Tag Archives: Nenana Alaska

First Solo Cross Country Flight!

I did it. I managed to leave the Fairbanks airport, find destination airports, and make it back.

Screen shot 2014-05-29 at 8.43.58 PM
Solo Cross Country Flight Route: PAFA – PAML – PANN – PAFA [skyvector.com]. Normally takes 1.5 hours in a 152.
My flight block started at 8am – not my favorite time of the day – but I needed to avoid the winds and thermals of the Alaskan afternoon. I’d done true course and altitude planning and weight and balance calculations the day before (and I was flying the same route as my night cross country) so I wasn’t worried about needing a lot of time to do my final wind calculations (I was wrong). The winds aloft for the morning are updated at 6am but I’ve since learned that starting calculations at 7am is too late due to how slow I currently do the math.

Because I was slightly late, another student was allowed to use my plane for a short solo practice run while I got the xc endorsement from CFI7. When I filed my flight plan at 9am, I was speaking to the same briefer who’d given me the FSS tour yesterday, ha! You can tell he spends too much time on the radio & phone because he recognized me from just my undistinctive voice ;). Today I learned that flight plans not activated are automatically deleted from the system after 2 hours.

There was full fuel when the other student started …and she was only in the air for half an hour (burning ~4 gallons, and leaving me way more than enough fuel for my trip)…but I still wanted to top off the tanks before leaving. Delay, delay, delay – part of me was still secretly hoping to find a way out of going because I was so apprehensive. I hadn’t been allowed to do solo work since November because all my flights had been when it was too windy. I really wanted to do a loop out to the practice area first to ensure I’d actually be able to find PAFA from the air…but the other part of me didn’t understand my own apprehension. This year, I’d been doing fine at recognizing airports from a distance. Plus, I had GPS, Fairbanks’ VOR, and once near Fairbanks, I could get radar vectors at any time.

I finally got going at 10am.

My first “passenger” as PIC. He’ll be guarding the legally required survival gear for this trip. He’s developed a pinhole leak since my first solo flight and I haven’t had to to re-inflate.

TRSA departure on 2R, easy enough to handle. But I was having the same sidetone and volume issues as on a previous flight so I missed when tower told me to contact departure. Ended up flying across the entire city of Fairbanks before I was able to ask to switch to departure and turn on course:

UAF. Hey look, I live in that building down there!
UAF. Hey look, I live in that building down there!

I saw Murphy Dome:

Murphy Dome
Murphy Dome

Hey…that means I’m about 7 miles north of my intended path, grr.

My first moment to myself in the air. It started getting bumpy so I couldn’t take time for the camera to do a light correction and let me see the outside background.
Getting back on track – Minto Lakes ahead
Minto Lakes – woah, these colors!
Minto Lakes
Tanana River (near old Minto?) – flying from Fairbanks to Manley
Tanana River from Fairbanks to Manley
Interior Alaska

It was somewhere around here that I realized that the GPS was indicating I was about 3 miles off track. No matter which direction I turned though, the distance off track still kept increasing (up to 9 nm off track at one point)….but it was really a lack of patience – of course one direction has to be the  correct one – I just didn’t wait long enough for the distance to start decreasing. I finally realized that on that specific GPS: “- – – -Δ” meant turn left and: “Δ- – – -” meant turn right. Number of dashes increases with distance off track. ‘On course’ was: Δ, it’s what I vividly remembered from the xc the other day. CFI4 was told of my gaff and he did call me that evening to answer any additional questions I may have had. That was sweet of him.

I had a SPOT GPS tracker with me and I later saw this track:

First solo cross country flight - SPOT GPS track updates position ~every 10 minutes.
First solo cross country flight – SPOT GPS track updates position ~every 10 minutes.

Manley (PAML) is point ’12’. Note I was on track until point ‘6’, and then I somehow ended up at point ‘7’. What happened was that I knew I’d have to go through a low point between two hills…and I chose the wrong set of hills. Between points 6 and 7, I remember I had caught a glimpse of houses at point 12 and I realized what had happened (lucky me that there are no other signs of civilization out this way). I went around the hill at 12 and saw the entirety of Manley. I was really high and I knew I needed to do a low approach anyways to pick my landing runway (no weather information has been available at Manley since the weather observer there passed away). I flew south of the Tanana and back north parallel to runway 36. Winds almost straight out of the north, hurray. 36 has left traffic (woo, one less decision I had to make)….but it did make things a bit too exciting for me since there is a large hill to the left of 36:

The entire community of Manley Hot Springs. Runway 36 and hill to the left.
The entire community of Manley. Runway 36 and hill to the left.

I ended up doing a go around on my first approach because I felt I was too high (no glide slope indicator at PAML to assist). The second attempt was fine though; it was one of the softer landings I had ever done although my flare angle wasn’t as high as it should have been for an extreme soft field landing (look at all that gravel in the next picture!). Someone else had put a huge ding in this very same propeller just the other day on this very runway – glad I did not.

Taxiing to the end of runway 36. Turnaround point in front and taxiway to the left.
Taxiing to the end of runway 36 at PAML. Turn-around point in front and taxiway to the left.

There are large turn-around points at both ends of the runway and I was originally going to just turn around and take off again, but I found that the mud was super soft at those turn-arounds. Running the power up higher overcame the sponginess but I was a little concerned for a moment that I was truly stuck. I discovered later that up until recently, PAML had a NOTAM to be cautious of using the turnarounds for that exact reason – they probably should have kept the NOTAM around in my opinion.

I decided after that situation, I wanted a break. Turned onto the taxiway and then noticed it was sloped downwards. Another minor moment of panic as I wondered if the plane would be able to make it back up to the runway. Fortunately though, I saw 2 planes parked at the tie downs – whew, if they could make it up to the runway, so could I.

Taxiway back up to the runway at PAML
Taxiway back up to the runway at PAML. Looking at the angle going up isn’t so bad. Being higher up and looking down was concerning.
The 152 and me at the Manley Airport tiedown. I somehow managed to spin and push the plane off the taxiway (yay, muscles) and I’m going for a walk. Wish I had time for the hot springs here.
Old PAML runway (thru ~October 2013). 2850x20. That's nuts.
Old, closed PAML runway (active thru ~October 2013). 2850’x20′. That’s nuts. 20′?!? Houses all along the left side of this picture (beyond the trees).

The 14 gallons of fuel in the tanks was plenty to finish my trip (only 6 needed), but that meant my PAFA-PAML leg had taken 5.5 more gallons than I’d calculated. Darn it. “I will not get lost again!” Back in the air to Nenana (PANN). Interestingly, the sidetone issue had disappeared and I could hear myself talk now. I’ve really got to figure this out. CFI4 showed me how to do it last time but I forgot.

Tanana River – great reference I can follow on the way to Nenana

This was when the battery to the GoPro I was using cut out…so I unfortunately don’t have any good pictures of PANN. 2 batteries only lasted 2 hours, darn (was even turned off for my walk at PAML). However…the entire PAFA-PAML-PANN-PAFA loop was only supposed to take 90 minutes. What was I doing, mmmm.

Hey, signs of civilization. The Nenana bridge is really distinctive; surprise for me: I *do* see the airport from a distance 🙂 . But I was way too high to reach pattern altitude without shallow turns, and I was a little further to the south than I intended to be. Click to picture to zoom in.

My experience at PANN was not my favorite landing experience. PANN has an ASOS which allowed me to decide on runway 4L early on…but I let myself get flustered because I hadn’t started descending early enough. I knew I was going for a low approach straight over 4L and then would enter the pattern – but I forgot 4L has right traffic. I realized my mistake as I was going to turn left and start flying towards the town on crosswind. I remembered in the A/FD that pilots are not allowed to fly over the town for noise control. I just went way wide, then it was easy to enter a right downwind for 4L. I was about 50′ off the runway when a sudden burst of wind made the right wing drop suddenly. I chickened out and did a go around. Coming around again, my downwind was slightly angled towards the runway due to wind, and I may have turned base slightly too late. Somehow, I managed to correct for everything and got an okay touch-and-go at PANN.

The trek back to Fairbanks was uneventful, thank goodness.


I got a straight in final to runway 2R which made me nervous but I knew I needed to practice my straight in finals. Height slightly high and my speed was much faster than I was happy with (not white arc) – this was a problem for all of my landings today actually. Got things sorted out, and then, above the runway, the winds picked up a little. I messed up and did the downward sloped wavey up and down all down the runway before I touched down. The mains only came up slightly one time.  Had a pilot friend in the pattern who noted he saw my nose go up and down a few times after the mains touched, but the moment the nosewheel actually touched down, it stayed down. That’s good I think. To be ever critical, I didn’t use gentle rudder pressure to control my taxi direction and I’ll admit I didn’t stay on the centerline the entire time.

Flight time was about 20 minutes longer than I had filed for – but I was still under the 30 minutes “we’ll come search for you” mark. I’d realized I was 10minutes over when talking to Fairbanks Approach, but I was too hesitant to ask for a temporary frequency change to close the plan….and I know they always say not to close until you are safely back on the ground….I wish I could definitively figure out the radios so I could listen on 2 frequencies and talk on 1. I’m pretty sure I’ve got it, but I was too shy to try.

It was an interesting flight and I definitely learned a lot for future flights. It also marks my passing of the 40 hour flight time mark. Bittersweet.


The long cross country is scheduled for tomorrow – and I haven’t been this tired in years – flying alone was stressful. I hope I’m up for it.


Flight to New Airports

Alaskan sunset on PAFA and the Alaska Range, 10pm. View from upper campus, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Today was a such a stunning day to fly in the Alaskan Interior!

I somehow managed to schedule my short and long cross-country flights for this week amidst tons of other student bookings, but as I discussed in a previous post, because I did my 2 previous cross-country flights with 2 different instructors, I needed a few more tenths of an hour with either CFI3 or CFI4 before I got the solo cross county endorsement (3 hours minimum needed with one instructor). Even if I had the endorsement though, it has been so long since I’ve had to do cross country stuff (VOR, GPS, E6B, etc), I wanted to do a short dual before I had to do a solo (even though I know it’s not cost effective CFI2).

Alaska has super gusty winds during spring and summer days so windless(ish) flights must be early morning or evening. I got an evening dual cross country with CFI4. We did PAFA-95Z-PACL-PANN-PAFA (Fairbanks – North Pole (Bradley) – Clear – Nenana – Fairbanks). It’s just long enough to qualify as a cross country flight and also gave me lots of practice landing at other airports. I was excited because I didn’t realize there was an airport in North Pole and I had never been close to the Clear (PACL) radome before.

skyvector.com graphic of flight route: PAFA-95Z-PACL-PANN-PAFA

It had been dark, smokey, and windy all day so I was worried about my flight being canceled, but as soon as I got the the airport, the winds got pretty calm and the sun came out. Yay!

It’s a bit smokey at PAFA

In my original flight plan, I’d scheduled 95Z-PANN-PACL but it was obviously shorter to do 95Z-PACL-PANN. It took about an hour to redo the flight plan and then we were off!

I found the lighted crane in the NOTAMs! Construction crane near the University of Alaska engineering building.

95Z is a narrow little 60ft wide dirt strip southwest of North Pole. Funnily enough, the town of North Pole has a latitude slightly south of Fairbanks. It’s where kids’ Christmas letters to Santa go in December 🙂 It was a ridiculously short ~7min, 12nm flight from PAFA – way cooler than the normal 30min car ride. Our TRSA departure had us further south of our route than planned so that gave me more air time to set up (open flight plan, etc). I unfortunately forgot to write the available runways/CTAF frequency on my flight plan worksheet (arrah), so I’m lucky CFI4 knew them by heart. I had just enough time to find it on my sectional & A/FD, but that would have been extremely flustering with so little time to start with.

Even knowing the runway orientations, 95Z was extremely hard for me to pick out amongst the town’s roads. Makes me thankful to fly in Alaska where a lot of runways are in isolated areas. ‘That’s a runway?!?’ Ah, always look for the parked planes.

Gusty crosswinds at 95Z prompted CFI4 to ‘strongly assist’ in my touch-and-go on runway 15: thank goodness – it was scary. And I was constantly being told to think ‘extreme soft field’ on this gravel runway – ahhh stressful. The plane scared a flock of geese east of the runway – I’m glad CFI4 had the controls and flew us to the right of them as they started flying directly over and along the runway. I didn’t even notice they were there at first!

For the first time, I was able to positively identify the Clear Creek Butte – a boundary point of my normal practice area. I’m definitely getting better at finding landmarks from the air – happiness. We did more hood work on the leg to Clear and I didn’t get the ‘leans’ as before – fantastic! Moderate turbulence meant I didn’t have to have a laser focus on the altimeter, just work to keep us level and on heading. Also had to throttle back to keep the plane under the placarded maneuvering speed (104kts for this specific 152) to avoid undue stresses. Played around with triangulation via both the Fairbanks and Nenana VORs, and then it was time to descend.

PACL was relatively easy to pick out because the radome (golf ball looking white dome) was very visible amongst the lush verdant landscape. It was so gorgeous today – I really wish I had asked to get a picture. Winds were calmer than at 95Z, but still had gusty crosswinds. I couldn’t find the windsock, but a nearby septic pond confirmed that I could use Nenana ASOS winds and do L traffic for 19. PACL is tricky because of a restricted area immediately west of the airport – therefore, the runway inspection was mostly straight over the runway instead of a healthy distance off to the (R)side.

The antenna east of the runway seemed too close for comfort on downwind – but I’m still bad at judging distances. I think I maybe should have gotten closer to it because my base leg was too short for me to do a sharp rectangular pattern. I still made it, but it definitely would have been a go-around if I was by myself. Onward to the next runway.

PANN’s runway south of the town was also relatively easy for me to pick out. I also had the benefit of the Parks highway and small hill (where the ENN VOR is). There are 3 parallel runways at PANN, and I can never remember which one is the paved one – but it is fairly easy to pick out from the air. The REIL strobe-y lights help of course. Winds calm? Much more than I could hope for – and strange for PANN (unless PAFA winds are out of the southwest – then geography makes most places in the interior windy except PANN – funny how that works). Immediately after I made my CTAF call for the downwind (L traffic for runway 22), a cub announced that they would be overflying PANN. They were 18nm northwest of Nenana, but it still made me nervous to essentially be flying straight at them on downwind (CFI4 never nervous since he knew it would taken them a few minutes to get close). Having someone else on the CTAF frequency made me sit up straighter to do good self-announcements – wasn’t expecting anyone else to be listening to me!

My landing wasn’t very soft or centered, but was straight. Winds were calm so CFI4 had me do another touch-and-go. As I turned downwind again, I spotted the incoming traffic, 2 cubs! They had been making consistent self-announcements of their overfly of PANN but I wasn’t listening to tail numbers and missed that there were 2 planes in formation – cool thing to see. Went a little wide to the right to avoid them as CFI4 announced that we had them in sight and would stay to their east. Second landing was same as the first.

Back to Fairbanks. Fairbanks Approach spoke a little fast for me to catch that they gave me a right base for 20L. Me: “Hey wait, 20L is supposed to have left traffic… [A/FD, my experiences up to today, etc]” – now I see that tower can give you any direction they want though… CFI4 showed me that you can just confirm the R base with tower. The windsocks were too hard for me to identify, but CFI4 showed me how to use the float pond to see that I’d have a tailwind on base. Finally! I see what the instructors were looking for on water surfaces (Water is lower than the banks. One bank acts as a wind block [on the side where the wind is coming from] so water on that side is flat. Ripples on the other side.). With knowledge of the tailwind, I managed to start the turn to final early and set up nicely. Same type of landing I made at Nenana – I really want softer landings! Happily straight at least. And I’m getting better at correcting for variable speed crosswinds on final.

I’m always too easy on the brakes but CFI4 showed me that I can use quite a bit of force (simultaneously pull back on yoke to ease pressures on the shimmy damper) – then I can get off the runway quicker.

Spot GPS track of the flight, PAFA-95Z-PACL-PANN-PAFA
Alaskan sunset on PAFA and the Alaska Range, 10pm. View from upper campus, University of Alaska Fairbanks


Things I can think of to lighten my workload/things to remember:

  • When doing the weight&balance, be careful when reading the moment from the POH. Be sure I’m reading the correct markings (ex. each axis marking is 2 vs 5 [units], I’m forever mixing my markings up).
  • Turn the sectional so that it is orientated in the direction of flight.
  • One can never have enough pencils. I need to tie one to my clipboard so I can’t lose it in flight like I did with my 3 today. Or I can borrow a real kneeboard from the flight school which has a pencil holder.
  • Think ahead to where/what time to start my descent. This ‘new’ 152’s GPS has the easy to find display that shows my ‘time remaining’ – I just need to remember to use it.
  • I have a bad habit of not paying attention to the winds when getting my weather information – although I can tell you every other variable stated. Without the winds, it’s impossible to plan ahead to which runway to use/traffic direction. Also remember to use the correct aileron orientation for the given winds.
  • For landing at Fairbanks, remember the ATIS tells you which runways are in use! Use that to visualize the approach to the airport and anticipate the instructions from tower.
  • Before descending, don’t forget to enrich the mixture.
  • Turn to base: I almost always pull up to make a level turn which makes me very high on final. Grr. Pitch down Christina! And when high, take quicker action: 1. reduce power and add in the last notch of flaps or 2. execute the go-around.
  • Do smoother rudder inputs/controls [when landing]!
  • On CTAF, don’t forget to add whether the landing is a touch-and-go or something else.
  • Taxi slower, especially near other planes. CFI4 recommends 800rpm before applying brakes to avoid undue wear.
Sunset at PAFA

The Night Cross Country Flight

After 3 weeks without flying, the night xc flight finally arrives!

Flight route: PAFA-PAML-PACL-PAFA [skyvector.com graphic]
Planned night cross country flight route: PAFA-PAML-PACL-PAFA [skyvector.com graphic]. Ended up doing PAFA-PAML-PANN-PAFA (PANN is in the compass circle near image center) so CFI3 was very sure we’d avoid the restricted area west of PACL.
Ground winds 0kts all day at both destinations. Skies clear. I tried really hard not to get my hopes up because I kept remembering how fast Alaskan weather could change.

Went to the flight school early to do everything as perfectly as possible. As soon as the night winds aloft were posted, I did my wind correction angle calculations; finished the compass heading, groundspeed, time, and fuel calculations. I had prepared weight&balance numbers for the 150 but it’s still down for its 100hr inspection/diagnostic of a hard starting problem. Had to redo my stuff for the 152 last minute because I’d forgotten which plane I was flying.

CFI4’s car broke down as he was driving to the flight school. I was getting ready to go home and continue my long string of waiting, but CFI3 came back from another student’s night flight and agreed to go with me. Cool!

Pre-snow on the ground, the CFIs took care of all fueling – aw isn’t that nice. But now that it’s cold, I’ve noticed them making students fuel more. I have only fueled the plane ~twice so I’m still not completely confident in my ability to correctly complete all steps. In fact…I was filling the left wing in the 152 but didn’t know to look into the tank to know when to stop (I’ve always only been told to hold the handle down for ‘X# of seconds’ because we’ve never needed a full tank). Wasted about half a gallon of 100LL on the tarmac, gah!

Our 152 doesn’t have a GPS, but does have ipad foreflight. It was having problems turning on in the cold – definitely something I should have taken care of before starting the plane and rolling out to the run-up area. I’m now convinced to have an extra charged warm ipad available when flying the 152 – I mean, what is one to do if the first ipad dies? There’s no other in-plane GPS available. Charts are okay in daylight but pilotage is impossible at night… Tonight, CFI3 had his own charged unit as a backup.

CFI3 had me open my flight plan in the run-up area instead of waiting til I was in the air (as I had done for the day xc). I like this better because it was less workload later.

Flying to Manley (PAML) was uneventful except for the fact that I kept drifting off heading. I also let myself be distracted by CFI3 teaching me to use foreflight. He kept asking for information I knew was on my written flight plan – but was more easily/quickly available on foreflight (if one knows where to look! Which I didn’t….). Foggles on, although they didn’t really make a difference in my vision – route had absolutely no lights anywhere. Moon wasn’t up yet and there was no aurora. Lovely darkness. I was surprised that I never felt any disorientation in the air tonight (even though I couldn’t see anything but the instruments and that darn sloped dashboard).

It took me longer than I liked to set up a good stabilized approach for landing at PAML. Runway was in true darkness – unlike at PAFA. No PAPI (this was a first). Much harder than my previous night landings. CFI3 had to help with the moderate crosswinds down to pattern altitude. Landing itself was fine but I freaked CFI3 out when I went to do the ‘go’ part of what I thought was a touch-and-go. There are mountains at the end of my runway – I had misunderstood his earlier instruction to taxi to the end and turn around. Trying to quickly correct my mistake, I forgot that you do not use the wheel brakes on an icy runway. Supposed to do aerodynamic braking by pulling back on the yoke. Minor sliding, exasperated CFI3 who was disappointed I didn’t already have all the basic winter flying tips in mind. Sorry!

In our short time on the ground, we were visible on the airport weather cams (we were monitored from the flight school), neat 🙂

Takeoff good, focus went immediately to the attitude indicator when airborne, as it should  have been. Foggles on. CFI3 turned off my ipad and told me to divert to Nenana (PANN) instead of flying to Clear (PACL). I had the correct VOR frequency ready to go from my flight plan notes, but then I messed the steps up. First, I put the VOR frequency in the COM radio instead of NAV. Then I forgot how to tell if you were receiving the station (hear morse code/TWEB broadcast) and how to tell which radial you are on (just center the needle!). Ugg at myself! I knew this stuff. I’ve done it before. I wasn’t expecting to need VOR knowledge tonight (PAML and PACL don’t have VORs), but that is no excuse.

Light turbulence was minorly distracting.

Position report/update flight plan with FSS: I’d written an RCO frequency on my flight plan but it was wrong. Darn it. Then my mind blanked on how to find an usable frequency on the sectional. It’s in a large box Christina, sheesh….

Overshot my intended altitude by 1200ft because distracted by VOR stuff. Problems maintaining correct heading continued, kept ending up 400ft high (slightly ‘off’ trim settings on my part). I’d forgotten to look up this leg’s cruise tachometer vs altitude settings from the 152’s POH, which was just embarrassing.

PANN landing: pretty nice. Used wheel brakes again (ah, what is wrong with me?). Takeoff fine but I didn’t focus on the attitude indicator as immediately after takeoff as I should have.

Mumbled a little when contacting Fairbanks Approach. Ooops.

PAFA landing: straight in final. Started too low, then went way too high, then was way too fast (80kts, oops), then too low, ah! But actual touchdown surprisingly good, straight & centered.

My GPS groundtrack is pretty lousy – not straight lines between destinations. Man…

SPOT personal GPS track of my night xc flight
SPOT personal GPS track of my night xc flight

We returned 45 minutes later than my initial calculations. We used 6 more gallons of fuel than I’d calculated (not insignificant!). Fortunately, we still had an extra hour of fuel left (even though we were late). CFI3 pointed out that my flight plan had not included any taxiing/stopping time for any of the airports. D’oh. My planned trip with CFI4 had no extended stops, no stop and goes – unlike what I did tonight with CFI3. I should have built in taxi time anyways and I take full responsibility for that mistake (but I choose to be in a pretty bad mood because of it. I hate being wrong).

Overall, I’m not too impressed with my performance tonight. CFI3 has got to just think I’m an idiot.


Things to work on:

  • Study the terrain more before xc flights. I knew the general features, but CFI3 asked for specific peak terrain heights – which I had to search for. I should have known these.
  • Leaning the mixture: I still don’t see the minor rise in RPMs I’m looking for…
  • Landing: take the initiative in using flaps instead of waiting for CFI prompting.
  • Visualizing the correct runway shape when landing without a glide slope indicator: my night hours are now done so I will only get to practice this in daytime.
  • Bring a headlamp to all flights. Dual night hours could still happen if I schedule flights ‘late’ in the day. In the 150, we’ve only used the red dome light. Tonight, both CFI3 and I had red headlamps on.  It was nice to get light wherever I looked.
  • Taxiing: I think I’m centered but I’m really too far to the left.
  • Taxiing: slooow down [when there’s ice].
  • I’ve finally figured out how to use a radio system with more than one radio. The 150 only has 1 so I’ve never had to deal with selecting transmit 1/2, phone 1/2. The 152’s speaker option is disconnected – simplifies my options even more. Since only fly the 152 if absolutely necessary, it will be a challenge to retain this new knowledge.


 On the leg to PAML, CFI3 asked if I realized how close I probably came to dying on Saturday’s flight. Dark question. I  said maybe and asked him to explain: Firstly, icing could have been a lot worse. ‘It was a stupid decision to fly through a cloud in winter in a plane without de-icing capabilities (moisture + freezing temperatures = bad)’. Mistake: not constantly asking for updated weather throughout the flight (ex. the freezing rain at Galena shouldn’t have been a surprise we discovered at PAUN FBO). Flying through the clouds on the way back to PAFA: risked icing again with no good (close) diversion airports on the remote west coast; should have overnighted in Unalakleet.

My First Cross Country Flight – Nenana & Minto, Alaska

Fairbanks sunrise
Fairbanks sunrise

Flight block at 8:30am – so early!!! It’s not a big secret I enjoy waking up ~2pm. But with daylight savings today, Fairbanks sunrise is at 8:40am & sunset at 4:20pm this week; daylight still getting shorter. I need to get used to morning flights because there won’t be time to fly in my afternoons.

I was extra tired because I procrastinated on my ground school homework. Woke up slightly cranky but who could stay grumpy when one gets to fly a plane?


Last lesson (Friday), CFI2 told CFI4 that I was to do my first cross country flight today (Sunday) – sounded awesome to me before I realized that meant I had to read 3 huge sections in the Jeppesen online ground school (‘aircraft performance’, ‘navigation’, and ‘flying cross country’). I thought I’d have plenty of time. Out of the blue, I got a text message from the school at 5pm on Saturday (they track student progress online and had noticed I hadn’t done anything, oops). I had run into delays all day in changing the all-season tires on my car to snow tires. I have two sets of rims, one for winter, one for summer – so it is a fairly straight-forward process: jack up the car, loosen some lugnuts, swap tires. However, you remember from my last post that Fairbanks now has snow all over the ground… I spent all morning waiting for the people who store my tires to wake up and unlock the storage closet (no tires are allowed in the dormitory where I live) – then I had to wait for my friend with a garage (snow free floors, yay) to wake up. Tire change took me 2 hours because I’m an automobile inexperienced girly-girl sometimes (but I managed it without any help!). Ugg, it was 6pm, where did my day go?

I was considering canceling my flight, but being a huge asian stereotype, I stubbornly refused to let a mountain of homework hold me back. 10 hours of work later, I had scratched the surface of: reading all types of performance charts in POHs, mechanical flight computers, computing plane weight and balance, VOR navigation, pilotage & dead reckoning, GPS, navigation, ADF navigation. My head was swimming, and I really wished I had completed a ground school before actually starting to fly. There’s no way I learned everything in the lessons, will need to go through it all again.


Skyvector graphic: PAFA-PAN-51Z-PAFA
Skyvector.com graphic: PAFA-PANN-51Z-PAFA

CFI4 picked our cross country route: Fairbanks (PAFA), Nenana (PANN), Minto (51Z), Fairbanks. First we worked through the steps  of filling out a VFR navigation log. The calculations using a mechanical flight computer seem so foreign right now, but I have to admit, it was really cool to be able to do all the heading corrections and speed, enroute time, and fuel burn calculations with just a metal sliding circle. [BTW fellow pilots, do I really need to buy my own?]

In filing my first flight plan with the local Flight Service Station (FSS), we discovered that my Georgia area code cell phone won’t connect to any FSS via the normal 1-800 number because I’m on Alaskan cell towers. At least the local number is fine.

Preflight: when lowering the final 10° of flaps on the 150, the gear mechanism made the plane shudder. CFI4 said it was just because the plane was cold (this will probably continue to happen all winter). I didn’t notice anything when using flaps in the air.

PAFA taxiway lines had been partially scraped clean of snow, but it was really impressive to see the entire run-up area completely dry and snow-free. De-icing liquid is really something.

After getting set up on course and opening my flight plan, CFI4 pulled out the foggles:

Foggles - lets you see your flight instruments but not out the windows
Foggles – lets you see your flight instruments but not out the windows

Aw, my first real flight out of PAFA and I wouldn’t be able to see anything.

I discovered that my equilibrium is way off. I forgot to watch the attitude indicator at first and I thought ‘level’ flight was a 25° bank to the left. Corrections were made and actual level flight was maintained, but I felt like I was in a 30° turn on the entire trip to Nenana (~24 minutes). This makes me nervous for when I do my instrument rating.

Comparing foggle use with experiences under the hood: I don’t know if I have a favorite. The ‘leans’ were more pronounced when using foggles but that could be a physiological effect independent of the type of view-limiter used.

In additional to foggles, my PAFA-PANN leg also coincided with my first use of the plane’s VOR receiver. It’s a simple enough premise to keep the line vertical, but I’m not sure I’ll like it for actual long distance navigation on my own.

CFI4 surprised me by letting me take pictures throughout my flight, awesome! I’m a little envious at how stable the plane felt when he had the flight controls (light turbulence today).

Here is Nenana. The town is on the right of the picture, just beyond the ridge. The runway is all the way on the left. In driving through Nenana, I always thought the airstrip was way closer to all the buildings.

Nenana, Alaska. The ice in the river (bottom right) is really cool looking.
Nenana Airport, straight ahead. I didn’t realize there were 3 runways before today. Only 1 on the sectional chart…

This was my first landing at an uncontrolled airport and I definitely forgot to self announce my base and final legs. I believe ASOS reported a 14 knot crosswind, gusting to 20? This touch-and-go was somewhat terrifying. I forgot that you turn the ailerons all the way into the wind as the main wheels touch. Thank goodness for the competent instructor in the plane (whew, we didn’t flip).

Next stop: Minto. Minto Flats was so pretty with the hundreds of iced lakes/ponds. As we headed to the runway, I had to use the flight computer to calculate our speed, compare to the GPS values. It’s so weird to be able to take your eyes off the outside of the plane for a relatively ‘extended’ period (unlike driving a car :D).

The entire town of Minto, Alaska
The entire town of Minto, Alaska, ~11am. Picture taken as we left; CFI4 was suddenly reminded that I wanted pictures of my flights and took the controls to do some really wild steep turns. Fun.

Minto runway was 2 inches of packed snow on top of gravel. It was built up from ground level with a lot of gravel….but it just made the runway look like it rose up out of the ground for no reason (cool). Runway lights were pilot controlled. I tried to key it for the highest intensity, but apparently I can’t count to 7. I kept doing 9 because I lost count (so we got no lights, bleh).

The winds were initially straight down the runway, but I got a strong crosswind as I flared. Again, I forgot full ailerons as we touched down. My soft field landing attitude was way too level so CFI4 made me do it again. Same mistakes, ahh! (but slightly less severe). Both were straight, but not down the center. I again forgot to self announce base and final.

Minto, Alaska
All the buildings in Minto, Alaska

On the way back, I picked an altitude of 5500ft (the highest I’ve ever piloted so far).  It was high so we could clear Murphy Dome:

Murphy Dome
Murphy Dome; the weather instruments can kind of be seen in the picture.

I still can’t find Fairbanks from the air. How can I miss it? It’s right on the Tanana River, sigh. I can’t wait ’til I’m good at recognizing things from the air. 😀

Fairbanks from the northwest – city is beyond the deep brown hills in the middle of the picture.


Things to work on:

  • Correct trim. I’ve noticed that the 150 is touchier to correctly trim when compared to the 152. My altitude was constantly +/- 100ft of what I wanted.
  • Landings: I had too much power in as I flared all 4 times; used up too much runway. My last landing was so pretty until I forgot to pull the power to idle (still ballooning too).
  • Remember to self announce all pattern legs at uncontrolled airports

Adventure Time in the Arrow: Air Tour of Fairbanks

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.

Fairbanks, Alaska. Oh hey, you can see the running track.

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 😀

University of Alaska Fairbanks
University of Alaska Fairbanks

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.

Partially frozen reservoir for the mine
Approaching the open pit mine, Fort Knox
Ooo, water at the bottom of the mine. And tiny, tiny trucks going down the spiral 😀

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).

Gold mining dredge in Chatanika, Alaska; prefire [wikipedia]
Chatanika dredge, October 21 2013 [http://www.flickr.com/photos/musubk]
Chatanika dredge, October 21 2013 [http://www.flickr.com/photos/musubk]

See the cluster of buildings (Chatnika Lodge)? The dredge is across the road, located where that waterway splits in two
Poker Flat Research Range – this is a great view of the lower buildings (and the incoherent scatter radar! – lower right whitish panel)
Poker Flat – lidar building (think ‘laser radar’ – you can actually see the green laser beam at night 🙂 )
Poker Flat – aurora observing room (and the sky cameras) are down there
The upper buildings of Poker Flat (lidar & aurora)

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).

Looking south of Fairbanks, Alaska towards the Alaska Range
Looking south of Fairbanks, Alaska towards the Alaska Range

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.

Minto Flats: so many ponds!
Minto Flats: we thought we saw a moose in the water! but it was just a rock.

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.

Nenana, AK
The bridges by Nenana, AK

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!).

So fluffy!
Some mountain peak south of Fairbanks

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. 😉

Fairbanks Airport – Cloud bank over the Tanana River obscured the runways until we were really close
Back at Fairbanks, 2R

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.