“It’s like a magic carpet!” This is how my friend Wilma described the Cirrus SR22T on a recent trip from Seattle to Anchorage and back.
A few weeks prior to my departure, I was talking about my upcoming flight to Anchorage and Wilma asked if she could ride along since I would be flying solo. She is not only an accomplished pilot and aircraft owner, but also very good company. Having made the flight several times over the past three years, I knew the journey was better shared with another.
She was cooking up plans for her own flight to Alaska in her RV10 and wanted to ride along before taking on the flight as pilot in command. Being a mutually beneficial situation, we agreed to fly to Anchorage together and she bought an airline ticket to Seattle.
In 2011 when I made my first flight to Alaska, I was filled with trepidation. Alaska seemed like a mystical place requiring a much different skill set than I possessed.
In seeking advice from other pilots prior to that trip, I was told of rapidly changing weather, challenging flight conditions, and few options in terms of airports if there was an emergency. Many of the airports along the route do not have radar coverage, so one needs to fly a full approach if conditions are IFR, and in places your nearest airport is more than 60 miles away, so finding an alternate airport in case of a missed approach can be challenging.
But with careful planning, respect for the weather, and solid IFR skills, the flight rewards the pilot with awe-inspiring scenery and a great sense of accomplishment.
There are a lot of flight planning resources available for a pilot planning a trip to Alaska, including a network of webcams along the route and a dedicated NOAA Alaska aviation weather website. Pilots are also very good about providing PIREPS along the route, so there always seems to be up-to-date information about the current flying conditions.
I found that — like so many things in life — the anticipation about the flight was always more stressful than the flight itself. Familiarity of the route made each subsequent flight less stressful and more conducive to enjoying the experience.
The beauty of the Alaskan landscape never gets old, but sharing it with someone who had never flown the route in a small plane before gave me new perspective on the sights from the cockpit. As we flew over Western British Columbia and continued Northwest along the shoreline, the view out the window grew more and more epic. Jagged mountains rise from the sea through the low-lying fog and into the endless sky. Reflections of snow-covered peaks appear in the mountain lakes pierced with chunks of floating ice calved from the nearby glaciers.
Flying up one side of a glacier and down the other, mountains towering above, evokes feelings of complete solitude. The scale of Alaska just makes one feel small.
After a fuel stop in Ketchikan, we departed into a thin overcast layer and as we climbed beyond the cloud tops, we were rewarded with clear views of the Coast Mountains and Glacier Bay. We continued up the coast and as the cloud layer broke up, the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean unfolded to our left while Mount Fairweather towered above us on our right. By the time we entered Prince William Sound, the sky was clear and the setting sun was reflecting off the water, highlighting the fishing boats below.
During our visit, we enjoyed sunshine and mild temperatures in Anchorage, with skies clear enough to see Denali. Each day started with a run around Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane base, where float planes start leaping off the water as soon as the sun came up.
I flew clients to Talkeetna for breakfast at the famous Talkeetna Roadhouse where the walls are adorned with T-shirts from various climbing expeditions, while Wilma met up with an old friend of mine with a Cub on skis and got a low-level aerial tour of the nearby mountains.
I flew to Palmer where a photographer used the Cirrus as his subject with a backdrop of the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains, mixing DC-3s and the Cirrus to weave a story of aviation evolution. At the end of each day, we feasted on fresh salmon, halibut and crab while enjoying the sunset.
The flight home was equally majestic, with clear skies and light winds along the entire route. Flying low over the Bering Glacier and under the peak of Mount Logan, then along the coastline Southwest towards Sitka left both Wilma and I speechless and awestruck. We tried to capture the view in photographs, but no photo could convey what our eyes were inhaling. We had to be content with mental pictures and words.
Leaving Sitka, a town that clings to the rocky shore of Crescent Bay and is only accessible by boat or aircraft, we climbed up and over Baranof Island and headed towards Seattle. The snow-capped ridges gave way to wind-swept rocky peaks as the elevation of the terrain got lower. The waves of the Pacific lapped the shore of Vancouver Island and the sunset cast a pink glow over the sky. We approached the skyline of Seattle as darkness fell and the lights of the city came up, making a smooth approach and landing at Boeing Field.
The day had begun with a leisurely breakfast in Anchorage, included a relaxing lunch and fuel stop in Sitka, and we were back in Seattle in time for dinner.
The flight from “The Last Frontier” to the Lower 48 is well within reach for any pilot with good decision making skills, IFR proficiency, and a capable aircraft. What was once an intimidating undertaking had become an enjoyable adventure that I appreciated being able to share with a fellow pilot.
Though not all of my flights to Alaska have been as smooth and uneventful as my most recent one, each flight has been rewarding in its own way and I look forward to my next Alaskan adventure!