BC and Alaska 2007



I’m sure it will be no surprise to for you to hear that our holiday to BC and Alaska was a wonderful trip; full of scenery, wildlife and of course the odd aircraft or two. This was not a ‘spotters’ trip, but I negotiated enough time with the family to obtain a flavour of the aviation world on the ‘wet coast’ and set some parameters for a return visit.


I took as many photos as I could together with a great deal of video. I hope to put a CD together in due course but include a selection from each location to whet the appetite. The photo selection can be found HERE and the video selection HERE. From a photographic point of view be gentle with me. I’m no expert and the video is all hand held, with a new toy purchased just before the holiday, so not broadcast quality.  I also used the single shot DVD system on the camera, which was not as good as I’d hoped it would be but I will try and take some photos off the video coverage itself in due course.


We flew out to Vancouver from Glasgow with Globespan (767ER) via Calgary for a passenger drop. No doubt the Rocky Mountaineer set. This however thinned out the cabin and we all gained a window seat for the one-hour flight ‘over the hump’ to Vancouver. With relatively cloud-free skies the Rocky Mountain scenery was spectacular. Needless to say I sought out any airstrips I could remember from our previous tour five years ago. Even spotted one or two! Lots of interesting ramp stuff at both international airports and as we taxied in at Vancouver, a couple of Air North 748’s and cargo Convair 580’s were on view. Naturally Coal Harbour was busy with the usual culprits – Harbour Air Beavers and Otters, Baxter Beavers and West Coast Twin Otters.


After a quiet days flight-recovery around downtown we had a hire car booked for a day trip to Whistler and saw our first black bear whilst cruising up the Sea to Sky Highway. Whistler is of course home to Whistler Air, based on Green Lake located just beyond the main resort complex[1].


Whistler Air [ www.whistlerair.ca ] is home to a Turbine Otter (C-GEND 371) and two Beavers. We arrived late afternoon and November Delta was being refuelled ready for its scheduled service to Vancouver. Beaver C-FSKZ was also present. After a photo request of the re-fueller I realised I was talking to Mike Quinn the Owner, President and Chief Pilot. Several years ago Mike flew the Otter down to the Antarctic to support operations following the undercarriage collapse of a DC3. The trip took the thick end of a month and he was on wheels/skis for several months before the long return to BC. Bush flying in all kinds of ways.


WA are having another busy season with ‘round the patch’ tourist flights, their scheduled services and charter flights. The new paint scheme is striking and very photogenic. With both aircraft settled quietly at the dock on what was a very pleasant afternoon, surrounded by the mountain scenery, I could have happily sat their all day. The Vancouver-Whistler-Vancouver service would definitely be worth the effort as the route along Howe Sound and into the Mountains would be spectacular even on a bad weather day. The Green Lake arrival/departure would also be very exciting.


We watched the Otter depart (see video clip) and having thanked Mike for his time made to go. No sooner had I turned away than the Tyax Air Beaver (C-GIYV) [ www.tyaxair.com  ] landed and taxied in to drop a couple of guys who had spent a few days camping at the foot of a local glacier.


Two days later we boarded an Alaska Air 737 (AS105) for the three hour flight to Anchorage. Needless to say I ensured we were in good time to check-in (more ramp viewing time) and this paid off as the queues were extensive. We had pre-booked seats online but which side to sit? Port for Vancouver Island or starboard for the Coast range. I opted for port and was treated to a great view of the Island and its various airports as well as some spectacular scenery (this will become a common theme). However, the lunchtime flight was not full so I dashed across the cabin to take shots to starboard as well. Great flight route, excellent (laid back and friendly) in-flight service and a wonderful if rather grey arrival into Anchorage. Having practiced the approaches so often on FS2004 I knew where we were in the pattern and what to expect out of the window. I was not disappointed. The ERA and NAC ramps were busy with Dash 8 (the Convairs have been retired) and DC6B respectively. We parked next to another Alaska 737 with the Salmon paint job all the way down its side.


As we drove out of the airport my attention was divided between coping with a vehicle the size of an aircraft carrier, that I had needed a ladder to climb into and the apparent wasps nest of aircraft buzzing hither and thither in my field of view; most sporting floats. As many of you will know, Anchorage International is directly adjoined by Lake Hood – the cosmic centre of the universe for float planes – together with a dirt strip for fixed wheels. Merrill Field is only a matter of a couple of miles away with the Elmendorf Military base similarly close by. Something for all the family. And in the three days we were there I don’t think there was a type of aircraft (civil or military) that we didn’t see; including helicopters. A DC3 took off over our hotel just as we were checking in. Seventh heaven or what?


Lake Hood is an L-shaped lake of quite some size with a parallel runway arrangement in part which is separated by a narrow island. A series of cul de sac inlets provide further mooring space. There is not a scrap of bankside anywhere around the lake that does not provide a mooring for a floatplane, complete with a small landing dock and cabin. Other aircraft are pulled up on the side and others parked in rows alongside the surfaced runway. Tundra tyred Super Cubs abound. The northern end has a hotel overlooking the usual takeoff/landing zone and discussions with other visitors staying in bed and breakfast accommodation nearby even provided ATC coverage on their balcony. Access by car is very easy and you can drive all the way round – give way to taxiing aircraft!


Between the main airport and the lake there are a number of parking areas for aircraft – literally hundreds of them – with taxiways linking the dirt strip in one direction and the main airport in the other. There is a pilot shop just off (and very visible from) the main airport road at the junction with Spenard. Because Alaska tends not to go dark too quickly in the summer, flying was going on until quite late.


The Alaskan Aviation Heritage Museum is located at the southern end and is a good place to start, given that it is right next to the Rusts Flying Service dock [ www.flyrusts.com ]; a hive of Otter, Beaver, Cessna Caravan and other floatplane action. The museum provides a fascinating insight into Alaskan flying and as you will see from the photo’s a range of interesting aircraft.


Two miles north out of Anchorage downtown is Merrill Field, another very busy airport [ www.muni.org/merrill1/merrill1.cfm ]. Sadly time only permitted a drive by, but there is plenty to see even from the main road, which runs right beside the airport. Given the sensitivity of military airports I didn’t even try to locate Elmendorf, but there was plenty of military jet and heavy traffic around.


We joined our cruise at Seward, a great drive for about 100 miles south of Anchorage. Just remember that filling stations are very few and far between. A fuel gauge showing twenty miles left in the tank with fifty to go gave me pause for thought, but a risky 10 mile diversion off-route saved the day, just. We called in at Girdwood where a small tarmac strip nestles in the woodland and a Beaver was seen landing, but had turned around and departed by the time we found the airport.


Juneau offered the Wings Airways Otters N336AK, N337AK, N338AK and N339AK at their dock just alongside the cruise terminal. Good viewing from the dockside available. They were kept very busy on scheduled and Taku Lodge (and other) flightseeing trips and I had to steel myself and forego a trip here in favour of a longer flight in Ketchikan. Tough decision.


We also visited Skagway and although there were no Otters here the airport is quite active with Twin Otter flightseeing aircraft and a range of light aircraft. I didn’t have the equipment to take any worthwhile shots here, but the airport is only a short walk from the main street and worth a visit. Mind you, almost everything is only a short walk in Skagway as it nestles in a narrow valley.


Ketchikan provided Dad’s day and I had booked a flight with a longstanding family operation Alaska Seaplane Tours [ www.alaskaseaplanetours.com ] in their wonderfully colour-schemed Beaver. Yes I know it is contrary to my Otter allegiances, but I wanted maximum flight time and they offered a great trip through the Misty Fjords over the Glaciers and into an away landing followed by a return to downtown. About two hours in total. I also stood to get the right-hand seat as well.


We were collected from the dockside in the Company van driven by an enthusiastic Martin Rush and delivered the short distance to their dock. Very walkable from the cruise dock. We went back in the afternoon for viewing and videoing. The Beaver was being fuelled as we arrived and following introductions to our pilot for the day Keith Deschambeault we boarded the aircraft. We were joined by a quiet, elderly American who requested the right-hand seat and in deference to age I suggested he went first. There was method in my madness though because I wanted the takeoff from wherever we landed away and the landing back in Ketchikan with the cans on for ATC and a chat to the pilot. I also had a funny feeing there was more to the chap than met the eye. He didn’t bother with the headset, preferring to enjoy the sound of the radial at full volume. After much effort to draw him into conversation it transpired that he was an ex-USN Corsair pilot who had flown many missions in Korea. Its always the quiet ones!!


The Misty Fjords proved true to their title and as there had been a fatality the week before I expect Keith was naturally a little more cautious. We took off past the cruise ships keeping low to build speed and proceeded into the Fjordland over muskeg, lakes and waterfalls. After a while we took a look into the valley which would have taken us up to the glacier, but it was blocked with cloud and with three pilots on board all agreeing that it looked too dicey, Keith diverted to Walker Cove for a water landing in a side valley. We taxied up a stream for a while to where he knew a grizzly bear and cubs were regularly to be found. Dropping the hook (after consulting local tide tables) we climbed out on the floats for some bear watching.


It was remarkably peaceful and the bears duly appeared, albeit at some distance on this occasion. Mrs B was content though. We were also treated to a flyby from one of Keith’s mates who spotted us whilst passing and flew up our valley and barnstormed us before diving off en-route down the main valley. The camera wasn’t ready but I just watched contentedly as this flyby occurred and even my teenage son expressed a ‘cooool’ to recognise the event.


Clambering around on the floats was reasonably easy and I made every effort to absorb the experience. All too soon it was time to go. Keith pulled up the anchor and we drifted backward toward the main channel for a while into a wider area before starting the engine and making our way back to Ketchikan. The takeoff and landing videos are HERE. Enough said.


The weather was satisfactory, but improved in the afternoon and everyone was surprised by the sunshine. If we’d flown in the afternoon we would probably have made the full trip to the glacier, but would not perhaps have had the same experience so the consensus was the trip was excellent. My thanks to Keith and all at Alaska Seaplane Tours for a well organised, well operated and thoroughly enjoyable trip.


The occurrence of another crash just a week later must have rocked Ketchikan, which is positively alive with floatplane operations. The weather is very variable and we were evidently fortunate.


For those of you intending to visit, the Promech dock has a great viewing area overlooking their base with Turbo Otters, Beavers and other floatplanes coming and going all the time. When we arrived all was quiet but after 10 minutes the flock began to arrive and all was activity and noise for the next hour or so. Taquan Beavers [ www.taquanair.com ] are away to the right with a range of other Beaver operators in docks to the left.


One Promech Otter still sports a radial engine and sat quietly, close to the loading dock, evidently inactive. How wrong I was. During a last dash around the shops with Mrs B late on (and having run out of video battery) she departed in stately fashion climbing away to the south. A great sight. She evidently has a trick up her sleeve to attract attention, because as I followed her progress she backfired alarmingly loudly, the noise echoing off the hillside and turned many heads in the street. I had a momentary pang of concern but she seemed to continue untroubled and I imagine that at her age some digestive disturbance is only to be expected!


Because much of the flying is cruise visitor related, aircraft tend to fly by the ships on departure so there is good viewing from the deck. However as ship departure time approaches there is an evident winding down of activity and aircraft are ramped for cleaning and preparation for the following day. If you haven’t seen Don Peachey’s video do so; it really captures the essence of aviation at Ketchikan. If you can’t make Anchorage, Ketchikan is the next best venue in my view. There appears to be a direct flight from Seattle with Alaska Air. So much action and so little time.


My final session was a short visit to Coal Harbour for some Harbour Air activity [ www.harbour-air.com/home/index.php. ] Baxter Beavers were also present, together with West Coast Air Twin Otters [ www.westcoastair.com ]. The new Conference Centre is making progress and the float base looks to be sited where it will remain in the future. When we visited five years ago I enjoyed a Turbo Otter flight from Coal Harbour to Victoria and back.


A great trip all round, with plenty of aerial action and although Otters are relatively thin on the ground in comparison, they are well grouped for viewing and very active. There is plenty to see for any aviation enthusiast and we will be going back.



[1] Keep going on the main road past the Resort and then expect a right turn after about two miles into what appears to be a private residential golfing resort. Take a left at the mini-roundabout just before the Niclaus North clubhouse building. It is not an obvious turn. Needless to say I missed it first time. The Whistler Air dock is right in front of you.