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Unanticipated adventures flying home from Iditarod Trail

Alice Rogoff,Burke Mees
Mitch Seavey, 53, and his team ride across Cape Nome about 20 miles from the Iditarod finish line. Seavey won the race March 12.
Burke Mees photo
The engine was warm but inside the cockpit the pilot needed beaver mittens to fly the plane.
Burke Mees photo
After the Iditarod race, Alaska Dispatch's team flew to Little Diomede, an Alaska Native community clinging to the edge of a Bering Strait island. In the backdrop is Big Diomede, a Russian island on the other side of the International Dateline.
Burke Mees photo
Alaska Dispatch's team landed on Cape Nome to watch Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle battle to the Iditarod finish line March 12.
Burke Mees photo
Spectators watch dog teams cross the sea ice along Norton Sound during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Burke Mees photo
Flying the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an experience that leaves the pilot wiser, as well as humbled.
Burke Mees photo

We are safely home and snug in the big city of Anchorage. All of us -- your pilot scribes and our two journalists -- feel a bit wiser for the experiences of the last 10 days, as well as humbled. The kindness of strangers was overwhelming. Visits with friends scattered across 1,000 miles were always enriching. And the welcome given to us in every village was uniformly wonderful.

The trip west had been bursting with activity and a sense of anticipation. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race felt different each time the terrain and climate changed, and that frenetic quality drove our timetables.

With the race over, the trip back east made the country below seem almost desolate by comparison. No dog teams to look for; race checkpoints already taken down; even the Iditarod Air Force pilots' radio frequency had gone silent.

But getting home, flying east across Alaska, was as challenging as some of our flying legs last week. The story of the weather on our return flight was all about the wind, which was persistently strong, and constantly on our nose. During the climbout from Nome, we briefly saw a groundspeed of 25 knots. Along many places, snowmachines could have passed us by. We saw a lot of 60-knot groundspeeds, and it was only when we got into the Yukon River valley that we could find better winds close to the surface. Down at less than 1,000 feet it was pretty bumpy, but we could eek out 80-90 knots of groundspeed there.

It was uncanny how the wind stayed exactly on our nose throughout the entire flight.

Prevailing Winds

In many parts of the U.S., there is a fairly regular weather pattern that people speak of as "prevailing winds." It’s hard to make that case in Alaska. There are the “Bering Sea lows" and “Gulf of Alaska lows.” There are coastal winds that either blow the shore ice out to sea or push it back to the shore. The air circulates counter-clockwise around the lows, and earlier in our trip this was bringing warm moist air from the Pacific. On Thursday, it was delivering a steady supply of cold dry air from the Interior. That is how things work in general, but in any particular place it can be very different.

The mountain ranges and generally varied terrain in Alaska interrupt those air flows, turning every “prevailing wind” into seemingly a thousand localized winds. The wind gets channeled by the terrain, accelerated in some places and relatively calm in others. It rises up some slopes in smooth updrafts, and burbles down leeward slopes in turbulent downdrafts; it flows around terrain in such ways that you experience complete changes of direction across short distances. For bush flying, this can make a normal day unexpectedly challenging. Turbulence, down drafts, strong headwinds, to say nothing of clouds, can make a firm schedule just seem like wishful thinking. And so we had to adapt our schedule to the conditions we found along the way.

The plan was to leave Nome after lunch and enjoy a leisurely return to Anchorage, with a refueling stop in McGrath. Clear skies, headwinds and turbulence were in the forecast, but those would not be a big deal. Departing Nome, we encountered significantly stronger winds than forecast, up to 50 knots in places. Those strong winds blew the sea ice out and left open water along the north side of Norton Sound, so we had to go out of our way to keep within gliding distance of a landable surface. The winds were the same at all altitudes so we couldn’t find any relief that way.

As we flew east, the winds were on straight on our nose. When we turned southeast, the winds changed to stay straight on our nose. With 60-knot ground speeds and a detour to follow the shoreline, we were getting skinny on fuel to get to McGrath, so we decided to make an unplanned stop at Unalakleet, where the surface winds were, contrary to the forecast, 25 knots gusting to 35. Fortunately they were right down the runway, so the landing was easy enough, but there was certainly a chill in the air while standing outside refueling the airplane.

Crossing the Alaska Range

The flight from Unalakleet to the Alaksa Range was long and bumpy, but uneventful, and all the while the wall of the Alaska Range was looming ahead of us. We’ve crossed through and over the Alaska Range many times before in this airplane. There are a few thoughts that are always with us:

  • Daylight is precious; don’t squander it in the early part of the day because your options diminish as darkness approaches.
  • The weather on one side of the range often bears no relation to the weather within the mountains, let alone on the other side of it.
  • Ptarmigan Pass is a low, well-defined, easy-to-follow passage. On the chart it looks like a wide ribbon of a highway winding through the mountains. It may be circuitous, but it is easy traveling.
  • Rainy Pass is essentially a short cut to avoid the S-turns of Ptarmigan Pass, but it is more narrow and the correct route is not as well defined or obvious.
  • Should visibility drop unexpectedly around a corner, making a U-turn can be tight and risky. 

With a bad weather report at Puntilla Lake on the far side of the pass, we took a third option and flew over it all. Given the fading daylight and some cloudy weather in the mountains, that seemed to be the best option.

Over the Range and home

Our airplane has good altitude capability with a turbo-charged engine, and as we approached the range from the west, we could see the tops of all the peaks. We climbed to 11,000 feet and flew east just over the mid-point between Rainy and Shellenbarger passes. While there was some showery weather in the mountain valleys, we were comfortably above both the cloud tops and the mountain tops, and made an uneventful crossing. We left the high peaks behind us and descended beneath a scattered to broken layer over the Yentna river valley. The light was getting dim, and wouldn’t have wanted to do this much later in the day. We were practically home free.

As we flew by the Shell Hills, the twinkling lights of Anchorage came into view and acted as a guiding beacon for the rest of the way home. Another safe crossing was behind us.

Alaska is for aviators

Flying this trip is an experience that any one would savor, whether pilot or passenger. We wish others could find the way to do it. If we here at the Dispatch “Bush Pilot” can help with suggestions, feel free to contact us. Travel by airplane opens up experiences that are impossible to have any other way, whether it is landing on a frozen, snow-covered river, or visiting the great villages in our state that are otherwise not very accessible.

This is truly the only way to see “Our Alaska” -- the places known to those of us lucky enough to be in the aviation community.

And even the airplane itself can make for some extraordinary photographs. On the evening the Iditarod leader was due into Nome to claim victory, your pilot scribes were able to fly back out, away from town, to witness the stunningly beautiful sunset light the leader was travelling through.

Just outside the last checkpoint of the Safety Roadhouse, we landed on the sea ice to capture the image of Mitch Seavey passing us by, just 25 miles from the finish line. 

Alice Rogoff is publisher of Alaska Dispatch. Burke Mees is senior pilot for Alaska Dispatch.