A Midsummer Flight (to Alaska)
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By RV-6 owner/builder Mel Hemann (DBQMHemann@arch.pvt.k12.ia.us)
Waterloo on July 3, 2000 at 7:00 A.M. was overcast, 1200' and 3 miles as I began the trip to Anchorage to attend the National Association of Priest Pilots national convention. I picked up Fr. John Herzog in Ames around 8:30 to begin our two and a half week journey.
Our first destination was Olympia, WA for a few days with friends. We filed for Rapid City and made good time at 6000' above a solid overcast. We filed VFR to Coeur D'Alene, ID but the Billings controller informed us Mullan Pass was closed. After a night in Billings the pass was still closed the next day. Local pilots suggested Clarke Pass to the south as a route to VFR Lewiston, WA. Eight-five miles from Olympia IFR conditions again prevailed and we air filed IFR. 10,000' put us on top and radar vectors took us within a half mile of Mt.Ranier and a marvelous view of the top 4,000' of this 14,000'+ mountain.
We left the Olympia-Seattle area on Friday for Abbotsford, B.C. to visit a friend. The local FSS Saturday morning's positive briefing assured us our early departure meant "beating the midday Fraser River canyon build-ups." In the RV-6 the flight from Abbotsford to Prince George is two hours, a simple flight hugging the river nestled at the bottom of 9 to 10 thousand foot mountains. In an hour the pass closed in and a variety of alternate attempts were fruitless, so we landed at a small strip, Lillooet, topped off, called Kamloops FSS and discovered they were VFR. We go on top and flew to Kamloops only to be met by a thunderstorm over the airport. We circled and bounced for 20 minutes, landing after the storm passed. Refueled, we left for Prince George to spend the night there. Next morning we departed via the 'TRENCH' for Watson Lake, 425 nm away. We knew Watson Lake was VFR but it is with some trepidation one begins not knowing what lies ahead. We landed at Watson Lake after a wonderful trip, refueled, picked up the Alaska Highway and headed for White Horse, Yukon Territory. The highway is a Godsend as several times a bit of scud-running was necessary to reach White Horse. We spent a couple of days there with the pastor of the Cathedral parish.
Our Monday, July 10 White Horse departure was delayed until 2:00 P.M. because of the IFR conditions at Northway on the Alaska/Canada border. By the time we arrived, 4:30 P.M., the ceiling was 1000' with light rain. The final leg to Anchorage was 'iffy' at best. With a number of airports along the way we headed for Anchorage. All went well with ceilings of 1200' to 2500' until about 80 miles outside Anchorage. The ground and clouds suddenly met. We went through a hole and on top at 10,000'. I air filed IFR to Merrill Field where we broke out at 4,000' landing at 8:00 P.M. and still 5 hours of daylight left. No sweat!
I wanted to spend time with my good friend, Fr. Jim Kelley, in Dillingham, AK. Jim is a retired Navy chaplain and in retirement in ministering to 22 different communities in southwestern Alaska. He says, "I've got the largest parish in the world, an area comparable to distances from Chicago to Denver to Albuquerque to Memphis and back to Chicago." He has two planes, a Cherokee 235 and a Seminole for his long over water flights. He begins on Saturday and ends on Tuesday evening. It takes two weeks to make his circuit.
On Friday afternoon we followed Jim from Anchorage via Clark's Pass on a scenic 300 nm flight to Dillingham. The overcast never allowed us to get above 500'. Jim in the Seminole ahead gave us a pleasant, personalized guided tour. We met several other planes along the way and it was comforting for all as pireps were exchanged. Saturday afternoon the Dillingham ATIS was broadcasting 300' ceilings, 3/4 miles visibility and moderate rain. "A great day to fly," Jim said as we took off across Bengal Bay for the first Mass that afternoon. I learned he rarely gets above 500' in his flights.
Sunday afternoon John and I began our return trip. We had to file IFR as the passes were closed and we ended at 12,000' o keep on top and out of the ice. Merrill Field has no instrument approach so, with a 700' ceiling, we shot the 6R approach at international. When we broke out we were told to make an immediate left, contact Merrill tower and proceed with a special VFR. Merrill tower said, "Do you see the buildings in downtown Anchorage? Stay to the right of them and you're cleared right base runway 6." We looked at each other and John said "where else but in Anchorage would you be cleared to fly over the city at 700'?" Our goal was Palmer. A local pilot informed us to ask for a special below 700' across the Bay to No Name Point and then follow the bay to Palmer. Very simple! Tom Bishop, the FBO, picked us up and took us to the local church where he'd made arrangements for us to stay.
The fog in the pass didn't lift until 2:00 P.M. on Monday. We spent he night in White Horse, and next day landed at Ft. Nelson, Grand Prairie and overnight at Edmonton. Wednesday, July 23, included stops in Regina, Minot, Sioux Falls, Ames and finally Waterloo at 10:00 P.M. We traveled over 6000 miles in 17 days and 50 hours of flying. We were home. Outside of a problem alternator (since replaced) and weather to slow us down it was a fantastic midsummer flight.
There is a fine builder profile written about Mel on the Van's company web site (read it)