Flying Nightmares – Daytrip to west coast Alaska

“Want to visit western Alaska and the Pacific Ocean?” YES. Anywhere really, I’d be fine. I haven’t been in a small aircraft in 3 weeks and I’m getting antsy. Riding as a passenger with a fellow flight school pal is fun. He wanted to fly to Unalakleet (PAUN) – it was a rare day there with completely calm winds, clear forecasted weather.


It all started out so well.

The brave plane
The brave plane, the flight school’s Piper Arrow

Then we saw this as we looked towards the threshold of runway 2R at PAFA (Fairbanks).

Oh, this is a great omen to see at the end of your runway. Was a firefighting exercise beyond the airport boundaries - but doesn't it just look awful?
Oh, this is a great omen to see at the end of your runway. Was a firefighting exercise – but doesn’t it just look awful?
Here we go! (icy windshield, runway is so clean!)
Here we go! (icy windshield, runway is so clean!)

Maneuvering on course, I pick out my favorite Fairbanks landmark:

UAF - the only place I can really positively identify from the air
University of Alaska Fairbanks – the only place I can positively identify from the air

The farthest west I’ve ever been in Alaska was roughly Minto’s longitude (which we quickly passed today).

route: PAFA-PAUN [ graphic]
Route: PAFA-PAUN [ graphic]
Near Minto Lake
Near Minto Lake

Our route passed the villages/towns Tanana, Ruby, Galena. After Tanana, our forecasted clear skies disappeared.

Great looking distant clouds near Ruby, AK. Makes me think of English moors.
Sun pokes out near Ruby or Galena; can't remember which
Sun pokes out near Ruby or Galena; can’t remember which. Completely a tease because the clouds quickly rolled back in.

We got an IFR clearance through the clouds for ‘VFR on top’ [of the clouds], 12,000ft. Flying through the cloud was fun – my pilot found a makeshift ‘tunnel’ where the above clouds were blueish (sky) so even though we were ensconced in a cloud, we could still see both ground and sky from our position. Outrageous several thousand feet thick cloud.

Looking through a cloud.
Looking through a cloud.
12,000ft - my new small aircraft passenger status accomplishment
12,000ft – my new small aircraft passenger status accomplishment
Cool clouds. We're getting close to Unalakeet!
Cool clouds. We’re getting close to Unalakleet!
Yukon River, west coast Alaska
Yukon River, west coast Alaska
Rainbow orb. Much sharper in real life. There's got to be an official name for this. Anyone know it?
Rainbow orb over the wing. Much brighter in real life. There’s got to be an official name for this. Anyone know it?

Anchorage Center ATC told us to descend to 5000ft – it put us just inside the clouds – my first time being in the cockpit going level through solid clouds. Such a way better view than from a commercial passenger seat. Pilot noted a sudden buildup of ice crystals on the windshield. Looked like snow that wouldn’t blow away. Nothing very visible on the wings. I noted the GPS was now displaying the words “Pacific Ocean” and it hit me that I was really going to see the Pacific Ocean (exciting for me because I grew up in Georgia/lived next the Atlantic Ocean (Daytona Beach). Woohoo, visiting a new beach!). I looked away from the wings to quickly snap this picture:

GPS: next stop: Pacific Ocean?!? Awesome!!!
GPS: next stop: Pacific Ocean?!? Awesome!!!

In that moment of looking away from the wings, wing icing became visibly noticeable. I’m still surprised at how quickly that seemed to happen. Call up Anchorage Center; were cleared block 5500-6000ft, VFR on top. This put us just over the clouds, back into sunshine! Outside temperatures -5°C, no real ice sublimation but at least there was no new ice accumulation. The Arrow has no wing de-icing capabilities. Descend back into the clouds to land. We used RNAV-A approach for Runway 8. Pilot remarked that CFI1 had once told him never to use PAUN runway 15 with IFR unless necessary because that IFR approach is over mountains – we’re definitely not trying that with such low visibility.

PAUN instrument approach procedure: RNAV (GPS)-A
PAUN instrument approach procedure for runway 8: RNAV (GPS)-A. What is the circular track for? I should ask someone.

This approach is cool because it requires you to go out over the Pacific ocean quite a way! I’d never seen sea ice before. The ice patterns were simply spectacular, strikingly alien; lonely.

Pacific Ocean out past Unalakleet. These ice patterns are so strange!!!!!! Why are there things that look like the edge of a stamp/square wave?
Pacific Ocean out past Unalakleet. These ice patterns are so strange!!!!!! Why does it look like the edge of a stamp?
Pacific Ocean out past Unalakleet. These ice patterns are so strange!!!!!! Why does it look like the edge of a stamp?
Pacific Ocean out past Unalakleet. These ice patterns are awesome.
Pacific Ocean out past Unalakleet. These ice patterns are awesome.
Pacific Ocean near Unalakleet - looking north.
Pacific Ocean near Unalakleet – looking north.
Pacific Ocean near Unalakleet - looking north. This landmass looks like it comes out of nowhere
Pacific Ocean near Unalakleet – looking north. This landmass looks like it comes out of nowhere
Strange road looking line across the ocean.
Strange road looking line across the ocean.
More cool Pacific Ocean ice
More cool Pacific Ocean ice

Sometime over the ocean, the pilot self announced that he was changing to runway 15. I’m not sure why he did this other than the fact that he thought coming in to land parallel to the coast was super cool. Even though he initially asked to use approach aids to runway 8, I think runway 15 was his plan all along.

Unalakleet runway 15 right next to the frozen ocean. The village is in the distance.
Unalakleet runway 15 right next to the frozen ocean. The village is in the distance.

Landed and went onto the ramp. VFR flight plan closed. Started looking for fuel building. No cell phone service. That surprised me – I understood why we had no signal past Nenana but I figured an established village would have this modern convenience. No response from the FBOs on the radio. When we were east of Unalakleet, a passing pilot/FBO (I can’t remember which) had said 100LL was available in ‘the blue building. Go inside and ask for the key’. Easy peasy. Except….there were about 5 widely spread out blue buildings, no real signs of human activity.

We finally saw people walking into this building and took a chance. I think my pilot recognized the green plane out front from one of those Alaskan reality tv shows.

Welcome to Unalakleet. Wait, which Alaskan reality show was building on? Is there more than one flying one? (Naturally my pilot knew...but I forgot)
Welcome to Unalakleet. Wait, which Alaskan reality show was building on? Fly Alaska? Is there more than one Alaska flying show? (Naturally my pilot knew…but I forgot what he said)

Went inside and got directions to the fuel place. Apparently the FBO lady was someone my pilot recognized from reality tv. Cool, I met someone famous today 😀

The fuel building:

Where's the fuel? Taxi around for a bit and finally make it here. This was called the 'blue' building. Uh, really?
Where’s the fuel? Taxi around for a bit and finally made it here. This was called the ‘blue’ building. Uh, really???

Got out of the plane; the pilot inspected the propeller ice as I looked at the wing ice.

Wing icing - uh oh.
Wing icing – uh oh.
Ice on the wing formed the most interesting feathery pattern - but not soft. I couldn't crush it down with my hands.
Ice on the wing formed the most interesting delicate feathery pattern – but not soft. I couldn’t crush it down with my hands.

I played around with trying to scrape off the wing ice, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Pilot called me over to look at the propeller ice. From the tone of voice, it sounded bad. Do I even want to know?

Propeller blade icing. Ahhh no!
Propeller blade icing. Ahhh no!
Good grief that's a lot of ice on the propeller.
Good grief that’s a lot of ice on the propeller.

Asked the fuel attendant if there was a hangar we would borrow for an hour to melt the ice? No. Uh oh. Fueled up and the pilot went inside to call the flight school. I couldn’t contribute anything, so I took pictures outside near the FBO.

Cemetery - at the airport.
Cemetery – at the edge of the airport.
Pacific Ocean
Pacific Ocean
Pacific Ocean - View from Unalakleet airport
Pacific Ocean – View from Unalakleet airport

Went inside to get the updated news. The flight school was handling calls to people they knew in Unalakleet for borrowing hangar space. They were also calling people to see if we could spend the night with someone in town, if necessary. Pilot lamented the fact that his wife would be upset he had gone on such a long flight without telling her (and especially since he would now be really late for dinner).

Pilot went outside to turn off the navigation lights (a master switch accidentally left on will quickly drain a battery in the cold weather) and cover the plane with its engine blanket [My pilot got all his private and instrument certificates in the Fairbanks summer, he didn’t get all the CFI plane instructions about winter flying].

It turns out that the FBO could arrange for the plane to be sprayed down with de-icing fluid. The attendant rolled out a 2 foot canister (keg like thing). We were thinking we’d get a de-icing truck, oh well 🙂 . Once sprayed, the ice could easily be knocked off. I never realized that de-icing fluid was bright red (it never looks red when my commercial flights were sprayed) – different compound?

De-iced plane $100 later. Makes it look mortally wounded. Hurray - won't have to overnight in the village (where 4 AAA batterys cost $7, say what?!?)!
De-iced plane, $100 later. Red de-icer makes it look mortally wounded. Hurray – won’t have to overnight in the village!

FBO personnel told us we didn’t need to pay anything for the de-icing. Turns out they eventually billed the flight school $100 for the 20 minute job and the bit of fluid used. Not that I’m complaining because they really saved us, but wow, $100. There really isn’t anything cheap in aviation.

Internet reported weather along our return route wasn’t pretty. We were so remote that the only east diversion airports for a long distance were Galena, Ruby, Tanana. Weather improved as one goes east, but would be pretty terrible for a long time. Galena was even reporting freezing rain. Ahh!

My pilot hitched a ride to the local store to pick up AAA batteries for our SPOT personal GPS tracker. The flight school makes all xc rentals carry it so they can watch our progress. They told the pilot to replace the batteries before we left PAUN. I though it was just a safety precaution (‘use fresh batteries, just in case’). The green lights on SPOT were still blinking away. I didn’t find out ’til after we landed in Fairbanks, but our SPOT batteries had died as we hit the low cloud layers earlier in the day. On the school’s google map track, our path started deviating from the straight line path (probably lots of turns as we tried to find a cloudless path) and then the signal cut out. This explains why I got hugs when we returned to Fairbanks – they thought we had gone down in the plane!

I wish I had gone to the store too (I’ve never seen a village store). Oh well, stayed warm at the FBO, eavesdropped on the passengers waiting for their delayed flight to Anchorage. Quaint little terminal area they have there, complete with uncomfy airport seats. Several quite unhappy people who had wanted more time with family (hey now, we all hate flight delays, but one doesn’t have to get snippy with the desk agent). I couldn’t figure out why the family wasn’t waiting with the passengers at the FBO. It’s not like TSA was stopping them from being in the terminal.

Being Asian, I look like I could pass for an Alaskan Native. I got the feeling that people in the corner were talking about me arriving as a passenger in a fancy private plane with a white male pilot, but I couldn’t make out any specifics. I don’t know if I really want to know. On the bright side, if I do an xc to a [relatively] remote village one day, I’ve been told that being able to pass for a native could be very useful (many villages aren’t receptive to ‘outsiders’).

'Yes, we drive to work in Alaska.'
The thought ‘Yes, we drive to work in Alaska’ comes to mind. I was wearing my giant parka this day – I couldn’t imagine riding around on an 4-wheeler. The higher humidity from the ocean made me so cold! (Fairbanks is really dry). Of course though, the village is really small, commute times short…

4 AAA batteries cost $7, say what?!? I’m carrying spare batteries on all future flights. And extra cash. I suppose this cost is par for the course when you don’t have roads connecting you to any supply routes. On Adak Island (out on the Alaskan Aleutian island chain), a gallon of bottled water is $15, expired chocolate baking chips (the only chocolate on the island) sold for $7 [my friend really had to satisfy his craving].

Unalakleet as we flew away. Weather deteriorated *fast*!
Unalakleet as we flew away. Weather deteriorated *fast*!

Conditions at takeoff were overcast 4000, still VFR. No incoming PAUN pilot had picked up ice like we did. Pilot pulled an IFR map out of his bag, handed it to me, and we quickly got going. His primary navigation was ipad foreflight – but the ipad had been in the cold plane so long that it was reluctant to charge/start – kept turning itself off. We circled over the Pacific until the ipad finally started working. Meanwhile, my pilot quickly realized the clouds were lower then reported. We continued circling as the pilot called for a pop up IFR clearance. It was getting late so Anchorage Center was consolidating all regions to a few controllers (I think it eventually went to 1 controller for the entire state near the end of our flight). Had to wait for quite a while for a controller to get to us.

Western Alaskan weather was entirely IFR. All pilots in the area (lots at nearby Nome, AK) were waiting on the ground, calling for clearances. My pilot was kicking himself for not taking care of it on the ground. We continued to circle and I was asked to help remember numbers/instructions (as the pilot was too busy flying to write anything down). Unalakleet doesn’t have radar coverage so we couldn’t get cleared direct to Fairbanks. Talked for a while about different options. Were asked if we could handle our own navigation over the terrain until we entered the radar area – the strained ‘no’ from my pilot had me a little worried. Visibility was dropping pretty fast. Eventually settled on flying at 4000ft on some VOR radial, would get cleared Fairbanks direct later.

We eventually came out just over the clouds – just missed sunset but glad to be out of the clouds. Were cleared Fairbanks direct at 7500ft. Pilot noted something in the plane was drawing large amounts of current. Turned off 1 of the plane’s 2 moving map GPS units and the ipad, things improved. Autopilot engaged. Ipad only intermittently turned on to doubly verify we stayed on the victor airway.

Light misty clouds. No visible ice on the wings. As we passed Galena, AK, we noted that the vertical speed indicator (VSI) and altitude indicator needles started deflecting wildly (in phase) in all directions. VSI was the worst – indicating 1000ft/min up, then sudden drop to 1000ft/min down, then oscillations continued. Airspeed indicator dropped to 40 knots (GPS and foreflight confirmed groundspeed was still ~130kts, altitude 7500ft). Obviously, the speed, VSI, and altitude instruments were wrong. Reconfirm pitot heat was on. Use headlamp to check for wing icing: icing negative.

Pilot called Anchorage Center to report the loss of flight instruments (as is required when flying IFR). They asked if we were declaring an emergency. No. I think my pilot asked if we could have another altitude (to see if icing would change?). The only option presented was lower – no thanks because it was completely dark outside. 7500 is way more than enough to clear any terrain we’d come near, and that’s what we stayed at. Pilot went up 400ft high and had Anchorage Center read our radar altitude to us until we got back to 7500 – crosschecked foreflight altitude and it was accurate. Throughout the flight, ATC would periodically read us our radar altitude and groundspeed – they matched our GPS readings all night. The plane’s autopilot worked beautifully and we had no abnormal deviations.

I’m so not looking forward to following a Victor airway on my checkride (in the 150) without autopilot.

Pilot then remembered the Arrow had a secondary static source. It lagged a lot, but it mostly fixed the altitude and VSI indicators (still had temporary periods of rapid swings). Celebrate with snacks from our emergency supplies bag.

I’ve half-halfheartedly tried to memorize the following chart for a while (instrument effects of blocked pitot/static sources), but haven’t been getting anywhere. I’m much more committed to doing this now.

Pitot/static system blockage indications chart from my Jeppesen course

Pilot mentioned at one point that he’d felt we were in a 30° bank for a long time (although the attitude indicator had always displayed that we were completely level). So strange because I was also looking at the instruments (and that annoying ‘leans’ catalyst, the sloped dashboard), but I felt perfectly level. I guess the ‘turning’ feeling is a function of how much is on your mind. Pilot warned me that the leans have never gone away in all his IFR [training and personal flight] hours – but one does get used to it.

Periodic [exercise style] headlamp checks out the windows verified no wing ice. Periodic use of the landing light showed that we flew through a bit of snow & light clouds. Moving at 130 kts through falling snow makes things look so much cooler then at the relatively low maximum car speeds, something like the example below, but better 😉

Moderate turbulence started up as we passed Tanana. Figures that it would; another stressor for the remainder of this flight.

Skies completely clear as we came within ~100 miles of Fairbanks. Pilot started counting down the seconds ’til arrival. Airspeed indicator came back for a bit I think. Anchorage Center gave my pilot a phone number to call when we landed – to make sure we had landed safely. A small part of my pilot was afraid it was also for a reprimand. I’m a completely inexperienced pilot, but I couldn’t see that happening – we did everything they told us to…

I managed to find the Nenana (PANA) airport beacon in the distance (good practice for my upcoming night xc flight to the town a couple of miles south, Clear, AK (PACL)). Minor temporary VSI and altitude quick up/down fluctuations, but overall, things were looking good as we started our descent to Fairbanks.

All of a sudden, the airspeed indicator went to zero. Oh crap.

Fairbanks. Starting the descent. Picture taken just before the airspeed indicator went to zero knots. Ah shoot. Figures that this is how it ends. (we didn't stall though!)
Fairbanks. Starting the descent. Picture taken just before the airspeed indicator went to zero knots. Ah shoot. Morbid thoughts: ‘Made it through so much today, figures that this is how it ends.’

I think tower told my pilot to do a landing ‘by the numbers’? Was it because our airspeed was high? I should ask someone. Pilot responded that we had just lost our airspeed indicator and that he was landing with as high an airspeed as possible so we could be sure we wouldn’t stall. It took me a moment to remember the GPS’s indicated groundspeed is not necessarily the same as airspeed.

Came in low but landed safely, a greaser for sure. Took a bit longer than usual to slow enough to turn off the runway. Turned off at taxiway sierra; kept rolling while asking for clearance to taxiway charlie. Someone really wanted out of that plane! (not that I disagreed with him). Interesting note: tower said turnoff sierra onto charlie was always uncontrolled. Really? Now I’m confused. I’ll still never head onto any part of charlie without clearance, I’m not gutsy enough for that.

As we tied the plane down, we noted the pitot tube looked like this:

Pitot icing seen after we landed. Hey pitot heat, why didn’t you help us?

So strange to have this amazingly smooth large layer of ice. Flight school personnel said they were expecting to see something really rough. The wings were completely clean, no ice. CFI3 suggested that this ice was probably caused by pitot heat; he meant insufficient pitot heat right? Heat melted frozen precipitation/water vapor, air temperature allowed ice to form. Insufficient heat then would have done nothing to get rid of ice. I need to think about this physics of this a bit more. We’ll see what the mechanic says about the pitot heat system inspection next week. I think the pilot mentioned that from now on, he’d do a pitot check touch-and-go in potentially icing conditions – I need to remember to ask him to clarify this procedure/theory.

Pilot called CFI2; boss man chastised pilot for flying through low level stratus clouds and picking up ice. Pilot mentioned something about Fairbanks having tons of low level stratus during the winter – how is an IFR flight to avoid low-level stratus in that case? I need to ask CFI2 to clarify.

Pilot called Anchorage Center – they wanted to use our flight recordings as a future training tool. Interesting. Praise to him from an ATC supervisor included statements that many ‘more experienced pilots have never had so many flight demands in one flight’, and those ‘experienced’ pilots probably wouldn’t have handled themselves so well. I’m interested to see what my pilot put down in his logbook.


This seven hour flight (exclude waiting around time) was quite the experience. My first IFR cockpit ordeal. I’m sure the pilot was completely stressed inside (he kept lamenting ‘how could *so many* things go wrong on *one* trip?!?’), but was outwardly so professional, calm, and confident, I was never very worried at all (or too inexperienced at flying to really know how bad it really was). I even took several unintentional naps on the trip (sorry Dave – it’s a compliment, I trust you. You’re going to be a great commercial pilot next month).

It was a great confidence building trip; saw all these crazy stressful situations occur and how they’re all completely manageable & survivable. – Feeling confident in my flight school’s instructors. Train me! 😀


14 thoughts on “Flying Nightmares – Daytrip to west coast Alaska

  1. Sounds like a great trip to learn more about icing. I haven’t flown in icing conditions but they scare the crap out of me. You mentioned you were surprised how fast it happened, watch this AOPA video about a crash from icing, it happened in like 5 minutes!{9CC22A1C-9960-43A5-AC03-3757498BE36C}#ooid=g4bWpuZzr-DPJUjV5CYMZF_y24Z2ob-q

    There are TONS of airplane/pilot shows and reality shows. I personally like Flying Wild Alaska but my boyfriend prefers Ice Pilots. I think there are some more too.

    For de-icing, from what I know about airline stuff, I know there are different strengths in the chemical. Airliners are given a time they must be in the air before it wears off. It costs them about $3,000 to get de-iced, but also if the regional airlines leave even a minute late (and its the crews fault) they get charged $1,000 by the mainline carrier. It’s so expensive!


    1. Okay, I think that AOPA video did the trick. I’ve been telling myself that aircraft icing *is* a big deal, but most of my mind didn’t believe it (‘I didn’t notice any troubling flight effects on that flight’). My car is covered with new layers of light ice every time I go to drive somewhere. It is completely a complacency issue for me, but you’ve got me temporarily snapped out of it, thank you!

      I’ve only seen Flying Wild; have never heard of Ice Pilots. I need to invest in some tv time. It’s just embarrassing not to know the current ‘famous’ Alaskan piloting stories.

      I had a feeling that we were getting off easy with the $100 de-icing charge (being a grad student, prices greater than $10 still give me sticker shock). Had no idea it was so much for airliners – oh my!


      1. I saw groups I am a part of on Facebook posting winter weather flying stuff, and I didn’t bother to read it too much. I can’t remember if someone posted that or it was me looking around the AOPA site. Scared the crap out of me! I was like “oh my god, it’s winter, I’m without a CFI anymore, I’m going to die!” It did help when I realized I wasn’t going to be flying through clouds, but now I definitely take it a lot more seriously than I originally did. I should have known better, I’ve watched enough Air Crash Investigations to know how many crashes are due to icing!


    1. I am so incredibly grateful to my pilot for knowing what to do, remaining calm, and returning me safely to the ground. I know he was scared, but it was indeed an incredible and invaluable learning experience – one I hope never to repeat.

      I always feel bad for making my posts so long (especially this one), but I learned ***so*** much! Knowledge is power. Huge difference from ground school slides and actually living it. The more I realize how things could have gone badly, the more scared I am to actually get back into the pilot seat.

      This blog is foremost a diary for myself, but I do love it when other people read it and offer opinions. I’m hoping all my posts remind me to fly safely in the future.


  2. I always keep 2 or 3 gallons of autozone windshield de-Icer in aft cargo during the winter just in case. It’s much cheaper and does the trick.
    Good story.


  3. Wow… some damn impressive pictures and experiences here…. makes my little cruises up and down the coast look like one of those little rides in front of the grocery store you put a quarter in. Great reporting, look forward to hearing more in January when you start back up!


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