I recently traveled to “The Last Frontier” (yes, you guessed it, Alaska!) for work. When I realized I was scheduled to be in Anchorage only a week after the annual Valdez Fly-in and Air Show, I booked an earlier flight and requested Paid Time Off (PTO). I am so glad I did! The main day of the annual Talkeetna Fly-in was the day before my work engagement started as well so I was able to attend both events and, of course, do a bit of flying while in both places. One cannot visit Alaska without taking to the skies.
Lake Hood, the world's busiest seaplane base, in Anchorage
Flying means different things to different people. However, aircraft are the lifeblood of Alaska; they are essentially “flying pick-up trucks.” They often rotate between having bush wheels, floats, and skis throughout the year. Bush pilots fly in and around the backcountry, in a mostly roadless state, where only aircraft can provide access and bring supplies. They land on different kinds of airstrips, river gravel bars, roads, lakes, mountain tops, and glaciers among other places.
Can you spot the unusual? I don't even see that in Texas but you just never know what animal you'll encounter in the Alaska bush
Attending both fly-ins proved to be completely different experiences. While both offered the fairly typical fly-in events (airshow performances, a poker run, booths, food, etc), the Valdez Short-Field Take-Off and Landing (STOL) competition was the original (almost empty weight with minimum fuel and the pilot) demonstration while the Talkeetna one was a gross-weight STOL competition, which represents more what bush pilots experience (multiple passengers and/or lots of gear). In addition, Valdez offered presentations, a balloon bust, flour bombing, and a “bonfire on the beach” flight run while Talkeetna included a scavenger/treasure hunt and a unicycle race. Ha!
Not many flying C-46s out there... It was cool to see it and hear stories from the Everts Air Cargo pilots (can you spot it doing a low pass in the first picture?)
One of the presentations in Valdez by a couple of celebrated local bush pilots
The weather forecast for Valdez was calling for a 90-100% chance of snow showers but I'm glad I did not listen to it and went anyway. It did not snow once and the ceilings were pretty good from early Saturday afternoon. I later learned from the locals that weather forecasts in Alaska are normally wrong and are not to be trusted. Yup, it proved that way throughout my time there.
The weather kept some people away but there was still a good turnout of both participants and attendees
Per STOL competition rules, takeoffs begin from the drawn starting line and judges measure where the main wheels leave the ground and, on landings, mains cannot touch down before the drawn line and distance is measured to where the mains stop. Both distances are combined to add up to a total score. Two runs are scored and the best of the two is entered. The lower, the better! All participants were very impressive to watch; however, only a few can win and set new records.
A beautiful Cons-Vult L-13 flown by Chuck Miller had a 238 score with a 101 ft take-off and a 137 ft landing in Valdez. A Maule 235 flown by Isaac Bedingfield won the Light Touring Class with a 183 score, composed of an 85 ft take-off and a 98 ft landing. The Light Sport Class achieved two new records: an 11 ft take-off and a 9.5 ft landing by Frank Knapp (who ultimately won the class and seen on takeoff and landing below) and Dan Reynolds respectively. Yes, those are not typos. My favorite, the Alternate Bush Class, was spearheaded by Toby Ashley with a Carbon Cub. His best run had a 29 ft take-off and a 76 ft landing. Jacob Williams won the Bushg Class (with nothing but Piper PA-18s) performing a 58 ft takeoff and a 78 ft landing. All classes were won by Alaskans but, believe it or not, Florida was well represented as well.
Courtesy of www.arturopoloena.com
Courtesy of www.arturopoloena.com
A view of the Valdez Airport and its surrounding
Valdez was not only about the fly-in... the town has beauty of its own
The phrase “there are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old, bold pilots” very much applies in Alaska, too. Bush pilots are the rare breed I thought they were but not the “cowboy pilots” I thought they would be. Total command of the aircraft is an absolute must and risk mitigation, weighing situations carefully and making smart decisions, is a way of life.
While I did attempt to fly with all “landing gear modes” (big tires, skis, floats, and skids), I was not successful in achieving the skis one because it is too late in the season and the weather did not allow a lot of higher elevation flying. That’s ok; that gives me an excuse to come back at a better time (I hear March is pretty good).
As always, all aircraft provided different missions, experiences, vistas, adrenaline, etc and each requires different skills. And I did get to land on a glacier – with the helicopter (again)! This page's top picture shows this. That’s always a highlight for me. Landing on a glacier is just a special treat most places cannot offer. And the views from the helicopter are just like no other... Do I sound bias?
If you have read some of my other blogs, you may know I like to see things from both the ground and the air. Here's Valdez Glacier Lake from both angles. The 3D one takes the cake here (and normally)
A different view of the glacier and its amazing "terrain"
The beautiful, turquoise glacier peaking through the rocks
And from Valdez to Talkeetna (which took some practice to say it correctly)...
I had a first in this trip – flying a floatplane! I have a Single-Engine Sea (SES) rating; however, I have always flown flying boats, never a floatplane. It was different and, I'll say it, not as much fun. There’s just something about being “in” the water versus “on” the water. Taxiing on the step just was not the same… If I wasn't biased before, I definitely am now, haha
Known worldwide as "flower power" (from Alaska Floats and Skis)
In addition to splashing at a couple of lakes, we also flew down two different river sections
And then there was the big, Alaska tires. I’ve had the privilege of flying in other bush planes in the past but never in the “home state.” Flying through Denali National Park with one provided fantastic views (although not of Mount Denali itself due to weather). I have lots and lots of pictures from this flight but here is a sampling.
A cool representation of the route of flight from Talkeetna
Better to be in the bush plane than the float plane for this flight, huh? Fog and frozen lakes...
Beginning a trip up Ruth Glacier
This is about when yours truly was making the decision that, not knowing the area, it was time to turn around
Leaving the mountains via the Tokositna ("Tok" for friends) Glacier
At the Talkeetna Fly-in… Kevin Doyle with a 1,695-lbs PA-18 Super Cub won, by far, the Certified Bush class with a 124 ft take-off and a 105 ft landing. Tom Hudzinski won the Experimental Bush class with a 1,833-lbs Backcountry Cub and an 86 ft take-off and 59 ft landing. Shawn Holly took the Certified Mid Class with a 2,132-lbs Cessna 170B and a 248 ft takeoff and a 147 ft landing. And, last but not least, the Certified Heavy class was championed by Chad Sutdtell and his 2,511-lbs Cessna 180. His best run showcased a 312 ft take-off and a 251 ft landing.
One of the competitors getting his airplane weighed for the STOL competition
Can you believe Talkeetna still has a Flight Service Station (FSS)? Good old times!
The Talkeetna Airport is the hub for the majority of flights to/from Denali National Park's base camp. You can see most of them on the ground because the weather up in the mountains was not conducive.
So, when are you planning your trip to Alaska – not the birthplace of aviation but certainly the one that has perfected it!?
If you are particularly looking for STOL events, the Lower 48 also has some good STOL demonstrations/competitions as well. You may consider attending the one AOPA is hosting at the Missoula, MT Fly-in June 15-16, the ones at EAA’s Air Venture in Oshkosh, WI, or the 5th Annual Texas STOL Roundup in Hondo on September 28-30. Some of these showcase obstacle in addition to traditional STOLs.
(This only shows a portion of all the fun had in Alaska... and lots of friends were seen and new ones made! Such a good time!)
A summary of this blog appeared in the Aug/Sept 2018 edition of Midwest Flyer Magazine: