Oh God, I thought, please just let me make it and get this little bird on the ground.
Circle, Mont., still lay 30 miles ahead. The 150’s engine was missing, the RPMs dropping, and, even worse, the small carbon monoxide detector was turning black as the cabin lost oxygen. My headache grew worse, throbbing at my temples and blurring my vision. It was hard for me to think and it left me feeling nauseous. I was slowly being poisoned and needed to land fast.
The AWOS for Circle was calling for winds at 25 mph with peak gusts at 35 mph. There was no way of landing on the runway as it would be a direct crosswind exceeding 533 Sierra Papa’s crosswind component. Sweat beaded on my forehead and my palms were slick with perspiration. The cabin heat was closed and both fresh air vents were wide open but the CO detector was still black, indicating a serious problem.
I glanced down at the Airport/Facilities Directory on the seat next to me and there in black and white I saw my safety net. In all my panic I had failed to notice there was another runway at Circle.
Scattered tufts of tall grass grew sporadically on what looked to be a seldom-used strip that looked craggy and stony, but at a time like this, it appeared good enough. The landing would be rough but I could walk away. The wind violently swayed the grassy bunches, leaning them into the direction I was flying, Mother Nature’s windsock. I was landing directly into the wind.
A ROOKIE VOLUNTEER
When I first saw N533SP, I raised my eyebrows in hopefulness. At first glance, the little airplane seemed in good condition. I volunteered to ferry the 150 that I called 533 Sierra Papa from Vermont to Alaska as a favor to the owner and to build my own pilot time in the saddle, so to speak. I was a rookie pilot with only a few hundred hours of flying time under my belt.
Most of my pilot time was in a 206 I had owned in partnership, but I had sold my share after a divorce. A divorce can litter a person’s brain with distraction, and toxic anger had affected my thinking. I didn’t trust myself to make smart decisions in the air, so I’d grounded myself. When the opportunity for this trip came along, I hadn’t flown for a decade.
My first interest in learning to fly came out of my fear of flying. The nervousness I felt at takeoff and landing—and every bump in between—was disabling for me. My fear was irrational and, I decided, must have stemmed from my own ignorance of flying and of planes. I wondered, if I learned to fly, became a pilot… would my fear of flying disappear with the knowledge I would gain?
I started taking lessons and gradually I began to feel more comfortable flying the plane myself. Once off the ground, with the air under the wings, exhilaration grew within me: a giddiness. Freedom.
During these same years, I had taken many fly-fishing trips to Alaska. It was on these fishing adventures that I learned small planes could deliver you to places of wonder and glory, not to mention phenomenal fishing spots. I fell in love with Alaska and fell in love with flying. My fear of flying had melted away and I dreamt that one day, I, too, could pilot a plane in Alaska. The adventure beckoned for years.
At a glance, the paint on N533SP looked all right; I didn’t see any dents on the exterior. But a closer look revealed a different picture. The paint was dry and brittle. All around the plane, on the black tarmac, white paint flecks were scattered like dandruff.
For two years the plane had sat out in the elements, virtually untouched by human hands. Even the tiedown ropes, once bright yellow, had faded from the wind, sun, rain and snow. The now-brittle plastic rope cracked into a million little pieces, as its fibers could no longer flex when the knots were untied. Was I crazy to set this goal for myself and think this little bird could fly from the Green Mountains to the Alaska Range?
GROUNDED BY REPAIRS, WEATHER
There was work to be done to make Sierra Papa airworthy. A compression test revealed good pressure in all four cylinders. The integrity of the engine was sound, though the motor for the flaps and several leaks in the fuel line had to be repaired, along with a new reed for the stall warning horn and two new fuel level floats.
One fuel line leak was found by chance: the seat had been removed to get a look at the rudder cables. The fuel line running under the seat had a tiny pinhole—almost microscopic—leak that could have been easily overlooked, but was noticed because of a small wet spot. While peering down into the dark recesses of the little plane’s underbelly, the odor of gasoline reached my nose and I could feel my nostrils flare at the smell.
Once all repairs had been completed, I still could not leave the state of Vermont. For nearly a month, unfavorable weather patterns kept me from my journey northwestward.
Being grounded because of weather is inevitable but, as more time went by, the prospects for the reality of this adventurous trip would slip away. By waiting too long, severe winter weather in the north could pose major difficulty. Winter storms with whiteout conditions and temperatures of 30 below zero could be encountered, so time was of the essence.
Finally, on Oct. 17, 2011, a weather window opened enough to get out of New England and make it to Butler County Airport (KBTP) in Pennsylvania. The day dawned with clear blue skies and cool, crisp air. The autumn foliage created a tapestry in hues of reds, oranges and gold that swirled and rustled as the wind began to blow. The air had an earthy scent to it, like mushrooms in the dirt from which they spring. All signs of precious time marching on.
By the time of my departure, around noon, the wind had picked up significantly and was blowing 20 knots, with peak gusts at 25 knots nearly straight down the runway. Taxiing for departure was precarious as the plane rocked and rolled from the buffeting winds.
Once airborne, the wind tossed and bounced the 150 about like a piece of lint caught up in a churning, whirling dust devil. Even though I was officially a pilot in current standing, this wind made me feel anything but current. It took all my concentration to keep the wings level and to maintain altitude; there was no smooth air. In fact, the entire trip was rough.
Seasoned pilots I encountered along the way complained about the wind and the rough air. Over the radio, I would hear pilot chatter, such as, What altitude are you at? Is it smoother up there? Tighten your seatbelts when you come around the corner; it is really rough.
I didn’t have time to be frightened, as I was too busy flying the plane and keeping it butter-side-up. Some days the wind blew so hard, the 150 only chugged along 60 mph.
Day after day, despite the slow progress, I ever so slowly inched my way across the continent. I had seen the open green rolling hills in Pennsylvania, the glistening waters of Lake Michigan, the great sprawling flat plains of western Minnesota, and the vast, flat, open patchwork of the tilled brown undulating ranch land of western North Dakota and eastern Montana. This is the area of the Bakken fields, predicted by some to produce 24 billion barrels of oil a day by 2015. Gliding along through the air over this area, I saw dozens upon dozens of slow-motion, yo-yo action oil well drills bobbing up and down and the blue-orange licking flames of the natural gas wells.
On final approach to the dusty dirt runway in Circle, Mont., I crabbed the little plane acutely left, into the wind. The wings wobbled as the wind pushed the plane, alternately lifting one wing up, then the other. I had to make constant adjustments in nose attitude to maintain my glideslope as the blustery air caused the little plane to suddenly gain altitude and then, just as suddenly, lose altitude and drop out from under me.
Just before the moment the main wheels touched down, I pushed hard on the right rudder pedal, shifting the nose of the plane straight down the runway heading. Small inputs with the yoke allowed the left wheel to touch down first, followed by the right, and then the nosewheel eased onto the runway. It was a very bumpy, rough rollout, but I was finally on the ground. I taxied to a green metal building—the only building on the field—in hopes of finding someone who might be able to help with the engine problems.
AOG… FOR A LITTLE WHILE
Jeff Skyberg, the mechanic at the Circle airport, did a runup on Sierra Papa. I watched him looking for a clue, some sign of what he might be thinking, as he hopped out of Sierra Papa.
He rubbed his weathered, whiskery face. His eyes twinkled under the bill of his grimy baseball cap and he said, “I wouldn’t fly that plane.” He’d heard and felt the symptoms of the mechanical failures, too. The good news was he was able to fix it right then and there.
Four hours later, a new left muffler replaced one that had a hole in it the size of a doughnut. No wonder I felt sick. All new spark plugs were installed and the leads to one set of magnetos were replaced.
With the repairs done, Sierra Papa had more power than ever. As I pushed on the throttle handle, the little plane surged down the runway. I felt ready to conquer the world—or, at least, just continue my journey to the land known as the Last Frontier.
KEEPING THINGS SIMPLE
To keep things simple, my goal was to stay clear of the larger airspaces, which I had managed to do across the continental United States. Once in Canada, I wanted to continue using the quieter airspaces, and that is why I chose to cross the border at Lethbridge (CYQL), a small field southeast of Calgary.
Piloting a small plane offers opportunity to see things one would not ordinarily see. On the approach to Lethbridge I saw a massive steel railroad structure spanning the Oldman River. I had never seen a railroad bridge so expansive. I could not help but wonder about it, and later, I learned the Lethbridge Viaduct is Canada’s largest railroad structure, originally opened in 1909.
It was not too long after taking off out of Whitecourt, Alberta (CYZU) that I heard a rattling sound outside the plane. It sounded like my seatbelt may have been undone, dangling out the door; there was a distinct thwap, thwap, thwap against the fuselage. What the heck?
I knew it was not my seatbelt; it was fastened tightly around me. I had no idea what was making all the noise and didn’t think I could fix it. I hoped it was nothing seriously wrong and had no choice but to ignore it and fly the plane. The noise continued all the way to Grande Prairie (CYQU), my last stop before leaving the Alberta province.
Once again, the wind had picked up as the day progressed. I dialed the AWOS frequency on the radio to hear winds were 30 mph, gusting 45 on the ground at Grande Prairie. Nothing new, I thought—but I was grateful that the direction of the wind was within 20 degrees of the runway heading. I knew from this point forward it would be a rough and bouncy trip as the nearby Canadian Rockies contribute to this windy climate.
Upon landing, the reason for the thwapping sound was discovered: the young man who had filled the fuel tanks in Whitecourt had forgotten to replace the fuel cap. The noise I had heard during the whole 200 miles from Whitecourt to Grande Prairie was the cap of the fuel tank being tossed about, tethered only by a small chain. One might think lots of fuel would have sloshed out, but when calculating the fuel burn, I realized not much had been lost. Thank goodness for more dumb luck.
NAVIGATING IN SOLITUDE
I flew into British Columbia from Alberta at Dawson Creek (CYDQ), which is where the Alaska Highway officially begins. At this point, “IFR” flying—I Follow Roads—started for me in earnest. Civilization began to slip away, making aviation landmarks fewer and farther between.
Keeping the highway in sight served as a security blanket, as it gave me ample opportunity for emergency landing if needed. I had driven the Alaska Highway six months prior to this trip so many of the sights along the road were familiar as I flew over them. I remembered the names of towns and small villages along the way: Pink Mountain, Prophet River, Muncho Lake, Fort Nelson and Liard River, to name a few.
There is no fuel between Fort Nelson, British Columbia and Watson Lake, Yukon, the longest single leg of the entire transcontinental trip. This posed a big problem for me as Watson Lake, the next airfield with fuel, was out of range for the 150. Up to this point of the journey, fuel was available at regular intervals, but in this situation, even with a significant tailwind, I still would run out of gas before reaching Watson Lake.
I came up with a strategy. With four, two-gallon fuel jugs filled with gasoline stowed in the back of the plane, I would land at the Liard strip, dump the fuel in and then would be able to make it to Watson Lake. My alternate plan if I could not find the landing strip was to land on the road, which, by the way, is against the law in Canada.
The coordinates had been entered and the destination showed on the screen of the handheld GPS as a three-letter identifier, LRD. The destination, a remote, off-field runway, sandwiched between the Alaska Highway and the Liard River, was my new target. As I flew along, my eyes scanned the wilderness, searching for this isolated strip. But I could not see it.
I felt confident before departure from Fort Nelson that my destination had been marked properly in the GPS. The coordinates had been double- and triple-checked when it was entered. It seemed I should have flown over it by this time. As each minute ticked by, I grew more nervous, worried I would have to use my riskier alternative plan. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Liard River flowed in a long lazy bend around the hip of high ragged terrain which obscured the view of the narrow valley ahead. Once over the rugged cliffs, I was greatly relieved to see the airstrip just ahead of me. As I did a fly-by to make an assessment, the ground looked fairly smooth and clear of trees, brush or scrub. In fact, the condition of the runway itself looked to be better than the dirt runway in Circle, Mont.
My landing was smooth and the wheels rolled easily across the firm, gravel-covered ground. With the engine shut down, it took very little time to climb up on the wings and pour the fuel into the tanks. Boy, it was remote. The silence was loud as my own heartbeat pulsed in my eardrums; I was amped up from my own adrenaline.
I wanted to stay longer, to marvel at the solitude and bask in the glow of making it this far. But I knew I had to push on; daylight didn’t last long here at this time of year. There was no time to lollygag or stop and smell the proverbial Yukon roses.
EARNING MY STRIPES
Once again airborne and gaining altitude, using a little rudder to steer, I followed the river. Flying along that day, I felt I had earned my stripes, gliding along, straightening out the curves of the river as it snaked its way through what looked like territory infinity. Thoughts of what it might be like to be a bush pilot seeped into my mind.
This flight was truly off the beaten path, and I became acutely aware there were probably many pilots who would envy my experience. I was lucky to have this opportunity. There had been many glorious moments when my heart seemed to swell with gratitude, just to be alive and witness all the natural wonder around me.
So, I did, if only for a few stolen moments, let my mind wander, taking it all in. My smile—to no one—warmed my lucky spirit all that day, even when I had to make another Liard River-type fuel stop in Teslin, en route to Whitehorse (CYXY), the final stop for the day.
A reoccurring fantasy kept playing out on the inside of my eyes, the vision and feeling of personally handing over the keys to this airplane to its official owner. Throughout the trip, this image played in my mind. There were times I wouldn’t allow it to play because of a sort of superstition, but at this moment, I let it play. The anticipation of getting to Alaska grew exponentially as the Yukon was the only province left before reaching Northway, Alaska, the U.S. Customs point of entry.
COLD TEMPS, ROUGH AIR
The temperature had been dropping as I flew into Whitehorse. Snow covered the ground and the waters of the rivers and lakes were frozen. The subzero temperatures forced me to pay attention to cold weather operations as the carb heat had to be cycled often.
On the ground, the engine needed to be kept warm through the night. A ceramic heater placed carefully under the cowling did the trick. The thick, black, nylon engine cover I borrowed was too big as it was originally made for a 180. It looked like a dress five sizes too large as it draped loosely over the engine of the little plane, but by pulling up and tucking in the corners here and there, the cover held the heat quite nicely. The next morning, as I slid my hands under the engine cover it felt nice and warm, reminding me of the coziness of a live body sleeping next to me.
The flight that day from Whitehorse crossed over Haines Junction and then turned north toward Kluane Lake. The scenery in this area is awe-inspiring. The Haines Junction website states, “The village of Haines Junction lies in the Shakwak Valley, in southwestern Yukon, on the doorstep of the most dynamic and spectacular landscape on the planet.” I concur. The drama these mountains pose are not to be underestimated, especially from a pilot’s seat. The view was heart-stopping in its enormity.
As the winds blew in those intersecting valleys the day I came through, they roiled in what seemed like Mother Nature’s anger. Fear tingled in me like I had not yet felt on this journey. A cold sweat penetrated all the layers of my clothing. At the point I heard a radio warning from another pilot to be careful on the corner at Haines Junction, I could even smell the scent of damp goose down wafting up from the partially unzipped neck of my jacket.
I thought I had experienced rough air before, but by the end of the day, I possessed a new appreciation for rough air. When I landed at Burwash Landing (CYDB) at the north end of Kluane Lake to refuel, I just longed to stay on the ground.
But that was not an option. I had a date to meet the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in an hour at the cold and the lonely Northway, Alaska airport (PAOR).
The customs agents were already waiting for me by the time I shut down the engine. As part the eAPIS requirements, I had made the phone call to customs earlier in the day to let them know when I would arrive. It was a choreographed meeting. They asked me a few questions, looked at my passport, and released me to go. The stop was uneventful. Luckily, I had filed my information correctly and it all went smoothly.
A NEEDED BREAK
My final destination for the day was Tok, Alaska (PATJ), a 10-minute flight northwest of Northway. Weather briefers and weather cams told me the weather was dubious through the mountain passes from Tok to the Palmer/Wasilla Valley, so I spent the night in Tok at Young’s Motel.
The community is also home to Fast Eddy’s Restaurant. Fast Eddy’s is a hustling, bustling restaurant located at the junction of a major crossroad for those traveling to and from Alaska. Fast Eddy’s has simple but good food and Young’s rooms are clean and simple. Chunky televisions rest on wood-grained veneer dressers and the wireless Internet is fast.
For the next two days, snow fell in blizzard conditions and I was holed up at Young’s Motel, waiting for the storm to clear. That was just fine with me. The flight through Haines Junction had rattled me. Hanging out in a motel with not much to do but wait for the weather clear was a needed break.
THE FINAL LEG
One more day of flying would be required to make it from Tok to the Matanuska-Susitna (“Mat-Su”) Valley. It was cold with clear, sunny skies when I departed Tok on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011. Fresh snow that had fallen the night before and covered the tall jagged peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
With clear skies below 10,000, I decided to fly clear of the peaks at 8,500 feet ASL. The air was silky smooth—downright sublime—at that altitude. Some light chop made it a bit bumpy climbing out of Tok, and it was blowing a gale at Gulkana (PAGK), my only fuel stop. But I had a new perspective. I had been seasoned somewhat, I suppose, as I wasn’t much worried.
What I saw while flying on that final day of my epic flight was visually spectacular. Views of the arctic north that I’d only seen in photos had come to life, and I was elated.
Arrangements had been made through email with the owner of the 150; I would meet him at the Birchwood airport to deliver the airplane.
The descent into the Mat-Su area was “windier than snot,” as one friend put it. I admit, I was sputtering four-letter words at the invisible force—as if I had some intimate, personal relationship with it. Gripping the yoke, squeezing the push-to-talk button with my left index finger, my right hand on the throttle, I made my pattern radio calls.
As the tiny plane eased down with a landing I could be proud of, an inner feeling of glee crept into my chest. Taxiing off the runway, I made the announcement that N533SP had finally arrived and was clear the active, Birchwood, Alaska.
Standing near the tiedowns was the owner of N533SP. I could see the big grin on his face as he waited patiently for the engine to be shut down and for the prop to stop whirling. This was the first time we met face-to-face. He looked elated. I smiled a big smile back, then opened the door and hopped out.
As I walked toward him, I raised my arm and held out the keys, dangling from the small circular ring. I said, “As I have traveled three weeks and flown 5,000 miles, I have been dreaming of doing this,” and I gently dropped the keys into his open palm.
He said, “Mission accomplished,” and I said, “Amen.”
Gwenn Perkins was born and raised in Manchester, Vt. She holds a private pilot certificate (ASEL) with over 300 hours. Perkins founded the not-for-profit organization Casting for Recovery (castingforrecovery.org) in 1996 which hosts fly-fishing retreats for women recovering from breast cancer. She has fly-fished in fresh and salt water in a wide range of geographic locations from Nome, Alaska, to South America, to the South Pacific. She has two grown daughters and currently lives in Wasilla, Alaska. Send questions or comments to .