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Via Aviation Week:

Cold, Dark And Lonely: Lessons Learned From My Flights
May 22, 2018 Ross Detwiler Business & Commercial Aviation

This article appears in the June 2018 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation with the title “Cold, Dark and Lonely.”

There are airline pilots who make far northern or even transpolar flights on a regular basis. Business aviators become familiar with the requirements for these flights, but we seldom do it often enough for it to be considered routine. To me, the title of this piece fits my impressions of that type of flying. What follows are flights to and across cold, dark and lonely regions from my career.

The Early Days

“Holy cow. It’s snowing like heck in Anchorage.”
“Not supposed to snow there until tomorrow night.”
“Well, they didn’t get the memo. It’s down to half a mile in moderate snow.”

[Image: POLARALASKA_iStock-sarkophoto.jpg]iStock/Sarkophoto

It was late February 1979, and we were at the 4-hr. point out of Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on our first Asian trip in the Gulfstream II. On the way to Japan, we’d taken our time, going out of San Francisco and through Hawaii and Wake Island. But on the way home we planned to return through Anchorage with a two-day stopover. The G-II was not the plane for Far East and North Pacific operations. It just didn’t have the range. Even on the later leg down to Westchester County Airport, White Plains, New York, we would have to divert to Green Bay, Wisconsin, due to insufficient fuel.

We had considered this possibility of bad weather and had planned on using Cold Bay Airport in the Aleutians as a divert, but hoped we wouldn’t have to go there.

But we did.

The Customs man came out in the middle of the night, after short notice, his face nearly invisible in a giant parka. He gave us permission to proceed and we put a full load of fuel on, just in case, and then went on to Anchorage with Fairbanks, as often was to be the case, a stand-up alternate.

Finally, the G-IVs

We moved through G-IIIs and G-IVs and the Alaskan operations became more and more commonplace. The G-IV was, in my opinion, the first business jet that could operate reasonably through Alaska en route to/from Asia. We tried to leave out of Anchorage in the afternoon, whenever possible. That way Japan was still awake and the long Anchorage-Osaka leg was not necessary en route to Hong Kong and points farther south. We did more and more Asian operations, eventually even flying a Taipei-to-Anchorage leg in eight and a half hours. We spent the night reminiscing for about 2 hr. with a G-II out of Narita, also heading for Alaska. We planned on landing with more fuel than him and it felt good.

In a Heavy

Another long, high-latitude flight occurred when I took off from corporate operations, having been called for a year of active duty flying C-5 Galaxies for the U.S. Air Force. In October 1990, still in the “Shield” phase of Desert Shield/Storm, my crew and I were at the operations window in Rhein-Main (Frankfurt) for a return to the U.S. We’d been out for nearly two weeks and, in that time, completed three or four “downrange” trips from Rhein-Main and Ramstein in Germany and Torrejon Air Base in Madrid. All had gone to the big cargo terminal at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. This was our return leg to stateside.

“Here’s a flight plan. Looks like you men are headed to Travis.”

“Travis, as in Sacramento, California, Travis?”


We took the flight plan and starting pulling out charts that we’d always known were in the bags but never thought we’d use. In about half an hour we converted the computer flight plan to visual legs on the charts and were ready.

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In the airlift command, the pilots went into base operations and did the flight plan while the flight engineers and loadmasters saw to cargo and preflight requirements at the plane. We were a tight crew, having been through a lot of flying in the previous month, and were still getting along just fine. In fact, we’d picked up a photographer and writer for Airman Magazine. Everybody liked both of them and they seemed to enjoy our company. They had stayed with us on a promise of being able to return with the crew to Dover AFB in Delaware.

The photographer was talking to one of the engineers when our 308,000-lb. fuel load came to the airplane from the command post.

“I don’t know where we’re going, Mikee, but it sure isn’t Dover.”

Our new best friends abandoned us and we set about our task. With 20,000 lb. of empty cargo pallets and nearly a full fuel load, we rolled weighing “just a Cadillac over 700,000 lb.” After a couple of turns and vectors to get up and on the way, we were cleared direct to Stornoway in northern Scotland. From there, the routing took us up over Iceland, Sondrestrom Air Base in Greenland, over Iqaluit, think Frobisher Bay, over the middle of Hudson Bay, the town of Churchill, into the plains of Canada, and down over Montana toward Sacramento. During most of the long night just the lead engineer and I were up front. I took the last 4 hr. off to be alert for the landing. There were plenty of good alternates around the Sacramento area, but the fuel gauge was a concern as fog was scheduled to develop at Travis in the early morning time frame. We landed at 1 a.m. to just enough crew support to park the airplane and wound up, unfed, at the bachelor officers’ quarters at oh dark thirty. That turned out to be a flight of just short of 13 hr. At Mach 0.77.

Almost Routine

In the early 1990s, our corporation flew executives to Europe routinely and Asia about four times a year. That progressed to where, at the turn of the new century, we were doing Asia at least four times a month. The GIV flights through Anchorage normally had plenty of fuel — although our first Beijing-to-Anchorage flight again seemed cold, dark and lonely as we overheaded Harbin, China, and flew on to Khabarovsk in Russia. Northwest of that city was a huge rectangular area of very bright lights in the middle of the frozen wasteland. Inviting, it was not.

From Khabarovsk we headed over the Sea of Okhotsk to Magadan, Russia, on past the then-closed Russian interceptor bases in the Anadyr area and in over Nome, Alaska. I remember thinking how far north you are when crossing the Bering Strait, the Nome rotating beacon in your windshield seems so inviting. I had read a story about a sailing ship that had been frozen into the ice just north of Barrow, Alaska, and drifted in the ice pack all winter until the ship’s crew walked over the ice to Wrangel Island, up north of our course line. What an adventure that must have been as the brave
captain left his crew and walked across the ice to the mainland for help.

There were good times for the crews that got to layover in Anchorage (probably still are), and there were also lessons to be learned.

We used to enjoy going to a Cajun restaurant called The Double Musky in the town of Girdwood, about 40 min. south of Anchorage. When dining there, the irrefutable climate feature is the copious amount of rain that falls in the area’s woods. The moisture makes for a rainforest-like condition along the eastern shoreline of the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet.

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That high moisture content when combined with very low temperatures can produce some interesting-looking airplanes as a moist fog rolls in and freezes to objects around which it flows. I’ve seen street signposts double their normal circumference due to adhering frost. Fortunately, in our company, we were usually on the ground just long enough to change crews, refuel and depart.

Back North in the Big Plane

Around 1997, on a weekend Air Guard trip to Alaska, we were ordered to carry cargo for the C-130 outfit based at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Being typical Guard troops, there was good-natured kidding about the size of the Galaxy as compared to the more agile, smaller “combat capable” Herc. This continued right up until the briefing began and we were almost loaded.
Although they helped our guys, the host unit’s members wanted to make sure that its ships got off first and therefore reached the destination before the “renta truck” (but much faster) C-5. We were finally taxiing onto Runway 36. The two C-130s had long disappeared and the pilots were beating their steeds mercilessly trying to get to Fallon Naval Air Base outside of Reno, Nevada, ahead of us.
[Image: POLARALASKA_iStock-Ondrej-Kubicek.jpg]
Flying over Anchorage, Alaska, in winter at sunrise iStock Photo/Ondrej Kubicek

That morning, I noticed that an old DC-6 had rolled ahead of us and actually left a wispy contrail down the entire length of the runway. The Douglas’ hot exhaust had hit that cold clear air and the water in the exhaust had frozen forming an instant cloud — a ground contrail, if you will. I knew that we put a lot more air out the back of the four TF-39s than that old recip and asked tower if they were sure they weren’t going to need the runway for a few minutes after our takeoff.

The response: “We’re familiar with the problem, Polo. You’re cleared for takeoff.”

We took off to the north and commenced a left turn to the south, heading for Reno. Looking back at the airport from a high downwind position, the entire runway and taxi area east of the runway were under a huge stationary ground contrail. A beautiful sight to see as it’s happening but horrifying to see if you’re next to try to land on that runway. Fortunately, in Anchorage landings are generally made on the parallel northeast/southwest runways, not the single north/south. Oh, and we passed the first Herc about an hour out and the second near Seattle.


Shortly after the turn of the century, our company merged with another huge corporation and then our expanded flight department was routinely flying all over the world. The company then purchased two [url=http://awin.aviationweek.com/OrganizationProfiles.aspx?orgId=41340]Bombardier Global Express aircraft, whose Mach 0.85 speed made the run from Narita to Anchorage much quicker than previously possible in the G-IVs. With that change of equipment, our crews figured they’d fly fast to Anchorage, refuel, and head quickly to New York. But there was one problem. Our boss reminded us that the company invested in the Globals to fly home nonstop from Tokyo, nonstop from home to the Middle East or one stop eastbound to Singapore, all regular business calls for the corporation.

Getting a max weight early Global from Narita to White Plains was a bit nerve-wracking. A lesson learned was that immediately out of Japan, the temperatures were normal and there was usually a good push. But about an hour out, the temperatures would start up, sometimes as high as ISA+30C and the wind would stop. We hit those warm temperatures when the plane was very heavy. I did that trip a number of times with flight times ranging from 11+20 when we were able to fly at Mach 0.82 to 12+35 at the slower Mach 0.80 cruise. That was 12+ hr. of considering options.

Over the Top

The biggest far north challenge I can remember was when the chairman was scheduled to be in Tokyo for a conference and wanted to be in London immediately after that gathering. We had used just about the whole department, getting two Globals and two Falcon 900EXs to Tokyo. Our flight to London was planned out of Japan and over Russia (12+15) and the weather in England looked like a holdover from the heavy fog days of the 1970s. We would land short in Scandinavia, if we had to, and then proceed to England. As always seemed the case, this would all start with a 0100 takeoff out of Tokyo’s Haneda International.

We’d just started using that airport and for the previous launch it seemed we taxied for half an hour before getting to the departure runway. I didn’t like the looks of our plan at all.

Option 2, which I did like, was to leave Tokyo, fly at Mach 0.85 to Fairbanks, pick up the extra captain and flight attendant who had flown the Falcon 900 to Fairbanks two days earlier, then fly to London, a 7+20 flight that would get us into the area with a lot of fuel.

We landed in Fairbanks and were ready to start the refuel, feeling good about our plan. They signaled that chocks were in, the fuel truck was rounding off his turn in front of the right wing and I released the brakes and reached down to shut off the engines.
Then the call: “You’re rolling.”
“What. . . . ?!” Stomp on the brakes and startle the folks; luckily all had “remained seated.”
No harm done. Turned out that the chocks, which were huge chucks of knotted rope specifically used to prevent slippage on the ice, had slipped. Fortunately, brakes and the rope were enough to hold the plane.
We left Fairbanks about 3 p.m., the early December sun already falling out of sight. I remember thinking as we crossed Prudhoe Bay pointed north in the dark that this was the real thing when it comes to transpolar flight.

We would be as far as 79 north at one point in the flight and I’d read up on how to change the Honeywells to track true courses at those latitudes as all the charts in that area were referenced to true north. We expected them to go to “heading fail” and cause us to switch them to true course. We need not have worried. The Honeywell FMSes did go to “heading fail” but then changed themselves to true at precisely the required latitude, about 72 north as I recall. They would change themselves back to magnetic as we came south over Greenland. Make my night, Honeywell.

We continued for about 2 hr. and again, cold, dark and lonely were the only words to describe our environs. At the very north edge of Canada, seeing an airport beacon at the tiny outpost of Eureka brought us into the FMS to check out the facilities. There were actually people this far north. I remember later seeing a television show in which a Canadian bushflight operation overnighted at Eureka and spent much of the next day heating the engines.

We proceeded to cross from Canada into Greenland and again, having once thought I was at the top of the world at Thule Air Base, I marveled to see it nearly 200 mi. south of our course.

Greenland was interesting in that, making position reports every 10 deg. of longitude kept one busy as the meridians at the high north latitudes are only about 15 min. apart. I retired to the rear and the extra captain sat in for a couple of hours as we came down over Greenland, then Iceland and headed for northern Scotland. When I came back to the flight deck, both the guys were smiling and pointed to the latest Stansted sequence, which showed 7,000 meters visibility with conditions improving.

“Who loves ya, baby?” Sure made it easier having two other highly qualified captains helping.

To say that flying in and out of airports as well equipped as Anchorage and Fairbanks makes one an Alaskan pilot would be a stretch. There are too many bush pilots who would laugh themselves silly over such a comment. Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics and conditions with which you become familiar when flying different routes.

Extreme cold must be planned for and accommodated. As I said, we were fortunate to never have our equipment on the ground for more than about an hour. But even that can result in a need to deice, especially under the conditions I’ve previously mentioned.

You will almost always, especially in a business aviation operation, wind up spending time in the dark of night. That’s because the folks in the back want to finish a business day before they go to/from Asia. That can wind up being a very short night eastbound and a very long night westbound. I remember one December waking up to breakfast in Anchorage, having the sun come up about 11 a.m. It went down around mid-afternoon and 12 hr. later, we got on the plane out of New York to fly to Shanghai. That was an additional 9 hr. in the dark, landing in the dark, getting to the hotel in the dark and sleeping in the dark for the next 4 or 5 hr. You need headlights for eyes to operate north.
With all the cold often around you on the ground, the temperatures at altitude over the north Pacific were always very warm, just when the eastbound plane was at its en route heaviest. This required close attention for the first 4 to 5 hours of a 12-hr. flight if you were to make the trip nonstop to New York.

Those were the days. These days I consider Oxford, Connecticut, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a Baron about the longest I want to fly.

MTF...P2  Cool

Courtesy Aviation Daily off twitter, my avgeek aviation pic of the week nomination... Wink

Quote:Amazing water plane parking
#Alaska [Image: 1f60d.png]

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Oh yes and our dimwit miniscule has been led to believe, by nefarious sources, that General Aviation is in serious decline in the US of A - right and pigs might fly... Dodgy 

MTF...P2  Tongue
Dial M for miscreants.

As the Senate committee know the PAIN ‘email’ loops are extensive; we have many contacts, all over the planet. It is however a strange and somewhat unusual event to get a an email from Canberra. We try not to involve ‘the White hats’ the Senate committee could, under parliamentary protect – in camera – but we alas cannot ask them to take that kind of risk – unprotected. The note below has been ‘edited’ and paraphrased to protect the innocent; but it speaks volumes. If more of the ‘White hats’ could be persuaded, with a guarantee of protection, then the wheels would really come off the little ‘high-fives’ parties around the Kool-Aid stand. For there is one, every tea break, to revel in the victory of having yet another minister ‘on a string’. Not that its much of a ‘victory’.

The current miniscule has the IQ of a well trained racing rabbit, he backbone of a jelly-fish and about as much interest in ‘matters aeronautical’ as a pub toilet seat has in who’s sitting on it. The man’s a shopfront dummy, well turned out but stuck; wherever he’s’ put, by the window dressing fellah.

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