Sunday, June 21, 2009

Solo in the Far North

It's been several months without a post; here's why. I'm trying to finish my private pilot's license. Last summer's rainy weather and house renovations slowed my progress. Now, I can see the end in view. With this in mind, I had the opportunity to fly my club's Cessna 172 up to the North Slope this week to install one of my snow sensors. I invited my flight instructor along and he foolishly accepted. We worked through the flight planning, packed the plane, and set off last Sunday to the work camp of Umiat, on the Colville River, with a re-fueling stop in Bettles. Umiat has a modern history dating back to the 1940's when gas was discovered there. Now, there are plans to develop the gas fields and build another pipeline, keeping the camp busy with geologists and hydrologists. The weather record at Umiat also dates back to the 1940's, making it an attractive place to install additional weather sensors. Bettles is a small community on the South Side of the Brooks Range, a starting point for hiking in the mountains, and a perfect re-fueling point for arctic flights.

In Bettles, I got my first mechanical training. We couldn't start the plane after parking it. So we pulled out the spark plugs out and my instructor, F., showed me how to clean them. That worked, we gassed up, and were off. Shortly thereafter, we ascended into the Brooks Range and promptly entered thick clouds, i.e. IFR conditions. We kept a close eye on the carburetor and ice building on the wings and ascended out of the freezing conditions when we needed to. But at one point it was actually snowing in the cabin.

Finding Umiat was no small task as well. We knew from the GPS that we were close and decended through a hole in the clouds. Then we stayed 100 feet off the ground or so, looking for a runway. When we lost visual contact with the ground, we ascended and started over again. Finally, we saw a sodium light in the distance. Soon, a brown strip appeared. We entered the pattern and put the plane down. Phew. So much for my first cross country flight!

For the next day and a half F. and I worked busily to install my sensor. We must have lost 2 quarts of blood to the mosquitoes. Finally, when it was all done, our BLM collaborator arrived on an ATV and announced that we would have to move the whole installation half a mile to the other side of camp. We decided to take a break and go flying. We took off and toured the Colville basin. It was a beautiful day with hardly a cloud in the sky and no wind. The river cut through big bluffs that must have been heavy with fossils. Smaller tributaries formed thousands of ponds when they lost the momentum to move forward. Finally, I told F. that I was ready for some touch and goes. We headed back to Umiat. Three good landings and F. asked me to come to a full stop and let him out. Finally, my day had come. I was too tired to be very nervous about it and I'd just had a lot of hours in the plane. I back taxied to the end of the runway and off I went. My first solo was in Umiat, more than three degrees north of the Arctic Circle. I could not have had more fun in the process. My collaborator at BLM celebrated with us and agreed to move the sensor himself, so we could fly home the next day in clear sky conditions. It was certainly a trip to remember. More pictures here.


cswingle said...


Congrats! I didn't know you were learning to fly. Really cool. You'll have to write an airplane into your grants from now on.


jc said...

I hope to! The university makes it hard these days, of course...

abmatic said...

hooray! Sounds like you are making great progress!

Anonymous said...

Great work. There's a tradition in some parts of Alaska that after your first solo, your instructor gets to cut the back out of your shirt and pin it on their office wall. Did that happen to you? It happened to me!


jc said...

I got to keep my shirt, but it's got some writing added...frankly after three days of field work, I don't think my instructor wanted that shirt on his wall.