Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Flying to Portage Creek, Alaska

By Father Scott Joseph Garrett
Pastor, Holy Rosary Mission

After refusing to fly for twelve days due to poor visibility and ceilings, I finally got our Cherokee Warrior II in the air, August 3rd, 2010. My route was Dillingham (PADL), Portage Creek (PAOC), Clarks Point (PFCL), and back to Dillingham.

CLICK HERE to view Fr. Scott video "Flying to Portage Creek."

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; 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.
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1. Avoid having to request a “Special VFR.” (SEE NOTE BELOW).
2. Take-off 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. In route turn around if ceiling gets below 500 feet.
6. Do not fly unless there is at least 3 miles visability and 500 foot ceiling.
7. Do not fly if wind is blowing 30 knots or greater.

Before departing to Portage Creek on I had to wait for the fog to lift and the rain to slow down. About 9:00 AM 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 Alaskan 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 when the weather reported on the Dillingham ATIS (125.00) was: scattered at 600 feet, five miles visibility, and overcast 1000. It was just barely VFR conditions so I did not need to request a “Special VFR.” Here is what it looked like when I took off.


Portage Creek is a popular King 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.


This 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. Here I am setting up a final approach.


Below 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 good. 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 bear hunts 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 Ft 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 in –bound or out-bound VFR aircraft.

I monitor the aviation frequency 123.6 and the most aircraft I have heard waiting for a Specail 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 Penair 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 in-bound does not have a missed approach, which would prolong the Special VFR pilots from entering the airspace. Once an IFR in-bound 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!

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