Monday, September 13, 2010

Alaskan Eagles

The missing luggage arrives around mid-morning, after we've discussed and agreed on the flight plan. We must have found some food somewhere, then cabbed out to the airport. I should have parked at PANC: the convenience and not having to pay for cab fare would have made up for the landing and tiedown fee, and just the general inconvenience of being at the little GA airport. We coaxed the cab driver onto the ramp to park right behind the airplane to make it easy for us to load our gear into the airplane. I pull the chocks and together we push back airplane and maneuver it awkwardly around a corner so it can be driven straight out. Of course now there are lots of more convenient open tiedown spots. There's a self serve pump nearby so we taxi over there. She agrees to fuel while I file the flight plan,

I go inside, and call the toll free number for the Kenai FSS. I should have mentioned earlier that 1-800-WXBRIEF often doesn't work here. Not every time, but often. Someone told me that it was being phased out, someone else looked at me like I was crazy when I said it didn't work, and yet another person said it wasn't fully established in Alaska. The Kenai number always works, and other than the number seems to function properly, so I use it. I check for any last minute weather or NOTAM changes, and file the flight plan. It's accepted as is, thanks to the crib notes for filing US flight plans that are imprinted on my clipboard. I was irritated that it was US not Canadian when I was a student but now (yes, I still have the same clipboard and yes, it is battered all to hell, but it still clips) I'm glad to have the US stuff.

I get back to the airplane and my coworker is still pumping gas. It's one of those slow pumps, not only with a low flow rate, but it has to be reset every fifty gallons. There probably was someone who could have come with a truck, but it's done now. We call ground for our IFR clearance and taxi. We had vectors in almost every direction, with "expect climb" or a thousand feet more climb meted out, before they gave us our final climb and a heading to intercept the enroute airway. I can't quite visualize exactly what they did, but we were visual for a while and it looks like we moved north and and east to get around all the heavy airline traffic arriving and departing Ted Stevens International. Only fair considering the care we were given when we flew our grid there.

We're in the clouds, southeast bound, and settle into our altitude. "You are allowed to use the autopilot," the other pilot chides. I'm not using it, because I want to practice for the flight test coming up, in an unfamiliar little airplane without an autopilot. I concentrate on scanning and maintaining altitude, heading and airspeed while managing the deicing boots and doing other minor tasks. I do eventually give in and turn on the autopilot because my concentration is waning and I want to sit back and take pictures.

We're mostly in and out of cloud, but for a while we're on top, and can see mountain peaks across the ocean of cloud. We're not sure if they are in Canada or the US. We try to find them on the chart, but IFR charts aren't much for naming peaks, and we don't have the VFR ones for the panhandle. I have all the deicing on, but a chunk of ice we picked up in cloud comes off the (unheated) windshield wiper and slowly floats up the windscreen. Does anyone have heated windshield wipers?

Our first point of landing today is Sitka. The wind is favouring runway 11. Although we have the Garmin 430 in the airplane, no one has done a ride using it, and the paperwork for the company training program has not yet been approved by Transport Canada, so technically we're not supposed to be using it for RNAV approaches. I choose this approach instead, as my preferred one, should they ask. As I reread what I typed there, I realize that everyone is going to think I really did the RNAV and am just pretending to have done the localizer approach, but remember I'm practicing up for a flight test which will no doubt include such a non-precision approach on standard nav aids. We were radar identified by ATC. I guess they have little remote radar installations down the coast here, wow. I'm expecting to be vectored, or fly direct a waypoint, to intercept the localizer straight in, but perhaps there was someone on the approach, because we end up going all the way to the VOR then coming back to fly the depicted DME arc and trundle through all those step downs. Around five thousand feet I could see lots of sea and islands or coast down there, but seeing as there was another pilot to call runway in sight--and take pictures--I just kept my head down and flew the steps. It was awesome fun.

I'm coming up on MDA and start looking for the runway, but I don't see it. There are a few clouds still slightly in the way, but I've made VFR approaches through much worse crap than this. How can I be tracking a straight in localiser and be so far off the inbound track that the runway isn't in my field of view?

I've mentioned before that pilots develop runway-finding instincts. We just know where we expect to find a runway and what it will look like, so we see it and the non-pilot passenger is still going "where?" until short final. I guess a lot of it is knowing where it's not reasonable to see a runway and not bothering to look those places, with whatever is left to look at being the runway. You don't, for example, look for a 6500' runway on a tiny round island covered in guano. Unless that is, you're looking for Sitka and expect to find it. I have no proof about the guano, but this may be the tiniest island ever to have a mile-long runway on it. They've just used the existing island as the place to build the FBO and stuck the runway out into the sea on fill. Or maybe the whole island is just fill. Hmm, it looks bigger in the picture than it did in the plane. Look at the plate: you can see the runway depicted, but you can't even see an island there. It's that small. I recognize it at some point before I have to go missed, laughing at how it was right in front of my nose, right where it was supposed to be, but I refused to see it because this is a wheelplane, damnit. I put the wheels down and we land. We taxi off and get fuel, washrooms and weather for the next leg.

It's a short one, just to Ketchikan, so that we have the best jumping-off point to go the whole way across Canada to Washington state without stopping for customs. But flight time limitations math comes into play. Despite the fact that there are two of us and I am at the controls, these are legally single pilot IFR flights. And when single pilot IFR is conducted, the CARs limits flight time for that pilot to eight hours of flight time per day. Counting taxiing, as flight time does, the first two legs alone will add up to about five hours. And there's no way we can do the last flight with the headwinds we have in under three hours. So we can only get to Ketchikan tonight. We use the FBO Internet and my credit card number (because I have mine memorized and we'd both left our wallets in the plane) to make a hotel booking in Ketchikan before we depart.

I think this was the departure we were assigned. I remember specifically the shuttle climb at the VOR for which the inbound track was specified. "Wait, that's the inbound track, not the radial? Why would they do that?" We decided it was because it was almost colocated with an NDB, at which the shuttle climb was also approved, and that it might be confusing to have one inbound on the 181 radial and the other inbound on a track of 003. But seeing as they have slightly different tracks anyway, why not do it that way? Or do US shuttles always specify inbound track and not radial at a VOR? We're at altitude before we've gone around enough times to figure it out, and we turn on course.

At Ketchikan I fly an ILS, so the airplane finds the runway all by itself. By the time you look up at decision height on an ILS the runway is all you can see. Either that or fog. There's fortunately no fog here today, because I wouldn't like to be going missed amongst all these mountains. We are marshalled to parking and tell the guy with the sticks that we're here overnight and looking for fuel. He directs us inside. It's the same franchise of FBO as at Sitka. They have a list of rates on the wall. All the standard stuff: avgas per gallon, Jet-A per gallon, towing, fish storage fee. What? Yep, the FBO has enough people asking them to store fish overnight that they have a posted fish storage fee. We're clearly in Alaska. Try asking your Oklahoma City FBO what their fish storage fee it.

We haven't any fish to store, just want to buy fuel, postcards and ask some questions. They're cheerful, take our fuel order, and volunteer to call the hotel shuttle for us. "Make sure you give them a room with a view," she insists. "They'll be on the six-thirty ferry." What? Ferry? Ketchikan airport is on an island, too. We have to take a ferry to get to town. It turns out that this airport (or maybe Ketchikan itself) is the "nowhere" from the "bridge to nowhere" that featured in the US presidential campaign. Governor Palin apparently accepted federal money to build a bridge linking this busy international airport with the town it serves, and then later turned it down. Something like that, what really happened was of course subsumed by the political noise it made. I can tell that the people who live in the town and work at the airport didn't much appreciate being dubbed "nowhere" on the national stage. A bridge across this very narrow channel does not seem to me to be an unreasonable extravagance. In the winter, the five minute ferry ride would probably be more treacherous, and I doubt the five dollar ferry fares paid for the maintenance and operation of the boat. The bridge might pay for itself in a few years, even if they didn't make it a toll bridge. But then I live in the country that built Constitution Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island.

It is quite a small town. It goes back at maximum five or six blocks from the water. That's all there is room for before the coast becomes too steep. The shuttle driver works in the local utilities company in the winter. There is a busy cruise ship dock here, so lots of seasonal work associated with that, and also a fish-packing plant. Our rooms do have a great view. I phone people to tell them, "I'm in Alaska watching eagles fighting over fish out the window of my hotel." There are so many eagles they are like seagulls anywhere else. I've seen this many eagles in trees all at once, but not all sitting on the shore like these guys. There must be excellent fishing here. I suspect the eagles are quite often a problem for the airport, though. They are a heavily protected species in the US, being their national bird and all, so that might limit the bird abatement measures they can employ, too.

We walk to a nearby recommended restaurant. It has Mediterranean decor, and a lot of interesting dishes on the menu, but we decide, laughing at the apparent snobbishness of it, "We'll have Mexican tomorrow in the US West. Tonight we're in Alaska so it should be seafood." I have a crab pasta that had so much crab on it that even after I stopped eating the pasta I had to leave chunks of crab behind on the plate. Seems like a crime, but I can't take it with me.

I didn't mention the roof dogs yet. In more than one place in Alaska we have seen dogs out on the roof. It seems that if you don't have a fenced yard and you want your dog to get some fresh air, you put it on the roof. Or perhaps a reader has a better explanation. Here's one from Ketchikan.

We walk around, take a few pictures of the town and plan our morning to catch the first ferry back to the airport in the morning.


UnwiseOwl said...

Hrmm...your approach link is not a happy link.
Perhaps the dogs are a "Beware of the Dog" sign without having to go to the expense of making an actual sign. I wonder how people get them up there, though.

Anonymous said...

Hey, this airport it in one of Microsoft Flight Simulator missions. It's a neat little one!

Anonymous said...

That bridge was projected to cost $223,000,000.00 (That's $223 MILLION). It was to be tall enough to allow cruise ships to pass underneath.

Sarah said...

Very nice, long post! I enjoyed the picture of Sitka - a spectacular setting for an airport.

On the IFR fun stuff ---

The cycle must have changed since Aviatrix copied that link. The procedure is now HERE

And the departure was probably THIS ONE

So I understand not flying the RNAV 11 without approval - but did you load the LDA/DME 11 procedure into the GPS or do it without? Without, I'm guessing if it was practice.

About the departure procedure "shuttle climb" ( climb in a holding pattern ) --- either the procedure has changed, I've got the wrong one, or I'm just missing it, but the above link shows the holds with radials from the NDB or VOR. Probably I'm missing it, being the IR newbie that I am.

Aviatrix said...

Thank you Sarah for the new links.

The last two lines on the departure plate, starting with "Climb in BKA holding pattern ..." are what I call a shuttle climb. It's a hold when it's at the same altitude and a shuttle when I climb or descend.

Q. Pheevr said...

But then I live in the country that built Constitution Bridge to Prince Edward Island.

I think you've been spending too much time in the States lately; surely you mean Confederation Bridge?

Q. Pheevr said...

(Although they did have to amend the constitution to build it....)

Aviatrix said...

Q. Pheevr: Oops. Good call.

Devil In The Drain said...

Clearly, the dogs are to keep the eagles off your roof.

Damn eagles.

Dafydd said...

223 Million Dollars ? Classic case for a Transporter Bridge then - unless the wind is frequently wicked

Sarah said...

What's a transporter bridge? Is it like a hovercraft? ( I know, I know, GoogleIsMyFriend... )

Sarah said...

OK, OK. Wikipedia was my friend. $223M doens't seem out of line with the engineering challenge. I'm not sure a lift or transporter bridge would be _cheaper_ or more reliable.

I vote for behemoth hovercraft ferries driven by old radial aircraft engines.

Aluwings said...

HTML fail!

Okay ... after trying to respect the "Please make your links clickable!" request, and failing - I tried a new angle. I used the "Links to this post" button for the first time. Much easier.

Great story - as usual. Thanks!