Alaska Wild in a Cessna 185
Last summer, my wife and I wanted to visit the Brooks Range in August to hunt Dall sheep. For those not familiar with it, the Brooks Range is a mountain range stretching about 700 miles from western Alaska across the state east to Canada’s Yukon Territory. From where we live in South Central Alaska, it is more than 600 nautical miles north of us, and just getting there, in a light airplane across central Alaska’s mountainous terrain, can at times be challenging. The month almost got away from us, but we finally saw a promising weather window in the last week of August.
Friday morning we departed from Homer just before first light, heading north in two Cessna 185 taildraggers. Why two? Well, we had access to two 185s, we both enjoy flying, the aircraft perform better when flown light, and a second aircraft could be a rescue ship in the event of a mechanical or other problem in remote Alaska. Our optimistic objective was to reach our hunting area in the Brooks Range that day, but realistically we knew a lot would have to go well for that to work out. Our planned first leg was to Circle City, Alaska, a 100-person “city” located just south of the Arctic Circle. Circle City is the last convenient avgas stop north of Fairbanks toward our hunting area, and it has routing for terrain, about 450 nm away. We flew in loose formation, and soon we were level at 9,500 feet in smooth air, truing out around 145 knots with light winds. Our planned route of flight, which looked best for the weather and terrain, took us up the Kenai Peninsula over Anchorage, past Palmer, and then up the Matanuska River toward Gulkana.
My wife was flying a 1980 Cessna 185 we call Tigger. It has a larger IO-550 engine, a three-blade prop, 29-inch Alaska Bushwheel main tires, a baby Bushwheel tailwheel, titanium landing gear, Wing-X extensions, a Sportsman STOL leading edge cuff and vortex generators. This is an almost identical setup that our friend Rudi von Imhof used to win his class recently at the Valdez, Alaska, STOL contest. For avionics, it has a Garmin G500 flight display, a Garmin 530 and a Garmin handheld, which we use to display downloaded topographical information from Garmin Map Source. The airplane has a minimal interior to keep weight down, and we removed all the seats except for the pilot’s.
I was flying a 1962 Cessna 185 we call Fireball. It is equipped similarly to Tigger, except that it has a mostly polished — in lieu of paint — exterior and an MT three-blade prop. About five years ago, after decades of Alaska air taxi use, it was completely restored. As an older-model 185, along with what Beegles Aircraft Service did in the remanufacturing process, it is one of the lightest 185s on the planet, with a useful load greater than its empty weight.
Reading the Signs
Halfway to Gulkana, we cut for the southern entrance to Isabel Pass, a good route through the higher terrain of the eastern section of the Alaska Range. We were pleased the ride was smooth, although halfway through the pass our groundspeed suddenly increased by 20 knots, and at the same time, we saw lenticular clouds in the lee of the sharp terrain ahead of us. You don’t need to be in law enforcement to recognize a clue, and shortly we encountered moderate-plus turbulence with downdrafts. We altered course to the east, and climbed to 11,500 feet, where we got farther away from the high terrain, and the ride settled down.
Soon we were north of Delta Junction. It was still too early in the morning to have to coordinate with Range Control, the coordinating frequency for separating bug smashers like us from the heavy and fast military aircraft whose operators train in this area. Crossing into the White Mountains, we were above a cloud and smoke layer. Looking down, we could see a cap cloud on one peak and waves in the smoke — another clue to stay high above it. Soon, with 3½ hours of flight behind us, we were descending into Circle City’s gravel runway, located not far from the bank of the Yukon River.