mercredi 7 juin 2017

Cold Bay to Anchorage on the 7th June

Once upon a time, when I was young(er), I dreamt about flying a plane to Anchorage. The sole fact of reading somewhere "PANC", which is the 4 letters ICAO code for Anchorage Ted-Stevens, and I started to have images floating just before my forehead of big 747s landing there, making a tech stop between the USA and Japan and, therefore, the rest of the World. So imagine now, a couple decades later, I was about to be the one landing there, on a DC-3, my mind was racing and so my heart did.


Rather early wake up then, bearing in mind the fabulous but rather exhausting day that we had just before. 7.15am it was, foggy outside is was also...wiping the clouds out of my eyes I barely could find a good spot with wifi connexion that enabled me to have a look at the weather and especially the forecast. The first impression of it was that we should basically fly north of the island chaplet and then cross towards the Gulf of Cook to fly onwards to Anchorage. But how shall we cross if the weather doesn't allow us? Plan A could become plan B and plan C and... The generous owner of the Bearfoot Inn drove us to the airport and while doing so, made a tour of the tiny Cold Bay village. An ancien WWII canon was still there, obviously rotten by the weather since then.



When we arrived at the airport, Paul and myself split the job while Francisco had to place a couple calls regarding future Breitling events. I went to the FSS (Flight Service Station) to check the weather more carefully with hopefully a better internet connexion. The FSS guy was pretty busy, although very helpful and at the same time as listening to many many calls coming from relays all over the territory he could also click and select the transmitter to use while taking my flight plan and giving me a weather brief. What about "service" in Europe?? These people are truly great.




But it was time to fly! Our route finally brought us north of the Aleutians and then we crossed in the area of King Salmon towards Augustine Island, the one you can see just right here!


During the entire trip we were graced by the landscape, the incredible sight of almost no man made structure, wilderness at its best! I was wondering why Alaska is called "The Last Frontier", now I know!

After taking off from Cold Bay, nothing...nothing at all!

Three very happy people!

Another 3 hours and 25 minutes of flight!

King Salmon, getting ready to cross the peninsula

Avoiding rain showers on the way

Probably some bears looking at us ;-)

Where is Gollum?

Cook's Gulf, towards PANC, still a long way!

So when approaching the Graal, Anchorage for instance, we started to become quite tired, after all these flights you can probably imagine. Rain started to reduce somewhat the forward visibility but once closer to the airport it was again better, cloudy but manageable!

We got integrated by ATC between some liners and right behind us, a Hughes H-4 Hercules landed, showing its smoky engines until touchdown. On some rough terrain, it is quite important to have a rugged airplane that can sustain such conditions. The Hercules does its job very well and despite sucking on fuel, there is no real  (cheap) replacement at the moment. 

One interesting story is that we had to clear US customs in Anchorage despite having been already 2 days on US territory! So we parked at the special spot near customs and had to wait until CBP officers entered the airplane. Some questions later we had to go inside, escorter by the handling in order to get our passeport stamped. They were nice so no big trouble. 

On the spot for customs


A well deserved rest and dinner was the least we could hope after these three days in two, thanks to the date line change! And beware, mosquitoes are frequent and they bite...so better stay inside after 6pm! 


Yes, a date line in the middle

Are there bears around???

Nice fur Miss?

No time for a break, already checking windyty!

Fiercely standing ahead of a Boeing Dreamlifter!






6th June 2017, the day that lasted 42 hours

Wake up early in Japan and you will be greeted by a beautiful sunrise, even at 3.50am! So forgetting to close the window blind and you will enjoy this in your bed, thinking you missed the alarm clock by 2 hours! This was me, on the 6th June. A good start.

Realizing my mishap, I went back to bed, my brain spinning like a overspeeding propeller and not able to go back to sleep. So here I am, looking at windyty not believing my eyes. I am probably still asleep. The low pressure made its way further north, giving us a great window if we can depart at 7pm and land in Shemya close to 12am. Almost no wind for take off but a cool atmosphere and good visibility. Probably no cloud for the first 3 hours during the night over the Pacific and only light rain then after. The only concern with all that preparation is the icing level that will be close to 2500ft. This won't give us much margin to play with, either fly low and see something or IMC but close to icing conditions. And as I previously said, our DC-3 isn't equipped with anti icing nor any de icing capabilities. So the first thing to do, plan, do the flight plan for the route to be flown. I love using skyvector, a very good program that shows airways, waypoints, Flight Information Regions as well as calculates the enroute time according the forecasted winds. It is good to compare with the Windyty application and by the way, this is something we did the past four days to make sure we will be accurate. Pressure settings for instance are of utmost importance when flying over such a great distance (1300 NM or equivalent to 2350 km). Especially when flying low. The only source of height information is the pressure you set on the altimeter. You set for instance sea level pressure of 1023 hPa but the actual outside pressure is 1000 hPa, you will read 1000 feet but the real altitude or in this case height above sea level will be only 380 feet. So imagine if you descent to an indicated altitude of 600 feet? You are basically touching the water, at night, in Instrument weather condition. Not good




Freezing level according to Rocket Route
 So freezing level at 5000 feet now? Probably because they have no data below! Looking at our beloved Windyty it will be just below 3000 feet. 
Enough of that planning stuff, we want real flying, the one that is thrilling, the exploit by itself. Of course we integrate the whole process and we aren't any cowboy of aviation, but when you gotta go, you gotta go! At the last resort, we can always decide not to go, even 15 minutes before departure, or even if we feel like its too dangerous once airborne. Plan for the worst, hope for the best! 

Paul went already to the airport in the morning to prepare the airplane in the event of our departure. Francisco and I stayed at the hotel to prepare the relevant paperwork. eApis for the US customs, flight plans, make sure everything is prepared so that we won't run into any trouble. Regarding customs, strange enough, we can send a request for a one flight, departing Japan and landing in Anchorage, although we will stop in Shemya and Cold Bay! So for two days in the USA without clearing customs but still, we will need to abide by the rules and clear them once upon landing in PANC! Nevertheless, we have to clear customs in Japan too, and after having done this we are officially considered as an International airplane. So what if we cancel the flight and have to stay in Japan and reposition the airplane to Kobe? We will need the reverse process, I love bureaucracy...

Cisco having to quarantine for a while...;-)

This done, we went back to the plane and did a last weather update before starting to pack all our bags on the airplane. A last group picture and off we went. We also said goodbye to Michiru, Katsu and Hiromi, who have spent so much time to make sure our japanese stay is perfect. We will see them once in New York most probably. Still a long way to go.


The workhorse, ready for the longest flight in its history

Amazingly, what we are just about to live through will be the longest non stop DC-3 flight in history. We have extra fuel, extra adrenaline to keep up but will the two Pratt and Whitney sustain the extra hours? We have an oil transfert but will that be sufficient to endure the hard work? Remember, this is risk management, the biggest risk today is icing encounter.


But at the moment, flying at night and chasing the sun is giving a sense of calmness in the cockpit. Cockpit lighting with its green tone reminds me of a bombing mission that our own airplane had to do, or try to do over the Atlantic in WWII. And here we are, floating over that big water mass.

Sunrise over the black sea, but blue on the GPS
The feeling you have when the only thing you can hear is the roar of those two 1200 horse power engines cannot be described. We were feeling alone there, in our bubble, like a time machine that flies in 2017 but brings memories of what happened 60-70 years ago. Beautiful. I could almost imagine us landing in Shemya and seeing other DC-3s there, unloading their freight or troops for this advanced based. The only mean of communicating was with a Satcom, that brought us back in 2017. The Satcom worked well but the noisy cockpit made communications impossible, and the small antenna couldn't cope with the middle of the cabin. So we were sending sms instead. These were received by Fabien Moret who is a friend and working for Albinati Aeronautics in Geneva. He could follow us up and with our position reports via sms, he could call the respective center to advise them of our position. We also made sure to get a discreet code given by Anchorage ACC (Area Control Center) so as to be identified via our transponder. And believe it or not, once we set that code, about 50 NM before the boundary of the Anchorage FIR, we would see our transponder being interrogated by ATC, and in that region, this can only be an AWACS, flying high above us and monitoring the japanese sea in case of an invasion from hostile regions...brrrr, scary!

We went through so many different sceneries, from almost blue sky to low overcast, descending down to 800 feet to see something, then up by 1000 feet to get some sight in between two layers. Here are a couple pictures that speak for themselves.















After 9 hours and 50 minutes of flight, we finally could materialize our GPS position by actually seeing Shemya Island! I was feeling relieved to finally hear a human voice and thinking we were going to land on terra firma and stretch our legs. But before we could do so, we had to endure a good 18-20 knots crosswind and thanks to Francisco and Paul's experience, it all went smooth.


There it is! Shemya, straight ahead!




Once on the ground, we also kind of rushed our stay as we needed to depart before the bad weather kicks in. Refueling and a short stop at the cantine to eat and off we went, back in the air for another 7 hours plus towards Cold Bay. Here are the pictures on the ground.

People got interested about our DC-3


Isolated..

Old WWII airfield, having seen more DC-3 at this time here!


Our pre bought barrels, each containing 200 litres of AVGAS and sent by C-130

Ground operation finished, the marathon continued and without loosing one minute, our flight plan having been set accordingly, we started engine 1 and 2 again and off we went for our journey across the Aleutian up to Cold Bay, Alaska!


Half a volcano!





Uninhabited since it exists


Volcanoes and Bogoslof Island where an active volcano just went off!







Landed in Cold Bay, happy, after 17 hours and 30 minutes in the air

So here we are, after a day of 40 hours and 17 hours and 30 minutes in the air, we made it back to some civilized place, Cold Bay, where despite our lengthy day, we still had some energy to shoot an approach. Once on taxi speed, we were surprised because no one was on site, it looked like a deserted airport. A call to Flight Service on the frequency and everything was organized within 5 minutes. And then only we realized...it was 11.30pm!!! Imagine the typical US ATC service!! Arriving in a place where only bears and tough people live, in the middle of the Aleutian Islands, close to midnight and having fuel/hotel available in 5 minutes via a call on the frequency, THIS is called, service!

For our night, we were taken to The Bearfoot Inn, a rustic place where they keep food for the whole community, and some beds for the poor travelers like us! A bed was exactly what we needed, but before this, lets have a well deserved beer and...microwaved lasagnas!! What a treat!


Now time to nod off and sleep, however difficult with so many memories in my head.

Total flight time 17h30, Total "duty" day 42h.