By BILL WALKER
Air charter company owner Will Johnson built a successful business over the past three decades flying tourists, hunters and fishermen around Alaska. And, in the process, the 20,000-hour pilot, who operates Yute Air Taxi in Fairbanks, has had plenty of time to formulate advice for aviators contemplating their first trip to his home state.
“Start with research on the Internet about what’s available there or in print,” Johnson said. “In earlier times you would get a copy of the Milepost magazine and that is still a good idea. Sporty’s carries all of your charts for Canada. Get the Alaska Highway Chart ($11.45). It’s a long strip chart that Canada has made that covers just the highway. You don’t have to buy six different sectionals. Also get the Canada Supplement ($29) and the Alaska Supplement ($6.30).
“The first thing we did after we decided to go, we started making lists,” he said. “We made pages and pages of lists in the finest of details, knowing there were no stores on the way. And the lists included what we needed to meet the survival list requirements for Canada and Alaska. At the time, there were seven of us in two airplanes. After the lists were made we started weighing everything together and made weight and balances. When we got finished both airplanes were at full gross weights. We kept playing with the lists to figure out what we should leave behind. We always wanted to be able to top off with full fuel.”
That first trip was in a Cessna 172 with long range tanks. He still considers the Skyhawk ideal for an Alaska trip. The second aircraft was a Piper Tri-Pacer with long-range tanks.
Be flexible in trip planning and expect the unexpected, he advises, offering an example of how he and his family almost didn’t get past the second day of that 1977 trip.
“We went from Branson, Mo., to Denver to Red Lodge, Mont.,” he said. “At Red Lodge we were virtually wiped out before we left the United States. The airport is on a bluff overlooking the town. The old timers at the airport said they thought there would be a storm that night. We just laughed, because this was mid to late June. Sometime in the night the most awful storm came up and blew our tents down. The tails of our planes were sitting on the ground under the heavy snow. It almost blew the airplanes off the cliff. We had some screw-in tie-downs that we used and I think the planes would have gone off if we hadn’t used that. Some gear went off the cliff into town. Everything was covered in mud and we had to spend a day in a hotel cleaning up.”
Johnson didn’t know it then, but the worst of the trip had passed with the storm. They crossed the border at Cut Bank, Mont., entered Canada at Lethbridge, Alberta, and flew north and west to intercept the Alaska Highway at Fort St. John.
“On the interior route, the Alaska Highway, I think the weather is better, although they get some pretty significant thunderstorms in the afternoon sometimes with hail,” he said. “And you have a highway below in case you had to land on it. And all along the route there are many great places to land and camp.”
“That first time the scenery was almost overwhelming,” he said. “You literally get ‘sceneryed’ to death. It was remote and wild and I just didn’t care for the big cities and traffic so everything I disliked about the heavily populated areas I liked about Alaska. Our first visit was the adventure of a lifetime. Every pilot should make this trip once.”
Nine years later he returned with his wife Debbie to live permanently in Alaska and has made the trip to the Lower 48 about a dozen times since using all the standard routes.
Johnson was already a flight instructor when he arrived in Alaska in 1977 and he said he marveled at the aircraft he saw when he landed the first time on old Phillips Field in Fairbanks.
“I was blown away by the number of small planes, steel tube, fabric airplanes of all kinds, sizes, makes; none of them were show quality airplanes. I realized that these airplanes were incredibly valuable. That’s how people got around. And I was so fascinated by the fact that these planes were a serious tool for people and not just a toy or plaything.”
Johnson recommends several sections en route as special.
“The Liard River Valley between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake is remarkable,” he said. “Coming out of Fort Nelson you can fly the river valley. The canyon is spectacular with tight turns and rapids. We did not go all the way to Watson Lake that day but stopped at the airstrip about 10 miles past the Liard Hot Springs and camped at the site of the old Jolly Rogers Mine. You can still see the strip on Google Earth but I don’t know the condition now.”
“Another place I have stopped is Burwash Landing beside Kluane Lake between Whitehorse and the Alaska border. It’s a beautiful lake. From there you can fly on to Northway, Alaska, about 150 miles away, and clear customs. But there is no fuel at Northway.”
In Canada you’re going to encounter mostly good airports, according to Johnson. “But the moment you hit Alaska, the runways are sometimes short and often covered with gravel. So brush up on your short field techniques and soft field techniques too.”
Operating on gravel poses a big threat to propellers, particularly for pilots who don’t know how to taxi on a gravel strip.
“If you go to Alaska and look at the air taxi planes that are being flown by new pilots from the Lower 48, they’ve all but destroyed the propellers,” he said. “Everybody says that when you’re on gravel be gentle with the throttle. Often, that is only partly right. When you taxi off a gravel runway, stay into the wind as much as possible and always park into the wind. What happens is that your prop is making a little vortex, a little tornado below the prop, and the wind bends that little tornado back and the rocks go behind the propeller. No wind is bad and wind is your friend if you use it correctly to protect your propeller. Try to stop with the nose wheel heading straight ahead. And when you start up again, you are going to come out and make a turn. Roll straight ahead before you make a fairly quick turn, using your momentum to minimize the amount of time you have your tail to the wind. But don’t lock the brake or you’ll dig a hole in the gravel and then get stuck. If you hear the rocks hitting your prop, those are just dollars coming out of your pocket.”
Expect to find friendly people all over Alaska but not as much help as you’re accustomed to in the Lower 48 when you land, Johnson said. “What happens is when you get to the bush airports, the operator, the charter operator, he may have fuel. But he is so busy trying to run this charter operation that his services are sometimes going to be less than you experience at a regular FBO. That’s not his business.”
Johnson’s final words of wisdom for Alaska trip planners: “Bring plenty of bug dope,” he laughed. “We do have a few mosquitoes.”