These guys were headed into the Chugach in the middle of September for a climbing trip. When clients want to go into the high mountain country this late in the season we often warn them that they could be stuck for several days. They might even get the opportunity to shovel-out the airstrip so that we can land. You can see in this pic that it was spitting snow. The elevation here is about 5000′ and we were able to pick them up with no problems.
I remember that the forecast was horrible but they went anyway without hesitating. This shows real Alaskan maturity because, if you try to plan excursions by looking at a forecast extending beyond the next 12 hours … you are likely wasting your time. The National Weather Service does a great job, but Alaska’s weather is fickle, it does what it wants, so most Alaskans do the same.
Every summer a bolt of lightning ignites a forest of black-spruce somewhere in Alaska, reducing visibility, burning my eyes, and blackening the leading edge of my airframe. It all depends on winds, temperature, and rain, but I have found that conditions improve above 6000′. This photo was taken in July of last summer on my way to 10,000′. The main reason I dislike smoke is because it hides the clouds. I have flown in reduced visibility due to smoke and suddenly found myself struggling for visual reference because of a hidden cloud. The smoke in the this image is nothing compared to the thick white blanket that occasionally lays on the ground. Fortunately it never sticks around long as we have a steady Southerly flow during the summer months, and a weather pattern that is dynamic enough to keep things moving.
Alaska in the early August is a beautiful thing. This little valley is a great place to see moose, bear, and sheep. I often land down there just to hike around and get some fresh air on my flights home after a hard days work :o)
These guys were walking through the Chugach Mts. on a month long expedition. They needed food, fuel, and supplies delivered at three different points along their route. We try not to leave food unattended in the wilderness because animals always find it and make a mess. We usually plan to meet the teams so that we can give them their supplies in person, and back-haul their garbage.
Their second re-ration was scheduled for June 1st at 10,000′. (Let me remind you that this is Alaska, so 10,000′ is really high, and even in the middle of summer a couple of feet of snow and 80 mph winds are not uncommon.) When I woke up on June 1st it was rainy and foggy and rather persistent, so we held out for the next day which showed little improvement. On the 3rd of June they called and said it was improving. Since we were already 2 days behind schedule, I launched immediately for the 20 minute flight to 10,000′. By the time I got to 8500′ I could tell that things were not looking good up ahead. I got within radio range, and was speaking to the course leader on the ground. He told me that conditions had deteriorated drastically over the last 30 minutes. I was only 600 yards from them, but I could do nothing. Their camp was on a long narrow shelf with steep mountains to the immediate South, and a 3000′ cliff just a couple hundred yards to the North. I was circling out over the cliff and looking onto the shelf, but could see nothing but white. The weather was only deteriorating so I headed home with an airplane still full of groceries.
The weather continued to be horrible for several more days, and finally on the 6th of June I got a sat-phone call from the mountain. The report was mediocre at best, but I hurriedly loaded the plane and headed for the glacier. 6 days late on a re-ration is a really long time, and I knew that they were out of fuel. Without fuel it’s difficult to get water because they can’t melt snow, not to mention the shortage of food. As I passed through 8500′ I noticed it looked … bad. Not horrible, but bad. The clouds were higher now, and I had decent forward visibility, but there was no substantial light to cast any shadows. I climbed up to 10,000 feet and circled over their camp just 200′ below. The only reason I could see the ground was because of the climbers out walking around. It looked like they were floating in a world of white. I asked two of them to put on skis and go down-hill away from camp so that I could aim for something on final approach. This is a little airborne test that I like to make occasionally. If I can see their tracks while they ski I will take further actions toward a landing attempt. If I cannot see their tracks in the snow … the light is too flat and I won’t do it. As the skiers got roped up and headed down hill I strained to see a variance in color on the ground … nothing. Just two dudes floating around on a common rope.
I forgot to mention there was also about 20 mph of wind at elevation so the variables were stacking up against me. Even if I had them lay-out two parrallel climbing ropes up the glacier for a visual clue, the prevailing winds would make the approach unstable. And with a heavily loaded super cub, at 10,000′, in super-flat light … it ain’t worth it !!
I reported the bad news on the radio and asked them if they wanted an air-drop. We don’t often airdrop because it breaks the animal crackers and leaks the fuel, but sometimes you gotta get ‘er done. Without a moments hesitation they said, “Yes, anything, fuel please.” I flew off to the North so that I could get immediate clearance from the invisible ground and circled out beyond the cliff while tying surveyors tape to several gallons of white gas. Gallon cans of white gas have about a 50/50 chance of staying intact if dropped in the snow. On my first pass I threw out 3 gallons of white gas and one food bag. I did not dare get low-and-slow, as is custom for an airdrop, because low-and-slow is a bad idea when you can’t see the ground. I stayed up high enough that the people on the ground looked small and made three passes throwing food out the door each time. While dropping the food I focused on looking straight ahead and flying level. Normally I look at my target, and drop while looking down, but I did not dare take my eyes off the few visual references I had. It’s not that I was in the clouds or had reduced visibility, it was simply that everything was white, and there was no sun-beam strong enough to separate the monotony. This is the only airdrop I have done at a cruise power setting, hundreds of feet off the ground, but it worked thanks to all the fresh snow.
I took the above picture the morning after the airdrop when I was finally able to land and laugh about it with them. They were more hungry than I realized, and told me they had just laid in their tents and tried not to burn any calories. 6 days is rather extreme and VERY uncommon. Especially in the era of sat-phones. Usually the weather will break for a few hours and we will get it done very near the schedule. But then again … this is the last frontier, it can do what ever it wants, it’s Alaska.
Coming home from a flight I looked up towards the Knik glacier and shot this on a whim. All seasons in Alaska are beautiful, but the 10 days of Fall are truly special. Most areas enjoy the Fall colors for several weeks … In Alaska the climax of colors only lasts for a couple minutes, and this is one of them.
I have absolutely no idea where this was or where I was going, but I sure like that blue sky with the fresh snowfall.
We were doing a survey and I was turning around at the end of the valley. I love that hanging glacier and the extreme terrain pictured in this photo. When the wind is calm this sort of flying is the most fun. I have started surveys as early as 0430 a.m. in an attempt to get the calmest air possible. You can tell this is late in the summer because of the condition of the snow covering the ice.
We flew to the orphanage. It was nice by Haiti standards but still very sad. Father John who runs the orphanage was very glad to see us even though we only brought an R44 load of baby food. That will get them by for a few days, and we lined up an A-Star 350 that is going to sling-in I ton of food for them. We do a lot of networking for people. Father John out on the island of El la Viche has no idea how to get a substantial amount of food quickly. And that was the bigger goal we had, to make sure he was legit and there really was a need. Then we use our contacts to get them some serious food. So anyway I was talking about the extremes; we leave this sad but functioning orphanage and in 10 minutes we had landed on a secluded Caribbean beach and took 20 minutes to enjoy a swim. Then in another 40 minutes we are in the smoke, dust and grim of Port-Au-Prince. It feels unreal at times. And now I am sitting in the orphanage, which is a resort by Haiti standards, listening to a couple of doctors and nurses re-run the gruesome events of the day over dinner. Gangrene…infection…amputation…skin grafts…chest tubes…shunts…setting bones…re-breaking bones…crushed pelvis, foot, leg, arm, finger…burns…sutures…still born, it doesn’t seem to end.
I don’t know if I am getting used to the chaos or if things are really slowing down. I felt things settle-down a little about 5 days after I got here, but it is more noticeable now. We are on the downhill slide, which is bad for Haiti, because the needs here are probably going to increase. Hopefully people stay even though the photo-ops are decreasing. I am convinced that some people show up just to look, like it is some kind of a show. Thanks for the prayers. The machine has been running really good and Martin and I are getting it dialed-in. I feel like we are getting better (and more cautious) every day. Need to get going.
Love ya’ bro,
Our home base, at Sheep Mt., is at 2900′ elevation. It is not uncommon for our house to be in the clouds for a few hours in the morning. These are often our best days of flying once the sun gains control of the skies. This photo was taken on my way to 10,000′ for a landing on the glacier hauling supplies. The multiple layers of clouds obscuring various portions of the mountains made for a fun photo.
Zach called me yesterday from Haiti and told me that he was exhausted but things were going well. He will only be down there one more week before heading back to Arizona and then off to the Phillipines. He has been getting more flying than he expected as the word spread and needs were made known. Today Zach flew out and picked up a 2 year old girl that needs heart surgery. He has been doing quite a few medevacs which come with their own challenges because the stakes are high on both ends. He is in good health and the helicopter continues to operate perfectly which is a real blessing.
Zach said the locals are fearing the rainy season, and the disease that will spread in the months to come as there are still many bodies still un-recovered and people are living in tents. In many ways the struggles are just beginning for Haiti as the worlds focus moves on to other things. The helicopter belonging to Samaritan Air, that Zach has been flying, will stay in Haiti indefinitely as the needs are still very great. Thank God for the people who are able to be there for the long-haul.
I was flying home with an empty Super Cub when I flew by a mountain top that looked liked a possible landing spot. I had seen the potential several years earlier, but had never taken the time to work out a landing on it. The winds were calm and the air had not yet been disturbed with afternoon thermals so I decided to give it a couple of passes. It was plenty long enough, but I was surprised by how steep it was. It was one of those scenarios where it was too steep to drag downhill or uphill so all I could do was fly by at an angle looking out the side window. This makes it much more difficult to judge length and texture but it can still give you the overall perspective. There was a hump in the middle that I was trying to get a good look at to determine size. After several passes I decided the hump of concern would not be an issue because the steep terrain would decelerate me so quickly that by the time I reached it I would just roll over it. (A “bump” jars the aircraft, a “hump” launches the aircraft)
In the process of checking-out the strip I also detected a very slight tailwind, but since length was not really an issue I decided it was manageable. I flew by the airstrip one last time as I headed out for final approach. As I turned in toward the mountain top with my flaps fully extended I double checked my ground speed and found it acceptable. As I passed the point of no return I could feel the tail wind had increased. I tried to ease off the throttle and pitch the nose up to really slow it down, but could feel the airplane sag out from underneath me, so I came back in with a little bit of power and hit the ground “long and hot” (meaning I landed well beyond where I intended going faster than I desired). I nailed “the hump” and launched back into the air even though I was climbing a significant hill. One wheel came almost 2 feet off the ground, that is a massive bounce, and is unacceptable in this sort of flying.
We all botch landings once in awhile, and this was a perfect example. I should have moved-on as soon as I detected the tailwind. These sorts of landings don’t lend the luxury of a, “little tailwind”. I’ve noticed with pilots that nothing is ever their fault. It’s always the, “gust of wind” or “engine problems”. Truth is that gust of wind is still my fault because I should have accounted for the fact that there was adverse wind blowing… and then gone home! This landing was no big deal, and nothing of consequence happened. There were no passengers onboard and I was very light, but I remember this event because it surprised me, and I hate surprises in the pilot seat.
An embarrassing bounce.
I took this picture immediately after landing while picking up some bear hunters.
For the last two weeks I have been working on my Super Cub. I did the annual inspection, and welded in a third seat conversion, which was no small job. I replaced all the plexiglass, added a map pocket, replaced all my skat tubing under the dash, and several other minor modifications. So this morning I took a little RTS (return to service) flight and decided to land by this glacier in order to shoot an intro video for my new website (coming very soon). I thought the “Blue Ice” was appropriate for a backdrop. While I was on the ground I could hear the glacier creeping forward. A continuous series of snaps, crackles and pops, encouraging my not to get too close. A beautiful spot, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few minutes enjoying another piece of God’s creation.
Short video clip of landing in the gorge.
If I fly direct, from my home base, into the Eastern Chugach this is my view to the South from 7500′. Mt. Thor is the prominent peak in the middle standing 12,251′ tall and ranking as the second highest peak in the Chugach Mt. Range. If you are a mountaineer and would like to attempt this climb I can fly you to the base of the mountain in just 20 minutes. It is a difficult climb and the weather is pretty much always terrible near the top, but after reaching the summit you can ski back to the road. This means it can be a nice cheap option for climbers. Give me a call, we’ll work something out.
Can you see the Super Cub ? The Cub is taking off, but is still on the ground, and rather small. I had just gotten airborne, and winged around to get this picture of Mike taking off. On this particular morning the glacier was so slippery that it took one person dragging and pushing on each wing to maintain control while I turned around. At one point the plane started sliding sideways and my panties got all up in a bundle trying to stop it.
Taking-off of steep, slippery terrain is a potential hazard. You know how taildraggers respond during takeoff. A little rudder dance takes place during each take off and landing in order to maintain directional control. If the plane wanders during the rudder dance, a touch of opposite brake will immediately regain directional control. On mornings as slippery as the one pictured above I might-as-well forget that the plane even has brakes, because they are completely and utterly worthless. I don’t use brakes often on takeoff because of the obvious adverse effects, but it’s nice to know I have the option. Brakes are especially nice with the ever-present downhill, glacial tailwind, because for several seconds the only air flow over the rudder is the air caused by the prop wash. The third, and most adverse, effect to directional stability are the ribs of ice running diagonally across this particular glacier. Those ribs pull on my bush wheels like asphalt grooves on a motorcycle tire. It is controllable, but you better have your poop-in-a-group before you apply full power. You can see similar glacial grooves at the end of this video.
During scenarios like this I generally accelerate rather slowly, sort of like when I was first learning to fly. I just ease the throttle forward so nothing happens too fast, because the consequences of loosing directional control would be … unfortunate. As you can see, the terrain below the strip is less than forgiving. With the momentum earned from a botched take off I could easily make it right out the bottom of this picture. I am not claiming that taking off of steep slippery slopes is difficult, I am just suggesting that your mental “potential hazard” alarm be blaring while you do it. If you want to ride along on a glacial landing and go for a short hike, you can with Blue Ice Aviation for just $250 bucks. Check out my website. (All new website coming soon with detailed pricing).
If you still have not located the Super Cub, it is on the left side of the main ice-field, about half way up the glacier, and within a couple hundred feet of the medium sized snow-patch. Look for two black specks … those are the 35″ bushwheels :o) I love em’, so many uses.
The next pictures show the Meekin homestead and landing strip with crosswind runway. My cabin is on the shorter airstrip on the far right, and Mike’s cabin has the nice green lawn. The wing of my plane passes 20 feet in-front of my house when I land. The big building next to the planes is the hangar and office. There are killer views of mountains in every direction from our house and hangar. People love to sit on our runway and count sheep on the mountain behind the hangar. If you are in Alaska during the summer stop by, even if you don’t want a flight, just to enjoy the view. It is one of the finest views in the world. The last image shows my wife motoring down the runway on our scooter headed for the cabin. On the map Blue Ice Aviation is located at the red “A”.
“Haiti is such a thrash that it is laughable, by as early as 10:00 AM the strain is starting to show on everyone. Hopefully I get a good nights sleep tonight that’s all I really need right now. I may have to do a flight to the Dominican Republic tomorrow AM. I tried to get out of it but I think I may be stuck.”
Gotta keep rollin, Zach