Sunday, December 22, 2013

Alaska Flying Part 1: Bar Hopping.
FSX. Greetings from the Frozen North, and I do mean frozen. This is the first of a series of articles using FSX to recreate some of my real world experiences flying in Alaska. I will be showcasing the fantastic Orbx Southern Alaska region as well as a number of different add-on aircraft commonly used and abused in the real world up here. In this first installment, I'll be bombing around the SAK region in some of my favorite fat-tired bush planes landing at a few random off-airport locations. In upcoming stories I'll do some float and ski flying and some commercial flights as well. So tighten your seatbelts and ride along for some Alaska flying fun. To protect the guilty, names and places may be altered. BANDWIDTH WARNING!

Alaska is a rather large state. Pretty huge, compared to the other U.S.states. If you superimpose Alaska over the lower 48, it would stretch from the Canadian border around Minnesota down to Florida and all the way over to to the coast of Cali. And there is not a lot of roads to get about. Big state, few roads means a lot of aviation happens here. It's the only way to get to most places, unless you like to hike...or have some dogs and a sled. Airplanes are used as school buses and SUV's, cop cars and ambulances, and well.....pretty much everything. Some flights will take hours, some just a few minutes. Some flights are for fun, but most are for commerce. Wheels, skies, and floats; Pistons, turbines, and jets; it's all here and a lot of it is hard core stuff.

To earn a living flying in Alaska takes a bit of grit, or at least I like to think so. I've seen many misty-eyed, eager-beavers come up here to be a "Bush Pilot" only to see how challenging it can be and find they don't have what it takes. Maybe these folks wouldn't end up making it as commercial pilots down in 'merica either, I don't know. Something about getting a Cessna 207 ready to fly in the dark after sitting outside overnight in -30 degree Fahrenheit blowing snow sure seems to filter out the less motivated. Or breaking your back unloading 4,000 pounds of triple-mailers out the back of a Beech 1900 while your captain has a smoke break. Yeah, it can be tough, but if you can take the all BS of starting on the bottom and take the bitter cold or choking clouds of bugs, there is no other job as cool to earn a meager living. As they say: the days may be long, but at least the pay sucks. You really have to love flying Alaska's wilderness to make it as a working pilot here. 

I am reluctant to use the term "Bush Pilot" as it means different things to different people. Some would argue that the real bush pilots are long gone. Legendary Aviators such as Noel Wien, Joe Crosson, Mudhole Smith, and Harold "Thrill 'em, spill 'em, but no kill 'em" Gillam, and the others who pioneered aviation in Alaska were the only true bush pilots in some folk's opinion. And there are those who think because they spent $150,000 on a shiny Super Cub from Cub Crafters and flew it off the gravel strip at Lake Hood to go have a burger in Talkeetna, that they are now qualified to call themselves bush pilots. My humble opinion is.....I don't really care one way or the other. I suppose those who earn a living day in day out in all kinds of weather delivering people and the much needed soda-pop and supplies to locations off of the road system are the ones that deserve to be called something and I guess "Bush Pilot" fits. Just don't call me that, too much of a cliche for my delicate sensibilities.

You would think the great diversity and volume of aviating here in Alaska would give simmers a great opportunity to experience flying up here. But, at least for me, simming around Alaska in FS9 or FSX has been a less than stellar deal. In fact, I just couldn't do it. After spending a good portion of my life flying around the real thing, the terrain and scenery was severely lacking in realism. And other than Tongass X and Orbx Pacific Fjords, I never had a fuzzy feeling about any of the terrain products available. But that changed with the release of Orbx's SAK region and since installing it, I've had a bunch of fun reliving some of my experiences in the comfort of my office chair. And if you'll indulge me for a few minutes I would like to share some of them with you. 

I've been lucky enough to have experienced many different types of flying in many different types of airplanes (and even a helicopter or two, but I don't like to bring up past mistakes). Part 1 of my Alaska Flying series is going to look at off-airport operations onto sand bars, beaches and tundra in the common bush planes used up here. In upcoming stories, I'll do some ski and float flying and also bring you along on some typical commercial flights I've done around Southern Alaska. For now, let's check out some of the available tundra-tire equipped add-on planes available for FSX. 

Of the many different aircraft used for off-airport operations, number one is the Piper PA-18 Super Cub. This lightweight but sturdy aircraft has withstood the test of time, and the harsh conditions and demands placed upon it. There are many variants of the Super Cub, but up here, most are equipped with at least 150hp and get swapped from skies, wheels, and floats as the season demands. Super Cubs are a hoot and a half to fly. I'd have to say they're my favorite airplane. Not the shiny, heavy ones built up today with leather and EFIS....ugh, those are best left in their hanger where they belong. I like a Cub with the bare essentials and a little wear on fancy square tail-feathers or extended wings, just give me a stock 160 horse with fat tires and plenty of avgas and I'm a happy lad
There are several different Super Cub packages available for FSX, but my top choice is Flight Replica's Super Cub - Complete Package. This package contains a comprehensive collection of Cubs - from a 90 horse Cub with no flaps up to a 210 HP monster with 35" Bushwheels and a bunch in between including float and ski versions. They fly good too, very close to the real thing.   

Another popular bush plane is the Cessna 180/185. These workhorses, like the Super Cubs, are mostly used by private individuals for recreation and sport or by the many hunting and fishing guides/lodges with some also used by charter outfits. While not able to match the Cub's STOL capabilities, the 180/185 series make up for it with higher cruise speeds and more hauling capacity. And with someone who knows what they are doing, can be wedged into some impressively short and rough strips.  

The 185 Bush package from Carenado is an outstanding representation of the real world Cessna 185. I love the way it looks and flies, and I think its a good value. Carenado includes several versions of 185, including tundra tires, straight floats, amphibs, and skis.  The one issue I have with it is the somewhat unrealistic empty weight. A 1600-pound 185 on wheels would be a neat trick......I only know of one that's around that weight and many, many U.S. dollars were spent building it that way. Most 185's on wheels are around 1700-1800 lbs depending on how they are equipped. Aside from that, the Carenado 185 is a dandy.

The Wings of Silver J3 is another fun plane for bush-bashing. It performs well and the flight dynamics are spot-on, but just like the real thing, don't load it up too heavy......and if you want to cover some ground, take something a bit faster. A2A has built in some neat damage effects that make poor aircraft control a bit more interesting. This add-on is also the first plane I've tried that has realistic spin characteristics in FSX. I could spin this thing all day.....perfect for practicing moose-stall avoidance.

And then we have the Piper Pacer. I've never flown a 180hp PA-20, but I've flown many of the 135-150hp versions, and the extra power can only help. Not that a standard pacer is under-powered, they have plenty of oomph.....just not enough wing. Even so, the Pacer is a decent off-airport plane, just ask any Pacer owner - they'll tell you how good it is. Just make sure you have plenty of space, because it ain't no Super Cub.
So, for those simmers who like their wings on the short side, Lionheart Creations has a very extensive 180 hp Pacer/Tri-Pacer package with many variations of both. This is a very well-done collection of "Rag-Wing" Pipers with float, ski, and wheel versions as well as different panels and equipment.

To bring all this bush-flying goodness together is the fantastic Orbx Southern Alaska region covering South Central and Southeast Alaska from just below Juneau, straight up into Canada, over to the Mat-su Valley, and down the west side of Cook Inlet. A huge improvement over the default scenery, but what's super-cool for the virtual bush flyers out there is the addition of sand bars and beaches suitable for landing and taking off from. Not all the rivers and beaches are accurate, but there are plenty of good spots to play in the sand and gravel. 

Another good scenery product for off-airport Alaska bush flying is FSAddon's Tongass X which fits in perfect between Orbx's SAK and PFJ. You can find some good places to use your tundra-tire equipped planes here, too, and along with the Orbx products, it completes Southeast Alaska coverage with high-quality scenery. But for now, I'm going to just be flying in the Orbx SAK area. 

So let's get started and go fly the Wings of Silver J3 from A2A. Properly fitted with big tundra tires, this little plane is ready for some fly out fishing or other Alaskan adventures. I'm going to set out for a fly-in fishing trip based out of Yakataga, on Alaska's Gulf Coast. But Being as it's a Piper J3, it's not ideal for the long trip out from Anchorage, almost 300 miles of bum-numbing slow-motion cub flying.  For a trip like this, I'm taking a few days and some buddies with their own planes and we'll goof around looking at stuff and fishing at a few choice locations around Yakataga. After launching out of Merrill Field with my sleeping bag and some Mountain Home chow, I'll head for Yakataga with a stop in Cordova for fuel and a wee, and after about 4 hours and change of J3 time I should arrive in time to make camp for the night. I hope one of the other dudes made room in their plane for enough Alaskan Amber, 'cause I'll be needing it, big time.  

A word of caution: this is all for entertainment only. I'm omitting many important details and considerations involved in flying Alaska's back country. Undertaking any trips like these in real life involves some planning and preparation, not to mention a certain level of skill and experience. A good, well stocked survival kit along with an appropriate firearm (meaning large enough to stop the giant, furry brain-eaters) and the skills and knowledge to use both are absolutely necessary before venturing out in Alaska's wilderness.......and an empty Aquifina bottle. Local knowledge of weather and terrain is also helpful for avoiding certain calamity and/or death. If you don't believe me, take a look at the NTSB's website and its list of accidents in Alaska. Facilities of any sort are few and far between and the weather can change from serene to severe in an astoundingly short amount of time. You have been warned.  

Anyway, after checking the weather and topping the fuel, and giving the tires a good kick I set off from PAMR with a fresh coffee in hand and bit of drizzle on the windshield. The plan is to head down Turnagain Arm to Portage Pass, climb up to cross over to Esther Island, then island hop to the unfortunately-named Tatitlek (yes, it does rhyme with lick), then through the gap to Mudhole Smith(PACV).
Taxiing out at PAMR

The mighty Anchorage skyline....well, some of it.

Giddy up!

Navigating the rather tight and somewhat complex airspace in the Anchorage bowl can be a challenge.
Watch out for 7L departures off of PANC.
Weather's not looking perfect down Turnagain Arm.

Heading for Portage Pass.
The Whittier Tunnel.
Portage Glacier.
Make sure you turn into the correct pass, and make sure to leave enough room to turn around if it's too gross.
 Looks doable....we press on.

Over PAWR which means we made it through...easy, peasy.

 On to Prince William Sound, and better weather...I hope.

Nice....looking much better.

The village of Tatitlek.

Cordova, Yay! Just in time too, my Aquafina bottle is full.

After taking care of business, I head east once again. This leg will be pretty straight forward....mostly flat land all the way to Yakataga. This whole route from Anchorage has some truly amazing scenery in real life, but flying past the Bering Glacier is mind-blowing for me, down low or up high, it is a sight to behold. 
Full fuel, empty badder....time to go.
Back on the road, so to speak.
Orbx is the good.

The Bering Glacier looks brilliant. And big.
Destination in sight!

This thing slips great.

I do believe it's now beer-thirty.
After a good nights sleep and a double check of the skeeter dope, it's time for some fun. After consulting a local, I think I'll head up the North Channel of the Yakataga to its confluence with Porcupine Creek. The Rainbows are said to be thick there. Time for some sand bar action.  

Flying the sim enables you to take many procedural short-cuts that you wouldn't take in the real world. One should always drag the intended landing zone to check for any hazards, such as big rocks and driftwood, and to ensure good escape routes in case of a go-around, and also to measure the available landing area. Multiple passes may be required to make sure the coast is absolutely clear. Of course, in the sim, none of that is required. As nice as the sand and gravel bars look in the Orbx scenery, they are all clean and pristine so apart from some elevation changes, you always know what to expect.

Setting up and slowing down.
Spot picked out....
Ouch! That made an expensive noise. Rule 1: Don't munch on the brakes in soft sand.
Fun's over for this cub.

So, if you're going to fly your airplane off-airport, you should be prepared for a ding or two......even in FSX, apparently. But, this being a flight sim, I'll just grab another plane. The A2A J3 is a great add-on airplane for off-airport operations in FSX, but in real life, its larger sibling, the Super Cub, is the go-to plane for real Alaska bush flying. Flight Replicas has hit the head on the nail when it comes to producing the quintessential Alaska bush plane. No other plane is as desired for working or playing off-airport as the Super Cub and the Super Cubs from FR range from super-fancy, to super-basic, with several versions in-between, just like you might find at Lake Hood or Birchwood or any other popular GA airport around the state. 

I'm going to use a Super Cub with a 180 horse engine and really big tires to do some beach landings. There are a lot of good beaches around Yakataga suitable for landing on in real life and with SAK. Here I've worked my way down the coast around Icy Bay. Most of the beaches up here require an off-camber landing which feels strange at first, but is really no big deal.....just make sure your feet do the right thing.   If you're pedantic about real procedures, do a thorough check of the intended landing area, but I'm betting it's free of any hazards. And stay out of the water, that's generally a bad place to go. 

Worlds better than default.

Plenty of beaches to play on. Thanks, Orbx. 

Another option for your off-airport adventures is some actual mountain flying.....landing on a wacky, uneven spot high up on a mountain can really get the juices flowing.....or take a bite out of your seat cushion.

Again, real life operation dictate a high level of preparation prior to attempting a mountain top landing. In FSX, not so much. Just pick out a reasonably flat mountain surface and have at it, keeping in mind your true airspeed will be higher at higher elevations. 

What a view!

Alright, back to the bars. You can't get any better than a good Super Cub with big rubber for gravel or sand bar work. This particular FR Cub makes it all too easy.  

That looks like a good spot.
Git it nice and slow.

Lots of room.

What a blast!

Time to switch it up a bit. The Carenado Bush Cessna 185 with tundra tire is a sweet flying plane and is fun to bounce around the many sand and gravel bars in SAK. Just be sure and allow a bit more room than the Cubs.

Pretty bird.
Back to Yakataga
All the airports are vastly improved with the Orbx scenery.
Wheel landings are easy and fun in the Carenado.
Rumor has it, Orbx will be releasing Yakatat in 2014. 

Pacer time. Here, I'm launching the Lionheart Pacer out of my favorite airstrip, Lake Hood in Anchorage for some Salmon fishing on the Yentna River. Like the other fat-tired planes I've tested out here, the LH Pacer is a fun, good performing little bush plane that works good for playing around up here. And as a side note, If you like little planes, then Lake Hood is someplace you need to put on your travel list.    



Enough short wing stuff, here are some shots of a Super Cub flying around the Mat-Su Vally, where everybody has their own landing strip.  Orbx has upgraded the whole SAK region way above the default, and as a local, I approve. 

Heading up  toward the Knik Glacier. 

All of these planes are a hoot to blast around the SAK region and they work good for landing on the beaches, river bars, and, well, anywhere you want to check out. Honestly, you could use the default 172 or anything you wanted to do this, but aren't we going for a little bit of realism here? These planes definitely fit the bill for authenticity and I love them. And having flown all of them in real life, I can vouch for the accuracy of the flight models, they're just fine..... I have no complaints, really. 

Orbx has opened up a whole new world of Alaska bush flying with their SAK region. If you have any interest in off airport operations, then you must have this scenery. I know there is some other Alaska products out there, but apart from Tongass X (which is also excellent), Orbx has the right stuff for us bush flyers, or anybody interested in flying up here. And with new airports coming up to add to the fantastic Juneau and Ketchikan airports, it can only keep getting better. Now we need Obrx Western and Northern Alaska and a good Cessna 207 from Carenado or Alabeo, and we can get some serious work done. That soda is not going to fly itself.

For your own Alaska bush flying fun grab Orbx SAK here:

Do yourself a favor and get Juneau while you're there.

For the A2A J3, Lionheart Pacer, and the Carenado Bush 185:

The Flight Replicas Super Cub Complete Package:

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Gypsy Pilot said...

I love flying in Alaska and the PNW for the same reasons. One of the great things about sim flying is the lack of bugs and it's always warm.

Gypsy Pilot said...

Three planes that I would love to add to my stable
#1 Most expensive toy and hunting/fishing plane -- CubCrafters Top Cub with fat tires and cargo pod..

#2 Alaska's workhorse -- Cessna 207

#3 The go anywhere and do almost anything airplane -- The
Sherpa K650T.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for the great read, well written. I've been fascinated by Alaska bush flying and really enjoyed the Flying Wild Alaska TV series, which gave me some great ideas for flights. It would be really helpful if you could trace your route on a map, this sound like a good one. Looking forward to more.

Rob de Vries said...

Donna if you're a bonafide bush pilot, but you do have a nice way of telling your story. Loved it and I'm looking forward to the next episode! Rob

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