Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Turbulent Week in Bristol Bay

By Father Scott Joseph Garrett
Pastor of Holy Rosary Mission

Moderate turbulence below 6000 feet, low level wind shear, sustained surface wind greater than 30 knots, and severe turbulence within 2000 feet AGL (above ground level) are just some of the reports I heard this last week flying around Dillingham, Alaska. An aborted landing in Dillingham and a rough windy flight to Twin Hills, Alaska were just two of my challenges.

Saturday, January 29th, 2011, was one of those unforgettable days. It was the first time in six years of flying that we had to abort our approach into Dillingham, Alaska airport.

I did not get a video of the aborted landing into Dillingham because I was transfixed, a bit shaky, and did not think of a camera. But here I am talking about the incident as I fly in more turbulent weather to Twin Hills, Alaska a couple days later.

Also, for the VIDEO CLICK HERE.

I left Dillingham at 9:30 AM on a Penair Caravan to King Salmon to offer Mass. I did not fly myself because the wind was gusting over my personal flying limit of 30 MPH.

I tried, and I do mean tried, to return to Dillingham that afternoon at 4:00 PM in a Penair single engine Saratoga (a small bit larger than our Cherokee Warrior II). I followed Jason, the pilot, into the Saratoga copilot’s seat. Dillingham was reporting a direct crosswind at 23 knots. We had a tremendous tailwind and our ground speed was around 190 knots (a Saratoga cruises at about 130 knots).

By the time we arrived in Dillingham, 22 minutes and 64 miles later (the fastest time I have ever made the trip), the wind was gusting to 40 knots. The cross wind was so brutal that on the approach to runway 01, I was seeing the runway threshold out of the pilot's window from my co-pilot's seat. Jason tried to straighten the aircraft out so we could touch down but it was impossible.

After aborting the approach into Dillingham, Jason headed back to King Salmon. Our return trip was not quite as fast. In fact I started to feel nauseous as the bumps jarred us around and the ground speed indicated a messily 65 knots.

That was the incident I had fresh in my mind when I blasted off for Twin Hills in our Cherokee Warrior II. When I started off, the wind was gusting to about 20 knots. As I started flying through the mountain pass at 700 feet, things picked up considerably. I could barely stay in the middle of the pass due to turbulence. I was kicked one way and jolted another.

This is the video I took at about 700 feet as the turbulence was knocking me around.


Here are a few pictures I took on the way to Twin Hills, Alaska. This first one shows the bay, mountains, orange clouds, and blue ski.

Near mountains like these is where the turbulence was horrendous. The wind was the strongest in confluences, where several mountain valleys come together.

Here is a picture taken about 15 miles East of Twin Hills, Alaska. I was at about 1000 feet.

I finally made it to twin hills and flew overhead and did a touch and go on the snowy and icy runway.


Here is a picture of what it looked like when I was a few miles out. The two hills are the “Twin Hills” the village is named after.

On the way back I decided to climb to 6000 feet to see if things would smooth out for me. No such luck. I was continually fighting the little 160 horsepower Warrior II as I would be sucked into down drafts and shot skyward in the updrafts. I had to go from full power to half power and back. I was continually fighting the controls to stay at 6000 feet and it just was not happening.

No one said flying in Bristol Bay would be easy. It is weeks like this that drive that conclusion home. Fly safe out there.

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