Posts Tagged 'aerial photos'

Best shots from 2011 (a little late…)

It’s been far too long since I’ve updated, and few post-worthy topics of late. Still, I did have a couple of photos lying on my desktop from last year that I did want to share:

This is south of Knik Glacier, and is of  Lake George, as the glacier that feeds it fractures away into fresh water. The first shot is from May 1, on a pretty spring day:

Springtime view of Lake George area, Knik River headwaters, 5/1/2011

And the second shot, taken 8/13, under the later summer gloom:

Lake George area 8/13/2011

Late summer view, Lake George area, 8/13/2011

Note how the glacier chunks break through the remaining lake ice in the spring, but by late summer, the surface is just a slush.

As summer progresses, I’ll have more to share…



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…

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

The Passage of Summer

For the majority, summer is an “active” time. Summer means long days, outdoor activities, long vacations, get-togethers of all kinds. It’s the time of year most people look forward to, and they hate to see it end. Pilots generally are at their most active during the summer months.

On the other hand, if you live in the desert, summer has just the opposite effect. Desert dwellers spend much of their summer indoors, making the most of mornings and perhaps evenings when we can, and otherwise spending a lot of time poolside if we’re going to be outside much at all. Pilots get all the VFR weather they want, but heat ensures that early mornings are the rule; flying on a 118-degree afternoon is possible, but contains a distinct lack of  comfort.

So, the “end” of summer is something desert dwellers obsessively anticipate. Cabin fever works the same as in northern climates, but in reverse; we wait impatiently for cooler temperatures to release us from our air-conditioned confines, and when it doesn’t happen, we get a little uptight. Testy, one could say.

Our predominate weather pattern this summer was a persistent ridge parked over the intersection of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Instead of sticking around for a few days, they tended to hover for weeks at a time, baking the landscape in a seemingly never ending string of record high temps. Instead of breaking up in late September, they persisted right up into early November. Our late-summer cabin fever was acute this year; we might get a couple of moderate days with a frontal passage, then we’d be right back to 2-3 weeks of 10 degrees above-normal. Now that it’s almost mid-November, we’re crossing our fingers that it’s finally behind us.

So, I’ve done very little fun flying over the past several months. Usually, I get a flying camping trip or two to a cooler place, but circumstances conspired to prevent that happening this year. My own airplane has only flown 18 hours since it’s annual inspection in mid-May when I returned from the first AK trip. Sure, I’ve done quite a bit of early-morning instruction, but simple fun flying has been pretty thin.

Last weekend, an unexpected convergence of moderate temps, a few spare hours, and a fully functional airplane all made for my first opportunity since March for a “just for the fun of it” flight; 3 hours of VFR cruising on a simple quest to find whatever fall color I could locate. What few photos I took are included:

Now that reasonable weather is finally here, I hope to have the opportunity for more of this in the next 3-4 months before the inexorable return of summer heat. Stay tuned…

Flyabouts – Cherry Creek Canyon

Last weekend, I set out to experiment with a couple of spots useful for practicing constrained-terrain flying techniques with students. Such spots need to be within a short distance from the Phoenix metro area, and I’d prefer them to not be charted wilderness areas (see AIM 7-4-6) as so many are.

One such place that I’d not experimented with is in Cherry Creek Canyon, east of the Sierra Ancha Wilderness.

Unfortunately, I got a late start on a day following passage of a trough, and so there was a strong southwesterly flow of 25-30 knots at 7000′ once I got there. That’s enough breeze to warrant a little extra room between airplane and rocks, so I didn’t fly as deep in the canyon as I wanted to. I’ll have to try again another day.

Still, the view was nice, even if it was a marginal day for pictures.

Northeast face Sierra Ancha Plateau from over Cherry Creek - 3/2010

Flyabouts – After the Storm

It’s common to hear pilots dispute the pros and cons of aircraft ownership. Typically, the most critical ones will come to the conclusion that renting airplanes is always more cost effective that owning, unless you happen to be one of those fortunate folks that has both the time and the means to fly well over 100 hours a year.

Yet, there are personal intangibles involved with owning that can never be assessed with cold, hard numbers. The value of such intangibles is ever-so-subjective, and as such, rarely survive any deep debate. They can be such things as:

  • Sitting under your wing in a lawnchair with a friend, watching the locals do touch and goes.
  • Peaceful Saturday afternoon oil-and-spark-plug changes.
  • Weekend trips to the beach with 90 minutes notice, after a hard week.
  • Sunset, sitting under the wing with your sweetie, a good glass of Zinfandel (and bug spray), talking to your campsite neighbors as they stroll beside the runway.
  • Nice, whole VFR days away from the office.
  • And simple unscripted go-see-the-sights flights when you find a couple of precious spare hours.

I sometimes call these latter events “flyabouts”. They’re always VFR exercises, simple pilotage from one chart feature to another, just enjoying the view, the air under my butt, and the wonder of the world around me. Sometimes they turn into stunning “I’m so lucky to be here, alive, and seeing this” moments too.

One of these came along in mid-January. A heavy, wet, El Nino-sponsored storm came through the southwest for the better part of the week, dumping multiple feet of snow on the Colorado Plateau and the Arizona high country.

I was in Texas on business for most of that week and missed seeing the weather, but I did get a chance on the following Sunday afternoon to go flying for a few hours. At first, it was just a typical follow-a-canyon proficiency flight, then I saw the snow in the terrain over 5000′. And so, it turned out to be one of those days I’m always thankful for. Witness…

Mogollon Rim just north of Payson, AZ, facing south, climbing through 8500′. Edge shrouded in thin clouds, trees still wrapped in snow and frost:

Over Superior, AZ, descending through 10K. 300 mile visibility aloft, wet and hazy under 3000′, looking southeast with Mt. Graham and then New Mexico in the distance:

Too many photos to post here, but I certainly thought that sharing a few was worthwhile.