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Alaska 2002 CFO Flyin


The Alaska flyin started with an inquiry from Earl Mullins, who hoped to bring together the Cardinal residents of Alaska in a regional gathering of Cardinals. It ended up as an outstanding experience for a few people from 'outside' and at least an introduction to the concept for a few Alaska Cardinal owners.

In attendance were Earl and Alice Mullens, Vince Kreizinger, Mike and Laura (friends of Vince), Rod Combellick, Jerry Weaver, Paul Millner and Keith Peterson.

Vince and Mike flew the interior route from Michigan. They made several stops and took a few diversions along the road, ended up with 30 hours of flying from Detroit to Anchorage. They had stories of many small airports, miles of mountains and glaciers and comments from bar patrons at some fuel stops who had not seen anyone wear shorts in a long time. Evidently doing so is an open invitation to a major blood draining thanks to the local mosquito population. Laura joined us by commercial flight.

Paul and Keith flew up from Paul's base in Oakland, CA, flying along the coastal route. We flew at 16,500, truing out at 155 knots on 9 gallons per hour. It was a two stop trip, with an overnight at Bellingham at the northern tip of Washington and fuel at Sitka, Alaska.

Our total flight time from Oakland, CA, was about 14 hours. We stopped overnight in the northern tip of Washington and flew completely over Canada to Alaska, in spite of less than favorable winds.

The approach to Sitka was interesting, with high terrain all around. It had been a while since either of us had done a full approach in non-radar conditions, so we put a little extra thought into just how this was going to work out. Like every IFR approach, it feels great to finally spot the runway, but even more with tall mountains all around. It was a pretty little town.

After a nice lunch, watching the float planes come and go in the rain, we loaded up for the next leg to Anchorage. Clouds obscured most of the scene, although we enjoyed the mountain tops poking out of the undercast, and had an opening near one of the larger glaciers. It was an amazing sight, especially when we noticed a cruise ship along it's edge. With that familiar object as a reference point the massive nature of the scene was even more evident.

Nearing Anchorage, I was struck by the color of the mountains. They were a deeper black than any I had seen, evidently an indication of their relative youth. The undercast dispersed as we neared our destination and we threaded our way through the complex airspace around Anchorage in VFR conditions.

As we negotiated with Merrill Field for landing clearance we heard Cardinal Seven Victor Kilo arriving from a different direction. Paul said "Hi Vince" and Vince immediately said "Hi Paul". Don't all Cardinal pilots know each other? :-)

Earl had everything ready. Ground control vectored us to the right FBO and let us know that someone would be waiting there to get us to the parking area for the Cardinals.

Earl had claimed the camping area for our gathering, as seen in the picture to the right. Many of the airplanes are missing in this picture since we were all arriving back from our trip to Denali when this picture was taken.

There were welcome signs, special cones marking our spots, a porta-potty and a camper that local CFOer Dennis brought for anyone who was planning to camp.

It was an excellent environment for an extended flyin, and they even brought picnic tables after the first night so we would have a place to pile our gear, tools and parts. On rare occasions we even sat down to relax for a moment.

The hotel rooms Earl had arranged were quite unique. The FBO had built a short row of hangars and put offices and hotel rooms at the back of each. Our room was as nicely appointed as any hotel room and included television, satellite receiver, a computer system and an option in the speaker phone to broadcast the tower frequency. A very nice room indeed, and at a bargain price by Alaskan standards.

Perhaps best of all, the rooms were right at the airport, so we were never far from the action.

Our first day in Alaska started with breakfast and evolved quickly into a maintenance session when Earl's wife, Alice, called to report an electrical problem with their aircraft. She was in the middle of her last day of instrument training, hoping to get the signoff for a checkride when the electrical quit.

We worked through the troubleshooting procedure together and the alternator was found to be the culprit. Local contacts saved the day: an alternator was delivered to the airplane location and an A&P attendee of the event supervised reinstallation of the new part.

Meanwhile others were inspired to lift their cowls and address a variety of small details. Alaska seems to be a 'dig in' sort of place, and we were hopping from aircraft to aircraft to catch the action.

Soon all aircraft had achieve complete airworthiness and we were looking for a test run. The locals suggested a run up the Knik glacier, a short run from Anchorage.

We loaded into two Cardinals and flew up the narrowing valley to the fractured snowfields and moraines. It was a bit challenging to get used to the lack of horizon, flying between walls that seemed close but were miles away, and landmarks like 'toe of George glacier' and 'terminal moraine below the middle lake'.

Words really can't describe the sights to be seen on a flight like this. The texture of the glacier, the color of the pools and lakes, the floating icebergs... and the realization that this snow had been working it's way down this slope for ages, a few feet per year.

Later we talked about what most people see of the glaciers. They drive for miles (and hours) on twisted roads to a single overlook and get a single view of this spectacle. We flew less than an hour and were able to explore the area from many angles, get close to the walls and follow the path of the icepack around the bends and down the canyons.

Truly the only way to see Alaska is by air, especially for we fortunate few who have the chance to fly our own aircraft there.

We were all piled into two Cardinals at this point, Paul's and Vince's. With the close presence of the mountains and glaciers it took a while to adjust our perspective enough to find each other in this large basin. Eventually we found Vince and was able to take a picture of him.

Our visit coincided with the solstice, and it was quite difficult to get used to the continuous light. Those of us from 'outside' were surprised how driven we were by the sun angle. We tended to feel like eating supper around 10 PM, and 1:00 was an early bedtime. Stores seemed to close early, but the street traffic maintained it's pace past midnight.

And it never did get completely dark. Rod, from Fairbanks, commented that it got noticeably darker than he was used to. Local pilots in Anchorage are unable to maintain night currency, since (as Earl explained) the FAA considers dark to be when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon, which it never does in the winter.

We spent the evening at the home of Dennis, one of the Cardinal Flyers in Alaska, ordering in pizza and hearing the story of the Alaskan Capstone project. This system shows traffic and terrain on a UPS moving map display, and was very impressive to see. As a test they had equipped all the aircraft in one area of Alaska and had quite a bit of data on how it worked out for the pilots in that area. It will be great when we all have such systems.

On the way back to the airport Paul saw an old Edsel, the year and model that he remembered as having the same door handles as our Cardinals. On a whim we drove around the block and pulled in by the Edsel just as the owner was pulling his Harley out for a midnight ride, We chatted with him for a while about the fleet of antique cars around his trailer home. The door handles were very close to the Cardinal handles but not quite.

Have I mentioned that the days never seem to end?

Sunday dawned (early, of course) to blue skies and reports of calm winds at Mount McKinley, which is locally known as Denali. It had been renamed in the federal registers for political reasons when McKinley was running for president.

Since this was the trip we had hoped to be able to accomplish during our visit, we made immediate plans to take advantage of the day. Small details like the agenda and breakfast were set aside and we launched our fleet.

The peaks were immediately visible as we flew north, climbing to altitude. We had paired up in three Cardinals, with an expert guide in each airplane.

Soon we were between the peaks and ridges, comforted by the presence of our guides but still flying with heightened adrenalin.

Earl caught the above shot of Paul and Keith as the peaks of Denali started to show their significance.

We arrived at Denali level at 10,500 feet and flew directly toward one of the passes through to the other side. Even though we would the gap, we added a couple of thousands of feet to our altitude just for comfort's sake.

Views like these surrounded us continuously. One could pick up a camera, aim in any direction and get pictures like this.

Interestingly, the day was a bust for anyone on the ground. A lower layer of clouds covered much of the surrounding area, with openings at just the right places for us to fly up and down the valleys. I have been told that 90% of the people to drive to see Denali never see it due to clouds and fog.
We had the good fortune to not only have a clear peak, we had smooth air as the winds at the mountain were described as 'calm'. As you can imagine this almost never happens.

One just can't describe the feeling of being between the peaks as the massive mountain towered over us.

Earl guided us expertly around one peak, down a valley, left around the next peak and so on.

We covered the mountain completely, making several passes, until we finally got our fill of snow and rocks.

In one pass we flew directly at the face of Denali, between ridges, and making a 90 degree turn into the canyon that appeared just in time.

Our guides suggested reporting points for us to report on the radio, and we did our best to mimic their utterances quickly, before the pronunciations faded from our short term memory. The smart pilots just gave the guides the microphone.

The north face of Denali is a vertical drop of many thousands of feet, making us feel small as we flew along half way up. I could find no way to capture this within the scope of a single camera lens.

Some of our group saw climbers striving for the peak and were impressed by their angle to the mountain when they stood upright.

The pictures really don't do this trip justice, and the videos are only a little better.

After weaving between the tops, we circled down over The Mountain House and the Amphitheater Basin, watching skiplanes land and depart from the glacier below.

We followed the path of the glacier as it flowed for miles down the canyon, melting into a flowing river of gravel with bright turquoise pools in it's midst.

We stopped into Telketna for lunch and saw the climber launch base in that quaint little town. The old city airport was still in use, an extension of the main intersection off main street.

Park headquarters reported that some 80 climbers were currently on the mountain. Roughly 230 had made the summit this year, about half of those who tried.

A nearby secondary peak had been scaled by 9 people this year, including the three that died on the way back down the day before our visit. We saw a few climbers on the streets, their faces peeled and burned by the altitude.

Once returned to our base at Anchorage we found that we were not yet tired of airplanes. So Earl suggested supper at Lake Hood, the seaplane base.

As Earl explained to us, Lake Hood is actually controlled by the Anchorage International Airport tower, and there are taxiways between the airports. There are two lanes of water for the seaplanes, and a large number of berths for seaplanes along the shore.

There is also a gravel runway at the international airport. It seems that those tundra tires are very expensive, and a hard surface runway takes a toll on them. So even the largest airports have a gravel runway for these aircraft to operate from. Such a runway had recently been added to Merrill field, where our flyin was based.

We ate at a hotel restaurant along the shore of Lake Hood, and watched the seaplanes float over the hotel and splash down in the lake. It was a lovely setting.

When we sat down a few of us chose the side with more view, but some sun in the eyes. Experience told me that the sun would set shortly, it was only 15 minutes above the horizon. But that's when Alaskan Reality kicked in again.

You see, the sun doesn't actually set from that position, it slides sideways across the horizon, never really setting for several hours. I never seem to have a CFO hat when I need one.

After dinner we drove around and drank in the scenery. There were more kinds of float planes than I could imagine, and even a Cardinal... no, not on floats but parked near the water. Perhaps someone is dreaming...

It was a lovely evening, and a perfect end to a day of flying and sightseeing.

Then next day we settled into a serious technical session, discussing oil leaks, door hinges and stabilator bolts. A number of interesting details were observed, and we enjoyed ourselves quite thoroughly until early afternoon.

Aircraft buttoned back up, we headed out to a fly-out lunch, and hopefully a visit to the most recently active volcano. Lowering ceilings and rain caused us to lower our sights, and we swarmed into the Kenai airport, perhaps an hour from Anchorage, as a flight of four.

This picture is of Earl and Alice. Alice is at the controls, under the hood. It was the most steady airplane I formed with all weekend! :-)

As our conga line of Cardinals arrived and snaked around the pattern a Cessna 150 reported on the other downwind, perhaps a bit curious about all these Cardinals in the pattern. But then he reported "an extremely rough engine" and "unable to maintain altitude." When he requested priority handling, we all did 360's to the left to let him in first. It was quite a sight to see all those Cardinals break off from the pattern in unison.

The 150 made it safely down and we parked next to them all in a row. It was nice to see all four Cardinals lined up in a row, more Cardinals than these parts had seen in some years. Several places we went there were comments about all the Cardinals. I'll bet Earl will be famous for a while.

On the ground, we met the couple in the rough running 150 and invited them to have lunch with us. Unfortunately the airport restaurant, perhaps reinforced by the rain and the lack of traffic, had decided to close exactly on time just moments before. Paul used his best motivational skills to convince them to re-open to serve us.

We sat and chatted with our new acquaintances while they heated up the grill and had a very pleasant meal. The service was excellent in spite of the late hour. We blamed the perpetual daylight, we still had not developed the skills required to gauge the time of day.

After lunch willing hands and available tools appeared and we descended on the 150 to help the owner debug his problem. With several CFOers on the job we had the cowl off in no time and were checking spark plugs and other clues in moments, seeking something, anything, that just didn't look right.

The enthusiastic group nearly had the wing struts removed when it was discovered that the problem was actually a burned valve or something similar that caused one cylinder to completely lack compression. We still maintain that even with a good cylinder, it would fly better without the struts. :-)

Luckily we had plenty of extra seats to give the unlucky 150 couple a ride back to their car, which happened to be at the same field we had come from. It was fun to be in the right place at the right time to help out.

After a quiet evening at the airport, we turned in (relatively) early, anticipating our departure the next day. After goodbyes we each headed off in a different direction, Laura to the airlines, Vince and Mike flying along the route of the Alaskan highway, Keith and Paul flying down the coast and Rod back up and over Denali again for Fairbanks.

Vince wrote with the story of his return:

We got home this morning (Wed) after a RON in Shell Lake, WI due to some Thunderstorms last night. Total time of flight from Anchorage to Troy, Michigan was around 20 hours.

I can only say that to everyone that DIDN'T attend, they truly missed an event of a lifetime. And my hat goes off to you, Earl, for all your hard work in arranging the w/e. It was truly an unforgettable experience. And of course, it was great to see Paul and Keith again, enjoying their company and have them showing their Cardinal expertise.

Thanks again to Earl

Vince Kreizinger

Keith and Paul launched into an overrunning cloud layer and had only peeks of the massive valleys and glaciers along the coast. With a substantial headwind we got to the last available airport in Alaska, hoping to get fuel for our attempted dash over the top of British Columbia.

We shot an LDA approach to get into Wrangell, one of those mountain approaches you hear about with high terrain rising on all sides. It's not clear whether it is better to be in marginal VFR and see them, or in the soup and avoid the scary view. We had a little of both and landed on a runway stuck tenuously to the side of a mountainous point.

It was interesting, although perhaps not comforting, to know that Alaska Airlines flies 737s down those approaches in all weather. We suspect, however, that familiarity would result in a far greater comfort with the process.

Folks at the airport were concerned that we stay away from the big yellow circle where an airliner would shortly arrive. Trucks and fork trucks were moving crates of fish around, preparing for it's arrival.

The first office we stopped at looking for fuel handed us a phone, which was already ringing. The person who answered was puzzled by my request, then said "Oh, you're at the airport!" I guess in a small town it all runs together. At another office we found the airport manager. When we asked if anyone monitored the CTAF frequency he reached down, open the squeltch then turned up the volume and said "Oh, guess it was turned down." Evidently it was highly optional.

In another office we found the local weather observer, a fellow who said he had first come to build a cabinet in the room, asked how to get a cushy job like this, filled out the job application and never left. He was splitting his attention between the low clouds and Animal Planet on his television. Fresh coffee, a nice view, a stack of novels and 400 satellite channels... it probably was a great job in Waddell. Although it looked like he didn't get a lot of exercise.

Our departure was as interesting as our arrival, flying the departure procedure up between those hills again. We wondered when that 737 was planning to arrive, and whether he'd bother to say anything on CTAF. But soon we were above the local terrain, back on course then finally barely on top at 17,000. There was ice in the tops, so we avoided what we could and hoped the ice we did get would sublimate quickly and restore what speeds we could muster into the headwind.

We ended up staying a night at Campbell River, BC. We re-entered the US at Boeing field and were back in the San Francisco Bay area the next day.

It is a long way to go, but we had a great time and saw sights that will last a lifetime. Earl is talking about doing this every other year or so, and if he does we can all recommend that you find a way to make it happen for you.

Keith Peterson
Over Yakutat, Alaska
with Updates along the way




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