Recently a friend asked me to help him prepare for a flying trip to Alaska. I said I would, using notes taken from my own 3,500-mile journey in a Cessna 172 from South Carolina to Fairbanks in July 2015.
Below is the information I provided, and if you are thinking about making an Alaska journey in the coming months, you should find it helpful.
Do Your Research
I spent more than a year accumulating material about the trip. There is a lot online, including pilot reports on Alaska Highway flights and several commercial DVDs.
The books about Canadian and Alaska flying focus mostly on bush operations. My favorites were F.E. Potts’ “Guide to Bush Flying,” James Greiner’s “Wager with the Wind: The Don Sheldon Story” and “Wings Over The Alaska Highway” by Bruce McAllister and Peter Corley-Smith. Check YouTube as well.
Over the past few years I’ve written several stories for General Aviation News on Alaska flying. These stories, with lots of good North Country flying suggestions, are available at GeneralAviationNews.com.
Order a copy of The Milepost, the quintessential guide for the trip through Canada and Alaska (TheMilepost.com or call 800-726-4707). At $34.95, it’s the most comprehensive travel guide you can buy for your trip.
I use ForeFlight, so I updated my subscription to what is now ForeFlight Pro Plus ($199 yearly) to get all Canadian charts. I ordered four paper charts from Sporty’s. The most important was the Nav Canada Alaska Highway-Fort Nelson to Northway. The other three were the Whitehorse, Fairbanks and Anchorage Sectionals.
I also ordered a beat up but serviceable U.S. East VFR Sectional Atlas from Amazon.com. If you’re coming from west of the Rockies your charts will obviously differ from mine for the approach to the Highway.
Get Your Documents In Order
My starting point for registration requirements was the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association site, Flight Planning-Alaska (AOPA.org/Flight-Planning/Alaska). It lists requirements for the pilot-in-command, passengers, your aircraft, plus Customs and Border Protection rules and additional information on flying in Canada.
My passport was out of date so I applied for a new one. I started at Travel.state.gov. Standard processing was $110 and delivery time was about a month.
To cross the border you need a decal for your aircraft under the U.S. government Decal/Transponder Online Procurement System (DTOPS) program. The web address is: DTOPS.cbp.dhs.gov. I received the decal by mail about a week after applying and paying $27.50 by credit card online.
I should note that no one, Canadian or American, checked the sticker or ever mentioned it. But I was asked to show my current medical and pilot’s license when returning to the U.S. at Cut Bank, Mont.
A Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit is required. If you don’t have one, go to the Federal Communications Commission site (Wireless.FCC.gov) and start the $65 process. Your aircraft requirement list also includes a radio station license, but we were never asked for either. For information on that license see Transition.FCC.gov/Forms/Form605/605c.pdf.
The biggest bureaucratic hoop you have to jump through is the Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS) run by Homeland Security. I recommend starting with the AOPA Air Safety Institute online course, Understanding eAPIS-A Pilot’s guide to Online Customs Reporting.
After the course begin at eAPIS.cbp.dhs.gov, it should take you less than 30 minutes the first time. I registered early in January and had to reactivate my account before I departed.
Once registered, with pilot and co-pilot (or passenger) manifest details stored digitally, you go online to give notice when you are departing or entering the U.S. You are supposed to submit your information at least one hour before departure, but I submitted ours 24 hours early on the days we crossed and reentered.
You must notify the Canada Border Services agency of your arrival at a designated airport of entry at least two hours prior to arrival and no more than 48 hours before arrival. The number is 888-226-7277 (888-CAN-PASS).
The most popular crossing point for those coming from east of the Rockies is Lethbridge, Alberta. On the trip up we were forced east by bad weather and landed at the International Peace Garden Airport (S28) near Dunseith, N.D. This is one of the few airports along the U.S.-Canada border where it is possible to clear American and Canadian customs in a single stop. The entry point coming back from Alaska is usually Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. No border inspection took more than 10 minutes.
You are required to file a flight plan for every leg you fly in Canada, but the process is simple. We filed our first flight plan for Canada from North Dakota before taking off for the border crossing into Manitoba and activated it in the air. Prior to our flights we talked on the phone with Canadian Flight Service at 866-992-7433 (WX-Brief).
For phone and data service while in Canada, my co-pilot and I each bought the Canada plan from our U.S. service providers. Mine added a one-time charge of about $35 to my monthly bill and easily covered the required calls and data usage. There is limited cell phone service outside metropolitan areas.
When I called my insurance company to review the required coverage for Canada, my agent said the policy covered only paved runways. We had plans to fly into some gravel strips, so something had to change. Coincidentally, the agent found the paved runway provision applied to the U.S. also. I fly mostly off grass airfields, so I changed companies that day.
Make sure you meet all Canadian coverage minimums. Underway, we were never asked for proof of insurance or for any aircraft registration documents.
A Helping Hand
Bring along a copilot if you can. I found one in good friend and retired U.S. Army aviator Albert Finocchiaro, a former flight instructor. We split up about 70 hours at the controls during the trip.
Having someone to talk with over the long stretches was an added bonus. And sharing expenses took some of the sting out of the fuel bill for the 7,000 mile trip. We paid everywhere with credit cards (Mastercard and Visa) and the highest priced fuel in Canada was about $7.50 per gallon calculated from the liter price charged there.
I joined the pilots’ associations in Montana and Alaska several years ago. That enabled me to get to know experienced Alaska Highway flyers who offered helpful suggestions. Joe Kuberka of Polson, Mont., and Chuck Jarecki, founding director of the Recreational Aviation Foundation, took considerable time sharing their mountain flying wisdom. And Will Johnson, a 20,000-hour plus Alaska bush pilot, was an invaluable resource for all facets of the trip.
I upgraded my very basic 1956 tailwheel 172 by having an engine analyzer with fuel flow installed. The EDM 830 provided much-needed, precise information on fuel consumption and detailed readouts on the working status of my aircraft’s Lycoming 0-360 A1A engine.
A second technology addition was a Stratus 2 receiver which downloaded weather and full airport information to our iPads. The Stratus did not work in Canada.
I also bought a DeLorme inReach Explorer satellite communicator with en route tracking. Our families and friends followed our flight on the internet and now, months later, I can trace precisely the outbound and return trips with readouts of speed, altitude and direction.
I also updated the aviation database and obstacle database on my handheld Garmin 296 GPS.
Additionally, my A&Ps, Ken Hanke and Frank Smith of Clio Crop Care in South Carolina did a slightly early annual inspection to ensure everything was working properly on N3245G.
Planning the flight
When it came time to plot the flight, I first worked on paper with the VFR Sectional Atlas and the Canadian and Alaska charts and afterwards with my iPad using ForeFlight.
For the Alaska Highway section I traced our route with yellow highlighter on the sectional and then adapted ForeFlight by digitally “rubber banding” the course line from airport to airport, and landmark to landmark, to fairly precisely follow the 1,390 miles of the Highway.
Pack and repack
Shortly before departure, with temperature forecasts in hand, I organized my wardrobe of jeans, T-shirts, two jackets (light and heavy), plus camping and survival gear.
I packed a tent and sleeping bag, rain suit, mosquito suit, a lightweight Wilderness Trekker Survival Kit from Bestglide.com and a 10-ounce container of Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray. We also carried a cockpit cover and a tie-down kit.
We eventually packed and repacked and weighed and reweighed everything to get our load under 2,200 pounds, our self-imposed maximum gross.
Underway we came up lacking only a few things, namely cheap packets of washing powder, a better assortment of healthy, complete meal snacks, a few extra sets of underwear, thicker socks, better reading material, and a couple of adjustable wrenches.
In all cases, we were able to buy everything needed prior to reaching the Alaska Highway.
Tomorrow: Part I of the journey to Alaska.