Southeast Alaska

A picturesque sunset over the harbor

I spent a few years in the 49th state while growing up, but for some reason never realized what a titanic place it is. Kind of ironic considering most things seem downright massive to a kid. Perhaps it’s because I lived near Anchorage, whose population is large enough (just shy of 300,000 inhabitants — 41% of the entire state tally!) to provide the look-and-feel of a major American city. It’s also blessed with temperate weather due to the comparatively low latitude and coastal location.

But that’s all on top. Truth to tell, once you get out of the “big city”, it quickly becomes clear that Alaska is a place of extremes. The mountains, the temperatures, the fuel and food bills, the natural resources, the isolation, the beauty, and of course the physical size of the state itself are larger-than-life. Even going to a restaurant was an exercise in extremes; one of our favorite joints was a steakhouse that served such a large slab of meat that if you could finish it, it was free. I never made it under that limbo stick.

Alaska has a lot in common with Texas, come to think of it. Big, wide open spaces, a thriving oil industry, and a proud, much-deserved reputation for self-reliance. Back when I lived there — the early-mid 1980s — there were plenty of Texans in the area because of the new pipeline which was bringing crude oil from the Northern Slope to Valdez for shipping to refineries in the lower 48. The locals always knew how to get a Texan’s goat: tell them that someday we’d split Alaska in two, thereby making Texas the third-largest state.

As I recall, they didn’t like that very much.

The early 80’s were a transitional time for southern Alaska. The population of Anchorage had grown by 263% over the previous decade and the area was still feeling the effects of such rapid expansion. Our little hamlet, Eagle River, doubled in size in less than five years, and the state was so flush with money that they instituted the Alaska Dividend, something which is best thought of as a reverse income tax. You’d get money — a percentage of the state’s oil revenue — simply for being a resident of Alaska. For an adult, the annual dividend check was more of a nicety than anything else, a small help in offsetting some of the high costs of living up there. But imagine being a 10 year old kid! It’s the early 80’s, you’re used to having nickles, dimes and quarters… and suddenly you’re getting a $1,000 check every year. “Score!!”

Like I said, a land of extremes.

The water's blue color is from glacial silt.

The water’s blue color is from glacial silt.

Anyway, since I started flying the Gulfstream, I’ve been back to Alaska several times. Anchorage is a frequent “tech stop” for fuel before launching off to Asia. I’ve also done a pair of crew swaps in Nome, and most recently spent a few days in southeastern Alaska on a charter trip.

We were scheduled to fly into small fishing village near Juneau, but pre-flight planning determined that most of the instrument approach procedures in that part of the state had just been NOTAM’d as “Not Authorized”. An interesting turn of events, to say the least. Alaska’s weather more often than not dictates the use of an IAP to get on the ground when you’re flying a turbojet, but suddenly most of them were stripped away. The only one still available was a localizer approach which featured a DME arc and a 65 degree offset between the final approach course and runway.

This approach also featured my first live experience with the “inverse C” symbol on the Jepp chart. If you’re not familiar, this symbol indicates the use of new circling minimums for the procedure. I wrote about this several months ago, presciently noting that “increasing the circling radii will often have the effect of raising the Minimum Descent Altitude, and that could make the procedure less valuable.” In this case, our circling minimums were 3,100′ AGL, so we literally needed VFR conditions to land. As anyone who’s been to southeast Alaska will tell you, that kind of weather doesn’t occur too often in the region, and this day was no exception. Despite good visibility underneath the layer, we never broke out and after a textbook missed approach procedure, diverted to Sitka where the weather was VFR.

The FAA had recently NOTAM'd many of the approaches in the area as out of service due to a magnetic variance in the region.

The FAA had recently NOTAM’d many of the approaches in the area as out of service due to a magnetic variance in the region.

As the state’s fourth largest city, Sitka boasts a massive population of 9,000. Even a blind man would identify Sitka as a fishing town due to the persistent smell of fish throughout the area. It’s not unpleasant, especially when mixed with the scent of salt air, but is definitely a sign that you’re “somewhere else”.

The airport features something wholly unfamiliar to most pilots these days: an on-site Flight Service Station. I had to think long and hard to determine whether I’d ever even been inside one of them before. I believe the answer is “no”. The lone employee working the facility enlightened us about the area’s approach procedures; they were NOTAM’d out of service because the FAA discovered a magnetic variation in the state’s panhandle.

Few of today's pilots have seen this:  it's the interior of a flight service station!  If you want a clearance here, just walk inside and pick it up.

Few of today’s pilots have seen this: it’s the interior of a flight service station! If you want a clearance here, just walk inside and pick it up.

As if this wasn’t enough, that day the list of banned procedures had grown significantly, and now included most of the departure procedures. Apparently this was causing havoc with lifeguard flights because without those departures they needed VFR weather in order to take off. While I understand the significance of magnetic variations on some IAPs, it was frustrating to see the satellite-based procedures cancelled due to this phenomenon. Wouldn’t a NOTAM announcing the variation be sufficient?

I was motivated to ask this question after seeing Alaska Airlines 737s coming and going from airports in IFR conditions. A fueler told me that they have their own custom, FAA-approved instrument approach procedures. So while the air ambulances were grounded, the airline soldiered on without a care in the world. This suggests a “red tape” situation more than a serious problem with the approaches. It’s probably driven — like most things these days — by liability concerns. The FAA is responsible for the approaches we were flying, whereas Alaska Airlines is the accountable party for their procedures.

There's nothing like fresh, crisp air and relaxing saunter through a scenic little town after a day of flying

There’s nothing like fresh, crisp air and relaxing saunter through a scenic little town after a day of flying

The next day, we repositioned the airplane to Petersburg, a short 100 nautical mile flight from Sitka. With only 2,800 residents, Petersburg is even smaller than Sitka, but differentiates itself from the latter with a strong Scandinavian character. The town was founded by Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian immigrant who started a cannery there in the 19th century. The village evolved into a successful fishing center due to the nearby LeConte Glacier icebergs, which provided a method of cooling the fish. Even today, it is one of the most successful fishing towns in that part of the world with huge hauls of salmon, halibut, black cod, king crab, tanner crab, and herring.

Petersburg is sometimes referred to as “Little Norway”, and boy does it look like it! In fact, I saw more Nordic flags than American ones on display in town while we were there. Every year on May 17th they celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day and hold an annual festival in honor of their Scandinavian heritage. Apparently they celebrate it longer and more boisterously than in Norway!

Petersburg is a town with major Nordic connections.  You'll see it in everything from street names to architecture.

Petersburg is a town with major Nordic connections. You’ll see it in everything from street names to architecture.

Alaskan towns are know for their high ratio of watering holes to inhabitants, but even by that metric, the folks in Petersburg know how to party! Perhaps it’s because the town sits on the northern end of an island which has no bridges to anywhere else and they have to make their own fun, but we were regaled with more than one story of legendary, alcohol-fueled hell-raising during the festival, including throwing an Alaska Airlines crew into the town jail just because they could.

As with many such towns in Alaska, boats and aircraft are every bit as important — perhaps even more so — than cars and trucks. Petersburg’s airport is much larger than one would expect for a town of that size. Even so, there was only one provider of Jet-A fuel: a helicopter operation run by a single employee. He answered the phones, flew the helicopter, did the maintenance, the whole works. Normally a Gulfstream is gassed up using a “pressure fueling” connection underneath the wing which transfers the fluid at a very high rate, but that wasn’t available here, so we had the not-unpleasant experience of fueling Alaska-style: with a traditional hose hoisted over the top of the wing through fuel caps that probably hadn’t been opened in 10 years.

Over-wing fueling is so rare that we weren’t even sure the fuel caps were unlocked, or where they key to unlock them might be. Thankfully we had no problem getting the caps open. Over-wing fueling is much slower than pressure fueling. We added a thousand gallons and it took at least an hour and a half to move the plane into position, add the Jet-A (at a rate of about 15 gallons per minute), and then reposition the aircraft to a dedicated concrete pad designed to hold something of it’s significant weight.

Adding a thousand gallons via over-wing fueling took about 90 minutes.

Adding a thousand gallons via over-wing fueling took about 90 minutes.

Our fueler was extremely friendly. In fact, everyone we encountered in Alaska was pleasant and helpful. The locals might not notice it, but coming from Southern California, it was clear as day to me since, sadly, we don’t always see that attitude down here. It was obvious that they take pride in their work and are always on the lookout for ways to help strangers. When we needed ice for the galley, a guy on the airport offered to drive me to the market. When we couldn’t find a ladder to check the fuel caps, there he was again, lending a hand and offering us a meal from the barbeque they were preparing outside their hangar.

The fueler was kind enough to not only do the grunt work of adding kerosene to our bird, but also offered to take us on a helicopter tour of the area since he had to reposition a logging crew from one place to another. Well we certainly weren’t going to say no to that!

After a quick meal in town, we returned to the airport and departed on a spectacular flight over Spirit Creek, Wrangall Narrows, Summer Straight, glaciers, and various other inner passages of southeast Alaska. It’s one thing to see sights like this from the flight levels, but quite another to watch them slide by from just a few hundred feet above the Earth. If you want to see things up close and personal, a jet is not the right tool for the job. When we’re down low in the Gulfstream it’s almost always because we are in the process of taking off or landing, so our sightseeing opportunities are rather limited.

Anyway, our intrepid pilot dropped us off in the midst of Tongass National Park, right next to a tiny U.S. Forest Service cabin on the edge of the Harding River. He zoomed away to move that work crew and left us free to explore the area for an hour or so. It’s moments like that that really make this job worth it. I looked around and couldn’t believe our good fortune. People pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of “getting away from it all”, and here I was being paid to do exactly the same thing!

Nothing to do here but relax and enjoy communing with nature.

Nothing to do here but relax and enjoy communing with nature.

That hour passed all too quickly. It seemed like just a few minutes before we heard the familiar sound of the rotorcraft’s blades beating the air into submission as our ride returned to pick us up. By this time the ceiling was down to 500′ overcast in light to moderate rain. Not something I’d typically fly VFR in. But then, this is Alaska, and we were in a helicopter, so it qualified as “better than average” conditions.

It was one of those perfect days. We had just enough time to head back to our hotel, grab a nap and shower, and return to the airport — a three minute drive — to prep the jet for a smooth, pleasant flight back to the “lower 48″. As we streaked across the sky, eight-and-a-half miles above the earth, I looked over my shoulder at the slowly setting sun and hoped I’d be headed back to the Last Frontier again soon.

Enjoy this gallery of photos from the trip:

Circling the Pacific

Circling the Pacific Ocean: three days, five cities, and nearly 11,000 miles!

And he’s off again!

Actually, I’ve been off for quite a while — and since I don’t get paid when I’m not flying, it’s with a sigh of relief that your humble host finally got back on the proverbial road. Also, my annual recurrent training is just around the corner, and so is the five-figure bill that comes along with it. Ah, the joys of a Part 135 contract pilot…

But enough about that. This trip took me west rather than east, essentially making a giant circle around the Pacific Ocean within the space of three days. It started at LAX, probably my least favorite airport on the planet.

Speaking of Los Angeles International, does anyone else think the entire place looks and smells like a third-world country? Even the iconic Theme Building isn’t enough to relieve the dread of an LAX encounter. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard or seen the phrase “I love LAX” used anywhere beyond the possible exception of an advertisement put out by Los Angeles World Airways. And I’m not really sure they could utter it with a straight face.

Thankfully all we had to do was fly to Las Vegas to overnight. Since I know you’re wondering, no, I didn’t put it all on black. Every since he went to prison for tax evasion, Wesley Snipes advice just doesn’t have the same panache.

The next morning it was off to Anchorage for fuel and a crew swap. Just about every time I’ve been into Ted Stevens Airport, the area’s been plagued with enough weather that there wasn’t much to see out the window. This time, however, the skies were completely clear and presented an almost surreal scene of majestic snow-covered mountains surrounded by the dark, serene waters of Aialik Bay, Cook Inlet, and the many sounds, arms, and lagoons along the southern Alaska coastline. Those large oval windows that dot the Gulfstream fuselage may be a signature feature of the brand, but they’ll never compare with the panoramic view from the cockpit!

Every time the main entry door opens and that first crisp blast of Alaskan air hits my palette, it takes me back to the years I spent there as a kid. Alas, we weren’t even on the ground an hour before it was “wheels up” as we winged westbound toward eastern Russia and then southwest into the northernmost Japaneses island of Hokkaido.

The gods were once again kind to a pair of lowly aviators and the weather, originally predicted to be near minimums, was scattered-to-broken, allowing a good view of the island landscape. Hokkaido reminds me quite a bit of central California, with gently rolling hills of golden scrub among various types of farms and orchards. It could have been Santa Maria or Salinas I was watching float past our jet rather than northern Japan.

Hokkaido was another “tech stop” where a fresh flight crew took over the aircraft, so we retired to a hotel in Sapporo for a few hours of rest before trekking back to the airport to catch a Hawaiian Airlines commercial flight to Honolulu and then Los Angeles.

Speaking of L.A., Japan was pretty much the polar opposite of our fair city when it comes to cleanliness and efficiency, especially as it regards their New Chitose Airport.

Chitose is actually two airports in one. The west side of the complex is a military field used by the Japanese Self-Defense Force, while the eastern half is a purely civilian airport. I would have sworn the terminal where our driver deposited us was brand new, but everyone I asked said no. It looked new, smelled new, was (if anything) overstaffed by impossibly polite employees, and definitely under-utilized. We spent an hour or so inside the first-class lounge and I occupied myself with an obsessive search for any sign of dirt or wear on anything. Even the urinals and restroom floor were completely spotless.

I may have also indulged in a beer or two poured by a robotic bartender.

Now if that’s not Japanese, I don’t know what is! Besides, how could any self-respecting man pass up the opportunity to drink a Sapporo while actually in Sapporo? I was almost disappointed when they issued the boarding call for our flight, especially because returning to the States meant older infrastructure. Speaking of which, the Hawaiian Airlines first-class lounge was the exact opposite of New Chitose, which is to say quite disappointing. Small, dirty, overcrowded, no food, nothing but a soda machine for drinks (with no ice!), ratty old furniture, and a tiny rear-projection television.

I know, I know: hash-tag it under #FirstWorldProblems. I wish it was isolated to a few commercial airports, but more and more I see our aviation infrastructure degrading while government spending virtually assures it will only get worse even as user fees and higher taxes are crammed into the budgets of the few who can still muster the wherewithal to fly.

On the other hand, we have far more GA in this country than they do anywhere else, including Japan. In fact, I know pilots who will airline across the Pacific for a weekend just because general aviation is so much better, simpler, and less expensive in the United States. But I always tell those who are interesting in pursuing aviation to do it now, because the only thing I can guarantee about the future is that it will be more expensive than it is today.

As usual, here are a few photos from the trip:

Looking Back: How I Got Started in Aviation

A 1930's-era aviation-themed photo shoot at John Wayne Airport with my Pitts S-2B biplane

The way flying consumes my life these days, you’d think I was born with a pair of goggles, leather jacket, and a long silk scarf. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

I grew up in Studio City, ironically not far from the Van Nuys Airport that I fly out of on a regular basis these days. But aside from a few childhood toys, aviation wasn’t on my radar much as a youngin’.

The one exception would be a memorable flight from Los Angeles to Missouri in 1977. My mother took me to visit the grandparents, and the trip to St. Louis was made via a shiny red and white TWA Boeing 727. It was the old days of air travel, before so-called “de-regulation”. I don’t know what the ticket cost. What I do know is that everyone dressed up, including yours truly in a little two-piece denim suit. The flight attendants provided a pair of pilots wings for my disco-worthy attire, and I was invited to visit the flight deck — in mid-flight, I might add. Imagine the response you’d get by asking to do that today!

After landing there was a miniature photo shoot in the cockpit with the flight engineer. Everyone was all smiles. I remember enough of the adventure to realize it was nothing like flying on a Part 121 air carrier today, even in first class.

Trying out the pilot's seat after my first flight in an airplane, a TWA 727.  This was in St. Louis, circa 1977.

Trying out the pilot’s seat after my first flight in an airplane, a TWA 727. This was in St. Louis, circa 1977.

As I said though, apart from that trip, flying just didn’t figure into my life very much. It might have in later years, but my mother lost a quick battle to pneumonia on my 7th birthday and my father followed a couple of years later after a heart attack in October of ’82.

I miss them.

My parents having dinner at the Playboy Club in L.A., circa 1970.

My parents having dinner at the Playboy Club in L.A., circa 1970.

As you might imagine, those two events changed everything. By Thanksgiving that year, the perpetual summer of southern California had been exchanged for the little town of Eagle River in Alaska. I was living with my cousin David and his family. They had just moved there themselves, actually — he was hired by the FAA as a replacement Air Traffic Control Specialist after Reagan fired virtually the whole cadre in the PATCO strike.

It’s one of those strange twists of fate that brought me closer to aviation even as I was focused on more mundane things. The sixth grade, for example. Learning what “winter” meant. Making new friends. Rebuilding my life on what, to a 10 year old, seemed like another planet.

David was an instrument-rated GA pilot, but as I recall he didn’t fly much. After completing his initial training in Oklahoma City, he’d been assigned to the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). Being the low man on the totem pole, he often worked the graveyard shift.

Things at Anchorage Center were rather lively in those days, as the strike mess had left the Center extremely short staffed. And I was a curious kid, so one day David took me to see the place and before I knew it, they put me to work as a “runner” in the Flight Data section. Flight Data was an area where computers and industrial-sized dot-matrix printers would churn out the paper flight progress strips that controllers used to track each aircraft. I learned how to detach the strips, put them in the plastic holder, and then take them to the appropriate controller.

These strips are used to track an IFR flight's information as it works its way through the system.

These strips are used to track an IFR flight’s information as it works its way through the system.

When I think back on those days, I’m amazed. The early 80’s were the height of the Cold War, and Anchorage Center was (is?) located on Elmendorf Air Force Base, very much a front-line facility within easy strike range of the Soviet Union. But there I was, a ten-year-old kid wandering around a major air traffic control center with no supervision. Today, I’d probably get arrested or shot for the simple act of loitering in the employee parking lot.

But back then? Nah. I never thought anything of it. It seemed completely natural. The controllers showed me how to read the flight progress strips, explained the data block on the radar screen, and even showed me how the entire airspace was organized. They’d let me sit in and listen as they worked, and would even have me watch an empty sector (remember, they were understaffed!) so I could call someone over to work the traffic if any appeared on the screen.

This is what Anchorage Center looks like today.  Back when I was there, it was far more antiquated.

This is what Anchorage Center looks like today. Back when I was there, it was far more antiquated.

It was during those years that I got my first exposure to Saturday Night Live, MTV and Friday Night Videos by watching them in the break room. It was also when the Soviets shot down a fully loaded Korean Airlines 747 after it wandered into their airspace. Like I said — the Cold War. As I recall Anchorage had just handed the flight off to Tokyo Center.

Anyway, as a newbie, David was still undergoing training as he worked toward FPL (“Full Performance Level”) status. It took several years of on-the-job training to reach that point. You’d start on the data side, and then learn to work the radar end of things. His training required periodic tests, and as Gene Kranz said, failure was not an option. You’d be allowed a single re-test, which would result in one of two outcomes: pass or termination.

Unfortunately, he washed out of the program after a couple of years and we bid the 49th state goodbye shortly thereafter. In it’s place: Las Vegas, Nevada. Talk about freezer burn. Within a few years I’d gone from hot to cold and back to hot again.

By that time, I was focused on middle and high school, finally completing my own personal Bermuda Triangle when I returned to Southern California for college. During these years I wasn’t much involved in aviation, but in retrospect it had to have been somewhere in the back of my head, because shortly after graduating, the flying bug hit me faster than… well, than a bug hitting a flying machine.

It was 1998. I was driving down the street one day on the east side of John Wayne Airport for a reason I cannot recall (except to say it had absolutely nothing to do with aviation), and noticed a series of sky-blue awnings that said ‘Flight Training’.

This is the blue awning that literally stopped me in my tracks on that September day in 1998.

This is the blue awning that literally stopped me in my tracks on that September day in 1998.

Sometime between where the awning started and where it ended, I made the decision that yes, I was going to do that. Not “that looks interesting” or “maybe I’ll check into it”. No, whatever clicked in my brain that day, by the time the car traveled the next hundred feet, it was a foregone conclusion that flying was the new focus.

It was almost as if this was something that had been on my to-do list for a long time and I’d simply forgotten about it. So I slammed on the brakes, left a ridiculously long skid mark on the street, and turned into the parking lot at Sunrise Aviation.

I never looked back.

Demo flight? Nah. Just get me some books and let’s start scheduling the training! I didn’t even look at any other FBOs. The place seemed clean and professional, so I checked that off the list and dove in with both feet. I wasn’t in a particular hurry, but started in late July and finished on Christmas Eve. And those five months included a long period when one of the two runways at SNA was closed for reconstruction. It’s just part of my personality to put laser-like focus on any task I undertake until it’s done. Either I do it or I don’t. There’s no halfway.

Looking back, it’s also clear that this was a rare and perfect time in life: I had a sufficient quantity of both time and money, something I didn’t fully appreciate until I began instructing and saw the struggles many aspiring pilots had in one or both of those arenas.

It was also an era when things were significantly cheaper. This was only fifteen years ago, avgas was about $2.60 a gallon. The Skyhawk cost $66 an hour (including fuel) and instructors were $29 per hour. Today that same airplane at the same FBO is $164 and the CFI is $70.

The bill from my first flight.  Ah, the good old days!  Of course, we'll be saying that about *today's* rates at some point, too...

The bill from my first flight. Ah, the good old days! Of course, we’ll be saying that about *today’s* rates at some point, too…

So now I was a pilot. And I did what many of us do after primary training: looked around and said, “What now?” Well fate had an answer for me. You see, after completing the private, Sunrise provides a “free” hour of aerobatics as a little thank you. Brilliant marketing on their part, as it turned out to be the most expensive hour I’ve ever flown. A few weeks later I had finished a tailwheel endorsement and aerobatic program, and for about six months thereafter I took everyone who would say “yes” up for an aerobatic ride, giving them loops, rolls, spins, Cubans, Immelmans, barrel rolls, and more.

Then came the Skylane, which I bought for instrument and commercial training, later using it for the many Angel Flights I’ve written about. By that time that was done, it was nearly 2004 and I started to notice that the cost of operating the Skylane had easily doubled from what I was paying just a few years earlier. The fuel, insurance, maintenance, and everything else was driving me into a financial hole. But what did I care? I was flying!

Okay, maybe I cared a little.

My C182P Skylane, nicknamed "Tweety".  I flew her for 800 hours and she never let me down.

My C182P Skylane, nicknamed “Tweety”. I flew her for 800 hours and she never let me down.

Truth be told, that was actually the fork in the road. To the left I saw a future of fewer hours in the air due to the cost. To the right was going to have to be something that would make flying affordable. But what?

I pondered this for quite a while. Winning the lottery was the preferred route. I suppose a World Series of Poker victory might have also sufficed. Alas, for reasons I’ll never understand, neither of those came to fruition. Lower down on the list of possibilities were things like selling a kidney… but only because those might have affected my medical certification. You get the idea, though: I was hooked. While I thought about the future, I got a seaplane rating on the Colorado River and my commercial glider rating at the now defunct Sailplane Enterprises in Hemet.

I took my seaplane rating checkride in this highly modified C150 on Lake Havasu

I took my seaplane rating checkride in this highly modified C150 on Lake Havasu

My day job had been working as an independent web developer, and nights were spent singing with a professional opera company. I’d started back in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, when knowing HTML meant you could name your own price and people would line up to pay it. But the business was changing, and the work I’d been doing was keeping me in front of a computer all day at my home office. So in an effort to fly more and get away from the solitary nature of working alone, I sold my beloved airplane and plunked down a pretty penny on ATP’s 14-Day CFI Program.

(I kept a day-by-day journal of that experience if you’re interested in reading about what it’s like obtaining a CFI, CFI-Instrument, and CFI-Multi in two weeks time.)

After that, I went back to Sunrise at a fortuitous time and was hired to teach there. The rest, as they say, is history. You meet a few people, fly a bunch of interesting airplanes, make some friends, and the next thing you know, you’re a 6,500 hour pilot with 100 aircraft types under your belt.

I’ve always felt that variety was the spice of life, and in aviation that philosophy has allowed me to do some very cool things. I just looked at the most recent page in my logbook, and it contains entries for a DiamondStar, Super Decathlon, King Air, Gulfstream IV, TwinStar, RV-6, and Pitts.

Still giving rides!  My wife gets her first flight in the Gulfstream IV.

Still giving rides! My wife gets her first flight in the Gulfstream IV.

In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago that this journey began. In others, I realize that there’s still so much to learn and experience that I’m (hopefully) closer to the beginning of this adventure than the end. Looking at the photos and re-reading log entries and blog posts constantly reminds me to appreciate and absorb every moment of the next decade just as I’ve done with the 15 years that have passed.

What a life it’s been — and God-willing, will continue to be.


This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

There’s No Place Like Nome

Nome may be a small town, but it welcomes visitors in a big way.

So I’m off on the latest adventure! This one has me flying with a new crew to an old home of mine, Alaska. Boy, what a place! I lived in the state when I was a kid, but haven’t been back since then.

I had lived near Anchorage, which has 300,000 residents and is home to nearly half of Alaska’s entire population. This trip was going to take me to a village which was literally a thousand miles away from where I’d lived, yet was still within the same state. Alaska is like that. It’s so large that you could divide it in half and instantly make Texas the 3rd largest state.

Hard to believe that the United States purchased Alaska for only $7 million, or less than $0.02 per acre. And even then, the purchase was so derided by the public that the state was referred to as “Seward’s Icebox”. Much like California, it was the discovery of gold which put the state on the map.

Our route of flight from Van Nuys to Nome

Anyway, one of the best things about the on-demand charter job is that it will take you places you’d be unlikely to have reason to visit on your own, and this is definitely one of those trips.

We departed Van Nuys bright and early with a full load of fuel and touched down six and a half hours later in the arctic northwest town of Nome. This wasn’t the passenger’s destination, but rather a place to stop for fuel and a crew change. The plane went on to China with a different crew because under Part 135 rules, pilots are limited to 10 hours of flying per day and the total flight time for the two legs is far beyond that. However, we’re staying in town because the plane is returning to Nome for a fuel stop tomorrow and we’ll crew-swap again before flying on to New York.

The "main drag" in Nome. This is as congested as it gets here!

It was snowing when we landed, and by the time we shut down the engines on the ramp it had progressed to a full blown snow storm with 20 mph winds. The short walk from the jet to the FBO left my coat soaked from the heavy, wet snow. I’d checked the forecast weather before departure and it was calling for temperatures around freezing. Unfortunately I’d neglected to account for the wind chill and am paying the price when we walk around outside. The guy I’m flying with has it even worse. He left on a trip to west Africa and had packed for that climate, not knowing he’d be sent to the arctic circle on the next flight!

Strangely, the difference between the daily high and low temperatures has only been a couple of degrees. The high was 32 and the low 30 degrees. Since we’ve been here, it’s been a random combination of rain, snow, sleet, ice pellets, and wind.

The finish line of the famous Iditarod dog sled race

After getting settled in the hotel, we set off on foot to see the town. It didn’t take long. Nome is a large town by regional standards, but for those of us from Southern California, it’s quite small. There are only 3,000 residents here, most of whom seems to be native American. The town is most famous as the finish line of the annual Iditarod Trail Race, a 1,049 mile dog sled race which begins in Anchorage and commemorates a heroic 1925 transport of diphtheria antitoxin to the region by dog sled in order to stave off a deadly epidemic.

The Iditarod in an endurance event of epic proportions, almost a Badwater Marathon in the snow. They brave some of the most challenging weather and terrain imaginable — climbing 5,000 foot mountains in blizzard conditions with wind-chill adjusted temperatures of as low as 130 degrees below zero — and still manage to travel 1,000+ miles in as little as eight days.

Unless you're headed to Siberia, Nome is a long way from anywhere.

Nome looks out on the Bering Sea, and while there are a few towns further north, there’s not much further west. In fact, we came across a stack of directional signs which claimed Siberia is only 164 miles away. I’m tempted to say we can see Russia from here, but Sarah Palin beat me to the punch.

Government seems to be a major employer in Nome. Native Village Council, Board of Trade Office, Army National Guard, etc. Even the FAA has an office in town, along with a Flight Service Station at the airport. I’d read about Airport Advisory Areas and taught students about them for years but had never come across one in the real world. I was starting to think they didn’t really exist!

I think transportation is also a big deal around here. I don’t know of any other town this size with an airport as large as Nome’s. Bering Air has a sizable fleet of Caravans, Beech 1900s, and King Airs which service the region. Right after we arrived, an Alaska Airlines 737 arrived from Anchorage. In fact, there are actually two airports here, along with a harbor and a rudimentary road system which closes for the winter on October 31st. Despite the cold, it’d be interesting to be here in the dead of winter when even the sea is frozen solid.

This watermelon would cost about a dollar in Southern California.

The shock of the wind chill is nothing compared to the sticker shock of buying… well, just about anything around here. We visited a supermarket (or should I say, the supermarket) and noticed that a mini-watermelon which costs about a dollar back home runs fifteen bucks here in Nome. Gas is $6.00 per gallon. A gallon of milk is nearly $10. A six-pack of Coke is about the same. We bought a pitcher of local beer (“local” being from Anchorage, a thousand miles away) for $25 bucks. An omelet is $18. That’s what happens when everything in town has to be flown in.

I was sure that seafood would be the one thing that was cheaper here than in L.A. After all, this is where stuff like King Salmon comes from. There’s even a town in Alaska named King Salmon! Alas, seafood is pricey in the arctic just like everything else. Rents, leases, and wages are high here as well. There is no state tax or sales tax in Alaska, but Nome has a 5% local tax which they add to most things.

For a small town, they sure do put out a big welcome mat!

Despite having a population of only 3,000 or so people, the town has six bars, two liquor stores, seven churches, a major airport, a marina, and a regional hospital. In some ways it reminds me of Reno, the “biggest little city in the world”. In other ways, it’s the smallest of backwoods towns. Until you look at the surrounding communities, of course. They’re even smaller.

Well, we’re departing at 5 o’clock in the morning tomorrow for the east coast, then back to Southern California the following day. It’s been quite an experience visiting this wintery wonderland. It has reminded me of and made me thankful for all the comforts and conveniences of home that I frankly take for granted. Despite traffic jams and the other drawbacks of a major metropolitan area, all of us down there are quite blessed. From temperate weather to cheap food, there’s no place like Nome… er, I mean “home”.