SoCal to Alaska – Flying beyond the Comfort Zone
Air Facts Journal

My husband and his Swiss pilot friend were planning a trip to Alaska which left me either staying home or flying myself as they were taking our two-seat Carbon Cub! This was just the push I needed to work up the courage to fly myself to Alaska as a low-time tailwheel pilot. Their goal was to explore Alaska. My goal was just to get to the bottom corner of the state, and then see how it went. My husband, having made the trip to Alaska two times previously as PIC, was much more experienced and that helped me A LOT. But it still felt overwhelming to fly myself all that way in my almost 80 year old, underpowered, short ranged and slow airplane. At the same time, what an opportunity! So, buckle up butter-cup is exactly what I did and took it one leg at a time.

airplane in hangar

Getting ready to launch in the Taylorcraft behind me.

We left our home airport early in the morning with full tanks and headed north. Our first fuel stop was at Tehachapi Municipal Airport (KTSP) sitting at around 4,000 ft which was great so we didn’t have to climb as much. Tobias’s friend, Markus, jumped in the Taylorcraft with me for the next leg, as he wanted a better view than what the tandem Carbon Cub hammock seat offered.  We made it to Columbia, California (our first overnight stop) where I experienced the beginning of a series of horrific landings and to boot, this was with my first ever passenger I carried since becoming a tailwheel-rated pilot.

pilots flying airplane

My co-pilot, Markus, and me in the Taylorcraft.

Markus, who is also a pilot, but not tailwheel rated, took it like a champ and remained perfectly calm as I porpoised my poor little Taylorcraft down the runway. Of course, I had NEVER done THAT before, but part of being a tailwheel pilot is saving yourself and the airplane after a garbage touchdown.  Around we went! The wind was a bit swirly as it was a very hot mid afternoon and on short final you must come close to terrain to meet the downhill runway. And, I was trying to land short and show off to my husband and his friend. On the second try, the landing was much more manageable, and I was able to safely get us on the ground and over to the fuel station where I filled my fuel tanks to the absolute brim which lead to the next catastrophe.

airplanes on ground

Waiting out the heat of the day in Columbia, CA.

Due to my horrible landings, I took the Taylorcraft out again after the heat of the day began to subside. I knew I had full fuel as I could see my fully erect bobber stick (the mechanical fuel gage), so I jumped in and started her up. As soon as I did, fuel started gushing straight up out of my header tank and down the cowl. I immediately pulled the mixture and shut down. The fuel had expanded and was under pressure which was released by the vibrations of the engine causing the geyser. We had a hand pump and fuel canister for our trip, so Tobias and Markus took some of the fuel and put it in the fuel canister.

That could have been very bad if there had been some kind of spark, but fortunately there was not and I learned another lesson–don’t overfill your tanks on a HOT day!

After a few laps in the pattern, I had smoothed out the landings and was ready for the next day of adventure. We had planned for a total of four legs to make it up to Orcas Island, Washington, which would set us up perfectly to cross into Canada and fly up the coast to Alaska.

people in front of airplane

About ready to regain my landing dignity at Columbia.

With a sunrise launch, off we went again. I took off first as I was in the slower airplane and had a fuel stop in Oroville since I didn’t have the range that Tobias had in the Carbon Cub. Full tanks in Oroville and off to Medford for more of the liquid blue stuff. Snack lunch next to the fuel pump before taking Markus with me again to be my autopilot, as the Taylorcraft does not fly straight. Always a little right rudder and right aileron. With my autopilot engaged, he noticed my amp meter showing a discharge and sure enough, we were discharging electricity. We were in radio communication with my husband, and he was telling me to turn everything off including the Master. I turned everything off, BUT the Master. I was scared the engine would stop.

electrical discharge

Had a couple of bouts with electrical discharge on the trip.

So off we went, flying with no radios and communicating through text message to save the battery. We found an airport to land at so we could troubleshoot this issue. As we came closer to the airport, I turned the radio back on and communicated as normal and had a beautiful landing which restored my passenger’s confidence in me. I was anyways surprised he wanted to fly with me again in my old, slow, and now, broken airplane.

As soon as we landed, I turned the Master off, and guess what, the engine kept running! Imagine that! After cycling the Master I applied more power and sure enough, the generator was working again and we were making power! Great!!  We blamed the electrical issue on an overload on the auxiliary power. Everything seemed to be working just fine as we continued north.

We crested Washington and flew over the beautiful sights of the Puget Sound with the Seattle skyline off in the distance. As the sun was getting low in the sky, we finally approached our final stop of the day, Orcas Island. What a beautiful place that was. Again, I had another “smash and go” and had to come around again as it’s not the longest runway. It was time to call the CFI who gave me the tailwheel endorsement to have a talk about these atrocious landings, but after over nine hours of flying that day, and all the excitement already, I was just glad to make it down safely!

puget sound

Flyhing over the Puget Sound.

Upon arrival, we fueled, prepared our paperwork and flight plans for crossing into Canada, took hot showers, ate hot meals, and slept in our tents under the wings. It’s a very nice airport, complete with an icemaker!

people outside of airplane

Made it to Orcas Island.

tent camp

Tent Camp at Orcas Island.

The next morning we had a 6:30am launch time. Again, I went first in the Taylorcraft, alone this time as we were crossing into Canada and I would have had to declare a passenger on my paperwork we had submitted. The plan was to take off, call Seattle Radio to activate my flight plan, and get the border crossing transponder code before landing to clear customs at Campbell River. All was going according to plan until my electrical system started to discharge again right when I was about to cross the border. I called up Seattle Radio, alerted them of the issue and told them I needed to cycle my electrical system. They had no issues and I turned everything off for a minute and the generator started working again and I reestablished connection with Seattle! YAY! We continued with no additional issues onto Campbell River.

pilot flying

Getting ready to cross into Canada.

Upon landing at Campbell River, my husband was able to clear us all through customs with a single phone call to CANPASS. That was easy. We fueled up and started to look very closely at the weather as it wasn’t 100% blue skies. In fact, at our next fuel stop, Bella Bella, it was reporting low IFR, but was forecast to clear in the next few hours. We waited at Campbell River for a while to give the weather an opportunity to clear. It was clearing, but slowly. We decided to give it a try and we took off with Bella Bella still reporting IFR. It was about a three hour flight which was mostly cloud covered. We were either going to make it, turn around halfway as I only have a four hour range, or divert to the only other airport in the vicinity, Port Hardy, which also had questionable weather.

airplane on ground

Waiting for weather to clear at Campbell River.

As we approached the halfway/decision point, we checked in with Flight Service and sure enough, Bella Bella was now reporting marginal VFR and the clouds below us weren’t as dense as we were able to start seeing the rugged Canadian coast below. We continued with more confidence. After two and a half hours of flight, we made it to a blue skies and puffy cloud Bella Bella. I kissed the ground upon arriving! That was 100% the most stressed I had ever been while flying as I’m not used to flying above dense clouds over extremely rough terrain, with questionable weather at our destination. But we made it!

pilots outside of airplane

It was blue skies at Bella Bella.

We got fuel, ate a quick Mountain House (freeze dried food) lunch and loaded up to launch to our next stop which we planned to be at Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Markus joined me in the Taylorcraft to support me on the next two and a half hour leg. The plan was to land at Prince Rupert to alert customs of our arrival back into the USA at Ketchikan International, and for Markus to switch back into the Cub to be consistent with our paperwork.

The flight to Prince Rupert was uneventful until Prince Rupert went IFR, which, I learned, is typical. Oh dear, what now?! Ketchikan was an additional 45 minutes past Prince Rupert and was reporting clear sky VFR. We had enough fuel to make it to Ketchikan so Tobias called customs from the air and confirmed it was okay for us to fly direct to Ketchikan. BUT, I now had a passenger that was not on my paperwork. Let’s see how this goes.

On approach into Ketchikan, I called the CTAF about nine miles out and Ketchikan Airport Advisory provided information about surrounding traffic which included a float plane near the airport, nothing to worry about. I called again when I was established on a five mile straight in for Runway 29 and the Airport Advisory advised me of an incoming Alaska Airlines. I had heard the 737 call and thought I’m much closer but MUCH slower, but I should still make it before they do and the Airport Advisory didn’t give any direction otherwise. I kept my speed up at 100 mph.

I was confused by this Airport Advisory system. It’s like a regular CTAF where you make your own calls, but with someone in the tower giving advisories, but no instruction. My first and only experience with this was at Campbell River earlier that day which already seemed like a lifetime ago. As we approached, I made more calls and the Airport Advisory was also providing my location and speed to the 737 and suggesting they slow down, which they did not.  I was really starting to feel the pressure of that airline scream up behind me. When I was on short final, my plan was to land short and try to catch the first turn off the runway.

A plan is one thing, but the reality was so different! Instead of a beautiful short landing, it was the opposite, I landed hard and bounced big. I added power and watched my chance of getting off the first exit disappear. The power smoothed out the touchdown and we were safely on the ground. The plane was somehow still usable, and my passenger was calm. The next thing I saw as I taxied down the mile of excess runway was the 737 blasting over the top as they had to go around. Oh well, that was not my intention, but it happened that way and everyone was safe. I probably gave the 737 passengers a fright with their unexpected go-around.

Now, to find my husband and see what Border Control had to say about my passenger I’m smuggling back into USA. At this point, I had been completely overloaded by many of the events of that day, and previous days. We taxied to where my husband and Border Control agent were waiting and proceeded to provide the paperwork and watched my airplane get inspected. The Customs agent had a radioactive detection machine he was using to scan my airplane. Of course, it lit up the machine as my airplane was built in 1945 and probably the whole control panel was radioactive. I had to explain. I also had another minor issue with my registration as I had letter from the FAA stating that my plane did in fact have a registration even though I didn’t have the normal registration card because the FAA had made a mistake that I had discovered just before this trip. Another thing to explain. Nothing was said about my unexpected passenger. I let out a huge sigh of relief!

customs agent

Some tense moments with Customs in Ketchikan.

From the events of the previous two days, and the stresses of that day, I was in major stretch zone and total overload. Crappy landings, electrical issues, traveling farther than I had ever traveled before, flying over clouds toward an airport with unknown conditions, making a 737 do a go-around, scaring my poor passenger, potentially getting in trouble with Border Control for a radioactive airplane, incomplete paperwork, and for smuggling in a passenger. It was all just too much!

Then my husband wanted to move on to the next airport, Petersburg, as the accommodations would have been much easier to organize since Ketchikan is very touristy and therefor expensive. I didn’t know it at the time, as I figured I just needed a coffee break to continue, but it turned out I was completely done for the day! I couldn’t go on; I had reached my threshold of pressure, stress and excitement. I had stretched so far outside of my comfort zone that I needed a night of rest and a break from flying.

We found the only affordable accommodations in Ketchikan, a church hostel that only had a male dorm and a female dorm. There were no private rooms and we were fine with that! We needed our space as I could tell he didn’t want to be held back in Ketchikan, but I couldn’t go any farther.

church hostel

The church hostel in Ketchikan.

Once settled in the hostel, we went out for drinks and dinner to finally celebrated our huge accomplishment of just getting to Alaska! We had traveled over 22 flight hours in those three days and two nights with 10 fuel stops. I truly couldn’t believe it and feel so blessed to have had the support and push, even though it was too much sometimes from my husband. I couldn’t have done that without him.

We made it and the adventure was just getting started! For more info about our 32-day trip to Alaska, you can visit our Instagram @cubtrekking to see reels and posts about the journey.

route to Alaska

Our route from SoCal to Alaska.

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