Thursday, December 22, 2016

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 any 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...

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