My co-pilot Albert Finocchiaro and I launched July 23 from Chena Marina (AK28) in Fairbanks en route home to the Lower 48. We hoped to reach Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, about 700 miles, by day’s end. Our aircraft was N3245G, my tailwheel 1956 Cessna 172.
The first landing at Tok, 182 miles out of Fairbanks, was shimmy free, a testament to the rebuild in Fairbanks of the balky Scott 3200 tailwheel that had caused problems on the trip north.
At Tok we made the mandatory call to Canadian customs in Whitehorse with our expected arrival time, then departed on a direct route away from the Alaska Highway, across the mountains. Forty-three minutes later we crossed the Yukon border and a quarter hour after that passed near the village of Snag.
It was there in February 1947 that a minus 81° Fahrenheit was recorded, the lowest temperature ever recorded for continental North America. We rejoined the Highway near Takhini Hot Springs, 15 miles from Whitehorse, 2:50 after departing Tok.
Whitehorse touchdown was 3:06 since Tok, and we taxied to the north side of the tower where two Border Services Officers met us. Did we have weapons? Pepper spray? Items of large value which we intended to sell in Canada? An amount of money over $10,000? After a duet of no’s, we were cleared into Canada.
There was plenty of daylight remaining but the briefer sternly warned about rain and low ceilings. The safe call was to remain overnight so we trudged up the hill for a repeat at the Airport Chalet Hotel.
A stuck valve in Whitehorse
The next morning the O-360 Lycoming fired on the second turn of the prop but ran rough. I suspected a fouled spark plug but leaning at 2200 rpm didn’t help. At the Rodan Air Maintenance Facility on the far side of the terminal, A&P Justin Rogers replaced a bad plug on the number 2 cylinder.
But on restart the sputtering persisted and when Justin removed the valve cover he found the exhaust valve stuck. He fed a narrow rope strand into the spark plug hole until it coiled inside, then advanced the piston so that it pushed against the rope, which gently forced the valve out.
“I can put it all back together and it might or might not stick again,” Justin said. “Or I can ream the exhaust valve guide so it will not stick again for sure.”
I opted for the second choice. “You better get a hotel,” Justin said, pointing to the rain beginning to fall.
Next day we taxied out with a smooth-running engine and a dodgy forecast. Heavy cloud cover hung low over our route through the Yukon and it was raining on each side of Watson Lake, midway the mountains. We were off the ground at 8:45 with instructions to do a 180 and come back across the field above the cloud deck. We complied and crossed the airport headed for Teslin, about 100 miles down the Highway.
Somewhere along that route the cloud layer would thin, the briefer said. En route the jagged summits of half a dozen peaks poked through the cottony cloud cover under us. At Marsh Lake, 20 miles out of Whitehorse, we finally found an opening and descended to check visibility.
The overcast began at 4,000 feet, good enough to get through the passes to Watson Lake flying underneath the cover, following the center line of the Highway. At 1:26 out of Whitehorse, we passed near Pine Lake (CFY5), the old World War II Highway strip and had Watson Lake airport in sight as we passed through the droplet-filled wisps of a rain cloud. Seconds later the engine momentarily stuttered. I pushed the mixture to full rich, added carburetor heat and as quickly as the problem had come, it was gone; we had full power again.
We touched down at 2.1 hours from Whitehorse. I refueled, Albert got the weather and we were off in half an hour. It was raining but we could see the Highway clearly. At one point, we spotted a line of cars stopped by black bison on the highway.
We were over Muncho Lake 1:16 out of Watson Lake and soon afterwards went through 3,600 foot Muncho Pass, where the sharp left turn and the valley opening were far less inviting than the wide valley off our right wing. However, a local pilot told us that valley leads to a dangerous box canyon.
At 1:48 out of Watson Lake we sighted Summit Pass, the highest road crossing on the Alaska Highway at 4,250 feet. The overcast was several hundred feet above the Highway surface and the other side of the pass clear. We crossed Steamboat, the final Alaska Highway pass, 21 minutes later and departed the mountains with touchdown at Ft. Nelson 2.5 hours after Watson Lake.
Fort Nelson, B.C. to Grand Prairie, Alberta
Forty minutes later, armed with a better forecast, we lifted off for Grand Prairie, 288 miles southeast. At 1:52 into the flight we crossed from British Columbia into Alberta near Boundary Lake. We approached Bear Lake just outside Grand Prairie at 2:35 out of Fort Nelson. Below us finally were farms and roads and lakes and scores of houses, the most settled section of countryside we had seen in Canada.
We were unable to reach Grand Prairie tower and after a dozen calls were convinced our radios had failed. In the absence of radio contact or light signals, we approached carefully and landed. On the ground we got an earful quickly from the service truck drivers who instructed us to call the tower on 118.1.
“Tower, Cessna 3245Golf,” I transmitted.
The reply was instantaneous, as if the fellow had his thumb on the mike key, waiting to pounce. “Do you know you violated at least five Canadian regulations by landing without talking with the tower?” the voice snapped.
“I am sorry,” I said. “We couldn’t get the right frequency.”
“Give me your pilot’s license number,” the man in the tower demanded. I fished through my wallet, found the card with Wilbur and Orville’s images on it and read off the number.
After fueling, I called the tower chief to ask permission to taxi to parking. I apologized again. “Look, you didn’t impact my operation,” he said. “The landing didn’t cause a safety issue. I wish you a good day.”
Grand Prairie, AB to Cut Bank, Montana
Next morning the fuel stop at Whitecourt, 143 miles from Grand Prairie, was uneventful, the opposite of the ragged touchdown the previous week with extreme tailwheel shimmy. A few minutes later we were off for Lethbridge via Edmonton airspace and underway had another anxious moment.
Cruising under clear skies with the temperature a cool 49°F, the engine stuttered for about five seconds, then resumed full power. We suspected ice in the venturi and began using carburetor heat every half hour.
Our route took us three hours down to Lethbridge, Alberta. Fifteen miles out we learned we would land during the International Air Show headlined by the Canadian Snowbird Flight Demonstration team performing in their CT-114 Tutor turbo jets. Luckily, the tower slotted our landing into a break in the show.
Our goal was to top off quickly, depart just as fast and meet the U.S. Border Patrol officer on time in Cut Bank, Montana.
“We’re filling that B-17 over there first,” the fuel truck driver shouted across the aircraft ramp as he drove past.
“Completely?” I asked.
“No, just 500 gallons of 100 low lead,” the driver said.
“Sentimental Journey,” the polished B-17G Flying Fortress maintained by the Commemorative Air Force, got all the attention and it was nearly an hour before we refueled. But the tower was helpful again and sent us off immediately after the five-plane Snowbird Team launched.
We were cleared to turn on course for Cut Bank, 74 miles to the south, and crossed into Montana 27 minutes after Lethbridge. Eight minutes later we saw Cut Bank and the airport across the river that the Lewis and Clark Expedition called the Marias, now Cut Bank Creek.
Cut Bank was an important World War II link in the airfield chain for the Northwest Staging Route developed to send aircraft to the Soviet Union. Exhibits inside and outside the terminal chronicle that history.
“I want to see your pilot’s licenses, current medicals, and passports,” the Border Patrol agent greeted us at planeside. I had spent more than 40 minutes the previous night updating our manifest on the clunky eAPIS website, but the agent said that system was down, our manifest unavailable.
“I’ll process you manually,” he said. That took less than five minutes.
Cut Bank to South Carolina
Each leg from Cut Bank to South Carolina brought another flying experience, some considerably less fun than others, particularly several perplexing mechanical and electrical problems. Along the next leg, 338 miles to Miles City, Montana, we worked our way through a line of thunderstorms with turbulence that sent the vertical speed indicator dancing wildly up and down for about 50 miles.
At Miles City, where we overnighted, I saw the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers near where Capt. William Clark set up camp in late July 1806 during the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Enroute to Pierre, S.D., we had yet another engine event. Over rough South Dakota terrain the engine sputtered for about 20 seconds and this time we thought we were going down. But the power came back strong. At KPIR in Pierre, I had the fuel drained and the filters cleaned at the FBO, Mustang Aviation. No water or trash was found in the fuel and the engine never faltered again for the remainder of the trip.
At KSLB, Storm Lake, Iowa, 281 miles southeast of Pierre, we spent a weather day watching the rain from the terminal with Airport Manager Jim Bartholomew and family members.
On Wednesday July 29 we recrossed the Mississippi at Keokuk, Iowa, two hours into the flight from Storm Lake.
And at KIJX, Jacksonville, Ill., 2.7 hours and 324 miles out of Storm Lake, we needed local A&P Tom Cole’s assistance in troubleshooting a low voltage warning. Most likely a failing voltage regulator, he said, and we pushed on with minimum electrical equipment use the 331 miles (2.8) to Stuart Powell Field (KDVK) in Danville-Kentucky, where a rain storm of tropical proportions began on short final.
There, after the storm subsided, local A&P Nathan Hammond rechecked the electrical system. His diagnosis: Rust on the battery cables and posts or perhaps a failing voltage regulator.
Next morning we filed for Hickory, N.C., 225 miles across the Great Smokies. By the time we got there, aided by a glorious 45 mph tailwind, we could literally see South Carolina.
Albert amended the flight plan on the radio as we passed Hickory, doing a respectable 134 mph. At 12:05, 3:09 and 384 miles from Danville, I called final with the friendly, familiar sight picture of Runway 22 at Marion County Regional Airport filling the windshield.
No welcoming committee was needed: We knew what we had accomplished — 7,435 miles flown safely in 73.4 hours from the Palmetto State to the Last Frontier and back.
It had been a true adventure for a fair weather flyer like me accompanied by a highly-skilled professional aviator.
On the ground in Marion my flying bucket list was technically one item shorter. But it really wasn’t. Alaska was checked off; however, it has been quickly replaced by the Bahamas, just over the horizon.