they’re gone, and it’s far too warm for any of them to stick.

I untie and head for the runway and any point northeast. Weather is flyable VFR, not great, but workable. I think about Livingston, MT. and decide that Lewiston might be a better bet if I can get there. I have to cross one modest wide pass that has visibility 5 to 7 in light snow flurries, but Lewiston still reports clear, and I get in without issue.

A quick top-up, and another line of snowfall approaches from the northwest. This one looks heavy, and I really don’t feel like testing it. The FBO offers a courtesy car (another gray Park Avenue), and suggests an overnight stay. I drive around the corner for lunch, and as I think it through, I realize that even if I did proceed, there’s no reasonable way to cross customs today. The overnight low is forecast to be 18-20F with freezing drizzle and light snow, and Lewiston has a public hangar I can stash the airplane in for $10. This just proves too compelling, so I put the airplane in the hangar and check into an interesting old hotel downtown. I then spend the evening wandering around downtown, all the while admiring the 100-year-old brick buildings, and the hillsides with horses and bison grazing the freshly-thawed hillsides. I drop off to sleep early, and trust in the promise of better weather yet-again tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 20


Another day breaks wonderfully clear. I’m two days behind were I wanted to be, but I had to run some difficult weather in a part of the country where options can be few, so I’m not too disappointed to only be this far.

I want to cross the border today, and if weather permits, run as far north as I can get away with. In the back of my mind, I harbor thoughts of making it all the way to Fort Nelson, BC, but there’s a lot of potential gotchas between here and there. First, let’s get across the border.

I decide to proceed to Cut Bank, MT to set up for the border crossing. It’s an easy, smooth, 2 hour leg to get there, albeit with a 20kt headwind. On arrival, I park the airplane near the fuel pump, but knowing that the legal orchestration will take time, don’t pump fuel just yet.

It’s a sleepy little uncontrolled airport, but the FBO does have a PC with internet service, a requirement for the eAPIS departure manifest. First, I call CANPASS since they need a 2 hour lead time. The flight to Lethbridge will only require one hour, so I get my case number and permission to proceed. Next comes the eAPIS departure manifest. Now that I have forecast arrival time, I can submit this online form. Once done, a reply email suggests that, based on the information submitted, I “should” be clear to go. Next, I call US flight service for an international VFR flight plan, and get it filed and ready to go. The briefer suggests that I need to get a squawk code in the air through flight service, and that VFR flight following isn’t realistic unless I want to climb to a silly altitude. This done, I go fuel the airplane, then kill the next 25 minutes (of great weather, unfortunately).

I enjoy my conversation with the FBO operator. He seems glad to have a visitor today, and tells me about a fly-in they host in August that draws U.S. and Canadian pilots from all over the area. Way out beyond the runway is an old junk car that I can’t identify, and I learn that this car gets used for a bowling-ball-bombing contest. To date, it remains unhit, although some have come close.

Departure time comes, and I’m off, picking up my squawk from FSS. 30 minutes later, I cross into Canadian airspace, and slowly start a descent for Lethbridge, tuning their MF for a callup to FSS.

In Canada (western Canada, at least), most of the moderate size airports have an FSS on field, much like we used to have in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s (you still read about this in the AIM, but it’s a relic for us in the lower 48). You call them up and mostly treat them like a tower, except that their advisories are just that; advisories. Still, they coordinate traffic just like a tower. On arrival, after giving my time out instead of distance (the prevailing custom in Canada, a really sensible one), the FSS operator greets me with my aircraft type as well as ID, and advises me of an arriving Beech 1900, to be followed by a twin Cessna air ambulance. He request that I extend a downwind by 5 miles for the ambulance (these airports often lack parallel taxiways, so runway taxibacks often require time), and I gladly do so. Upon landing, he automatically closes the flight plan, and I taxi to the Customs box next to a C-registered 172 with no one around. I walk into the terminal per signed instructions, and it seems like I may be about to be chastised for leaving the airplane. In reality, they’re having trouble finding the 172’s operators, so they check my passport, take a peek in my airplane, and advise me to call CANPASS in the terminal. I do, and am advised that I’m free to proceed.

Next, the airplane gets fueled (with a whole 7 gallons), and I proceed to the FBO for the bill. A quick call to FSS reveals no new weather surprises, so I file a VFR itinerary flight plan for Dawson Creek, BC with one 30 minute fuel stop. Local FSS activates the flight plan (required in Canada for any cross country flight) as I leave the runway, and off I go.

As I depart northwest towards Calgary, I really don’t like the looks of the weather between the city and the mountains, so I go around the east side of the city, and then proceed northwest. Winds are now 30kts on my nose, but I’m still moving along amidst the bumps downwind of the mountains. A couple of hours later,. I stop for fuel at unattended Rocky Mountain House, AB. and keep on heading north for British Columbia. Small lines of light snow showers cross my path, but nothing serious. The prairies give way to light forest, then to Boreal forest and occasional lake or swampland as I work my way across the endless natural gas fields of the area. Finally, with the sun getting low, I call up the remote FSS for arrival at Dawson Creek. I just happen to get there at the same time as a King Air flying a practice instrument approach (probably the only traffic all day), and then set it down and taxi to the fuel pump.

I’ve made poor time because of the chronic headwinds, so trying to make Fort Nelson (the next stop) seems unwise. The airplane gets tied down next to a local 172 and PA-20, and I go off to find a place to stay for the night.  The pilot lounge has a phone number for a cab, and a Ramada across town. It’s going to be an expensive cab ride, and I debate just pitching a tent next to the airplane tonight (it won’t be nearly as cold as Montana was). I take the cab anyway, and it turns out there’s a Best Western just a couple of miles from the airport. I ask to be dropped here, and I’m done for the night, and can probably just walk back to the airport from here if need be (and as it turns out, this hotel has a shuttle).

Thursday, April 21


Today looks OK, although there’s some overcast in the way, it shouldn’t be a problem. Nav Canada briefers aren’t usually as pessimistic as their US counterparts, they tend to just give you the facts and let you decide, and if they do give you a caution, it’s usually for a decent reason.

Dawson Creek is the “head” of the Alcan highway, and going north from here, other roads are less and less obvious. The next stop is Fort Nelson, and after it, there’s really nothing to see besides the occasional seismic line through the trees. The highway really is a lifeline here.

Stopping in Fort Nelson, it’s cold and has been raining lightly. There are a bunch of Beech 1900 regionals here, a couple of piston twins with engine blankets, and an array of turbine helicopters coming and going. The lady in the FBO office mentions that she’s had enough cold and wet, thank you very much, and that they’d had three “false springs” so far, and they’re pretty much sick of this $#!+. Looking around, Ft. Nelson looks like a tough place to get through a winter, so I can understand their impatience with the slow change of seasons.

Now it’s westbound to Watson Lake, YT. I still have 25kt winds off the nose, and there are some mountains between here and there. I’d like to get to Whitehorse today so I can get set up to cross back into the U.S.; this should be easy to do.

Snowstorms are kicking up in Sentinel pass, so I elect to skip the highway route for a section and fly along the Liard River until getting to lower terrain. This works OK, and I rejoin the highway in another 50 miles, and fly through some more light snow showers. About 15 miles out, I talk to the CARS station (Community Aerodrome Radio Station) at Watson Lake; he reports no traffic, and so I fly a long straight in, and land. Next stop is Whitehorse in about 250 miles.

The CARS operator advises me that Whitehorse FSS wants to talk to me (did I do something?), and so I go make the call. They advise me of difficult winds, request a deferred ETA accordingly, and note the inadvisability of trying to stop in Teslin because of a soft runway. These guys usually don’t issue warnings without a reason, but I’ve come this far, so the rest of the trip ought to work.

I depart enroute, and everything goes well…for awhile. There’s a couple of passes along the highway in front of me, and as I approach the second, it disappears into a wall of white. No going forward here, the terrain is tough, and if you can’t see that highway, there’s just no place else to go, and no options whatsoever. So it’s a U-turn, and back to Watson I go, calling FSS when out of the mountains. They note a big convective cell had popped up in my path, and confirm that there was no way to make it work. Back to the fuel pump, realizing that I just burned 1.8 hours of obscenely expensive avgas for…nothing.

I talk to the CARS staff for awhile, put the airplane in a safe place, and realize that a cab ride into town is going to clean my wallet out. I decide to call it a day, and crash in the pilots lounge for awhile. No cell service here, but the CARS station does have functional WiFi. Using it, I set up a proposed APIS manifest for the next day, and hope that Whitehorse is clear.

Friday, April 22


FSS notes that a low pressure system is blowing in from the Gulf of Alaska, and this means lowering ceilings all day. If I’m going to go, I better move.

The airplane is only about 25F this morning. I’d like to wait for it to warm a bit, but I just can’t wait around. Today, I have to work the primer while cranking to get the engine to wake up and run, but run it does, and the multiweight oil comes right up to pressure in under 10 seconds. I give it several minutes to slowly warm up before rolling on.

The long leg to Whitehorse is uneventful, all the mountain passes clear. I do still have a 30kt headwind, though.

Landing in Whitehorse, I deal with the only tower crossing Canada (it is an international airport, with scheduled air carrier service. A quick fuel up, and park in front of the FSS for an update. Turns out that the winds are getting worse again, I can expect 35 knots. The trouble is, I think I can just get to Northway, AK for customs (required), but there is no fuel there anymore, and I’ll have to fly another 35-40 minutes to nearby Tok for fuel. If the winds are any worse than forecast, I’ll have a serious problem. Now I wish I’d brought a can.

I make a decision to fly north to Dawson City, YT to top up the tanks, and then it’s only 1 hour into Northway from there. It’s out of the way, but that’s the only way I feel comfortable with it.

Flight plan chosen, now I need to update my APIS manifest to get back into the U.S.  The briefer notes that, so long as I do have a laptop, that the international terminal has WiFi I can use to file the manifest. However, there’s only about 5 hours until U.S. Customs closes for the weekend. I really can’t waste time.

I walk over to the international terminal. There are 2 open SSIDs in the terminal, but neither will assign an IP address. I ask several security folks (there are no passengers in the terminal, BTW) about a WiFi point; the third tells me that the admin office can do it, but it’s Good Friday, and they’re closed. My only hope is a public access PC in the terminal. I go to find a little Canadian change, and try it, and it can’t get an IP address either. I appear to be completely hosed now. If I don’t find a solution quick, I’m going to spend at least the next 2 days of a holiday weekend in Whitehorse.

The only tool I have left is my cellphone, which has been a brick since Dawson Creek (expected). But here, it just happens to work, and I call out to my wife: Are you home, and do you have your laptop handy? She does, and I do my best to walk her through all the needed edits to get the manifest updated. She does them, we review them the best we can, and it gets submitted. A quick check for confirmation, and it looks like I’m OK to go. I sure hope it’s right…

Walking back through FSS (yes, you can talk face to face with a briefer here, they have an excellent facility, and they’re damn good at their job), I ask for a quick update. It’s clearer to the north, winds are still bad, but this should work. The overcast is lowering, as expected, but there’s still decent room.  I walk through the items in the ICAO plan, and I’m filed. There’s just under 4 hours to go, and I have 3 hours of flying plus a fuel turn of unknown length to do.  I run to the airplane, check oil, untie, hop in, and make a quick cell call to the U.S. Customs station while buckling up. The supervisor acknowleges receipt of the APIS manifest (whew!), and asks for an arrival time update when I turn in Dawson due to the fact that the officer is on overtime. I offer that, if I can call (don’t know if there’s cell service, or an available landline), I will do so, but I can’t guarantee that it’s possible.

As we hang up, the master is on, I call clear, and I’m started. Whitehorse ground gives me a quick taxi clearance, and I get there ahead of 2 other aircraft. All that’s left of the checklist is the runup at the hold short line, and I’m cleared for a left downwind departure to the northwest. Up I go, and I immediately start fishing for the best groundspeed I can get.

Turns out that 6500′ works well, and finally, I have a headwind component of only about 15-20kts for a change.  I get into Dawson about 10 minutes faster than I expected. The runway is a long gravel strip in a valley, I talk to the CARS operator (this one is really on the ball), and drop in and find the fuel pump inside a converted shipping container with a makeshift door.

I go get the key to the pump from the CARS operator, run back, fill up, run back in, drop the key and pay the bill. I’m advised that they do have a landline, and it’s OK to call the next area code for customs. A quick update (I might be 25 minutes earlier than expected), and I’m back on my way.

In the air, it’s only about an hour for this leg, and the winds don’t create any new surprises. Northway airport shows up on schedule, I land (the only one around) and find the officer waiting for me with 40 minutes to spare. I offer my passport, he also asks for pilot certificates and medical, and takes a quick look in the airplane. He sends me on my way, I wish him a good holiday weekend, and we’re done.

I now heave a large sigh of relief…

40 minutes. Just 40 minutes from being stuck in Whitehorse for the weekend. Don’t get me wrong, it’d be a great city to go spend some time, but this wasn’t the weekend, and I’d come to far to get stuck near the end. I sit in the airplane, and the stress just rolls out of me like water. I’ve been immensely tense for the last 4+ hours, all because of paperwork. Not weather, not mechanical problems, not navigation, just paperwork.

In goes the mixture, master on, hit the mag key, and the little Continental snaps to life once again. I taxi out, suddenly feeling a Free Man. It feels really terrific to be back in Alaska. Tok is only a 30 minute hop to the northwest for fuel. If the passes are clear, I could be home in about 3 hours. But I’m not going to count on that.

30 minutes later, I’m filling my tanks with a relaxed smile (despite $6.50 avgas), and ask one of the local charter pilots if Tahneta pass is clear. He doesn’t know, but suggests checking the webcam in the office. I go look, and the webcam shows the pass whited out. I’m done for the day. There’s a motel and restaurant across the road from the airport here; I tie down, and walk across with a backpack and overnight bag. A tall beer and a cheeseburger taste absolutely great. I sleep like a rock that night.

Saturday, April 23


I’ve been on the road all through the week, constantly on the push to get to the next point and beat afternoon weather each day wherever possible. Despite good forecasts since leaving the Rockies behind, I’ve still had to dodge a fair amount of weather. While it’s been flyable VFR, it’s been tricky to pick my way around it. A break would be welcome.

I check the pertinent webcam on the netbook as I brush my teeth. So far, the passes look OK, not great. Forecasts call on them to be lightly marginal or better, and probably lifting a bit for the next few hours. Since I only have 220 miles to go, I indulge in the simple luxury of a long shower and a comfortable breakfast, checking out of the hotel, and taking my time with the quarter mile walk across the highway to the airplane.

Once there, I load and preflight, and then call Kenai Flight Service. The briefer provides me the typical precautions for low ceilings and mountain obscuration that I expect, but when we get to the core of the discussion, the summary is that I can expect to make it through, but with some really inconsistent and unpredictable winds from the Gulf low that’s now moved onshore, I can expect a pretty rough ride going through the second pass. She seems to understand that I have a reasonable idea of what I’m taking on, and confesses that, rough as though it may be, it’s not going to improve anytime in the next 48 to 72 hours, so I might as well go. I file another composite VFR flight plan with a provisional fuel stop in Gulkana, and off I go, up the Glenn Highway to the first pass.

It’s mildly choppy, but absolutely nothing like the headbanging ride across Utah and Wyoming. Once I cross the saddle at around 7000′, it’s obvious that I’m not going to have a visibility problem, and in fact, I have a decent view of all but the tops of the peaks in the Wrangell-St. Elias Range, which I’ve not seen in 2 prior visits. I call in a quick pirep to flight service (they really do matter up here). An hour later, Gulkana has a quartering crosswind of 15G20, but, again, it’s nothing like what I found in Wyoming. A quick fuel stop, almost regretting the third cup of coffee by the time I shut down, and I’m back enroute to the second pass.

Mentasta doesn’t look quite as good, but the overcast is just at the tops of the surrounding peaks that are around 9000′, so there’s an easy 4000′ margin. No worries at all there, and it’s been completely smooth so far. By the time I get to the midpoint at Sheep Mountain, I call in a second PIREP, and the specialists reports that a 185 flying up the other side also called it smooth, so the rest of my leg to PAWS should be a breeze.

I set up a long, slow descent all the way back to my near-sea-level destination and simply enjoy the always spectacular view, marveling that the last day turns out to be the easiest, simplest flying of the entire trip. I close the VFR plan about 15 miles out, and take a small detour to get an aerial view of our under construction home not far away.

It feels absolutely great to be done and on the ground for a couple of days. This little airplane worked flawlessly for the entire trip, despite being shaken, stirred, and soaked mercilessly on the first day. It’s grossly overdue for an oil change due to the relentless headwinds, and it’ll get it as soon as I can find a case of oil locally. Although I’m away from my family for Easter, I’m thankful that I’m here to spend the holiday with friends, and not stuck waiting on weather, repairs, or politics somewhere.

‘Tis a wonder to fly, but sometimes a blessing to be on the ground too.


While I’ll be back and forth over the summer, the airplane will stay here so I can use it. Will I take it back to Arizona in the fall? That’s the plan, but perhaps no guarantee. As I write this, I’ve been here for 10 days, the oil did get changed 2 days later, and I’ve flown it about 7 hours just nosing around the area evenings. Spring is well underway, the weather is cool and mildly unsettled, but sunset doesn’t occur until about 10:30 local, so any evening is usually fair game for some flying. And having such an incredible backyard to play in is quite the revelation.

A tailwheel and bushwheels would be better, but I’m just not gonna complain. Not one bit…


  • Hours flown – 40.2 (should have been 25-30)
  • Cheapest fuel – $4.09 – Greybull, Wyoming
  • Costliest fuel – $10.30 – Whitehorse and Dawson, Yukon
  • Longest day – Wednesday – 8.9 hours
  • Toughest day – Monday – Phoenix to Rock Springs, WY
  • Most frustrating day – Friday

Will I do it again? You bet…


Annual Inspection 2011

Yes, there is life in this blog, even after a bit of an absence. I do have a good excuse, you see.

For the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been prepping my little sky scooter for the summer.  This year, since I need to spend several weeks in AK during the course of the summer, I’d really like to take the airplane up there so I can make good use of it. If I do this, it won’t spend 5 months baking in the desert sun, or banging around in monsoon storms either. I’ll be able to fly in Paradise while I’m there for the warmer season.

Since the first trip is coming up in late April, I needed to make sure it was all ready to go in terms of maintenance. It’s annual inspection (plus the transponder and pitot static certification) is normally in May, but I moved it ahead to the first of April so it would be clean and ready to go later in April. This meant taking it offline a few weeks ahead of time to make sure that all the prep work was done, any potential surprises that I could control could be accounted for, and I would have time to work any issues that arose.

The process started a few weeks ago with a compression test. The most likely obvious potential maintenance problem with my little C-series Continental is a wheezy exhaust valve resulting from the lead salts accumulated in valve guides from avgas combustion. In 800 hours, I’ve had the two front cylinders redone, with the #3 needing rework last year. So, to make sure I should be OK, I borrowed a compression rig from a friend, flew it a bit, and tested it. Fortunately, all 4 checked out good (76/72/72/75). Checked timing, and looked all over the engine and cabling for anything loose, worn, missing, leaking, or cracked. Having a new crankshaft seal put in last year,. along with new rocker gaskets, and reswaged pushrod tubes (often an oil leak problem in a C-series), the engine bay was pretty clean, and I had a bit more confidence heading into the inspection.

At this point, I call my IA to schedule a day for him to perform the full inspection. Typically, I’ll do this as an owner-assist operation, with him doing all the inspecting, and me doing all the greasework, opening, and closing. I like this process, not because it saves a little money (it does save a little), but it allows me to personally know the state of the airplane myself. Besides, I like taking a half day away from the cubicle-cave to flip wrenches. It’s like a small vacation for me.

Next on the agenda was the altimeter. The last couple of pitot-static tests, I was told it was on the margins at high altitude, so I figured it ought to be recalibrated before testing this year (I’ve always kept this airplane IFR certified). So, out it came to go to the local instrument shop for rework.

This is where things got a little more interesting. This altimeter was an old MacLeod/Aerosonic, installed back in the 1970s after the original equipment United Instruments unit got pulled because of an AD. The shop had to do some checking to make sure that their “ancient” documentation was current and correct, and after a few days, I got a call to say that that the unit was reworked and ready for return to service. For 57% of the price of a new unit…

Meanwhile, I spent a Saturday cleaning and repacking wheel bearings, replacing the main gear tires and tubes, checking out the ELT, and lubricating airframe points that don’t require opening up. Now we’re ready for the IA with a weekend to spare.

At this point, a surprise personal issue comes up that requires travel on the spare weekend, and impinges on the inspection date. If I slip it, I’m cutting my discrepancy working window short. A round of phone calls confirms that we can move the inspection ahead before the travel weekend. It follows the morning after a night X/C with a student, but I can deal with it.

Two hours of sheetmetal screws later, then we can inspect

Inspection day comes, and the long round of sheetmetal screw removal begins (after 10 years of this, I’m getting fast!). Official compression test OK. Engine/accessories OK. Left wing OK. Tail OK (including the infamous Cessna 150 nutplates in the stabilizer spar). Right wing OK. Interior OK. Break for lunch, and then I’m cleared to start closing up, lubricating all the internal pivots, pulleys, and the flap jackscrew while the airplane is still opened up.

Now we know that we’re officially airworthy for another year, it’s a matter of paperwork, and finishing off the transponder and pitot-static certification. Little should stand in my way, right? Not so fast…

My avionics tech is out of town for a few days, but should be back about a week before I need to fly. The altimeter is freshly redone, and I’ve had no ATC squawks against the transponder or the altitude encoding, soI don’t expect an issue.

I meet him on a rainy, cold Saturday for the testing. Transponder checks fine, but turns out my freshly overhauled altimeter is off on the low end of the scale instead of the high end. He tests through 6000 feet, and there’s simply no point in going farther. The unit needs to come back out to go back to the shop, and I’ll have to arrange for another appointment for the testing. For the first time in years, the airplane will only be VFR-legal, and I don’t think there’s time to work the issue out before I need to go. I could have just left the altimeter alone, and been in the same position.

So, for all that trouble, I’m stuck on this corner issue…

In all honesty, this little airplane doesn’t have much business being in any kind of moisture aloft during this time of the year when freezing levels can still be very low. In all probability, I’ll make the entire trip VFR anyway, and it really won’t matter. Still, I want the ability to be able to ask for a clearance should something unexpected surprise me, and I just won’t be able to do that.

Can I resolve this in the next few days? Is it even worth it, really? We’ll just have to see. Stay tuned…


…immediately followed by !^&%+()&.

Having not flown my own airplane for nearly 4 weeks, I tried my best to sneak in a 30-minute hop over lunch at the end of the week, knowing that a second consecutive weekend of poor weather was about to blow through. Skipping food didn’t feel like an option today, so a cheap sub went with me to the airport, consumed with one hand while the other hand untied ropes, uncovered cabin, pitot, and fuel vents, unlocked door, and de-plugged the cowl. Finished before doing the fuel sumps.

Grabbed the headset and kneeboard, crawled in, cleared prop, primed, hit the master, turned the key, and…click. Prop moved about an inch at the tip, and that’s it. I’m not going anywhere today.

I knew this battery was getting near the end of it’s useful life (18 months is typical for a firewall-mounted battery in this climate, and this one was installed 6/2009 before a Montana trip, thus it was on borrowed time). It had been cranking somewhat sluggishly the last couple of months. No surprise that after sitting for 2 days short of 4 weeks that it’d be weak. I could have charged it for a bit and tried again, but I was just out of time and needed to get back to the office.

Removed the old battery, stopped by a local shop on my way back to work to get a fresh one, and $195 later, back to work I went. Now my workbench looks like this:

New G-25 Charging Up

So what do I have here?

  • A fresh G-25 filled and on the charger, adjusting electrolyte levels per the activation instructions that accompany it.
  • A meter for testing
  • Acid-proof paint
  • Baking Soda and Water

New aircraft batteries are delivered dry-charged so that they store well, with the accompanying electrolyte delivered in a weak solution in 2 quart bottles.

The startup process is to fill the new battery with electrolyte and equalize the level between all 6 cells (I use a drinking straw and a thumb to make fine adjustments). Install the caps loosely, rock it a little and wait 30 minutes for any trapped air to work out and heat from any reactions to settle, then adjust level again if needed. Electrolyte level will appear low, just leave it that way for now.

Next step is to charge for about an hour at a few amps, making sure the temperature doesn’t rise. As the battery charges, the electrolyte level will rise subtly with the change in specific gravity of the solution.

After this, I’ll usually charge in 1 hour cycles over the course of a day, with a final electrolyte adjustment at the end. You can either check specific gravity, or use stability of the on-charge voltage (12.6+) as an indicator of completeness of the charge. Tighten the caps, and we’re ready to go.

Meanwhile, since the battery activation process takes a little time, this is a good time to clean up the box. Any metal battery box (typically aluminum) is liable to have some corroded spots if a drop or two of electrolyte finds its way down the sides or into the bottom. I use a solution of baking soda and water to wash out the box, followed by clean water. Make sure the water flows through the vent hose OK. The baking soda neutralizes any residual acids and leaves a clean surface free of corrosion salts. If there is any exposed metal, once cleaned, it can be touched up with some acid-proof paint to protect it.

With this done, the new battery can go in. Of course, if you choose to do this as an owner maintenance item (battery replacement and service is listed as preventive maintenance under part 43 appendix A (c)(24)), it does need to be performed under the airframe and battery maintenance instructions, and the work logged before the aircraft can return to service.

With this done, I can take trips over the coming summer with a little less concern of getting stuck. When summer 2012 arrives, I’ll probably need to do this again, of course.

Maybe I can get out this week and fly. 4 weeks of an airplane sitting around is just sad…

Stated Perfectly

I’ve become quite the fan of Lane Wallace. She has an immense talent for articulating and connecting ideas, and comprehends personal motivations in unique ways. I don’t. (Not that I don’t try…)

Today, she has this piece in the Atlantic regarding General Aviation and our ever-escalating national obsession with Security Theater. It summarizes something I’ve long wanted to say, but just didn’t know how.

That’s What MTOS Looks Like

(The following photo-essay is meant to exemplify what winter weather can look like, and illustrate what kind of trouble one can easily get into when flying in the mountains on a “weather day”. There’s always an easy escape route to clear weather and lower terrain, a must-have in such conditions. Y’all fly safe, OK?)

I thought I had a plan. On 12/30, a cold, wet system had just blown through. On the 31st, the day was supposed to be mostly clear, and I expected it to be a great day to just take a few hours of a day off to go fly and take a few nice photos after a fresh snowfall, starting in the Tonto Basin.

A check of the statewide weather noted an AIRMET for mountain obscuration (MTOS) over the Colorado Plateau (at 7000′). Below and south of that (where I wanted to go) was forecast to have been reasonably clear. So, off I went to go take a peek.

But a forecast is, after all, one possible prognosis, never a guarantee.

Trying to get out of the area to the northeast into the basin, here’s my first problem:

Verde River Valley - 12/31/10

Northbound up the Verde Valley

That’s a river valley in the left of the frame, angling off to the right. Locally, there’s an overcast layer around 6500′ with occasional snow showers down to around 4500′. Since I’m flying this drainage upstream (and thus uphill), it’s just going to get worse than what we see here, and it’d be really easy to get trapped in a snow shower that’s going to close off all escape routes.

There’s absolutely no good reason to go any farther. It’s still quite clear in the desert behind me, so I make a turn to the southeast along a ridge to see what it looks like from another angle.

On a normal day, I could easily climb over this pass to the basin, but not today:

None-Shall Pass

None-Shall Pass

The other side of that ridge isn’t a good place to be at all. If I was trying to travel, I’d just go back where I started and wait it out. But since I’m only after some airtime today, I’ll use the clear space to the southeast to go see what this looks like. A few minutes later, a familiar 7600′ peak disappears in the murk:

Peaks Hiding in the Snow

Peaks Hiding in the Snow

Holding a camera still here is really quite a challenge, the air is anything but smooth, with a healthy post-cold-front westerly flow blowing upslope over some rugged lower hills just west of me. It’s still very clear to the southeast, so I always have an easy and obvious route to clear weather and lower terrain (else I’d simply not be here!), so I continue to proceed southeast.

The last path into the basin is up this canyon, now a chain of man-made lakes. Clearly, this isn’t any better either:

Salt River Canyon Closed for the Day

Salt River Canyon Closed for the Day

Since I just want some time in the air today, I just keep flying to the southeast just to see what I run into. Consequently, I fly 65 miles (!) up the Gila River drainage to an area east of Tucson. On the east side of the Santa Catalina mountains is a nice rural strip with inexpensive fuel, and it’s normally a convenient place to stop (I do still have 2+ hours fuel remaining at this point). But when I get there, I find that there’s a 20-25kt crosswind blowing across the runway, and it’s downwind of a mountains (making some unpredictable up and downdrafts probable), so this isn’t a great place to go either.

Several AWOS-equipped airports on the west (upwind) side of the mountains mention winds 10-15kts and clear, so that’s a better place to go to fuel up. I’m approaching 2 hours of bouncing around under this stuff, and the morning’s coffee is working on me, so I’m really ready to crawl out of the airplane for a bit. I head for AVQ, just north of Tucson, reporting clear and a 12kt quartering crosswind. On the way, Mount Lemmon disappears in the same stuff:

Santa Catalina Mountains, Fully Obscured

Santa Catalina Mountains, Fully Obscured

I top up the airplane, stretch my legs, and head back home across the desert in nice clear weather.

By the time I’m back to my home field, 4 hours later, most of this weather had blown clear, and I could have stuck to my original plan (good photos and all with the fresh snowfall) had I just waited a few hours. But, it’s New Year’s Eve, and I have things to do, so I’ll tie the airplane down for the day, and hope for another opportunity sometime.

Happy Holidays 2010

As 2010 draws to a close, my best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all. May 2011 bring you all peace, prosperity, and perspective.

With that thought, I’m sharing the photo that has graced the desktop of my netbook for most of the year. I hope it expresses the sentiment well:

Mogollon Rim - January 2010

Mogiollon Rim in the Freezing Mist - January 24, 2010

Aircraft (who) and (what) Association?

One axiom of civilized life might be “keep your annoyances private, don’t burden others with them”. If that’s true, I’m about to break it. My apologies, stop reading now if you wish.

Today, I received an emailed request for a web survey by AOPA’s membership services department. Because I think their mission is important, I participated. A few minutes later, I now feel compelled to go on a rant.


First, let’s understand that this organisation represents general aviation pilots and aircraft owners in a wholly unique way; no other institution anywhere is quite like it. We’re absolutely dependent on it to be a collective voice for our interests in D.C. and in State and local governments across the land. As a cross section of the U.S. population, there are not all that many of us that are active certified pilots (a bit under 600,000 in 2009 according to FAA estimates), yet around 65% of us are AOPA members. That should say something definitive about how important our association is to us.

For years, I’ve eagerly read most every publication, email missive, or flyer that came to my attention from them. Whenever safety seminars, came to town, I’d go. When the association’s former president came to town, I’d clear my calendar to see him speak. When 9/11 happened, I stayed glued to their website to understand what was happening, and how it was going to affect us. Meanwhile, I never had much in the way of extra cash to support them, but if there was a congressional letter to be written, or a presence needed for a debate, or anything else I could do to help out, I’d certainly be there.

Put it another way, it was our Association, sticking up for our interests in a way that was completely atypical for such a small cross section of the population. I was always proud of their David standing up to the regulatory Goliath, and I don’t think I was wholly alone in this.

That was a couple of years ago, though. Things seem to be changing…

New leadership came to them in 2009. I expected subtle shifts in their everyday business. But things started changing, a little at first, then more rapidly.

First came the tide of junk mail, most of it electronic. Then came the plea to join the “Wine Club”, which seemed not only silly, but sends an entirely inappropriate message. Then a dues increase. Now it’s a branded “clothing collection”. All amidst the constant “we need your support” chanting.

Meanwhile, VIP TFRs remain chronic, especially in December in Hawaii (how would you like a 2-week government-enforced shutdown during your busy season?). The Mickey Mouse Temporary Flight Restriction remains anything but “temporary”. The California Assembly attempts to cost flight schools out of business. General aviation gets a mandate to equip with expensive satellite-based position reporting gear returning no operator value while air carriers get a seemingly credible argument for a taxpayer-based subsidy for the same damned thing. And the list keeps growing, and seems unanswered…

To a clueless member like myself, the sudden revenue push at the same time that critical state-level legislation gets “missed” should be a warning flag. Perhaps the new leadership is just too busy?

Meanwhile, reports start circulating in the online aviation press regarding executive compensation at AOPA. These turn into nasty accusations in both directions. OK, so maybe I’m really not seeing things, and something isn’t quite right?

Then comes today’s survey. It effectively asks me how I feel about 8 or so different “gold level” membership options with yearly costs ranging from $200-$500 or so, coming with varying levels of sometimes useful added services (medical, legal, flight planning, etc.). Yet, so many of these proposals included a line item for a special “insider’s relationship” with the current CEO/President.

Excuse me? If I don’t pay up real big, I’m an “outsider”?

Let’s get something real clear now. I’m just a simple software engineer. I exist on the bottom of the general aviation food chain, and there’s not much extra revenue to throw around for AOPA’s benefit. I instruct only a little, mostly because it’s fun, and I want our brotherhood to grow if possible. The aircraft I own is not a wealthy-CEO jet, it’s only the simplest and humblest of small primary aircraft; keeping it airworthy and safe is a difficult expenditure that worries me constantly.

I understand that the Association has challenges. I know that keeping regulators at bay remains expensive at a time when everyone’s revenues are down. There’s a bunch of really terrific folks at AOPA headquarters, and we need them working with us. I want to help when I can.

But if I need to pay extra to stay an “insider”, perhaps I should put the extra money back into my 36-year old Cessna, and just try to enjoy it until the day comes and they chain the airport ramp off to us “outsiders”. Then I’ll quietly put my dreams away and go find something else to do.

Or maybe we “outsiders” need our own Association?