Flying In Alaska


Here you have something entirely different. Here you also have a large number of pilots with long experience, all writing and eager to advise you. The reasons are easy to find. They want to be helpful, and they’ve lost all interest in the hardships encountered in hunting for lost pilots in the wilds of the bush country. So, they’ll do anything they can to keep you from getting lost. 

Alaska is about one-fifth the size of the original 48 states. Most of Alaska is primitive, uninhabited wilderness with mountains, swamps, and forests predominating. Northern Canada is similar. As you progress northward, the timberline elevation decreases. There are few forest north of the Arctic Circle; and there are no trees in the extreme northern coastal areas. 

Alaska’s economy, like that of northern Canada, is based primarily on air transportation due to the relatively few roads or other means of surface transportation. Aviation fuel, generally 80/87 octane only, is available in most communities served by an airship. Although the airstrip may be of limited size.

Innumerable water areas popularize float flying in summer. The greatest part of northern North America’s remote areas is accessible by ski plane in winter. 

Both Canadian and Alaskan laws require and wisely so that emergency rations and survival equipment be carries during cross-country flying. Alaskan law requires the following ( minimum) items during summer months:

Food for each occupant sufficient to sustain life for 2 weeks.

One axe or hatchet.

One first aid kit.

One pistol, revolver, shotgun or rifle, and ammunition for same.

One small gill net, and an assortment of tackle, such as hooks, flies, lines, sinkers etc.

One knife.
Two small boxes of matches.

One mosquito headnet for each occupant.

Two small signaling devices such as colored smoke bombs, railroad fuses, or Very pistol shells, in sealed metal containers.

The following additional (minimum) items are required from October 15 to April 1:

One pair of snowshoes.

One sleeping bag;

One wool blanket for each occupant over four.

Canadian requirements are similar except that no pistols are permitted in Canada. Popular credit cards such as Standard Oil, Texaco, and Shell are honored in Canada. Standard oil, Texaco, and Union Oil aviation products serve Alaska.

Flight through Canada presents no particular problems. The coastal route from Seattle to Alaska is not recommended for single-engine, wheel-equipped airplanes due to lack of suitable emergency landing areas, weather, and limited en-route servicing facilities.

The Alaskan highway route is recommended from Ft. St. John, British Colombia, to and beyond Northway, Alaska. This route is over timbered mountainous terrain, mostly uninhabited. Single-engine aircraft, and twin-engine aircraft operating above their single-engine service ceilings, should follow the highway. All en-route service airports and a number of emergency airstrips are along the highway route. Fuel and overnight accommodations are less than 300 statute miles apart all along this route. In an actual emergency, the highway itself is likely to provide the only practical landing area. WAC charts 116, 117, 138, and 139 this route.

Flight plans are required over Canadian routes and urgently recommended for all flights away from an airport in Alaska. Stay on your flight-plan route and stay with your aircraft. Canadian officials state that they will now search only the flight-plan route.

Low-frequency ranges provide nav-aids on the same 200-400 kc. band as U.S. stations. Tower and station frequencies are similar to U.S. coverage in both the LF and VHF bands. The Canadian publication entitled Air Navigation Aids lists radio aids and frequencies. It is issued every three months and is available from: Queens Printer, Department of Public Printing and Stationery, Ottawa, Canada, price 40 cents. Also available, without charge, from Queens Printer is a booklet entitled Canadian Border Crossing Information. It contains much more useful information than the title indicates.

Three commonly used routes from the southern Canadian border to Fort St. John, British Colombia, where you pick up the Alaskan Highway, are:

1. Western Route: From Seattle area via the Fraser River and Hart Highway to Williams Lake, Quesnel, Prince George and Fort St. John. Customs clearance is required. WAC Charts 185 and 216 cover this of fort st. john to seattle

2. Eastern Route: Beginning at Minot, North Dakota, this is a low-elevation route over favorable, relatively flat terrain with paralleling highways and railroads most of the way. At Minot contract

U.S Customs and file a flight plan to Regina, Canada, 215 (statute) miles. Notify Canadian Customs of your estimated time of arrival at Regina. Clear Canadian Customs at Regina. Additional en route service stops are Saskatoon, 150 miles: North Battleford, 79 miles: Vermilion, 96 miles: Edmonton, 148 miles: Grand Prairie, 240 miles: and Fort St. John, 100 miles. WAC Charts 183, 184, 185, 217, and 218 cover this route.

3. Central Route: At Great Falls, Montana, clear your flight with U.S Customs. Then file your flight plan to Lethbridge, Canada, 165 miles. Check with Canadian Customs at Lethbridge. The next flight plan should be made to Edmonton, another 270 of fort saint john to minot


The next fuel stop is Grande Prairie, 240 miles. Then Grande Prairie to Ft. St. John, 100 miles; Ft. St. John to Ft. Nelson, 190 miles; Ft. Nelson to Watson Lake, 235 miles; Watson Lake to Whitehorse, 215 miles; Whitehorse to Northway, Alaska, 270 miles; and Northway to Fairbanks, 225 of fairbanks to fort saint john

World Aeronautical Charts 139, 183, 184, 185, 216, 217, and  268 will guide you from Great Falls, Montana, to Ft. St. John and 77, 116, 117, 118, 138  and  139 from Ft. St. John to Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska. When Sectional Aeronautical Charts are published for Alaska ( scheduled to start February 1967 and to be completed by February 1968), it would be advisable to use them because of the greater detail and the identification of mountain-pass routes.

File a flight plan from your last U.S. stop to a Canadian point offering Customs service. The FAA station from which you file can advise you. Canadian airports where this service is available include Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Calgary, and Vancouver. Your flight plan must include the request that Canadian Customs be advised of your ETA.

Failure to give advance notice of arrival to the Immigration and Naturalization Service renders the violation subject to a “fine” which may be levied against the pilot or owner of the plane. Under ordinary circumstances the pilot should request FAA, at the expected port of arrival, to notify both Customs and Immigration to prevent any undue delay. At some places one officer handles inspection for both Custom and Immigration.

At your Canadian Custom entry point you will likely be given a clearance slip to be turned in to U.S. Customs in Alaska, thus making it unnecessary to contact Canadian Customs for departure clearance from Canada to Alaska.

Plan to arrive at Customs points during regular working hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday) to avoid overtime charges.

Carry your own tiedown kit. Hangar storage is not available in the north country, in Alaska or Canada. Accommodations for large groups also may not be available outside of the main population centers. So, your emergency rations, sleeping bags, and equipment may be needed in remote spots.

Alaskan airports of entry, as of June 20, 1966, included Northway, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Haines, Juneau, Annette, Sitka, and Skagway.

The FAA Alaska Airman’s Guide and Chart Supplement, published every four weeks, provides much valuable information, including navaid listing. It is available at 50 cents per copy or $13 per year from the U.S Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington Science Center, Rockville, Md. 20852.

Seek information and advice from experienced Alaskan operators and pilots. You will find them friendly and helpful. They would much rather help you plan your flight than spend time searching when you become lost and overdue.

In Alaska, as elsewhere, it is not enough to know how to fly. Flying in the remote areas of the north country is a serious thing. One must know when, where, and what to fly; still more important is to know when, where, and what not to fly.

Most every year aircraft disappear. Three single-engine civil aircraft and their occupants disappeared in 1965 and remain unlocated. Weather (VFR into IFR) is often a factor.

Every word that follows is worth-while information. So listen and learn and live to fly.

The pilot new to Alaska should be properly equipped with the Alaskan Airman’s Guide and WAC charts (Sectional Charts when they are published) showing airports, range courses, and VOR stations. In many cases charts are not entirely accurate as to bends in rivers and altitudes of the mountains. It is advisable to stay on regularly traversed routes or airways unless special arrangements are made to take some other route. The popular routes are as follows :

  1. Anchorage to Cold Bay via Iliamna, Naknek, and Port Heiden.
  2. Fairbanks to Kodiak Island via Summit, Talkeetna, Anchorage, Kenai, and Homer.
  3. Anchorage to Nome via Skwentna, Farewell, McGrath, and Unalakleet. (From Unalakleet to Nome is practically all over water, via direct air line; therefore, the small plane should follow the coast past Moses Point and thence to destination.)
  4. Fairbanks to Nome via Tanana, Galena, and Moses Point.
  5. Bethel to Fairbanks via Aniak, McGrath, Michumina, and Nenana.
  6. Northway to Fairbanks via Tanacross and Big Delta. (This is the Alaska portion of the Watson Lake-to-Fairbanks chart.)
  7. Northway to Anchorage via Gulkana.
  8. Anchorage to Fairbanks via Rainy Pass and Windy Pass

 In addition to these listed routes, there are other perhaps less frequently traveled airways, including those from Fairbanks to Barrow via Bettles and from Nome to Barrow via Kotzebue.

Most of these routes entail the crossing of mountainous terrain, and some the crossing of mountain ranges. The charts the pilot should have with him on all flights will, of course, show where these ranges are located and the general height of the peaks.  Relatively low passes are to be sound through most of these ranges. However, the pilot of the severe downdrafts and turbulence which he may encounter.

There are only a few highways to serve as check points for the pilot and section lines are completely lacking here. The Alaska Railroad is the only railroad of any appreciable length; 460 miles long, running from Seward (and Whittier) on the Gulf of Alaska coastal area, northward through Anchorage, Wasilla, Willow, Talkeetna, Curry, Summit, McKinley Park, and Nenana to Fairbanks near the central part of the State.

Hundred of glaciers cover the slopes of Alaska’s three mountain ranges. The valleys are generally broad and relatively flat and contain many river

woodland animals waving at an airplane flying over

s and smaller streams and innumerable lakes. The country, largely a glacial moraine, is covered with a mossy tundra or muskeg, varying in depth from a few inches to many feet. In the swampy areas where the muskeg is found, travel in the summertime is next to impossible on foot.

Alaska abounds with wildlife. Black and brown bear, moose, deer, caribou, and reindeer are plentiful in certain sections. In addition, fur-bearing animals, including the predatory wolfpack, are found in practically every section. Migratory birds as well as local wild fowl are abundant. This information is injected into the general description of the country because it has considerable bearing on the equipment that the pilot should take with him on his flight into, and over, the wilderness areas.

Exclusive of the airports constructed in the Aleutian chain there are a number of other airports in the State that civilian pilots may use which have been constructed, or improved, during the past few years by the FAA, Army, Navy and the State of Alaska.

While Alaska has an area one-fifth that of the continental United States, these airports are quite well spaced and can be visited by the ordinary small plane if good judgment is exercised in checking mileage, weather, and fuel supplied before departure. With few exceptions, these fields all lie south of the Arctic Circle (Barrow, Kotzebue, Fort Yukon, and Bettles being exceptions). There are, however, over 500 cleared landing Strips, constructed by the Alaska Road Commission or by private interests at other points over the country. Many of these received little or no maintenance and airplane maintenance and servicing facilities are either nonexistent or definitely limited.

Normal fuel dispensers are available at most of the main fields, and no extra precautions are necessary at those points to avoid fuel contamination. At most other locations it is necessary for the pilot to have his own approved filter and funnel in order to assure cleanliness of the fuel. A chamois and funnel can be used in an emergency; however, it is not recommended by FAA. Chamois is frowned upon as a fire hazard because of the possibility of a static discharge exploding the fuel vapors; yet it may remain the only effective means for assuring clean fuel in remote areas. Imitation chamois cannot be used.

Some caution is in order for those not accustomed to using chamois filters. A water-wet or water-damp filter will not keep water from flowing through. A static discharge is more likely to occur from a person wearing a nylon or dacron fabrics, or wool. Cotton clothing is the best protection. The greater danger is from a  static discharge from the person to the funnel rather than from the funnel to the gas tank or to an uncharged person. “Wringing out” the chamois or “swishing the funnel” to dry the chamois skin may generate a static spark. This should be done well away from the airplane and fuel sources.

Except for the coastal areas and the arctic slopes, weather conditions in Alaska are pretty good. The interior is not as subject to the continuing passage of turbulent surface fronts which plague the VFR west-ward flyer in the “south 48”. The few that do pass by are “corkers.”

Since occluded fronts are the rule, the usual weather associated with occluded fronts will be met during their passage; low clouds, light precipitation, poor visibility, and sudden fog formations as precipitation saturates the air. These conditions are usually spread over a wide area.

Thunderstorms are rather frequent in the interior, particularly on the route from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. They occur from May through August. The temperate zone pilot may be startled to find that these Storms frequently move from Northeast to Southwest, and thus he may wind up in front of a storm instead of behind it if he tries to go around it in the usual way.

Most of the routes through the mountains are through low passes. The passes are subject to strong and turbulent local wind conditions. Weather conditions are usually lower in the mountain passes than at reporting stations along the route on either side of the passes. The vacation pilot, or any person not familiar with a particular pass, should avoid going through the pass when his altitude is limited by a ceiling which obscures the mountain tops or sides. There may be unexpected turbulence; there may be strong updrafts which will draw him up into the clouds; there may be strong downdrafts that will force him down into the mountain side; or it might turn out to be a blind pass, narrowing around the bend, with no place to go except up. Contact the nearest Flight Service Station to obtain the latest pilot weather reports for the route you plan to fly. Perhaps someone just came from that direction and reported the existing weather to the FSS. 

Because of the prevalence of “false passes” which “deadend” but which may look better than the actual pass through the mountains, vacation pilots should always allow for the better than normal weather conditions so they can fly higher and with better than “legal minimum” visibility. False passes are sometimes so long before they dead-end that pilots may run short of gas before they can retrace their courses.

A number of single-frequency simplex stations, remotely controlled, transmitting and receiving on 122.1 mHz., are planned for installation in remote passes and areas where VHF communication coverage at low altitude is presently not available. The Alaska Airman’s Guide and Chart Supplement will list these stations as they are commissioned.

In winter when the ground is snow covered, it is difficult to distinguish between ground and sky. This is called a “whiteout” condition and has caused many bad accidents when pilots are not prepared to fly IFR. This condition can be particularly bad with an overcast sky. During such conditions, VFR Flights across mountain ranges should be planned for times when ceilings and visibilities are such that aircraft can be kept well clear of the terrain at all times. This is particularly true of those passes where the mountains are treeless and rounded instead of jagged.

The winter tourist must gear his plan to the short winter days, ending about 2:30 pm in the midwinter on the Fairbanks route. Flying East to West isn’t so bad, but the rapidly converging longitude lines cause a great time loss, with the result that darkness sets in much earlier when flying from West to East, The time loss for a 400-mile trip would be approximately one hour. In the central United States a one-hour time loss would cover approximately 800 miles, or the distance from St. Louis to Philadelphia

The long summer days make flight planning easy for daylight arrivals particularly during May, June, and July.

The Coastal route from Seattle to Ketchikan and Juneau should not be flown VFR or in single-engine airplanes. Much rain and fog are prevalent. Rainfall as heavy as 140 to 160 inches a year is not infrequent along the Gulf of Alaska. Fog banks are an everyday affair along this coast. Landing facilities are few and far between, so that the Pilot can easily get bottled up between airports with no way out.pilot with suppiles sits under happy airplane reading

In the winter the plane equipped with Skis has a considerable advantage over the wheel-equipped plane, in the event of a forced landing away from an airport, because the many frozen lakes and other open areas offer the pilot an opportunity to get down safely, or at least with less possibility of a serious crack-up. 

Before starting on a flight away from his home airport there are a few items that the private pilot should always carry in addition to those previously listed as required by Alaskan law: good charts of the terrain to be covered; a two-way radio in good operating condition; flashlight, complete with fresh batteries; and a pocket compass. Flashlight batteries should be of the alkaline type since they have a longer life expectancy, maintain a more constant voltage throughout their life span, and are more resistant to freezing.

It is advisable to carry these regardless of the season. In the winter, the following additional equipment should be carried: engine and airplane covers; fire pot with fuel; oil can and funnel; and snowshoes, preferably a pair for each person aboard

In summer, the following additional equipment should be aboard: gloves for each person; bottles of insect repellant; fishing rod and tackle, complete; and a pair of rubber hip boots (recommended but not absolutely essential)



  1. Always file a flight plan before you start.
  2. Stay on the regularly traversed routes or airways.
  3. Report your progress along the way in accordance with established procedure.
  4. Be sure you close the flight plan on arrival at destination, or report aunty interruption or change in original plan. That is where your two-way radio comes in, especially if you land at a point where there are no radio facilities. 
  5. Be sure you have your emergency supplies aboard. Think twice before you “pooh-pooh” emergency supplies. They were developed by the “bush: pilots who have flown this country for years and they know what is needed and the true value of them in case they are forced down.
  6. In the event you are forced down for any reason, it is normally advisable to STAY WITH YOUR AIRPLANE. Search and rescue parties can locate a plane much easier than they can a man. If searching planes, or for that matter, ANY PLAN is seen overhead, use your smoke bomb or rocket signal to attract attention. If possible to do so, direct them to a landing area, if there is one close at hand. Partake of your reserve or emergency rations sparingly and in accordance with instructions contained in the package. This is particularly important if you have not been located or if there is going to be some delay in reaching you due to the remoteness of the section, or for any other reason. Try to replenish your food supply by game or fish, if you are near a source of supply, and the chances are you will be. But in so doing, KNOW WHERE YOUR PLANET IS AT ALL TIMES. This is where your pocket compass will come in handy. BE RESOURCEFUL.




1. Do not allow yourself to become confused regarding the large easterly magnetic variations in Alaska. (The radio ranges on your flight charts show the magnetic courses for the range legs.) Correct only for crosswinds or local magnetic attractions, usually only a few degrees if any. If your compass reads 270°, do not get the idea that you are headed directly West, for you are not. You are true heading will be approximately 30° greater, in most of Alaska, than your magnetic heading, or your compass heading if your compass has no locally induced errors. When you plot true courses on your chart not associated with radio range legs, do not forget to subtract the  25° to 30° easterly variation to establish your magnetic heading. If an “East Coaster” adds the correction by mistake, he will have a total error of about 60°. This definitely will not get him where he wants to go.


2. In case of a forced landing do not wander away from the airplane. If you are absolutely sure you know where you are and know the location of a nearby shelter, it may be advisable to go to it. However, first try your radio and attempt to contact the nearest communications station if you did not succeed in doing this before the landing. Remember that high-frequency radio (not VHF) transmissions are usually best at night.

Then before you leave your airplane, if you have decided that is the thing to do, and you are sure of yourself and your position, plot your course over the ground, check your pocket compass, time of travel, etc., before starting out. For, after all, you might be wrong in your calculations. Whether right or wrong, you may very well want to return to your airplane. If your trail is well made, marked, and calculated, you should find the airplane in the same place you left it. But think twice before leaving the airplane. In about  80 percent of the cases where the pilot leaves the airplane, the rescuers find the Airplane before they find the pilot. There is every advantage in remaining with the airplane from a survival point of view, and especially from a rescue point of view.

3.No matter how inviting the “grassy plains” appear to the pilot from the air, the chances are that the surface is tundra or muskeg. A landing on this surface with wheels will usually cause the airplane to go over on its back. At any rate, it can’t be taken off again until the next snow season and the installation of skis. So, unless forced to do so, do not land on the inviting brushless level lands. The only practical way out is by helicopter, which may be either expensive, or not available. If you are fortunate, there may be a lake or river within a few miles (which may take several days to reach, walking conditions being such as they are), from which rescue by seaplane may be possible.


Terrain flying in Alaska means, for the most part, “drainage flying.” Very few routes cross mountain ranges. They go through the mountains by way of passes. Most routes follow river or creek drainage patterns. Therefore, chart studies of the route to be followed should include recognition of the direction of flow of streams or rivers so that flight comparisons may be made and cross checked. Many rivers twist and turn through flatlands with so little gradient that it is difficult to tell which way the water is running. Most of the floating trees which snag on bars will have the roots pointed upstream. River routes, except during periods of high water, also offer the best forced landing possibilities on gravel bars which are frequently available. It so happens, by virtue of physical geography, choice, development of settlements, and occasional wisdom that most airports are located on, or within sight of, rivers, or large streams.

In the interior, all creeks, streams, or drainages by any other name, flow into rivers which go near an airport within a reasonable distance. It follows that the best way to find an airport if you are lost is to head downstream and down river. The airport you find may not be anywhere near your destination, but you will be on an airport and not on the muskeg out of gas and perhaps upside down. Check your WAC charts (or Sectional Charts once they are published) and notice, for example, that Northway, Tanacross, Big Delta, Fairbanks, Nenana, and Tanana are all on the Tanana River or very close to it. Even if you should be 20 or 30 miles off course flying from Northway to Fairbanks, flying “ down- drainage “ will bring you back to the river and on to an airport.

If you should happen to wind up 50 miles north of this route somehow or other, and follow the drainage, you wouldn’t get anywhere near Fairbanks, because you would then be on the north slope, with drainage into the Yukon River instead of the Tanana. However, you would find airports at Chicken, Eagle, Circle, Fort Yukon, Beaver, Stevens Village, Rampart and again, Tanana, where the Tanana River joins the Yukon. 

It is hardly possible to follow a drainage cut, down to visible water flow, without running into an airport within a hundred miles on the drainage route, following downhill cuts, then dreams, then the river. In most cases there will be an airport in less distance than that.

Look at your WAC charts ( or Sectional Charts when published ) and see how many airports you can find which are not on rivers or drainage systems. The study will be meaningful and helpful to the concept of “ drainage flying “.

Even in clear weather in Alaska, radio transmission and reception is often erratic due, in many instances, to the Aurora Borealis or electrical discharge in the upper air, often referred to as “ Northern Lights. “ Therefore, the importance of keeping the ground advised of your whereabouts cannot be overstressed, even though it may be necessary to make an extra landing to do so. Bear in mind that Alaskan is a large territory to cover; in case a search is necessary, and if you have given the FAA radio network the proper territory with respect to your location, it may mean the difference between life and death.

Finally, we dip into the history of flight training in wartime for some good advice for a new pilot who become lost. In the Civilian Pilot Training Program cross-country course, the knowledge of experienced pilots on how to “ find yourself when you’re lost “ was boiled down and taught to fledglings It’s still good, bearing in mind also the advantage of “ drainage flying “ to the usual techniques of terrain flying and navigation by “ pilotage.”

Even the best pilots become lost, occasionally, usually when the visibility is restricted such as in heavy rain, smoke, dust storm, and the like. Therefore, every good pilot guards against this contingency by selecting easily identifiable “brackets“ as means of reorienting himself. A bracket should always be a line, such as a river, power line, range of hills, or the like; never a point such as a lake or city. Instead of attempting to find his position by “ flying around ” or zigzagging, the pilot who has set up his major bracket flies a straight course to what he believes is the nearest one, reorients himself, and sets up a new course to his destination or an alternate. 

Ideal bracketing bounds both sides of the course and the destination. If identifiable boundaries are not available on all sides, one or two will serve. For example: If there is a large river parallel to your course, but some miles to the left, and no other feature which you are sure you can identify, if lost, fly to the river and follow it until you pick up a recognizable point.

List only the brackets you feel sure you cannot miss in the proper space of the flight plan; one bracket you are sure of is better than three which may be missed. Your proposed flight is now plotted and the plan has been prepared with the exception of the allowances for wind, weather, and elapsed time. Data applying to these items cannot be prepared in advance, since the prevailing conditions at the time of flight will determine your ground speed and the heading necessary to make good your course.

This vast expanse of land will attract more and more pilots flying their own planes. If you are one of the pilots planning to fly, or in, the land to the Aurora Borealis, we beg you to read words of wisdom giver here by those who know. Fly by them; learn by them; and, thus, live by them. 

Previous Chapter Next Chapter