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My long flying day was coming to a close...
by Jill Smith
Part 1 of a continuing series
as published in our newsletter, Logbook, June 1999

Many Monterey Bay Chapter members will tell you what an experienced pilot Jill Smith is because they have had the opportunity to fly with her as a student. We are very fortunate to have Jill as a member of our chapter. Jill will be sharing her experiences with us as a bush pilot in Alaska in the next few issues of the Logbook. Jill works for PenAir which is also affiliated with Alaska Airlines and Reeve Aleutian Airways. She is based in Cold Bay Alaska. Jill has her ATP Multiengine land and Cessna Citation type rating. She has commercial privileges for airplane single engine land and sea. (To qualify for your ATP certificate, you must already have your private through commercial with instrument rating.) She is a CFI, CFII and MEI. Jill started flying in 1986 and has accumulated 4700 hours.

My long flying day was coming to a close. I was flying over Cold Bay Alaska, my home base, with a plane load full of eight Dutch Harbor high school boys and their coach. I was flying a Piper Navajo Chieftain which is a ten seat airplane with two 350 horsepower turbo-charged engines, equipped with prop and windshield heat to remove and/or prevent ice and de-ice boots.

As I crossed Cold Bay, I called my base on our company frequency to check the weather. I spoke to Jamie, our station manager, head dispatcher and my housemate in our company-shared housing. She was staying at the office because I was still out on this flight. I was on my way from Dutch Harbor, Unalaska (in the Aleutian Islands) to Sand Point (on Popof Island in the North Pacific ocean) to deliver these boys for a basketball game the next morning. Jamie informed me that Sand Point was clear and good visibility with freezing temperatures at the surface, not surprising as it was wintertime. Ah, that was good news. It was also beautiful at Cold Bay. I could see for miles.

I was cleared for the NDB-C approach (NDB's are the main approaches in the area along with NDB, not Victor, airways) to Sand Point about 50 miles out which is normal for bush Alaska. Usually there aren't any other airplanes around the same time you are, especially at dusk as it was now. As I am getting to the point where I can start my descent from 10,000 feet, it is starting to get dark and I see that I have to descend through a layer of clouds. I wasn’t worried because I could see beyond that Sand Point was clear. As I am descending through the clouds, I check on the ASOS at Sand Point. It says 4800 feet broken. No problem—my first altitude I'm descending to is 4300 feet, so I should be clear and be able to make a visual approach. As I'm descending through the clouds, it is getting darker out and I use my wing light to check for ice buildup. Yup, there is some, about a quarter inch. Wow.

No problem, I hit the de-ice boots and look again. Nothing happened. The boots didn't inflate. I hit the de-ice boot switch a second time as I'm watching. Again nothing happens. Hmm…I don't like this. It's time to be out of this ice. I expedite my descent and level off at 4300 feet. Unfortunately, I'm still in the clouds. I proceed to the initial approach fix (IAF) and then turn outbound to go to the procedure turn (there aren't any radar services out on the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutians at low altitudes, so you have to always do the full approach with the procedure turn). Now I can descend to 4000 feet until I'm five miles outbound from the IAF. I get to my altitude and I'm still in the clouds. Great. The ice is still there but thankfully not building as fast. I hit the five mile point heading for the procedure turn and now descend to 3000 feet. I'm still in the clouds—disbelief is setting in. Oh, man… I turn inbound now. Down to 1900 feet and still in the clouds. What is going on here?! It was supposed to be clear and then only 4800 feet broken! At the five-mile mark inbound, I start down to minimums—940 feet. I don't believe this. I'm not clear of the clouds yet and now I'm at minimums. Keep going to the missed approach point, maybe the airport is clear. As I'm flying along, I listen to ASOS again—thankfully the number two comm radio is already set to that frequency. Ceiling 900 feet! How did that happen? Missed approach point—I don't see anything—get out of there!

Back up through the ice, just what I don't want to do. The holding altitude on the missed approach procedure is 3000 feet. I can't raise anyone on the radio, Flight Service won't answer me, Anchorage Center won't answer me. Have I had a radio failure too? Stay calm, keep climbing and get out of the ice. There isn't anyone to hit. At 5000 feet, I'm out of the clouds and ice at least temporarily and finally Anchorage Center answers my call. "I'm on the missed out of Sand Point and already through 5000 feet. I need a clearance to Cold Bay now!" The controller comes back with an immediate clearance and climb to 10,000 feet. Ahh…I can start to relax. But only slightly, if the weather is too bad in Cold Bay, I'm in trouble. I'll have to land anyway. I don't have enough fuel to go anywhere else. I have more than enough for the proper reserves but besides Sand Point, the closest airport with an instrument approach is Dutch Harbor—about 150 nautical miles away and not legal for night IFR operations.

As I'm climbing to 10,000 feet back to Cold Bay, Center asks if I want the latest weather in Cold Bay. Yes, please! The visibility is ¾ of a mile with snow and blowing snow. The ceiling is 1700 feet and the wind is a 15-knot quartering tailwind for the ILS runway. What? It was beautiful when I flew over! But Jill, remember, you're in the Aleutians with all that water—the Bering Sea and the North Pacific with their big temperature differences, where deep low pressure systems start—you know the weather changes extremely fast here. I'm hopeful it will improve. Time to pray. Flying along, I call Flight Service again and ask for the latest Cold Bay weather. They give me the same report that Center gave me. I said, "That's old, I want the newest you've got." The briefer asks me to standby on frequency and he will call me as soon as it came in.

While I wait, I think about the frequency of the squalls that had moved through Cold Bay during the day. It should be improving. Here's hoping. Finally, he calls me back and said the visibility was up to five miles. Yes! Thank you, God! I start on the arc—it's a 10 DME arc to the ILS Runway 14. While on the arc, I look out the window and off to my left. I can see Cold Bay airport. No, don't look, you need to be and stay an IFR pilot for this one. Sure enough, I need to be, more clouds on the descent. I shoot the approach, sweating profusely even though the outside temperature is in the 20's. I break out at about 1200 feet (the minimums are 272 feet) but have to stay on the gauges so I won't get vertigo due to the blowing snow. Finally, the runway lights come into view. Now, to deal with the quartering tailwind and snow on the runway. Touchdown—Yeehaa!! The whole airplane (including the coach and me) erupts into shouts of joy. We're on the ground after two hours and forty minutes. It's another one of my (many) kiss the ground moments!

I pull into the hangar and unload my passengers amid a round of thanks. The station manager walks out into the hangar and, as soon as the coach and students were out of earshot, I say, "This plane is grounded till the de-ice boots are fixed!"

P.S. The wing de-ice boots had tiny pinprick-sized holes in them that allowed water in and it froze causing the boots to remain closed. The tail boots were working thankfully. The boots were quickly fixed (though not needed as the weather was clear) the next day.

The Aleutian Islands

The chain of small islands that make up the Aleutian Islands separates the Bering Sea from the main part of the Pacific Ocean. They form part of the state of Alaska in the United States. The almost 70 islands form an arc that extends for about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to Attu Island in the North Pacific. They occupy a land area of 6,821 square miles (17,666 square kilometers). Most of the islands were formed by volcanic eruptions.

The first Europeans in the Aleutians were two explorers sent on a voyage of discovery by the Russians in 1741. Upon learning of the abundance of fur-bearing animals, Siberian hunters flocked to the area, then gradually moved to the mainland. In 1867 the Russians sold the islands, along with the rest of Alaska, to the United States.

The climate of the Aleutians is one of fairly uniform temperatures, high winds, and heavy rainfall. The average mean temperature is 33.4o F (0.8o C) for February and 51.8o F (11.0o C) for August. The shores are rocky and worn by the surf, and the approaches are dangerous. The land rises abruptly from the coasts to steep, bold mountains.

There are hardly any trees, but the islands are covered with a rich growth of grasses and many flowering plants. Aleutian wildlife consists mostly of sea otters and seals. By regulating the wildlife population, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge has eliminated the threat of starvation for the native Aleuts, who are related to the Eskimo and who live by fishing and hunting. In Unalaska, one of the largest towns of the Aleutian Islands, there are several dozen crab-canning operations.

During World War II the Aleutian Islands were fought over by the Americans and the Japanese because of their significant strategic importance. Now Aleutian military stations are vital links in the air defense of North America. (See also Alaska.) Population (1990 census), 11,942. 1 ______________________________
1Excerpted from Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. Copyright © 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 The Learning Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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