After refusing to fly for 12 days due to poor visibility and ceilings, I finally got our Cherokee Warrior II in the air on Tuesday. My route was from Dillingham (PADL) to Portage Creek (PAOC) and Clarks Point (PFCL). Then back to Dillingham.
Every time I fly in Bristol Bay I make a judgment call. Is the weather good enough to fly in, or not? Most of the time it is a very stressful decision because it is a matter of life and death.
After flying in Bristol Bay for five years I have acquired a few rules that I follow religiously. (VFR=Visual Flight Rules and IFR=Instrument Flight Rules). In order to fly in VFR weather there must be at least three miles visibility and a ceiling of 1000 feet. IFR is anything less. Here are my rules.
1. Avoid having to request a "Special VFR." (SEE NOTE BELOW).
2. Takeoff only if departing or arriving destination is reporting VFR conditions.
3. Find out if the weather system is moving in or out.
4. Use multiple weather media, i.e. Dillingham FSS, Kenai FSS, weather cam.
5. Turn around if the ceiling gets below 500 feet.
6. Do not fly unless there is at least 3 miles visibility and 500 foot ceiling.
7. Do not fly if wind is blowing at 30 knots or greater.
Before departing to Portage Creek I had to wait for the fog to lift and the rain to slow down. About 9 a.m. it started to look a little better. When the weather looks marginal I personally visit the professionals up in the Dillingham Flight Service Station. After talking with them and viewing their weather data, I felt much safer about heading out into the Alaska Bush. I was convinced I was not going to get stranded at Clarks Point for more than three days (like I did four years ago).
I took off after I listened to the weather report on the Dillingham ATIS (125.00). The weather was scattered at 600 feet, five miles of visibility, and overcast at 1000. It was just barely VFR conditions so I did not need to request a "Special VFR."
Portage Creek is a popular King Salmon fishing spot for people visiting Dillingham. It is located 22 miles east of Dillingham and has two runways: an east/west runaway and a north/south runway. The clouds began to thin out a little bit and the visibility went up to over 10 miles the closer I came to Portage Creek.
Finally, runway 27 came into view.
Runway 27 is not used as much as the north/south runway, 01-19. Not because of the wind, but because it is narrow and muddier when it thaws out.
To the left is the runway I almost crashed on three years ago. I was practicing "touch and goes" (once the tires touch the gravel you push in the power and take off again before actually stopping) in the spring time. Not a good idea. The runway was muddy and when I pushed in power to go around, I was bogged down in the mud. I could either crash into the trees at the end of the runway or try to pull the Warrior II out of the mud and fly over the top of them. With warning horn beeping in my ears I pulled off at 40 mph and could almost feel the trees scraping the bottom of my plane.
Runway 01 approach is on the bottom of the PICTURE. The trees that I almost hit are at the other end near the top right of the picture. At the end of runway 01, the east/west runway takes off to the right.
Before departing to the south to Clarks Point, I took a couple more pictures of the beautiful small village, which is located right next to the Nushagak River.
There is one family who lives in Portage Creek year around. I think the family hunts bear during the winter months. Other than that, the small village is uninhabited during the winter but comes alive in June and July during King Fishing season.
NOTE for Special VFR: Dillingham and King Salmon airports rely heavily on "Special VFR's."In other words, if the weather is below three miles visibility and 1000 foot ceiling (IFR), a VFR pilot needs special permission to enter the airspace.
In short, a VFR pilot must agree to maintain VFR at or below 1000 feet and report landing or leaving the airspace. VFR aircraft during IFR conditions must wait outside the controlled surface area until any close in IFR traffic has landed.
Another twist to a the "Special VFR" clearance is that once the airspace has been granted to a VFR pilot, other VFR pilots who may be circling and waiting for the airspace can agree to maintain separation from any and all inbound or outbound VFR aircraft.
I monitor the aviation frequency 123.6 and the most aircraft I have heard waiting for a special VFR clearance at once was ten aircraft. All ten were either circling outside the control zone or ready to depart the Dillingham Airport, all waiting for the Pen Air Saab to close an IFR flight plan.
In "Special VFR" conditions, when VFR pilots are circling in poor weather, they can only pray that the IFR inbound does not have a missed approach, which would prolong the Special VFR pilots from entering the airspace. Once an IFR inbound aircraft is on the ground and its flight plan closed, the circus begins. All VFR aircraft circling five miles from the airport then get cleared through the airspace one by one and all agree to maintain visual separation from any and all aircraft.
Fly safe out there!
Father Scott Garrett is the pastor of the Holy Rosary Mission in Dillingham. His unique mode of transportation is a 160 Cherokee Warrior which he uses to fly to the many remote areas within his parish. With the unpredictable weather of southwest Alaska, Father Scott's schedule is always written lightly in pencil.