I’m so in love. Hot air ballooning: the calmest flight experience I’ve ever had.
Today was another occasion where Groupon [and another similar discount pricing website] comes in handy for broadening my flight experience. I found a deal for a hot air balloon flight for any day, Monday-Friday. Thanks to Groupon, this balloon flight was the same price as renting one hour of solo C152 time in Fairbanks. You schedule a time online – either morning or evening – and check their webpage the night before to get a yes or no (pilot posts if the weather will be good enough to go). I originally had a flight scheduled for this past Friday, but wind forecasts were too strong for that morning. It was forecasted for 7kts but my pilot said he wanted less than 5kts. The flight was cancelled, but annoyingly, the winds were perfectly calm that morning. Darn. The pilot tells me that 60% of morning (6am) flights end up going, but only about 20% of evening (6pm) flights usually happen – helpful hint in case you are planning your own trip.
Today’s (Monday) flight schedule was completely open because thunderstorms were forecasted. I didn’t believe bad weather was on the way because the weekend was supposed to be sunny&calm and the rest of the week is supposed to be sunny&calm – Monday was supposedly an anomalous day – but there were no clouds forecasted to roll in over time or anything (just how were these rain clouds going to get here?). I placed my bets that it would be a gorgeous, non-windy morning and scheduled a flight.
I won my bet.
I met the pilot and the chase car driver in a parking lot at 6am. This Virginia parking lot was a 2 hour drive from my rental house near NASA Goddard….I started driving at 3:30am, mmm, yawn.
4 passengers were on the schedule, including myself, but the other people forgot they had their flight this morning. WHO FORGETS THEY HAVE A HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE? I have been jazzed for the flight since I bought the ticket over a month ago. Heck, I’m still excited even though it’s over. It worked out for me however; I ended up having a fantastic private ride as the only passenger.
The pilot started the morning by releasing a test balloon (a normal black party balloon filled with helium) and watching it rise through the air.
To my untrained eye, it looked like it rose up fairly vertical, minor drift. Pilot said yes to going, so we all piled into the chase van.
On the way to the launch site, the pilot called flight services to get the weather. I felt like a dummy at how surprised I was that balloons have N-numbers. It proceeded like weather briefings I’m used to, with the exception of the pilot requesting the additional, more unusually specific information for winds from ground to 3000′ in several local areas.
We pulled into a local open spot and released another test balloon. The pilot explained that he was looking specifically at what the winds were doing about 200′ off the ground. We didn’t want much wind at all at that height. Didn’t want fast winds at launch. Balloon cruise altitudes can be somewhat quick (say ~20kts on a fast day). As one descends, coming down into a layer of slow air will slow the balloon down for landing (I supposed this was important at launch too in case we needed to abort for some reason). Other hints for winds include what tree tops were doing (completely still this morning).
Winds at 200′ were about 7kts so waited a few minutes and launched test balloon #3. It was about the same, smidge slower, and the pilot decided to go ahead with a launch. He and the chase car driver pulled the balloon and basket out of their trailer. They set up 2 large fans to fill the balloon about 3/4 full with cold air.
The balloon basket is laid on its side for it’s initial filling (cold air). Yes, it does have an airworthiness certificate! (oh, the facts I find myself amused by….)
Upon seeing the basket size, I was glad I was flying alone. Imagine fitting four people and a pilot in there.
If I recall correctly, the balloon fabric is about 200 lbs and the basket is about 500 lbs (fully loaded with the propane and everything) [I hope those numbers are right…don’t quote me on them]. The fabric is polyester which lasts longer than nylon; I think it is lighter too. It doesn’t need to be washed and maintenance involves: letting it dry if it gets wet and doing a resealing process perhaps twice in its lifetime. Today’s balloon is at least 9 years old; well, that was the last time the pilot put it through a resealing process.
I helped the pilot hold the balloon’s bottom open so fan air could go in to it. As the balloon filled, the pilot walked straight into the polyester bubble and made adjustments to…stuff on the inside. I couldn’t really see. I really wish I had a photo of that. After a bit, the pilot lit the three burners. If you look closely in this photo, you can see the blue flame of one of them:
Here are the best pictures I have of filling the balloon on the ground. I was standing at the frame of the basket, holding some of the lines. That burner gets quite hot.
I climbed up into the basket (no doors) and we were off. There is a picture of the step viewed from the inside of the basket a little further down in this post.
The whole experience was so smooth – I was very surprised. Smoother and quieter than being in a glider. There were no noticeable G’s being pulled – neither positive nor negative G’s – which was unsettling [at first] because we were certainly moving both up and laterally. So strange.
I was so busy enjoying the Shenandoah Valley that I didn’t get photos of the blue ridge mountains nor any of the other peaks pointed out to me, but I did eventually get around to photo taking:
This hot air was surprisingly hot. I started out needing a light jacket but definitely did not need it from the middle of the flight onwards.
The pilot also flies larger (12 person?) balloons for large groups – like on weekends when most people don’t have to work. If I remember correctly, that one has 3 burners and one control area in the center. I would love to fly in that someday. It’s supposed to be super stable, even as people are walking around during flight. This 5 person balloon I flew in already felt incredibly stable as the pilot and I moved around the basket – interesting to think of something being even more ‘still’. Do you know the feeling of walking to the lavatory in a commercial jet? Even in the smoothest of air, there are ever so slight bumps? The constant vibration of the engines? Hot air ballooning is nothing like that. I didn’t need to be looking at the pilot to know when he took a step or two in the basket, but the bumps were barely noticeable.
We did not get turbulence today, but I was told that if we did, it wouldn’t feel bumpy like in a plane, it would just feel like we were speeding up and slowing down.
When the burners weren’t going, it was basically stone quiet (except the slight hiss of the three pilot lights telling us they were still lit).
All too soon, it was time to land. The pilot had landing sites picked out all over the place. We were in frequent contact with the chase car driver who provided surface level wind information via test balloons and hand held radio. Pilot readied a line to throw down to him in case we needed it (we didn’t). Landing for a balloon passenger means stowing away breakables in a storage bag, holding on to the yellow loops shown in the first basket picture above, no hands outside the basket (on the rim), being prepared for the basket to tip over, stay standing (not crouching), and bending your knees.
This was a roughly 10 mile float that was about 50 minutes long.
You’ll notice our flight path went up and down throughout the trip. This was controlled by the pilot to take advantage of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes.
This trip only used about 15 gallons of propane I think. We were carrying 40-something pounds because the original flight was for four passengers and one pilot. Since we were so light, we used less fuel (only had to switch tanks once). The balloon was also quieter and less hot than if there were more passengers (burners didn’t need to be used as much as for a heavier basket).
My pilot mentioned that when he was learning hot air ballooning, he only flew Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays – it took him a year to get his license (plus a little more to get to fly balloons commercially). He assures me the transition from fixed wing isn’t bad. Hmmm…..
The entire experience was so amazing. I definitely want a hot air balloon someday. At this moment, I want one more than a fixed wing plane.
This is such a pretty plane, a 1943 North American SNJ-4, WW2 fighter pilot training plane (also known as a T6 Texan but the SNJ is the Navy version?):
And I got to fly it this morning!!! This plane is visiting Fairbanks, Alaska this summer with its amazing pilot, Andy Bibber (long time Alaskan bush pilot and CFII). Rumor has it that he is self taught in aerobatics (that statement is hearsay but I really believe it to be true) which is fascinating to me because he is so sharp, so on top of every little thing that happens in the air. If you are in Fairbanks between now and September 2015, I highly recommend calling him to take a flight – it’s worth the money because let’s be honest, where/when else are you going to be able to fly in a machine so unique? (call 907-474-0099 – that isn’t his direct number but I will update this post when I find his card) Andy is also bringing a biplane to Fairbanks that quite a few pilots are really excited to be trying out in mid-July.
So you approach the plane from the left:
Put on a parachute that also doubles as a seat cushion. Something like this:
And climb into the back seat. I don’t feel my pictures accurately show how big the plane is. I’m about 5’1″ and I was just tall enough to grab one foot peg and still swing my left leg onto the black grippy portion of the wing.
4 point seatbelt attached. Was told I could leave the canopy open – heck yes, it was lovely outside. Safety briefing paraphrased by me: Pilot: ‘if anything happens I’ll say “bail-out, bail-out, bail-out”. You open the canopy by pulling the red handle and pushing the clear overhead dome forward.’
Safety briefing continued: ‘Detach seatbelt and dive for the trailing edge of the wing. The plane is moving so the horizontal stabilizer (attached to plane tail) won’t hit you.’ Gee thanks for that last line?
I’m left to ponder the instrument panel and other plane parts as the pilot put on his parachute and climbed in.
Five shots of primer sounded [and looked] like 20 (I could see some moving parts from the back). Engine was turned on and we were waiting the good long while needed for the oil temperature to rise high enough. It was as this point that I dropped my phone like a n00b. It fell into the large open area underneath my seat, at least a foot and a half below where I could reach. Darn it. The pilot climbed out, removed his parachute, opened the rear storage, climbed into the open space beneath my seat, and retrieved my phone. Embarrassing. Reminder for all future flights where I intend to go upside down: bring the phone holster and clip to attach it to my body for hands free pictures.
Taxi to the runnup area at 2R. It’s funny that none of the plane’s occupants can see out the front of the plane (extreme tailwheel). Taxiing was accomplished with wide S turns across the entire width of the taxiway for the long haul out to 2R (taxiway length traveled: approximately 6500ft (1.2 miles!)) – nice to go crazy with large slow turns (from my perspective as a student pilot in a Cessna who is required to do normal boring straight taxis).
Normal runnup as I’ve done in the Cessnas but with the added step of checking the propeller (as I’ve seen from flights in any of my flight school’s Pipers).
Takeoff felt the same as it always does except that the cockpit was open. Similar to my ride in a biplane, the air rushing by felt amazing. It was an incredible morning in Fairbanks: so beautiful and the colors so vivid.
As soon as we got the ‘turn on course’ okay from Fairbanks departure, the pilot took us for a [unexpected from my perspective] steep left turn. Oh boy, what have I signed up for?!? Exciting! The controls were handed fully over to me (pilot put his hands in the air above his head at one point, haha) and we flew out to the Goldstream area. This plane is so fast compared to anything I’ve piloted! Exhilarating!
When leveling out at 4000 ft, CFI suggested I use trim. I turned the wheel for nose down trim as much as I normally would in a 152 … and the plane did a dramatic-feeling pitch down- oops, light touch, tiny movements – must remember that. I was told to do two turns, did shallow left and right turns (15 degrees or so) because I was too nervous to go steeper – AHHH, I missed out. I was happy with my altitude holding on the right turn, but the left felt like a sine wave disaster (wavering about 300ft off my desired altitude at the worst of it).
Then we moved to the aerobatics portion of the flight. We closed the front and back canopies because if the engine caught fire in a maneuver and the canopy was open, the flames would come into the cockpit – yeah, let’s avoid that. Pilot said we should head 180 degrees away from the hills before starting an aileron roll; he just pulls the stick so we go up and over – no time for this straight and level turn business I suppose! 🙂 Pilot talked through the main points of each maneuver; I did my best to remember and follow everything going on, but I make no guarantees to the accuracy of anything I’ve typed here. I also suggest watching the following video clips without sound because it is just loud engine noise.
First up: aileron roll to left and the right. (I thought we started at 4000 ft, pitched down for airspeed of 140 kts, pulled up, entered roll…this isn’t supported by my video as far as I can tell…..but I feel my memory was allowed to be wonky today; after the first roll, I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken my motion sickness pill [because I got the dizzy feeling I remember from my time on boats], oh no).
Did 2 loops. Started at 4000 ft, pitch down for airspeed of 160 kts and pull back for loop. Had extra airspeed after the loops so we also ended the loops with some rolls.
Hammerhead maneuver, I don’t even remember any airspeed numbers. Textbook says: 1/4 of a loop; executed by pulling up from level flight. All I remember are the words ‘and we don’t stall because the plane doesn’t stop flying’ (?)….but I was definitely feeling the effects of motion sickness (sudden extreme headache, a desire to find a plastic bag….[but never needed the bag, yay!]) by this point, so take what you will from my words. Also had enough airspeed to end in a roll I believe. The hammerhead was striking to me because it felt so gentle. Nothing like a stall in a C150/C152 (which was what I was expecting).
Then, all too soon, going back to PAFA:
Opening the canopy for fresh air helped immensely. I haven’t gotten motion sickness in small planes before, but I now thoroughly understand the importance of (and will appreciate) fresh air vents.
A marvelous flight overall and 0.6 hours of SNJ-4 time in my logbook. Would love to learn more aerobatics in the future (as long as I set reminders to take my meclizine – even now, 12 hours later, my head still aches if I turn my head too fast).
Ah Fairbanks, no wonder people save up for years to visit here. I love living here.
I spent all summer in the Washington DC area. It was great fun but living inside the flight restricted zone mostly wasn’t as a budding pilot. Oh sure, flying commercially on business into BWI, IAD, and DCA afforded picture opportunities like this:
But the ‘local’ flight schools were really far. All but two places I looked at didn’t have 152s, only 172s, 182s. Sure, I could learn the 172 or 182 systems – not too hard…. But that and my work at NASA meant I didn’t look to go flying until today. A fellow student at my flight school used to fly gliders ‘locally’ and suggested I try it. Flying without an engine? Ah, why not? I’m no expert in gliders and it’s very possible I’ve written things wrong here, but I will try to describe my flight experience.
It was a cloudy day when I pulled up to a small Virginia airport. I was thinking “Oh no, this was my only time in the area before going back to Fairbanks, will anyone even go up if there may not be any thermals? There’s always a *chance* we’d find a pocket of warm air right? I mean, you can go soaring in winter….” I watched as the group gently guided the gliders out of their hangar to the grass staging area.
“Let’s go” said the instructor right away. I was really hoping to watch others in the soaring club go first, but no biggie because this was a very light intro flight with some sightseeing. We climbed into the painted canvas skinned SGS 2-33 (I had a heck of a time figuring out the seatbelt, the exposed hook system wasn’t what I was expecting); me in front, instructor in back. All our favorite instruments were there without the added complication of a radio panel. Our [handheld] radio hung from the instructor’s lanyard. Recalling some of my previous posts, “yay, no earplugs!” In addition to the inclinometer, there was a red yarn tied to the pitot tube coming straight up from the cowling in the middle of our ‘straight on’ field of view. Yarn straight back means you aren’t turning; deflection to either side means you are. The instructor had all the same controls that I did except trim (a simple enough tensioned metal lever). Cool, ready for takeoff.
We were hooked to the tow plane and the glider was walked into place. The glider has two wheels on the body, one in front of the other (one at mid-body, one at tail), and wheels on each wing. It was basically riding on a sort of top; without support or enough momentum, we’d ‘fall over’ onto one of the wingtip wheels.
A few last words: if the tow rope breaks shortly after takeoff, we can turn around and land on the same runway. Pretty cool to be in something that needs so little runway to land.
With the words “Ready for tow”, the tow plane started moving and the instructor did tons of of rudder work to keep us in the right direction. I never even noticed when we’d left the ground – one second we were rolling and the next we were a couple feet up. The tow plane took longer to become airborne. Instructor had told me that the only job is to stay level, no rotation at takeoff or landing – just stay flat. Interesting experience.
Once airborne, our goal was to stay behind the tow plane. Pitch up if you were low, let the plane come up to you if you were high. At our desired height, I got to pull a release knob and we were on our own. The tow plane got to dive left away from us as quick as possible (totally awesome sounding job btw) and we went right. We flew around for a bit (with the instructor looking for thermals I think) and me trying to orient myself to the airport and local sights. For me, even though it was a small mountainside-ish town, it was the most populated area I’d ever really ‘piloted’ over.
The instructor guided me through some turns (Oh my usual lazy use of rudders wasn’t going to do in this glider!) It felt so steep I was sure I was doing something wrong, but the instructor later pointed out that the most efficient glider turns were 45 degrees – oh okay. He took the controls and did a stall. Oh my! So gentle! No spins in that particular glider we were in, but possible in the club’s other glider. We also did a few slips.
I took the next few moments to snap some pictures:
All too soon, it was time to land, aw. We flew a left hand pattern and lined up on the runway. I was super shocked as we touched down. *Incredibly* bumpy and rough without the normal Cessna hydraulic systems I was used to and expecting. We stopped on the runway and a car came to meet us and pull the glider to the taxiway and back to the original staging area.
Yay, so now I have my first 0.3 piloting hours logged in the lower 48. It was an incredibly expensive 0.3 in comparison to my powered flight lessons in Fairbanks, but I had a really great time and can’t wait to go again after I finish my private pilot certificate.
Promotional marketing emails are annoying but I chose to keep getting them because every once in a while, there are actual exciting offers.
livingsocial.com was offering deals on biplane rides in Atlanta and since I visit there frequently, I had to go for it!
We met at DeKalb–Peachtree Airport (KPDK) and got obligatory pictures with the plane, a New Standard D-25A.
The four passengers sit in rows of two up front and the pilot sits in the very back. I admit I am continually disappointed to be handed earplugs as a passenger (same thing as a float plane charter passenger in Juneau). I know the average passenger doesn’t care to hear aviation radio chatter, but some of us do!
I was expecting the open cockpit to have a very noticeable “wind in my face” effect but I didn’t really notice it at all. The form fitting hat helped of course – there was no hair swirling around my head to evoke feelings of wind.
Atlanta’s capitol building is covered with gold leaf – a throwback to the gold rush in Dahlonega, GA. It wasn’t super sunny out so it took me a while to find the shiny dome. The gold is worn away by rain (a bit of acid rain since it is an urban area) over time and it is resurfaced every so often.
On the way back, we got a nice view of the famous Stone Mountain (sometimes called “the largest exposed piece of granite in the world” – although I’m still looking for a good science reference to that fact).
For landing we were encouraged to lean towards the sides of the plane so the pilot could see where we were going.
Overall, a fun plane ride. Worth it for the experience (although still a wee bit expensive for my taste).
I had a space physics conference in Juneau, AK this weekend – a destination where the tourist websites are mostly devoted to cruise ship passengers. I saw tons of recommendations for both helicopter and float plane trips to the 5 Juneau neighborhood glaciers. I had to try and do it!
CFI2 was able to recommend a float plane company to me owned by a buddy. Sadly, my trip was ~5 days before tourist season started, so no glacier sightseeing tours were operating. However, small island communities of the Alaskan inside passage are serviced year-round by float planes (or planes on skis where needed in the winter). I got booked on a cargo flight to Elfin and Pelican.
I’d never taken a small commercial flight before, so I was definitely excited. When I checked in at the counter, there was a minor concern about whether or not I’d be allowed to go since I was nonessential weight and there was an unusually high mail load going out. Happily, the company airplane dispatcher let me proceed 🙂
My carry on hiking bag was weighed and body weight entered into their weight and balance program. The funniest part of my morning was when the guy checking in next to me was asked for his weight. He didn’t know and just proceeded to weight himself up on the luggage scale. Awesome! 😛
When it was flight time, the 2 other passengers (each going home) and myself were loaded into a van and driven to the float pond.
The pilot was loading the last of the mail and it was great to hear the other passengers comment on what was going where (mail included unwrapped paper towels, fishing gear, and food&drinks). I was thinking “Man, these communities must be tiny. Everyone knows everyone else. Mail includes paper towels. ” Oh yes.
We were handed earplugs and I definitely got a little sad that I wouldn’t be able to listen to all the radio communications. Unlike the training aircraft I’m used to, the deHavilland Beaver only had flight controls on the left; I’m not sure if there was the option for multiple people to plug in headsets.
Funny moment: I was allowed to sit up front since I wasn’t expected to get out during the trip. I got to board first, but I completely forgot which side to sit on! All those student pilot hours got me. Ha, caught myself by remembering that I cannot operate the flight controls, sit on the right.
The pilot untied us from the dock and we taxied/floated to the end of the rectangular pond. Taxi was so slow compared to what I expected. Takeoff was incredibly smooth, I didn’t even realize we were airborne because it was essentially a soft field takeoff, get airborne and fly close to the surface for a while.
When we reached Elfin, we circled over the ‘normal’ landing strip at least 4 times (stomach churning really steep turns, mild turbulence). The pilot later told me that landing near the village would have been fine, but takeoff would have been a bit dangerous because of immediate downdrafts (coming over the the mountain between the open water and the village) and crosswinds. Amazing what the water surface can tell a pilot. The surface looked completely calm to my untrained eye.
We landed right in the sheltered area right beside the mountain in the middle of the water. Scary exciting because our path was low right over mountain and then sharplydown into the wind protected zone. A very smooth landing nonetheless. I want piloting skills like that someday.
A fishing boat met us out in the middle of all that water, and the pilot unloaded 1 passenger and some mail. The amazon.com box made me smile – this company is everywhere, even remote villages with a population of ~10 🙂
Back up we went for the short hop to Pelican.
Landing at Pelican was super tame, taxied right up to the dock. We unloaded passenger 2 and the remaining mail. Pelican doesn’t currently have a grocery store (closed due to the economy) so there was undoubtedly snack food in some of the the mail parcels. Also took on boxed frozen fish. Pelican is a fishing community and since a supply ferry only comes once a month, the fish being sold is flown out to Juneau. I estimated at least 500 pounds of fish were loaded, 50 lbs at a time. We also took 2 packages on. Each was covered with about 30 $1 stamps – So much prettier than the normal labels the post office places on your parcels.
When we tookoff from Elfin, some mist had hit the plane’s windshield. The water evaporated but left behind a salt residue. I was given the task of cleaning the windshield (and not falling into the water).
On the flight back, the pilot took us low when he spotted breaching whales! I didn’t get pictures from the air but did see whales later on my beachside hike:
This was such as beautiful day!
I never got to land on a glacier on this trip, but at least I did get to see one from the air on the way back to Juneau:
And here we are, coming in for the final landing at Juneau. Landing on water is still such a weird concept for me.
I’m so excited that my flight school has recently started offering float plane training. I can’t wait to try it myself.
Over the past weeks, I’ve taken my first commercial flights since I started working towards my private pilot certificate. It has been really exciting to finally know what all the signs, numbers, and lights stand for on taxiways and runways. I tend to forget stuff easily so it was amazing to me that I could label/describe the function of each light/sign I saw with certainty. I should feel good about my upcoming FAA written test, right?
United Airlines used to have a ‘music’ channel on the armrest where you could listen to ATC on your flight. I’ve never been interested in this service ’til recently but it appears most flights have removed this feature – nooooooooooo. Aw.
I saw this really awesome looking tower while waiting for a flight at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. What’s up with the open space anyways?
“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.
Then we saw this as we looked towards the threshold of runway 2R at PAFA (Fairbanks).
Maneuvering on course, I pick out my favorite Fairbanks landmark:
Our route passed the villages/towns Tanana, Ruby, Galena. After Tanana, our forecasted clear skies disappeared.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Got out of the plane; the pilot inspected the propeller ice as I looked at the wing ice.
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?
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.
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?
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’).
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].
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.
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.
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:
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! 😀
I tagged along on another flight after my lesson today. My hour-building friend only had time to fly a semicircle around the Fairbanks area, but that is fine by me as I hadn’t seen the area from the air at all.
We went north from the airport and I got my first good view of UAF and its trails from the air. We passed it so quickly! I remember it took me 3 hours to cross country ski the loop around the trail boundaries…arrr 😀
Next point, northeast of Fairbanks: Fort Knox mine. It’s an open pit mining operation and is one of the largest gold producing areas in the state. I believe the pit about a mile deep – woah.
We continued northeast to UAF’s Poker Flat Research/Rocket Range, Chatanika Lodge, and the burned out Chatanika gold dredge (a historic relic; 1928 boat structure that was ‘accidentally’ set on fire earlier this summer). I’d been to all the buildings of Poker Flat before, and it was really cool being able to list what was housed in each building. I also saw Poker Flat’s radar facility for the first time (on the ground, my view of it is usually obscured by terrain).
Onwards: southwest to Minto Flats (directly west of Fairbanks): a wide open space with lots of (partially frozen) lakes/streams. Gorgeous view of the Alaska Range (south of Fairbanks).
Minto Flats is a good winter hunting spot and we flew around looking for moose. I must be bad luck because we didn’t see any animals. I saw a handful of standalone houses on some islands and it was truly picturesque. It would be spectacular to live there – remote, on the water, and remarkably beautiful.
Lastly: Nenana (town ~60 miles southwest of Fairbanks). I’ve only ever driven through here on my way to Denali National Park. There was a ~30knot crosswind on their runway so no landing. It’s okay though – a lot of my cross country flights will be to this airport, I’ll see it again.
Back to Fairbanks: We saw lots of clouds south of town – so strange how ‘suddenly’ the sky can shift from clear to overcast (stationary clouds but look at how sharply the clouds start!).
Got to go straight in to land on runway 2R. From our perspective, there was a fog bank just over the Tanana River (river path separates Nenana and Fairbanks), obscuring the airport until we were 5 miles out. My pilot knew where to look (of course) but I’m still having trouble recognizing the airport against the terrain. Fortunately, I realized today that the airport float pond is a large recognizable shiny area. 😉
I love that planes that are so much faster than cars (especially the Piper Arrow). Nenana, Fairbanks, and Poker Flat are laid out on approximately a straight line (southwest to northeast). It would take about 2 hours to drive to these 3 places. This afternoon’s flight was 1.5 hours – plus we got to circle the mine a few times and search for moose over Minto Flats.
I’ve noticed a remarkable improvement in my recognition of what people are saying (approach/departure control, tower, ground). Lots of heavy aircraft being vectored in to Eielson base today! It was non-stop chatter – so amazed at what air traffic controllers are able to do with a radar.
I got a call at 11am this morning to go flying with a newly instrument rated pilot at my school – yay! He’s building hours for his commercial licence and wanted flying company – always happy to oblige 😀
This situation was actually the most frightened my pilot had ever been in his ~170 hours of flying. Our controls were turned as far as they would go, straight towards that hill, but the 30 knot wind pushed hard enough that we flew well clear of the hill to the left. The gusts were significant enough that we couldn’t land at Eagle. I’m glad we didn’t flip over, although I’m still too inexperienced of a pilot to have known to be afraid while we were actually going though all this (ignorance is bliss).
To be “an Alaskan”, one must accomplish 3 tasks:
Pee in the Yukon
Sleep with a Native
Win an argument with a bear (no specifics)
I was kinda looking forward to completing item #1 on the list…Oh well. I’ll fly myself here on a calm day 😀
Eagle, AK is really close to Canada:
The airport at Chicken, Alaska is covered with snow! (no picture because I was on the wrong side of the plane)
Although there is plenty of snow on Alaskan mountains, I wasn’t expecting to see frozen bodies of water. Ice appears grey:
We stopped in Tok for lunch. With the total cost of today’s plane rental, 2 hamburgers were ~$980. Mmmmm…..
Okay, back to Fairbanks:
10,600 ft MSL – this is the highest I’ve ever been up in a non-commercial airplane. 😀
Ah, and the [dreaded 😉 ] question CFI2 always asks me when I return to the office after an observing flight: did you learn anything today? Yes!
It is always okay to do a go-around, even when 5 feet off the runway
How far various distances look from 10,500 ft up
Tons of minor details about where controls are located in the Piper Arrow (good for me whenever I start my instrument rating – the Arrow is the school’s only plane rated for IFR)
How cool an ipad would be to fly with on cross countries (ahhh, no money in my bank accounts for this….or a camera better than my $7 cell phone)
I now have a very basic picture of how to file a flight plan
I now know what Tok and Eagle look like from the air (I’d never been to Eagle before)
I still cannot find Fairbanks from the air. As I took the final picture in this post, I thought Fairbanks was still another 10 minutes travel to the left.