Section I: Equipment and Environment

Part I, Chapter 1: Summer Conditions

Traditionally, summer is the busy season in Alaska and Northern Canada, for the snow has melted and the long days of the midnight sun bless us with 24-hour workdays. Mining, travel, and exploration are in season; it is time for fishing and supply runs for the upcoming winter. The bush pilot is inundated with requests to fly clients and their gear from the various support centers (Anchorage, Fairbanks, Whitehorse, Kotzebue, Inuvik, Ketchikan, Gulkana, King Salmon, etc.) to almost every spot an airplane can be set down. The main "airports" during this period are:

Water landing areas

Thousands of lakes and rivers, as well as coastal waters suitable for operating floatplanes in Alaska and Northern Canada, provide us with some of our finest landing spots, and, while many places are safe and well-known, it is always wise prior to landing to check for floating or submerged objects which might present a hazard. In particular, you must watch for:

To these general hazards, you must add the following when using rivers and tidal areas:

An additional problem (which could be considered one of terrain) is brought about by high winds on water. Floatplanes are designed to operate from sheltered water, and it is wise not to over-stress them.

For many bush pilots, floats and skis are the preferred way to go, and a surprising number of the old-timers have managed to fly for years without logging any wheel-time.

Gravel bars

For the pilot of a wheelplane, gravel bars are by far the most favored landing areas in the North, and not a few of us would be well content if we could totally confine our operations to them so that, like the floatplane pilot, we never had to use commercial airports. This attitude comes from the calm freedom of gravel bar operations, combined with the often exhilarating sense of being remote from civilization, closely integrated with nature.

Types. There are two types of gravel bars that are used for wheel operations, each quite distinctive:

  1. Non-filling bars. This type has been made long, smooth, and firm by the action of the water level moving lazily up and down over the years and centuries. Good examples of this geological process can be found below the Knik Glacier near Palmer, as well as in the Spruce Point area where my main base of operations is located (see illustrations 1, 1.1, 2, 2.1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10). Here you will find many bars that are not only suitable for the Super Cubs and Cessnas (180s, 185s, 206s) professional bush pilots use, but are even adequate for more citified forms of transport. (I once, on request, operated a Beechcraft Bonanza from gravel bars on both the Chitina and Tana Rivers for photographic purposes, and, while it was far from being as good as a Cessna 180/185 or 206, it still worked out okay.)

  2. Filling bars. This type of bar is far more interesting from a technical point of view, since it is formed by streams containing large amounts of glacial silt. (From the air these bars look like braided hair or a belt of woven leather.) During the summer, as temperatures rise and fall (often reaching well above 104 degrees F/40 degrees C in the direct rays of the sun), so too does the water level. As it rises it will cut a channel, then fill it partially and move over to cut a new one. This process is sometimes slow, sometimes fast, and can change on an hourly basis during extended hot spells after a winter of heavy snowfall.

In these areas, finding a spot to land within reasonable walking distance of where your customers wish to go can sometimes be quite difficult. Often, a lengthy period of study from the air is required before an area (usually a short, narrow, twisting rocky channel) is located which will be adequate for a Super Cub. Examples in my main area of operations of this type of terrain are the Chitistone and Lakina Creeks.

Length. The ability to judge accurately from the air whether a given landing area is long enough (when conditions are marginal) is a skill that becomes subconscious with time and experience. In Section II, various exercises are given which will assist you in developing this ability, but it is wise to take it slowly, for subconscious skills take time to develop.Starting with long smooth bars, using them regularly, one can, with time, slowly graduate to increasingly shorter and rougher strips, until knowledge and proficiency reach their peak.

Texture. When an inexperienced pilot gets into trouble with an off-airport landing in the bush, it is usually not a matter of a bar's length so much as it is a matter of texture, or just plain unsuitability.

The ideal texture is hard-packed gravel made of stones about the size of a bar of bath soap embedded in sand and smaller stones (see illustrations 1, 1.1, 2, 2.1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10 for examples of reasonable textures). Deviations from this ideal are:

Tracks in the sand. It is quite common when flying in areas of extensive gravel bars, or other forms of suitable terrain, to discover airplane tracks on almost any flat surface. This leads to the assumption -- especially among Super Cub pilots -- that if somebody else landed there the strip must be okay. Unfortunately, this assumption has been proven incorrect so many times over the years that it has now become a classic cause of off-airport accidents, and, while the NTSB prefers to relegate the cause to the catchall "Pilot Error" in its accident reports, the reality of the trap that plays "gotcha" with so many inexperienced pilots cannot be denied.

This trap is unhappily known as the primrose path for the following reasons:

It is wise to avoid primrose paths, understanding that just because there are tracks in the sand does not mean that the strip is suitable for landing.

Gentle fields of purple flowers. Alongside the rivers and gravel bars you sometimes find lush fields of fireweed and other flowers, often ringed by cottonwood and willow. These fields, with vegetation that can easily grow higher than your wheels (see illustrations 11 and 12), often make fine landing areas. Beneath them is dry, well-drained gravel, much like the terrain that lies around them.

However, these beautiful flowers may provide camouflage for the same problems most gravel bars share: large rocks, gullies, and driftwood. Because of this, you have to be quite careful when using a new field whose surface is not well known. It is often wiser to land someplace else (even if it is a few miles away) and hike in for a firsthand look, rather than take the risk of damage to your airplane.

Mud flats

My experience with mud flats (and their propensity to cover a clean, well-maintained airplane with mud) has been happily limited, for they are quite rare in my area of operations.

However, in other parts of the North, especially along the coast, you will frequently encounter this type of terrain. The flats near Anchorage, in fact, are quite popular with duck hunters (as well as airplane repair shops).

Mud flats are obvious from the air and, depending on area and condition, can sometimes be successfully landed on with tundra tires (for this job, the 30" tires work best). There is, however, a bit of risk in trying to use truly marginal mud flats, for you could flip your airplane onto its back. As a result, it is usually preferable (as Mudhole Smith, who started Alaska Airlines years ago, would sadly have told us) to use a floatplane under such conditions.

Mud flats do not present any problems for a wheelplane when frozen, of course, and during spring and fall when night temperatures drop below freezing these strips are operational during the early hours of the morning.


There are many beaches along the coast that provide good landing areas. The same considerations apply to them as apply to gravel bars. Since beaches generally have a fair slope to them, be prepared for the plane to want to head for the sea on both landing and takeoff (a little upslope rudder generally manages to take care of that problem nicely).

"Look at that nice grass-covered meadow..."

The newcomer ("Cheechako" in the vernacular) to Alaska and Northern Canada is often amazed, during his flights across this vast landscape, by all the pretty meadows scattered among the trees. Every once in a while one of them will land on the grass, only to discover that the grass is, in reality, a bog (muskeg). These bogs can be counted on to either take the gear off one's airplane, or flip the plane over onto its back.

Should this happen, there are two ways of getting the airplane out:

  1. If the damage is not too severe and field repairs are possible, you can fit the airplane with skis and wait for winter and enough snow to fly it out.

  2. If the damage is too severe for field repairs, a helicopter can be hired to haul the airplane out. Naturally, under these conditions, it will have to be partially disassembled.

There are many definitions as to when, and how, a newcomer can lose his or her Cheechako status; perhaps landing in a bog is sufficiently educational to qualify as one of them. It is surely expensive enough.

Mountain landing areas

Some of the most profitable landing areas for the professional bush pilot during the sheep hunting season are the mountain ridges, saddles, and knolls of the North (see illustration 13). While terrain problems are essentially the same as those encountered at lower elevations (texture, length, etc.), there are a number of details to be aware of:


For as long as aviation has been established in the North, roads have been used as airstrips, and there are still many villages whose main street serves as their official airport. It has long been the practice in remote rural areas for those who live alongside roads to use them as landing strips, then park their airplanes in their yards.

However, now that the North is developing, this practice is becoming just a memory, for road operations are frowned on by new settlers in most areas.

Still, along the Alaska Highway (which is used as a VFR flyway from Fort St. John to Anchorage and Fairbanks), numerous stretches of the road are suitable for emergency use, and I, along with other pilots, have found occasion over the years to use one stretch or another for this purpose.

At present, there is no law (of which I am aware) prohibiting road landings in Alaska or Northern Canada, though a general trend is moving in that direction. I would suggest you use roads as little as possible, and, who knows, maybe the politicos will never get around to outlawing their use (out of sight, out of mind, mode).

[Please Note: The next Chapter, Chapter 2: Winter Conditions, is unavailable on the web. The online edition continues with Chapter 3: The Transition Times.]

$Date: 2005/05/12 00:32:40 $ Copyright © 1993 by F. E. Potts CSS XHTML 1.0 Strict