Plan for the worst and watch out for bears.
My company, Winco Powerline Services, was recently awarded a small job in Alaska. Getting there was no small feat. Getting back, it turns out, was a much larger feat.
As the pilot in command on this trip, I spent weeks preparing—setting up my eAPIS and DTOPS accounts with US Customs and Border Protection and filing a firearms declaration with the Canada Border Services Agency, to name just a few things on my to-do list. I was getting acronyms thrown at me that I had never heard of in my 28-year career as a helicopter pilot.
Next step was survival gear. I thought long and hard about what I and one passenger would need if we ended up stuck somewhere.
On Jul. 13, 2023, my coworker and I loaded up near-max gross weight and departed Oregon’s Aurora State Airport (KUAO) for Alaska. We made it to Anchorage in two days’ time. The weather was beautiful. We had timed the brief Alaskan summer perfectly.
On the way up, I noticed that we were not receiving the SiriusXM Aviation channel, but we were using ForeFlight extensively for weather briefings (METARs and TAFs) and ICAO flight plans through Canada. We also used FIS-B weather in flight when available, as well as weather cameras when we had cell service. I asked our director of maintenance to check into the availability of the SiriusXM channel, and, sure enough, SiriusXM Aviation is not currently offered in Alaska.
We completed our little job after sitting in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) for a few days and began our trip back to the Lower 48. The weather briefing looked great. The low-pressure system that had created the IMC a few days earlier appeared to have moved offshore.
The Journey Back
We landed at Yakutat Airport (PAYA) for one of our planned fuel stops and grabbed a quick bite to eat at the restaurant on the field. There are many places where cell coverage is not available, and Yakutat is one of them. No cell, no XM weather, but blue sky in Yakutat—I figured the weather would be good for the next leg, which would be another 200-plus mi.
We were approximately 80 nautical miles (nm) from our destination when we started noticing overcast weather and then rain. We continued on course down the coastline. About 70 nm from our destination, the ceilings started to come down: 1,000 ft., 500 ft., and getting lower as we inched along.
At that point, I knew we had to land. From what I saw during the flight up in clear skies, we didn’t have many options for landing zones—glacier, timber, and salt water, in that order. I saw very few beaches that offered suitable landing sites.
RON on the Beach
I came to a stop at Palma Bay on the Gulf of Alaska, which offered a beach landing up by the tree line and far enough from salt water at high tide. This was a rocky beach—in fact, the only wet sand we saw, near the shore, had fresh bear tracks in it.
I managed to get out a text message via a satellite tracking system to our director of maintenance. I’m religious about checking in with him about our location and status. I’d turn on the aircraft’s battery about every hour and 15 minutes for METAR and TAF reports and a look at the weather cams.
We waited patiently, hoping for a break in the weather, until 9 pm, when conditions worsened. At that point, we knew we were RON (remain overnight).
The first order of business was to get a fire going. I’ve built plenty of fires in my time—although my wife is better than me at this skill—but none were built out of waterlogged wood. And with all the bears we saw before we arrived at our anything-but-cozy beach, I wasn’t about to go hiking through the forest looking for tinder.
Luckily, we brought our own fire starter—in our fuel tank. I sumped approximately 8 oz. of Jet A into our sump jar. If you’re not in the habit of sumping your fuel, it’s never too late to start. This skill comes in handy in a variety of situations!
We then cut strips of a microfiber towel and soaked it in the Jet A to use for kindling. It worked quite well.
Now that we had a blazing fire, it was time to settle in for the night. I brought a .45-70 rifle with me for wildlife protection, hoping that I wouldn’t have to get it out of the case. Needless to say, I slept maybe an hour and my coworker didn’t fare much better.
In the morning, I turned on the satellite tracker and checked my texts. The weather was still garbage at our destination. However, another airport that was approximately 40 nm away from our destination was showing 1000BKN.
Is that 1,000 ft. broken or 10,000 ft. broken? I wish I’d paid better attention during that weather class.
I confirmed with my director of maintenance (aka my flight follower) that the weather at that nearby airport was 10,000 ft. broken and 7 mi. visibility. Unfortunately, that didn’t matter much because it was dense fog where I was. I knew I didn’t have the fuel to dillydally, and when the weather broke, I wanted to make a straight shot
Around 10 am, the weather finally broke enough to where I could make out a defined overcast. I could also see some mountainous peaks that hadn’t been there when I landed on that wonderful beach. We fired up and got one last confirmation that the weather at the adjusted destination was still good. I aimed for the clear spot near the mountain peak and, poof, we were above a sea of thick fog for the next 40 nm.
We didn’t see ground until we were nearly directly over our destination airport. I personally hate flying over water and am not a fan of over the top—flying over the weather is a risky maneuver, particularly in a single-engine aircraft. We fueled up the aircraft, put her to bed, and then found lodging while that low pressure took its sweet time moving farther out to sea.
I have acquired more than 11,000 accident-free hours of combined rotorcraft and fixed-wing time. But as is clear from my story, pilots must always be open to continual learning.
Here are my lessons learned, in order:
- Listen to your gut. Don’t let anything or anyone influence your decision to fly.
- Don’t ever be afraid to Land & LIVE. I’ve done that twice now and lived to talk about it. That’s better than the alternative—when someone else must tell your story.
- Expect the unexpected.
- Plan for the worst.
- If you want a job done right, do it yourself, especially when it comes to trips like these. Don’t let someone else pack your survival equipment or your aircraft. Do it yourself. Sump your own fuel.
- Be happy and enjoy the experience. Think about what a great story it will make—and take every step to ensure that YOU will be the one to tell the story.
The day after spending the night on our lovely beach, I received a call from our FAA inspector regarding other matters. I told him my story and was expecting to be told, “You should have done a better job of checking weather.” I was shocked at what he did say: “Right on. Congratulations! Land & LIVE.”
That statement of support has stuck with me. I thought, You know what? I did make the right decision, and I’m proud of that.
This is my story, one that I lived to tell. I want to share my lessons learned, as well as the bigger lesson that it’s important to talk about experiences like this.
Out in the field, the right thing to do isn’t always obvious—if it were, everyone would do it!
I hope my good outcome will help other pilots and that our industry will hear more stories FROM those who have chosen to Land & LIVE, rather than stories ABOUT those who chose the other route.