Alaska Trip, Part 2

I keep meaning to write more blog entries about our Alaska cruise, but I haven’t been able to. Part of that is pure intertia – I still haven’t adapted back to local time and I keep waking up in the middle of the night and falling asleep in the day time.

So in order to get some of it down in a timely manner, I thought I’d write about what for me was the highlight of the trip.

I’ve always wanted to fly in a deHavilland Beaver. Because of my love for the Canadian wilderness, and because my ability to experience it on foot, ski or paddle has been cruelly taken from me in the prime of my life, I harbour a deep fantasy about someday being able to drop into remote seldom-visited lakes in a float plane. And because the best bush plane ever built was the deHavilland Beaver, and because much of Canada’s history has been made by people in deHavilland Beavers, and because my father worked for deHavilland for 30-odd years, my fantasy plane has always been the illustrious Beaver. Old and slow, but built by bush pilots for bush pilots, it’s reliable, carries a ton, and can get into and out of the smallest lakes. Unfortunately, because it remains the best bush plane ever built, they keep appreciating in value, with a prices currently starting at about $350,000 and going up – and of course the planes are only getting rare as age and the perils of bush flying takes their tolls. So it’s probably going to remain a fantasy.

But on the cruise, I got to live out part of the fantasy. One of the shore excursions was the “Misty Fiords Float Plane Adventure”. The description didn’t say what sort of plane it was, but since this was Alaska, it could only be one plane. So I signed up. Vicki didn’t, because she didn’t think she’d get enough fun out of it for the cost. And sure enough, as the cruise ship pulled into Ketchikan, the harbour was full of float planes, all of them Beavers. We kept getting closer and closer to the dock, but the Beavers kept landing between us and the dock – bush pilots are like freight dogs in their desire to avoid unnecessary taxing. I swear some of them were landing below the overhang of our upper decks. But eventually we cut off that route and they started landing to the outside of us and taxing around.

As I checked in for the trip to the sea plane dock, we had to give our tickets and give our weight to the nice young lady with the clip board. I asked her if it would be possible to sit in the co-pilots seat, since I’m a pilot and I want to learn to fly floats some day. She said she’d see what she could do, but it would depend on the pilot and the weight and balance. I wasn’t too worried about that – generally having the heavy people nearer the center chord of the wing is a good thing.

So we got to the dock and they started calling us in groups of 6 to go off and get in our planes. They called my group, and I pulled my camera out of the bag to take a picture of the planes at the dock, and the damn shutter button wouldn’t work. I can’t believe the bad luck – it had jammed up a bit the day before but I thought I’d gotten it dried out and working again. Oh well, at least this way I’d be watching with my eyes instead of through a viewfinder. The pilot, Barry, asked “Who’s the pilot who wants to sit in the copilot seat?” I put up my hand, and he said “You’re not going to try to tell me what to do, are you?” and smiled. I said “no, I’m here to learn”. He had me crawl into the copilot seat from the rear door – I don’t know if the copilot door wasn’t working, it’s possible because we never used it.

First thing I noticed – this plane was a little bit older than I am – built in 1960, that makes it one of the newer Beavers. The second thing I noticed was that this plane was definitely a working plane, not a show plane, but thanks to the Capstone program it had a brand new “glass cockpit” – two large CRTs, the one in the middle of the panel acting as primary flight display showing artificial horizon (with terrain) and altitude and airspeed “tapes” on each side above, with a glass HSI below, and the second display showing a moving map. The moving map had this very strange “spikey circle” that was constantly changing – I believe it was showing you what on the map was within gliding range if your engine failed. It also showed terrain right ahead of you in red or orange if it was above you – I think it was red if you couldn’t outclimb it and orange if you could, but I’m not sure what the distinction was. And if you were turning it showed your projected course, so if you wanted to turn to fly over something or hit a waypoint, you could adjust your angle of bank until the projected course went to the right place. Barry explained that there had been a software problem and everybody had had to disable the main feature of these displays – showing all the other participating “Capstone” aircraft on your display. Too bad. It was also too bad that I didn’t get to see these things in action while flying a flight-planned route or in IFR conditions.

As fascinated as I was by these displays and how you fly behind them, I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t just here to gawk at avionics, I was here to see scenery like I’d never seen it before, so I would reluctantly tear my eyes away from the what was going on in the cockpit to look outside.

The take-off went quickly – he didn’t do any sort of checklist, just hit a couple of switches and the starter, and taxied out. He used the pilot isolate (ISO) setting on the intercomm so I couldn’t hear what sort of self-announcements he made, but as soon as we were clear of the dock he pushed the throttle and prop forward (but not full forward) and away we went. He kept manipulating a lever between the seats, but the flap indicator on the panel didn’t move, so I didn’t realize until later that he had been using flaps to take off. We were off the water almost before I realized it – the water was pretty smooth, but not glassy, and I guess that helps.

We flew out over the harbour and up the inlet where the original city of Ketchikan was, and where the salmon cannery still is. There was a tape with soothing music and a voice over, but he kept switching out of ISO to talk over it because he thought we’d find it boring. He seemed to know the name and history of every landmark around, so we didn’t mind. Especially near the end where the tape started into a bit of a sales pitch for their other tours, and he said “Aw, you don’t want to hear this” and shut it off.

As we went into a cruise climb at about 100 mph, I swear the gauges were saying 30 inches MP and 2000 rpm at about 2,000 feet. But I don’t see how you could get 30 inches that high up unless it was turbocharged, and I’m pretty sure those 450hp Pratts weren’t. So maybe I was wrong, or maybe the gauge was wrong.

After passing the salmon cannery, we were into the mountains. It was pretty spectacular – we gradually climbed to 4,500 feet, there was an overcast above us at about 5,000 feet and the mountains came up to just about our altitude. We were in teh Misty Fiords National Monument, and it was indescribably beautiful. There were hundreds of little lakes below us – some of them connected to the sea, some not, and what flat ground there was was rocky and full of water filled depressions. It looked like a spectacular place to go hiking.

After flying along around and between the mountains, Barry warns us that we’re going to start descending so to remember to pop our ears. He then proceeds to fly straight at a mountain until I was getting a little bit nervous, and then pulls it into a steep bank where we sort of slide down the side of the mountain, keeping a constant (and very short) distance from the side. Then he completes the turn until we’re heading straight towards another mountain, and then he pulls the same maneuver. Very spectacular. I was impressed by the cleverness of it all – with those two maneuvers he’d managed to drop us from 4,500 feet to just around 500 feet, quickly, and in a very confined space, and had avoided any uncomfortable negative G forces. He straightened out and landed us on a tiny little lake that already had another Beaver on it. We all got out on the pontoons and just stood there quietly drinking in the silence and the scenery. Barry asked me where I was in my pilot training, and I told him I got my instrument rating last year, and he said “well, I guess you’re going for your commercial next?” I replied that I was actually thinking of doing my seaplane rating next, and he said that if I get my commercial first, then when I get my seaplane rating the commercial will apply to both land and sea planes, but if I get my seaplane first the commercial will only apply to whichever aircraft I got the rating in. I remember a similar situation when an instructor in the club got his seaplane rating in a weekend course, and suddenly found that according to the regulations, he was now legal to instruct in seaplanes!

Our time on the water was soon over, and so we did a curving “river take-off” that fit allowed us to follow the river valley running out of the lake. Climbing out I started to notice other Beavers flying similar routes – probably other tour groups on the same sort of tour as we were on. As we flew back, we were still keeping our eyes out for wildlife, but all we saw was one bedraggled looking mountain goat. Oh well, the scenery was well worth the price of admission.

Coming back into Ketchikan harbour, Barry announced that they were landing in the other direction, and we entered a pattern that saw the downwind leg almost lined up with the long runway at Ketchikan’s land airport. One thing I noticed on both landings was that Barry shut off the fancy flight displays before we touched down. I asked him about it and he said that they draw more current than the plane produces at idle, so it helps the battery if he shuts them down first.

After the flight, Barry apologized to me for not being able to talk more pilot stuff with me – I told him I understood he had a job to do and 5 other passengers to keep happy, and I was quite happy with everything I learned and I was grateful for all that he did. I handed him the only cash I had on me ($5) which probably doesn’t count as much of a tip. They were calling us back to the bus so I had to go. But then on the bus they said we had to wait for another plane, so I rushed back inside and bought a hat (using a credit card).