By Sue Ramsey
We departed Peterborough, Ont. (east of Toronto) on August 30, 2000 in our Piper Arrow II around 12Z, in IFR conditions consisting of mist, low cloud and light rain showers. Climbing to our cruise altitude of 8,000 ft, with tops around 7,000 ft, we encountered gradual clearing as we progressed westward but our average ground speed was only 125 kts. At our first fuel stop, Sault Ste. Marie. Ont., we visited the Flight Service Station people where we are on file. It was nice to met the faces behind the weather brief voices.
Departing the Sault, we circumvented the waters of Lake Superior via Wawa and Marathon. It was our first time over the northern route to Western Canada. The scenery was spectacular – though the thought does cross ones mind that there would not be much to choose from in case of an emergency.
We arrived Thunder Bay early afternoon. Consultation with flight service backed up our Stormscope that there was approaching bad weather. We made the no-go decision to remain in Thunder Bay overnight. Our decision was subsequently proven correct, with thunderstorms and rain all night and into the morning hours.
Thursday August 31
We departed Thunder Bay mid-morning, once again in IFR conditions. Immediately after departure, our initial clearance was radically changed – requiring some rapid juggling to find the new coordinates on maps and instruments – confirming that it is certainly an asset to be able to fly two-pilot IFR.
Out of Thunder Bay, we remained in cloud at 6,000 ft. The 9,000-ft winds aloft forecast quoted 50-kt for some 40 miles, with gradual clearing as we progressed westward. We remained "on top" for a further 50+ miles, to reach totally sky clear conditions around Kenora, Ont.
Kenora to Manitoba afforded us a bird’s eye view of Ontario’s extensive wilderness, breaking into Manitoba’s rich farmland which was stretched out like a patchwork quilt. We opted to land at St Andrews, Winnipeg for refueling. We found a super small airport with great hospitality, a good restaurant and excellent facilities.
From St Andrews, we continued IFR westward toward Saskatoon, Sask. at 8,000 ft. It was mostly clear til about the halfway mark, when accumulating cloud pushed us up to 10,000 ft above full undercast. Luckily we had seen the prairies on previous trips, so were not too disappointed that we were not afforded the opportunity to admire the scenery again. We were kept busy with procedures required when one is periodically out of range of radar, and sometimes radio.
We arrived Saskatoon mid-afternoon and decided to stay there overnight since we have friends that we had not seen for some 10 years, Carol and Tony ??. Tony is an ex-WWII pilot who keeps busy both flight instructing and carrying out his duties as a designated flight examiner for the area.
Friday September 1
We left Saskatoon the following morning with a handsome tailwind, which afforded us 175 kt ground speed en route. We had originally intended to head for Whitecourt, Alta. but since conditions there were forecast to be down to 300 ft by our arrival time, we opted for Edmonton, where we have "flying" friends and some immediate family.
With deteriorating conditions, we remained at 6,000 ft since the freezing level was not far above us and weather was encroaching from the west. We made Edmonton City Centre in record time and were vectored for the ILS approach in cloud, light rain and mist – and for the first time in our flying experience, were requested to "slow our speed" back to 100 kts (we are generally referred to as "slow moving" traffic). We picked up the ILS for Runway 34 which, once we broke cloud around 1,200 ft, gave us an astonishingly close up view of downtown Edmonton off our right wing .
The weather closed in shortly after our arrival and it looked like we were to become a "captive audience" in Edmonton for at least the next four days, since the low weather conditions were forecast to remain in effect well into the following week. We had dinner that evening with our friends, Zita and Gerd (the latter flies pipeline out of Edmonton).
Saturday September 2
One of the Edmonton Flight Service specialists suggested that "where there is a will there is a way" and if we were not in any great hurry, there was a way around this stationary weather system to the east. We have briefer Dave Carpenter to thank that we got to see the Northwest and Yukon Territories at all for we might not have considered leaving Edmonton without his excellent briefing. We departed Edmonton City Centre with a 700-ft ceiling in rain and mist and the outside temperature fluctuating between 6 and 8 degrees C. These conditions persisted for some 75 miles, with sometimes heavy rain - to suddenly dissipate around Lac LaBiche, true to the advice that we had received from Dave at Edmonton Flight Service.
We left northern Alberta and crossed into the Northwest Territories en route to Fort Smith where we had planned to spend the night. We were becoming more accustomed to the absence of radar coverage, radio chatter, the lack of roads and precious little evidence of habitation or airstrip facilities, all of which one takes for granted in the south. As we flew northward at 9,000 ft, the altimeter was rising steadily, the rugged, treed terrain beneath us was broken only by the Slave River flowing northward along our route.
Although we ran into some light snow showers in the vicinity of Fort McMurray, Alta., we shortly left all cloud behind and experienced just about perfect flying weather from there on. It was most interesting to see the large oil extraction operations of the tar sands at Fort McMurray, and the sweet grass terrain around Fort Chipewyan.
We stayed at a local motel in Fort Smith, NWT. Not withstanding a few minor inconveniences (such as no hot water), found it quite novel to think that we had spent our first night "North of 60", since Fort Smith lies exactly on it. We wandered around the town in the evening, and down to the fast flowing Slave River to see the white pelicans. We found the townsfolk open, hospitable and helpful … particularly the Community Aerodrome Radio Station people the next morning when the plane decided not to start because of the cold temperature of 2 degrees C.
Sunday September 3
Finally departing Fort Smith, we headed northwesterly over muskeg landscapes, the south end of Slave Lake, and multiple rivers such as the Hay and the Liard, the towns of Hay River, NWT and Fort Providence, NWT, en route to Fort Simpson, NWT, our next fuel stop. Fort Simpson, located just below the 62nd parallel, with a population of around 1,500, was even smaller than Fort Smith, but equally hospitable, the airport itself some distance from the town.
From there, we filed for 10,000 ft, and still in the Northwest Territories, departed Fort Simpson into full IFR conditions. They persisted for the first half-hour of that leg – when we suddenly broke out to a breathtaking view of snow capped mountains, winding rivers and lush green valleys, great expanses of pristine wilderness totally devoid of any human influence.
Over this leg of the trip, we were not only out of radar range, but also out of any radio range for at least 100 miles. We eventually relayed a previously requested position report via the pilot of a King Air flying at 16,000 ft.
Having flown in many mostly busy airspaces, we found flying North of 60 a new learning experience not only in radio communication and weather interpretation. Most of the communication is through the CARS (always most helpful) and remote communications outlets or dial-up remote communications outlets.
Our final leg from Fort Simpson to Whitehorse, Yukon was planned for 3.9 hours and took us over the southern most tip of Nahanni National Park, then Watson Lake, Yukon and the mountains called Englishman’s Range. Along the route, air navigation services kept track of our progress via CARS and other aircraft relays. The weather held until our final approach into Whitehorse, when it began to snow, momentarily obliterating the final mountain top, which we circumvented to make a full visual landing on 31 Right. We landed Whitehorse with 104 lbs fuel in reserve – almost exactly as calculated. There was no hangarage available, so we covered up, tied down, and found a hotel.
Monday September 4
The weather proceeded to deteriorate, and it subsequently rained all night & all through the next day, so we rented a car, looked around the town, which has much to offer, and drove south out of the Yukon, through BC to Skagway, Alaska, along the southern portion of the Klondike Highway, White Pass and the Yukon Route. The rugged mountainous country to the White Pass summit was a treat to see, even though it rained most of the way. The pass itself unfortunately was totally in cloud. The "descent" into Scagway from the summit down to 37 ft asl is very steep with numerous truck run-a-way ramps and a view now and then of the historic and colorful train of the Scenic Railway of the World that still travels back and forth between Whitehorse and Skagway.
Tuesday September 5
The weather was promising for our projected day trip to Dawson City, Yukon. Flight Service forecasts for Dawson itself were not overly encouraging at our departure time, conditions were supposed to be improved by our projected arrival time. We flew out of Whitehorse VFR, more or less following along the Klondike Highway, with a bit of scattered cloud but otherwise comfortably sunny weather. We had a view of yet another type of landscape, quite beautiful with lower mountains and wider valleys. The fall colours were more evident intermixed with emerald green lakes, the Klondike Hiway and the Yukon River snaking their way northward, with small no-fuel-available airstrips here and there along the way.
We had been encouraged to visit the historic site of Fort Selkirk on our way to Dawson City, assured that fuel would be available there. However, upon closer research into its location on the VFR map of the area, in the CFS and in our GPS data base, it became apparent that Fort Selkirk was not listed anywhere. After our return, we did find it on a regular road map – and subsequently discovered that it was the spot labeled "bldgs" on the VFR map and that it does not have any aviation fuel available.
Out of radio contact with anyone other than a Piper Comanche flying to Alaska, we progressed northward. The clouds were thickening and had lowered to settle around the mountain tops. The weather for Dawson (relayed to us by the Comanche) indicated that the low conditions there were persisting rather than dissipating. Since our research showed that there was no fuel available at any of the small airstrips along the route between Whitehorse and Dawson, the only option for fuel consisting of a 60 mile round trip detour to Mayo which was also forecasting low conditions, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and turned back toward Whitehorse; so close and yet so far. FSS told us later that the ceiling at Dawson had continued to lower. Since the weather was not showing promise for a later visit this trip, we guessed it would have to be slated for a return trip some time in the not too distant future.
Wednesday September 6
Since existing poor conditions appeared to be better than forecast, we hustled to the airport in expectation of a departure to Watson Lake and Fort Nelson. With strong winds and a trowal to the west of Whitehorse moving eastward, the Whitehorse briefers had suggested two possible VFR routes that we might depart by – the one south into BC via Prince Rupert, the other along the Alaska Highway through the mountains toward Watson Lake.
Though on the surface these briefings appeared to be practicable, given our lack of experience flying in mountainous terrain in good weather (I had taken a course on mountain flying out of Calgary Springbank through the Rockies in 1999), we opted for another overnight in Whitehorse.
So we spent a worthwhile day investigating Whitehorse further, visiting the Yukon College and in particular the Yukon Archives, specifically to find the out-of-print autobiography of James Oliver Curwood. His writings of the Yukon have fascinated me ever since first reading his books - and are what instigated this trip in the first place. Interestingly enough, no one up there seems to have even heard of him which I found quite surprising since he is the author of some 31 books. At least half of these take place in the Yukon, and at least three movies have been made based on those books.
We then spent quite some time in the Transportation Museum, which gives an excellent history of the gold rush and the influence that flying has had on the overall development of that area.
Thursday September 7
Though still overcast with tops over 20,000 ft, the winds had abated and since there was no ice forecast along our projected route south, we filed an IFR flight plan and departed Whitehorse at 11,000 ft along the low airways for the return flight. We arrived home September 13.
Though the weather along our route was not always co-operative, such a trip certainly added to our learning curve, especially toward gaining better understanding and enhanced interpretation of weather phenomenon pertinent to the different regions of the country. This is a skill that takes a long time to acquire since it can only be really learned through practical experience.
We have found that, with what I call our "limited IFR capability (nothing above 12,000ft, no ice, no thunderstorms, no severe turbulence)", it is up to us to know how to provide FSS with the exact information required for an intended route of flight so that they can brief us as succinctly as possible, avoiding issuing either too much or too little information, either of which can in fact add confusion- rather than enhance educated decision making when a go/no-go decision is required.
This 15 day roundtrip consisted of 43 hours of air time with 8.1 hrs of actual IFR - and would have been impossible in that time frame without our "limited" IFR capability. It took us through four time zones, five provinces, two territories and one state (Alaska). It afforded us the opportunity of meeting many interesting people along the way and provided a brief overview of how much there is still left to see and do.
Without a doubt, likely in the spring of the year, we shall be making a return visit North of 60.
The rest of the story
Calculating fuel burn and range becomes quite interesting on these trips.
Although all of the fuel burn figures are in the POH in graph form, we did not appreciate their full significance until they were applied in a practical application.
We were regularly doing three-hour legs at 10,000 ft and landing with one half of our fuel in reserve. Considerably less fuel was in reserve after traveling the same distance at 3,000 ft.
Using rounded off numbers for simplification, consider the following no reserve figures :
Fuel capacity – 300 lbs
Fuel burn @ 3,000 ft – 60 lbs/hr
Fuel burn @ 10,000 ft – 50 lbs/hr
TAS @ 3,000 ft – 130 kts
TAS @ 10,000 ft – 150 kts
Endurance @ 3,000 ft = 5 hrs @ 130kt / range 650 nm
Endurance @ 10,000 ft = 6 hrs @ 150 kt / range 900 nm
Figures follow a linear progression at in between altitudes
On this particular aircraft, high fuel burn on climb is offset equally by low fuel burn on descent, warm up and taxiing. Consequently, all calculations are based on flight time and have proven to be accurate.
Sue Ramsey was born in Sydney, NSW Australia. She has been a COPA member since 1990 when she received her Private Pilot License. Her husband Rudy learned to fly in 1985. Together they fly their 1975 Piper Arrow 200R an average of 150 hours per year, mostly IFR, extensively throughout North America. They have also obtained endorsements to fly in NSW Australia (spring 1999). Their future plans include returns to Australia, Florida and the Bahamas in winter months and further North of 60, summer months.