Friday, December 23, 2016

Bringing the SNJ back from Fairbanks AK to Lincoln CA: Part Three

...continued from parts one and two.

Kamloops BC to Oroville WA (USA)

The next morning was "warm" for Canada and the sky above was morning-sky-blue.  We enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the hotel and caught a shuttle back out to the airport.  The wool pants and thermal underwear gave way to a fresh pair of jeans, the fleece was staying in my duffel bag.

The plane was waiting for us where we parked it the night before, but neither Andy nor I could remember the gate code (Note to self:  Take a photo of the gate code before exiting the ramp).  We found a cooperative airport staff member who escorted us back onto the ramp.

Penticton Regional Airport
Andy filed another international flight plan including a time window for us to arrive at the Oroville Airport.

We had plenty of fuel for our short flight across the border so we loaded our bags back into the plane, strapped in, and pointed the plane back down the runway towards Kamloops Lake and the Thompson River we had followed in the previous evening.  As the tail lifts off the ground I let it rise just enough to be able to see the runway ahead over the big engine obscuring my view.  The airplane lifts smoothly off the runway and resumes biting into the sky as I retract the gear.

We climb paralleling the shoreline until we clear the ridge on the south side of the lake and then turn direct on course toward Oroville.  I grew up in Washington, and I have been nearly everywhere in the state.  But I don't recall ever having been to Oroville before.  It sits just four miles from the border where customs agents are usually working the automotive crossing.  For us to clear customs here one of the agents is sent to greet us, thus the earlier time window.

Somewhere down there is the border
Crossing the border I look for the tell-tale line of trimmed vegetation, but in the arid climate of Eastern Washington, there is no vegetation growing from the rock to be trimmed back.

We extend the gear and make a wide left-downwind pattern and line up on the narrow runway.  And boy does it look narrow.  But this time I am ready for it.  I kick the rudders a couple times to loosen up my feet and get my heels on the floor rails and toes away from the breaks.  I get another landing I can be happy about, and Andy again says I am staying ahead of the airplane much better.

Checking for Atomic Bombs?
We parked in front of the customs "office," opened the canopies, released our seat-belts, and waited for the agent to come out to come meet us.  Eventually an ominous SUV pulled up on the other side of the fence and an Agent exited the vehicle.  He let us climb out while he interviewed us.

Then he got out his Geiger counter.  That struck me as really odd, but Andy had warned me that it would happen.  Since the older instruments are painted with "glow in the dark" radium paint, the geiger counter started squawking and squealing as soon as the agent got near the panel.  He glanced over at Andy and me, and Andy just shrugged and said "radium painted gauges in the instrument panel."  The agent move the Geiger-Müller tube over the panel to verify Andy's report, gave us an all clear, and walked back into the office.

Andy walked to the pumps while I climbed in the plane and went through the start-up checklist for the short taxi it to the fuel pumps.

Part of our reasoning for not refueling in Kamloops is that aviation fuel is generally more expensive in Canada than it is in the U.S.  Aside from being paid for in Canadian Dollars, it is dispensed in liters, pushing my limited brain to do two conversions in order to come up with the equivalent price.  But recently I discovered that SkyVector does these conversion for me automatically. Just click layers, select the FBO tab, check the type of fuel, currency, and units of measure.

Make your Flight Plan at

Had we used it, we would have seen that gas was a dollar less expensive per gallon in Kamloops than it was in Oroville. Pretty cool.

Oroville WA to Bend OR

After refilling the plane we saddled back up and snaked the big SNJ down the narrow taxiway that was clearly made for planes the size of a Piper Cub to the south end of the runway.  I lined up the plane with the runway and pushed the manifold pressure back up to 30 inches.  As the tail lifted, again I held it just low enough so I could see the end of the runway over engine and we smoothly departed back to the north.  I retracted the gear and made a climbing 180 degree left turn back to the south, called up Air Traffic Control (ATC) for flight following, and continued to reach for cooler air above.

Crossing from WA to OR
We had been in straight and level cruise for a while when ATC came over the radio to advise us that Military Operation Area (MOA) we were flying in was "Hot," or in use, and we were sharing the airspace with some F-18's who were aware of our presence.  At 10,500 feet I was just above the bottom of the MOA airspace.  I offered to let the F-18's practice their intercept skills on us, but got no joy.

straight line to Bend
We continued straight and level south paralleling the Columbia River as it passed through Wenatchee WA, and then crossing over it on our way south past Ellensburg and Yakima.  Soon we were crossing the Columbia for a second time as we flew into Oregon.  Wind turbines were visible on the mesa above the river.

I had flown into Sunriver Resort in several times, but I had somehow overlooked how close it was to the cluster of airports including Madras, Bend, and Redmond.  We landed in Bend to refuel the airplane.

Due to some technical issues at work, I had several messages on my cell phone.  I attended to these while Andy refueled and oiled the airplane.

Bend OR to Lincoln CA

Our stop in Bend was just brief enough to resupply the plane.  Andy and I snacked on some protein bars, and re-hydrated before pointing the plane south again and picking up flight following from ATC.

Volcanic cone and crater
I had not flown south of Sunriver in eastern Oregon, and I am disappointed I had not done so sooner.  All across the terrain is evidence of the Pacific Northwest's volcanic history.  Everywhere you look are volcanic cones, craters, or lava flows.  It was totally fascinating to me.  I need to go back.

The air grew warmer and I was down to just a t-shirt under my unzipped flight suit, and the canopy was slid open in flight even against the added noise.  Andy and I cruised along straight line south towards Sacramento.

Near the Oregon - California border
We approached the Oregon-California border and the Goose North MOA as we continued south towards Lincoln.  I checked if the MOA was active and the controller responded that it was not.  Andy and I discussed the persistent Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) around Beale Air Force Base, and how we may have to navigate around it.  As we continued south, ATC queried us about our knowledge of the TFR ahead.

I asked if he was referring to the one at Beale and ATC said that the Beale TFR was not active but indicated there was a second TFR closer to us due to a forest fire.  He had us stay at 10,500 feet as we passed through it while the fire-fighting helicopters hugged the terrain far below.  Not long after that we were cleared to start our descent.

ATC cleared us through Beale's airspace as we descended and maneuvered for a long straight in at the Lincoln Airport.  Andy pointed out a cluster of structures to the east of Beale's runway, and mentioned they were some sort of space communication something or other.  We were headed straight for them.  ATC had us turn about 20 degrees right so we would pass north of them as we lined up on the runway.

I was feeling pretty confident from my previous couple of landings, and as soon as the main wheels touched down, I pulled the stick back to pin the tail wheel on the ground.  But my airspeed was still a bit high, so the plane ballooned up off the runway, and I fought the stick for a hard "thump" back down on the ground.  "Pride cometh before a fall."  Every time.

The sun is setting on another adventure.
We were greeted by several of Andy's social circle who were happy to see his return to Lincoln.  We refueled the plane.  One of those who greeted us was representative for the local paper, Melissa, who was there to get Adventure Flight's ad published in the paper.  Andy pointed out the hangar, told me to bring the plane over, and he would walk over an open it up.  I offered Melissa a ride in the back seat as I taxied back, and she eagerly accepted.

We spent the next couple hours unpacking and sorting our gear from the plane, and tucking the SNJ into the hangar with its stable-mates.  I booked a flight home for the next morning.

That evening Andy and I enjoyed a hearty meal at a local Lincoln Pizza Parlor.

Epilogue and photos

A little over 16 hours in the plane, 15 landings, Four U,S, States, Two Provinces, Two countries, and a great adventure with a really good co-pilot.

See all the photos here:
See all the photos here

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Bringing the SNJ back from Fairbanks AK to Lincoln CA: Part Two

...continued from part one.

Dease Lake BC to Smithers BC

Getting above the clouds at Dease Lake
We slept well and in the morning had breakfast at the Super A across the street.  We picked up yet another discouraging weather report and headed over to the airport anyway.

At the airport we are met by low gray clouds blanketing the surrounding hills.  We file a flight plan in hopes it breaks up enough to depart.  Around noon a commuter flight arrives with a load of passengers.  "PIREPS" or Pilot Reports!  Fresh from the cockpit.  I jog from the SNJ down to the commuter plane and locate the pilots.  They tell me of open sky just north east over the lake at the end of the valley.  Andy and I waste no time firing up the plane and taking off in that direction.  Sure enough the sky opened up and we climbed above the broken layer.  South we went, following the wide valley and highway below.

We skipped along at 10,500 feet above the clouds, it felt good to be making progress south towards warmer climates.  Already I was wearing the gloves less and the neck cowl fleece was no longer pulled over my ears.

About 20 miles out of Smithers, the clouds below opened up and gave a nice clearing to circle down.  We flew below the clouds along the valley floor the rest of the way to Smithers.  It was fun flight below the valley walls over the wide floor below.  We came around the valley, lined up on the airport, and landed.

Smithers is in a beautiful setting, a wide flat green valley floor extending north-south for miles.  It is known for steelhead fishing, while we were there the ramp had several helicopters and business jets delivering and awaiting passengers.  I could enjoy hanging out in this kind of peacefulness for several days.

We were greeted by friendly airport line crew and the airport staff came out to see the airplane.  I helped one of the airport staff climb into the cockpit and have her picture taken. They were very nice.  The airport manager came out and chatted with us for a while, making sure we were aware of the services they had to offer, assuring us they would be an excellent place to stay if we got weathered in.  At the time I wondered if he was really nice, or trying to say we should not be departing into the current conditions.  Either way, I really liked the experience.  Those Canadians really are nice.

Smithers BC to Williams Lake BC 

We took off pressing further south and were treated to a double rainbow as we climbed up over the weather, I wish the cellphone camera did it justice.  It was quite beautiful.

We were chasing a cold front, which also meant we are getting a fair tail-wind push.  The front was marked by stacked up clouds that required us to do some zig-zagging to progress around them until we passed the front.  There the mountains finally fell away as the clouds rose high above and the terrain spread wide around us.  The oil belching radial engine pulled us faithfully over the beauty of central British Columbia.

Again the miles were rapidly sliding behind us in 20 second increments, and in just under two hours I was lining back up on a runway.  This time at Williams Lake BC.  We refueled the plane, and called ahead to see where we could clear customs.  I wanted to clear at Paine Field, my home airport, but customs would not be available there,  So we checked Bellingham instead.  They would be open, but we had little margin of error to get there on time.

We filed our flight plan and completed the online forms for clearing customs a Bellingham.

Back into the sky we went.

Williams BC to Kamloops BC

We headed south by southwest toward the US border as golden hour lit up the sky around us.  The cold front that had been our helper on the southeast leg became our punisher on our flight southwest.  We pressed forward towards Bellingham in to headwinds spilling off of the mountains ahead.  Between fighting the headwinds for ground speed, and the rotors for altitude, our forward progress was slow and agonizing.  We tried lower, we tried higher, we tried tweaking the power.  We watched the GPS's estimated arrival time in Bellingham move further away.  Our ETA reached, and then passed the time limit customs had given us.  It was certain we could not push the plane any harder for an on-time arrival.

We turned left headed to Kamloops BC, and started sliding down hill.  The time passed quickly as the sun set behind us and and darkness enveloped the sky, we set the plane down for a straight in landing on runway 08 at Kamloops, just over one hour from when we left Williams lake.

We enjoyed an excellent dinner and a cold adult beverage at the Holiday Inn & Suites before drifting off to sleep for the night.

To be continued...

Bringing the SNJ back from Fairbanks AK to Lincoln CA: Part One

The Adventure begins

After the big adventure of flying the SNJ from Oregon to Alaska, I knew if the opportunity arose to ferry it again, I wanted to participate.  So I let Andy know I was ready to do it again when the time came.  Andy was agreeable, so I set out preparing for the return trip.

I learned a few things from the first trip, and incorporated them into my preparations.
  1. The airplane is loud, and even noise canceling headsets offer little relief.  Andy wore what he called his "Mickey Mouse" hat -- a leather helmet -- and said it helped.  I found that if I removed the cloth covers and pressed my headsets against my head, the noise was suppressed better.  So I looked into buying either a leather or hard helmet.  The leather helmets are not that much money.  Not sure why, but I also looked into low-profile in-ear headsets.  In the end, I decided to build my own low-profile in-ear headset.
  2. The airplane is COLD.  I brought long-johns, wool pants, warm gloves, and boots.
  3. My flight-suit's collar chafes on my neck.
  4. GPS is really handy.  I bought the North American database for my handheld GPS so I could have Canadian data.
I blew a handful of my Delta miles and bought a ticket from Seattle to Fairbanks.  After work on Thursday, my son picked me up from the office, went out to dinner, and then he dropped me off at Seatac.  Andy picked me up at the Fairbanks Airport later.

Downwind at Fairbanks
Friday was a day of wrapping things up at Andy's house and getting me and the plane ready for the trip.  My landings on the first trip were well below my personal standards, so Andy and I took the plane for a few hops around the Fairbanks pattern.  I had studied the manual in preparation for the landings, and worked to establish the correct airspeeds in the pattern.  Downwind, 120, base 100, final 90.  I worked on sight picture and power settings to achieve the speeds.  After six circuits, I felt I had a much better handle on how to manage the landings.

To help stay warm I bought a new fleece jacket and a fleece neck cowl from Proflite.

Saturday the weather was pretty rough and prevented us from leaving, so we took care of some chores around the house and explored around Fairbanks.

Fairbanks AK to Whitehorse YT

Sunday morning we arrived at the airport early to start our adventure.  There was a fairly low ceiling over Fairbanks but the forecast called for it to clear up as we proceeded east out of the valley towards Whitehorse.  We departed east out of Fairbanks and stayed low below the clouds over the Tanana River, and then turned left to pass north of Ellison Air Force base.

crossing the US / Canada border
Shortly after passing Ellison the clouds broke up enough for us to head higher.  We climbed up around a scattered layer and settled in for the flight to the Yukon.  We passed over Tok, Northway, and then the border.  I have been amazed both times I have flown over the border that we take the time, even in the middle of nowhere, to carve out the line between the two countries.  But there, out both sides of the airplane, you can see it extending through the trees.

Our arrival a short time later at Whitehorse gave me my first opportunity to land the heavily loaded SNJ.  And with Andy in the back seat, all our survival gear, a full tool box, and a couple cases of oil, we were heavy with an aft center of gravity.  I set the plane onto the runway with only a small crosswind, and fought it to a taxi.  Andy chuckled at me and said "you are about a half a second behind the plane."

Oh man, I thought I had it down earlier in Fairbanks.  But all that stuff in the back makes a significant difference on the amount of momentum I am working to keep between the main wheels.  I taxi to customs a bit dejected.

Two very polite female customs agents come out and greet us at the plane.  They start with routine questions.  Why are we coming to Canada?

Taking the airplane from AK to CA.

Why are you moving the plane?

For business.  Summer in AK, Winter in CA.

The questions continue.  They ask us to unload the plane.  Everything.  They ask us repeatedly if we have an firearms.  All the flight gear comes out of the cockpits.  All of the bags of charts.  All of the spare coats,  Then all of the supply fluids from the back, then snacks, and then the survival gear.  They ask again about firearms.  Then the toolboxes, then repair kits, then spare magnetos..  They open our duffel bags with our clothing in it.  They find the four beers in the snacks.  They ask again about firearms.  They search the tool boxes, inspect the gaskets and seals, and look at the magnetos.

Finally they have the plane empty, our stuff all unpacked and spread out over the ramp.  And they are convinced.  Yep, we are flying an old airplane from Alaska to California.  Have a nice day, and good luck getting all that back in the plane.  Thanks.  We repack our gear back in to the plane.

We take a potty break, Andy heads for the fuel pumps, and I fire up the plane and taxi to Andy.

Whitehorse YT to Dease Lake BC

We head south east out of Whitehorse towards Dease Lake.  The terrain below us is rugged but not too harsh.  Wide valleys and smallish mountains keep us distracted.  And soon we are closing in on the Dease Lake airport.  The runway sits on the southeast side of a good size hill -- some may call it a mountain.  The clouds obscure the top of the hill so we descend around the clouds and skirt the terrain, approaching from the south west, lined up for a straight in on the runway.  We call the airport radio operator to announce our intentions.  And they repeat them back to anyone in the area.  This is one of the funny differences between American and Canadian airport operations.  In Canada, it seems every airport has a radio operator.  But that operator is not a controller.  They are there to repeat stuff, but not approve of or grant clearances.

Refueling in Dease Lake
The runway is narrow with gravel on either side.  I set the plane down and start the pedal dance.  Again Andy says I still a half second behind the plane, and because of the narrow runway, Andy gives the rudders a couple kicks to keep me out of trouble.  We taxi to the end and shut down at the pumps.

The weather to the south is not encouraging, but we decide to try to run the valley to the west down to Smithers.  In the process of getting ready to go, Andy says something important to me in passing.  He mentions that I cannot wait for the airplane to be lined up with the direction I want it to be going, rather I soon as I detect movement, I should be countering it with opposite rudder.  Turns out, that is the one bit of advice I needed to hear.

Dease Lake BC to Dease Lake BC

We took off to the south and started following the GPS and the valley south.  We were low below the clouds over one of the most ruggedly beautiful canyons I have seen.  Sheer narrow cliffs squeezed the river.  There were no river banks here -- just water and rock walls for miles.  Eventually the canyon widened and train tracks appeared.  We followed them further south for a while.  And then about an hour out of Dease Lake, the terrain rose up and met the bottom of the clouds.  I was pressing forward to look for a gap, but could not find one.  Andy's voice came over the intercom confirming what I too was realizing.  "We can't get through there."

I slowed down and pressed the plane up against one side of the canyon walls and turned hard towards the other side.  In less than a third of the width of the canyon we were pointed back north, the way we came.  About 20 minutes up we turned west to pick up another valley that headed south, but it too was not looking promising.  Neither of us wanted a repeat of the long leg of first ferry trip, so we turned back to Dease Lake.

Again the narrow runway loomed.  I lined the plane up, bounced my feet a couple times to get the rudder away, and started bleeding off air-speed.  90 MPH on final I eased the plane on to the runway, and watched for the nose to move.  As soon and it did, I gave it opposite rudder.  We shut down for the day and Andy said "I think that is the best landing you have made in this plane."


We call the Northway Motor Inn to book a room and they offer to send a vehicle over.  We surrender to the weather for the day.

To be continued...

Monday, May 09, 2016

North To Alaska!

I’ve never had a strong desire to fly a private plane to Alaska -- or even drive a car to Alaska.  It has always seemed like a long way to go through a lot of nothing.  I have, however, wanted to land a plane in Alaska.  I always sort of imagined it as a "Sandra and I take an airliner for an Alaska vacation and one day I go rent a plane" kind or event.  I have also been wanting to build up tailwheel experience in the T-6 / SNJ / Harvard.  I got some time in one a couple years back before I had a tail-wheel endorsement, and logged one landing with an instructor.  This year for my birthday, my wife gave me a gift certificate for three more hours in a T-6.  We were making plans for a family California vacation and I would fly with Aviator Flight Training (AFT) when stumbled upon a Facebook post of a guy looking for a co-pilot on a ferry trip from Vancouver Washington to Fairbanks Alaska.

I raised my virtual hand, and met Andy Bibber, the owner of Adventure Flight. He runs a tail-wheel only flight school out of Northern California in the winter, and air tours in Fairbanks during the summer.  It was time to take the planes north.  Sandra agreed to I could have this adventure in place of the three hours with AFT.

loading up at Pierson
My friend, Eric, flew me down to Pearson Airfield in Vancouver Washington on Sunday night where I met Andy in person.  He’s a good guy with a strong aviation background.  We planned to leave first
thing in the morning, but the big radial engine uses a lot of oil, so we are waiting for a shipment to arrive before we can leave.  It was supposed to be there on Friday.

The oil arrives!
Monday morning I am at the plane packing my things into the back and Andy calls to invite me out for breakfast, because the oil is still on a UPS truck somewhere in the Portland area.  So we hung out at his in-laws and I held his new baby, and the oil finally showed up at 3:00 PM.

Vancouver WA to Bellingham WA

The Columbia River, separating Oregon from Washington
We finished loading the plane, filled it with gas and departed to the west, turning right and following the railroad tracks north and the joining the Columbia river, then over Chehalis, Olympia, up the Puget Sound to the west of Seattle, and finally my second T-6 landing at Bellingham.

My home airport from the other side of the Puget Sound
We refueled and went into the FBO to call Canadian Customs.  Our next leg was to take us up the Hope Valley to Prince George, but we learned that customs there was already closed for the day.  We would have to clear customs someplace else.  Andy inquired about all the airports along the Hope and Fraser Valleys, looking for a place to clear customs.  Finally all the way back at Vancouver BC we found an open Customs office.  But the office needed two hours notice before our arrival.  So for the second time, we sat and waited before departing on our 20 minute flight to across the border.

Bellingham WA to Vancouver BC

Coal terminal at Vancouver BC
Since the plane's radio only works from the front seat, and since Andy is familiar with the border crossing and customs procedures, I suggested he fly front seat on this leg.  It was a short but pretty hop over Boundary Bay, and then circling out west of Vancouver before coming back in to land.  We were then directed to the customs area.  A big area on the ramp delineated with a red outline on the ground.  We parked, shut-down, and called customs.  No one came out, no one looked at us, they just cleared us.  We both wondered why we couldn’t have called the same guy from Prince George.  Oh well.

Vancouver BC to Prince George BC

Even though dark was rapidly approaching we decided to press on over the mountain range between us and Prince George.  It is rugged harsh terrain.  I would not want to go down in there.  It is beautiful, but intense.

We climbed out to 10,500 feet.  This was the first real demonstration of the power of the plane’s 600 horsepower R-1340 engine.  It wasn’t even struggling at 10,500 feet.  In level cruise with a bit of a tail-wind we were making 175 to 180 knots over the ground.  Big growly radial engine, eating sky ahead and spraying oil out behind.

Flying the SNJ in the dark allows us to see the exhaust flame's reflection off of the wing joint fairing and adjust the fuel air mixture by color.

At 10:00 PM that night we were lining up for my third T-6 landing.  I bounced once, and then pinned the main wheels on the runway.  With the heavy airframe, the high approach speed, and the ineffective brakes, I rolled past my turn off.  We turned around on the runway, taxied back, and shut the plane down at Esso Aviation for the night.  My first landing in Canadian Province, and even better, my first landing in a foreign country.

Prince George was having some big to-do so there were lots of big 4x4 trucks.  I think one of the mills or factories or something had gone out of business and there was an equipment auction scheduled for the next day.  For a small town so far north, in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, this is a pretty lively city!

Prepping for our morning departure
The next morning we grabbed some breakfast and a cab to get us back to the plane.  The old SNJ drew attention wherever we went.  I have to admit it was nice to be the guy getting the attention rather than the one giving it.  Our preflight included giving the plane a couple more gallons of oil to spray out the back, and replenishing the hydraulic fluid.  Back inside the FBO a couple of Learjet pilots were asking about the fluids.  "Does that thing hold like eight gallons?"

"Ten."  I replied.

"Is it normal for it to need that much oil?"  He asked.

"Yeah, it uses about three quarts an hour."

Look of shock.  "And the hydraulic fluid?"

"Yep.  It leaks somewhere."

The Lear pilot pressed on.  "Where does it go?  Why does it leak?"

"Look," I said, "The plane is 70 or 80 years old.  When you are that old, you are going to leak too."

The other Learjet pilot and the FBO staff laughed at the poor guy.

Prince George BC to out-of-choices.

We had been watching a weather front moving in from the west, and the edge of it was producing scattered snow showers along our path towards Dease Lake.  We took off into clear skies and settled into a cruise at 8,500 feet.

Far in the distance we could see a small knot of clouds on the horizon, but space on either side.  We flew on, aiming for the left side of the clouds ahead.  We passed the first small, isolated snow shower on our right.  We began working our way north and west, but soon our route was blocked at we made a 180 degree turn back out.  We flew northeast finding some more openings, but soon that was blocked, and we went back northwest.  Blocked again.  We were not getting around the snow showers, and our fuel is limited.  We radioed Dease Lake to check the weather and found no encouraging reports.  Our only option was to climb above the snow showers and divert to Watson Lake.  It was further, and would tax our fuel supply, but the weather was favorable there.

Snow making things tougher
We found less bad reports at Watson Lake, decided we had to commit or we would end up out of options, out of ideas, out of fuel and landing in the remote wilderness of northern British Columbia.  Below us at the time was a reservoir with a gravel strip near by.  I mentally tucked that away as better than landing in the trees.  There was no route out at the current altitude so we decided to go over the clouds to the north.

And commit we did. North to Watson Lake YT we pressed on.  Up we went.  With the plane pointed up hill, the fuel sloshes to the rear of the tank, and pick-up in the front of the right main began to suck air and the engine sputtered.  This was new for me.  I’ve never had a tank run dry in a plane.  A quick switch to the left main had those 600 horsepower pulling us easily up to 14,000 feet to clear the clouds ahead.

We went GPS direct to Watson Lake skimming across the clouds, we switched back to the right main where the fuel had sloshed back forward to give us another 10 or 15 minutes of flying.  We were making good time with the GPS showing ground speeds between 175 and 180 kts, and finally the right main went completely dry.  So back to the left main tank we went, and pressed on.  We were still on the left main, and the reserve tank would give us about half an hour of flying time, and the GPS was showing about 40 minutes to the airport.  So as long as we had 15 or 20 minutes of fuel in the left main, we would make the airport.  Plus we can glide a long way from 14,000 feet.

But this is not good.  We had flown ourselves into a situation where we had no alternates.  Either this worked or...  I’d prefer to not think about it.

Watson Lake's terminal
As we moved north, the clouds below us thinned as forecast, and the tops became lower.  We could see the terrain through gaps in the clouds well below us.  We we getting into the lower valley as confirmed by the GPS and charts.  We could make this.  As the cloud tops got lower we pointed the plane down hill and headed for thicker air.  With the plane sliding down hill, and a little extra push from the wind we were closing on the airport at over 200 kts.  The distance was melting away.

We didn’t want to spend any time maneuvering so we lined ourselves up for a straight in approach to the runway, dropped the gear, and I plopped it hard onto the runway again.  We were both glad to be on the ground next to a gas pump.

Watson Lake to Whitehorse

The Yukon River
We filled both fuel tanks, the oil tank, got a weather briefing, and stood around for a few minutes.  Whitehorse YT was right around 2 hours away.  After the last leg, it was a welcome break before a short trip.  The flight was uneventful.  At first we followed the Alcan highway, but soon the direct route parted ways with the road.  We played in the clouds, doing a little “yankin’ and bankin’” around the edges, over the tops, and between the cloud valleys.  Where there were no clouds the vast wilderness stretched out below with winding rivers, rolling hills and beautiful colors.  Before long we were coming around the last ridge to pick up the Alcan highway for the final five miles into the airport.  There was a gusting 15 knot direct crosswind, and as much trouble as I had been having with getting this thing on the ground, I knew to let Andy take the strong crosswind landing.

Whitehorse to Fairbanks

Right Downwind departure from Whitehorse
Customs back into the United States gave us the same timing troubles that Canada did.  But this time the nearer airport’s customs would be off-duty requiring another long leg to the on-duty customs in Fairbanks.  We filled the tanks, filled the oil, and pushed the throttle forward for the final leg.  I took off with the same crosswind Andy had just fought on the way in, and got the plane up and turned back towards the Alcan highway to point it towards Fairbanks.  This would be a 3 hour leg, and I was starting to get stiff from sitting in the seat that was built with 1933’s knowledge of ergonomics.  My behind was getting tired.

And it was cold.  I had on wool socks, jeans, 2 shirts, a flight suit, and a pair of gloves.  There is no heat in this plane.  It mostly warms from the sun shining through the “greenhouse canopy.”  But little sun we were getting was not keeping up with the cold leaky cockpit.  My hands were starting to ache from the cold.  I would sit on one and fly with the other, and then trade to warm up the cold one.  I would tuck them into my armpits or press them up on my body to get them warm.  My toes were getting stiff.  I was getting stiff.

Note the line on the hill.  Left side Canada, Right side Alaska
Andy was pointing out the sights. The line carved into the hills delineating Canada from Alaska, a lake where his friends have a cabin, a mountain range where everything was over 14,000 feet, a valley leading to Valdez, a valley leading out to Anchorage, more of the Alcan Highway, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. 
Tanana River and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
I recall as a kid my Dad’s employer had a contract to build some of the stands that hold the pipe up off the ground and Dad spending months welding the frames together.  Seeing the pipeline below reminded me of him, and his of legacy of infrastructure projects he worked on, and it makes me wonder if any of the computer code I have worked on will still matter in the decades ahead.  My work is so ethereal, it sometimes feels like a snowman you work hard to complete, only to have it melt a couple days later when the wind brings in the next batch of warm air.

At the edge of the TRSA

The arrival to the Fairbanks area routed us through several Military Operation Areas, and two military airports.  About 30 miles south east we called up the Terminal Radar Service Area (TRSA) controllers.  TRSAs are odd things.  They provide radar services for arrivals into the areas, but pilot's participation is optional.  To our right we passed Eielson Air Force Base, and then Fort Wainwright / Ladd Army Airfield.

The planes by the float pond reminded me of
an airplane homeless encampment
Fairbanks International is an eclectic airport with a couple of long runways for the airliners.  But it also has a “ski strip” of gravel that extends runway 20L, and a float pond between ski strip and 20R.  A mish-mash or new, used, and consumed airplanes are littered about the ramp.  Here 737s peacefully co-exist with weather-worn Cessnas and Pipers.

I had to make a couple passes at the runway to figure out the layout of the runways, and at first I lined up on a taxiway to the left of the ski strip, and by the time I got lined up on the runway, I was behind the plane and bounced it, I slammed the power back forward and went around for a second try.  On the second pass, I managed to keep the left wing low for the crosswind, and still set the plane down hard -- again.  With the power off and the tail pinned down, the end of the runway closing fast, I applied the marginally effective brakes, and heard Andy in my headsets saying "We are going off the end!"  Then I stood on the brakes.  With my legs extended straight out, and my back pressed hard against the back of the seat, I got the plane stopped feet from the threshold and turned off to the left towards the general aviation (GA) ramp.

On the ground in Fairbanks, clear of customs.
A deep breath and a call to the ground controllers and we were taxiing back across both runways to customs on northwest side of the airport.  The customs agent came out and met us, and escorted us back into the building where we were interviewed and filled out the immigration paperwork.  I found it odd that as an American citizen to get into Canada all that happened was the customs agent talked to Andy on the phone.  To get back into America we had to get out of the plane, be escorted in, interviewed, and fill out forms.  It was easier to get into another country than it was to get back into my own country.  On the way back out to the plane we snapped a quick photo.

We taxied back to the GA ramp where Andy’s friends came out to greet him.  Inside we filled out the last of our log books, Andy signed off my Biennial Flight Review (BFR), and I booked the next Delta Airlines flight back to Seattle.

EPILOG and Full Photo Album

One new friend, two days in the SNJ-4, 11.9 hours of flying, seven gallons of oil, gasoline measured in liters, 24 more months of flying on one BFR, two new provinces, one new country, and one new state.  34 down, 16 to go.  One AWESOME adventure.

Full photo album.
Checking off Alaska.  34 down 16 to go

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Why I fly: A day trip to Spokane

My son, Isaac, applied to college on the other side of the state.  In Washington, that’s 300 miles and a six hour drive one way.  He was called for an interview for admissions into the program, so I offered to fly him instead if the weather was clear.

The day before I filed an IFR flight plan from the Paine VOR direct to the Spokane VOR, which involved coming up with my own airway between the two, including finding the highest point four miles either side, and setting my minimum altitude at 2,000 feet about that.  This would put me at 11,000 feet over the Cascades.  The forecast was for scattered to broken clouds in the departure area and clear on the east side of the mountains.

I awoke at 7 AM for my 8 AM departure.  Out my window, I saw gray.  Lots of gray.  I called the Paine ATIS to hear about a 600 foot overcast and visibility restricting fog.  That’s not in the forecast.  My son drove us to the airport while I called flight service.  The briefer told me about the conditions I could already see.  Overnight a front had moved down from the north and mucked up my hope of good weather.  He also said there were clouds over the Cascade Mountain Range with undetermined tops and the freezing level was at 10,500 feet.  Great.  My plan was for 11,000 and any clouds would put me in freezing conditions over remote mountain terrain.  Bad plan.

I filed a new plan to go from the Paine VOR to the Seattle VOR and then follow V2 across to Spokane.  This would add about 10 minutes to the trip, keep us at 9,000, well below the freezing level, and pretty much over I-90 (the world’s longest runway).  Better plan.  By now the weather at Paine field was 500 ft overcast.  That’s enough to take off in, and if things go bad, an instrument approach will get me down to 200 feet – out of the clouds.

Isaac and I prepped the plane, plugged in our headsets, programmed the GPS, and buckled in.  We called for our IFR clearance and instead of what we filed we got KPAE PAINE3 departure Vectors V2 MWH ZOOMR ONE KGEG (the identifier for Spokane).  I knew this would take some special decoding.

The PAINE3 departure can be summarized by “do what you are told.”  It is vectors on course.  OK, That’s not hard.  Next is “vectors to join Victor 2.”  Again, do what you are told.  The ZOOMR ONE part was new to me.  Back the charts.  This arrival starts at MWH (Moses Lake) and then goes to the ZOOMR and GANGS intersections, then on to the Spokane VOR.  Both ZOOMR and GANGS are on Victor 2!  Calling out arrival added little to no value to the flight plan.

8:22 AM we were cleared for takeoff, my plane’s fresh engine pulled us rapidly south on the runway and into the sky.  At over 1,000 feet per minute climb I had less than 30 second from when the plane lifted off until the outside went gray and we lost visual reference to the ground.  “Fly the little airplane” I told myself as I looked to the artificial horizon in the center of the instrument panel in front of me.  I began my instrument scan, looking to my airspeed to make sure I was maintaining 80 to 90 MPH, then to my heading indicator to stay pointed at the runway heading of 160 degrees.  But wait, I was at 180 degrees!  I was already 20 degrees off.  I banked the airplane left to get it lined back up and continued to climb.  We are only 20 seconds or so into the clouds.  I went back to the instrument scan.  As we climbed through 1,500 feet we were still at full power.  I pulled the throttle back and gave the propeller control a spin to let the engine settle in at “25 squared” for the climb out.  Back to the instrument scan.  Paine tower handed me off Seattle Approach Control.

Around 2,000 feet Isaac piped up and said “Wow!  This is so pretty at the tops of the clouds.” I glanced up to see the clouds clearing away from around the nose of the plane as we skipped across the ragged tops, and then they fell away below us.

The sky above was beautiful-morning-blue, and we could see the mountains to our left shrouded by higher clouds.  Now above the first layer of clouds we could see that we could have flown direct over the mountains at 11,000.  The controller cleared us up to 9,000 feet where we were 1,000 feet above the second layer, and then direct to BANDR, a fix on our intended airway.

From there, the trip was boring.  Lots of straight and level, a couple air traffic control hand offs, a right downwind for runway 21 at Spokane, strong crosswind out of the south, and the left wing low to a pleasingly smooth one wheel set down, then the other, and finally the nose.

Isaac’s interview went well, or we are hoping it did.

A couple hours later we were back at the Spokane airport filing a new flight plan.  Paine Field was reporting 100 foot overcast – worse than when we left!  Going over the weather reports and forecasts with the weather briefer we realized the most recent forecast predicted it would already be clear, but it was not.  The overcast was hanging on.  Arlington to the north was clear, and Boeing to the south was clear.  So I filed a return trip with KBFI as the alternate, and off we went.

Again the flight was uneventful.  After passing Moses Lake I requested an update on the weather at our destination and got back a relieving report of 1,200 scattered.  As we flew along there were a couple of opposite direction planes called out by the controllers.  Crossing over the Cascades Mountains we were turned northwest and given direct to Paine.  Shortly after that we were given clearance to descend.  A left downwind to the runway and soon we were parking the plane.

4.3 hours of running engine, One instrument departure .7 hours of actual instrument time, One good adventure with my son.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Tax on the Math Impaired

Today for the first time since the year 2000 I bought a lottery ticket.  As of this writing, the lottery stands right around ~$800 million.  And that got me to thinking, how much would it cost to assure you had purchased "the" winning ticket.

Turns out power-ball has 292,201,338 combination.  At two dollars a ticket, it costs $584,402,676 -- just over a half a billion dollars. So if the pay out were $584,402,676 then buying all the tickets would result in winning that amount of money.

But you don't get it all.  You get an annuity that pays out over 20 years.  And the money you get 20 years from now will not have the same value as the money you paid today.  So the lottery office offers a lump sum today of 62%.  That raises the required pay out to $942,584,961.  But then you have to pay federal income tax (I live in a sales tax state so I am ignoring state and local taxes).  Top marginal tax rate is 39.6% so that raises the payout to $1,560,571,127.

Here's how it would break down

Less 38% lump sum discount$593,017,028
Net Lump Sum Payout$967,554,099
Less 39.6% tax$383,151,423
This is what you really get -->$584,402,676

But then there is the risk or more than one person having the correct numbers. And the payout is split again. So even now, the power-ball lottery is a tax on the math impaired.