North Pacific Ferry Flight

I was excited about this one…I’ve flown the NAT (North Atlantic) to Europe and beyond many times, but I’ve never flown the NORPAC (North Pacific).  On this ferry flight I got to fly the mighty King Air 350 from Fargo, ND to China through some of the coldest parts of our planet.  I was especially excited because I got to take Sam (my middle son) on the trip.  It seems that Ben (my oldest son) had so much fun with the last big trip (see this post) that Sam was not going to let a good trip fly by him.  With Sam in college (senior year in college) and home for the Christmas holidays, he was able to come along on this trip and not miss any school.

Also on this trip was Chad Menne (Owner of Malibu Aerospace, KANE).  Chad and I have shared the cockpit many times on overseas flights, but neither of had flown the NORPAC.  Reflecting on this trip, I’m super-glad he came along because the days got very long and the second pilot was really needed (especially on the flight to Seoul, Korea).

We departed Fargo, ND (KFAR) on a cold but clear day for the long flight to Bellingham, WA.  The winds were howling out of the west and we faced a strong 110kt wind for most of the way.  Strong winds were forecast, but they were actually stronger than expected.  Due to fuel, we decided to divert to Helena, MT (KHLN) for a quick tech stop.  Sam was excited about this for he is planning to move to Helena after college.

The (reasonably) short flight to Bellingham, WA (KBLI) was uneventful. We were met with the normal blustery, cool, wet winter day that anyone would expect in the Pacific NW.  We flew the ILS to RWY 16 and were soon on the ground.  The good folks from Holland Aero met us with dinner (a needed sack of sandwiches) and the survival gear we would need for the trip.  Thanks Penny!!  A quick turn-around and we were off on the next leg.

We departed KBLI as the sun was setting, although we didn’t see the setting sun until breaking above about 12,000ft.  It was clear above, but the strong winds persisted on our nose.  We now faced a 130kt headwind for the first two hours.  Soon thereafter, the winds shifted and we began to accelerate over the ground.  It was uncomfortable to look at the “FAD” (Fuel At Destination) number (presented on the ProLine 21) be a negative number (due to the headwinds) for the initial part of the flight…we had to trust the forecasted winds.  It turned out that the weather-guessers were right and we landed in Anchorage, AK (PANC) with just under an hour of fuel remaining.  We were soon whisked off to the Hilton Downtown hotel, had dinner, and then dozed off for a welcome sleep.

Day-2 was to be our longest day, with our final destination to be Japan…but, it got worse.  A bunch of questions arose about overnight parking in Japan.  There was no way to overnight in Russia, so we either had to overnight in Nome (less than ideal, so says my crew who knew the hotel options in Nome to be only one hotel) or plan to fly all the way to Korea.  We opted to fly to Korea and accept the super-long day.  Anchorage had a temp of about 12F but no wind, so it wasn’t bad at all.  We advanced the power levers on takeoff just as the sun was creating a glow on the southeastern horizon.  The King Air jumped off the runway in the low density altitude and we were soon at FL260.

High Noon over Alaska

There were lower clouds below, but we got to see much of the majesty of the snowy Alaskan mountains.  Nome (PAOM) is only about 2 hours away and it felt like a short flight as we made our approach.  Nome is a coastal town, literally right on the water’s edge, and the sea was frozen for as far as the eye could see.

We landed on a snow-removed Runway 22 and taxied on icy (snow not removed) taxiways to the FBO.  The FBO doubles as an airline terminal for Bering Air, which appeared to operate Piper Navajos and Cessna Caravans.  The terminal was unbelievably noisy with lots of families (with young kids and babies) awaiting their flights.  The temperature was about 8F and the sun was at “high noon”, but barely above the horizon.  The lighting from the low sun was gorgeous, casting a multi-colored, comfortable light everywhere.  We consulted with Travis and his team about the permitting through the rest of the day, and thankfully discovered that all was in-place at both Russia and Japan.  Soon we were taxiing on the ice to RWY 22 for takeoff.  I got the feeling that Nome would be a neat place to explore, but that it would take less than a day to complete the exploration.  Small, frozen, yet strangely pretty…I think I’d like to come back one day for a longer visit.

This King Air had only 18 hours AFTT when we picked it up at KFAR, so it was really nice.  It had a bunch of equipment from Weather Modifications, Inc added in the back, but otherwise was a stock-350, which meant that it was nice.  If I could be “king for the day” and make some changes in Wichita to the King Air 350, it would be with the cockpit seats and avionics.  Although spectacularly appointed, King Air seat does not lean back very far, and everyone felt that the cushioning was less-than ideal.  I grew to hate that seat more and more as the trip progressed.  And, although the ProLine 21 avionics suite is OK, it’s not spectacular.  As a guy that flies just about every avionics suite imaginable, I can testify that the ProLine 21 is not as user-friendly as compared to some others.  We were able to make it work properly, but it was always a pain.  To me, you can take just about any airplane on the market and add a Garmin 750/G500 combination and you’ll have all the avionics you’ll ever want.  But, the King Air 350 in every other way is a spectacular airplane, and I cannot think of another airplane (in the small, cabin-class market) that I’d rather trust to fly across the inhospitable expanse below us.

The mighty King Air 350 launched us to FL280 with ease. and soon we were over the North Pacific enroute to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka (UHPP), or what we began to simply call “Petro”.  We flew over open water for a while, but it seemed that Russia came into view soon (as compared to any portion of a North Atlantic trip).  We paralleled land, remarking often about the number and beauty of the volcanoes that dot the landscape.  We began to receive reports of “moderate turbulence” from ATC, but we only experienced smooth air at FL280.  Soon after descent though, it began to get rough.  As we made our approach to UHPP it was definitely moderate turbulence.  We fought to fly the airplane with accuracy and tried to enjoy the view of Russia below.

We did not expect the immensity of the mountains in the UHPP area, and especially the local volcanoes.  UHPP appears to be a combination civil/military base with clusters of ill-kept, probably un-airworthy airplanes nested in bunkered parking spots.  We were impressed to see these airplanes (for we never see them in any other part of the world), but they were clearly not used much.  The civil parking ramp had a good number of airline-size airplanes along with about 20 (or so) smaller transports.  We parked and were greeted by about 10 people (3 refuelers, one lady, and the rest were very official-looking “police” or “customs guards” equipped with the Ushanka Hats with the Red Star) who appeared “serious”, with very little smiling.  Anna (the lady) was certainly the most helpful and guided us through the process of getting fuel.  She spoke nearly perfect english and we peppered her with questions about Russia, making friends quickly.  It was clear that we were not going to be invited indoors and we stood in the 30F temps (with a 15 kt wind) to watch the refueling.  After the nearly 4 hour flight all of us wanted to use the bathroom, and Anna negotiated with the serious policemen to have a van brought out to take us to a facility.  All of us loaded up in the van to travel to a small building (not the main terminal) where we were allowed to “go”.  We felt as if we were “out of place” and “not wanted” by the males “protecting us” at UHPP with Anna being the only one that enjoyed our presence.  She sadly seemed to be interested in our way of life, but knew that she had zero chance of ever seeing it with her own eyes.  Upon leaving Russia, Sam said it best when he described Russia to be “exactly as he expected it would be”, and that he was “surprised that it was so” for his expectations were low.  It’s hard to describe, but all the while Russia was interesting to us.  I would like to one day see more of Russia, but I suspect that will be as hard as anticipated, and probably not ever going to happen.  Russia is simply not a good vacation spot.

New Chitose, Japan (RJCC) was our next destination and soon we were back up to FL280.  I keep mentioning that we “we were back up to FL280 quickly” in this article as if that’s a strange thing…I think what I’m trying to impress is the power of the King Air 350.  We easily saw at least 2000fpm climb all the way up to FL280 on every departure.  It was impressive to see the raw power of the King Air as we flew each leg.  FL280 just seemed to come quickly every climb.  We had a low layer of clouds below us for 90% of the flight to RJCC, so there was nothing spectacular about this leg of the journey.  With rather easy navigation and plenty of time for us to talk, the crew traded seats often, chatted about a myriad of topics, and noted the low sun (because we were flying directly towards it the entire flight).  The sun was just going down as we came upon Japan’s northern coastline and the low clouds disappeared.  Japan in the long dusk was beautiful with the lights of the cities contrasted with the snow-topped mountains around.  We made approach to the huge RJCC airport and were instructed to taxi to a huge apron.  What made this stop unusual was the fact that we could not remain overnight.  They told us we could not because “snow removal operations” were in effect and there was not room on the tarmac.  But, there was enough room on the tarmac to park a hundred King Air aircraft. And, there was not much snow to remove.  I think it highlighted the fact that flying internationally is often difficult because of so many variables.   Nevertheless, we were met by a nice group of people that contrasted starkly against the Russians.  We were taken to a bathroom, escorted through security, and brought to the “food court” at RJCC where we were able to purchase dinner.  This was to be Sam’s step-off point (as he did not have clearance to get into China), and the Japanese handlers bent over backwards to help Sam find a hotel and ground transportation.  I thought I was going to be nervous about leaving Sam in Japan alone, but those feelings quickly faded as I saw how well the airport handlers were helping him along (postscript…Sam did have a great time in Japan and navigated his way through their culture quite well…it’s one of the safest countries to visit and Sam enjoyed himself immensely).

By the time Chad and got back in the cockpit, it was completely dark and we were tired (having had already flown over 11 hours that day).  For many reasons (good pilot, good friend, easy to share a small cockpit over long flights) I was happy to have Chad along on the flight, but the biggest reason was he was really needed on the flight to Seoul, Korea (RKSS).  The weather was poor in Korea and I was very tired.  We fought a 80+kt headwind for much of the flight and I fought to stay awake.  Small-talk, rechecking flight instruments, and a gulp of no-dose were all required to stay awake.  I’d have never tried this flight without Chad being along to share the piloting.  We flew over 15 hours that day by the time we landed in Seoul, and it felt like it.  Chad masterfully flew the ILS approach in some steady ice down to a 400 OVC, 1/2 mile, snowing conditions.  RKSS is a huge airport with wonderful lighting and we saw the airport with ease despite the low conditions.  It was 10pm (local) when we landed, which was also the handlers time to be off work.  It didn’t take them long at all to have us sitting in a taxi on our way to the hotel.  I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.  It had been a long day of flying.

Chad really wanted to spend New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, Japan and he decided to leave me in Seoul and airline back to Japan.  This was fine with me because the hard part of the whole trip was over.  I was so happy to have Chad along for the trip and appreciate his willingness to come along.  I woke up the next morning to discover that my flight (which was supposed to happen at 3pm) could not be changed to an earlier time (due to permitting).  So, I had the whole morning to myself in Korea.  I went for a walk, found some breakfast, and generally enjoyed my free morning in my old stomping grounds.  I was stationed in Korea in 1997-8 with the US Army and enjoyed seeing it again.  It has been noted many times that the olfactory system can bring back a memory faster than any other, and this was so true for me.  Korea has a certain smell and I remembered so many aspects of my experience 20 years ago as I walked around.  Korea has changed much, though.  There was construction happening everywhere and my impression was that the Koreans are doing quite well.

All alone, I arrived at the RKSS Airport to prepare for the flight.  The handlers gave me the paperwork, escorted me through security, and I arrived at my airplane 2 hours before departure time.  Fortunately,  I was able to depart 30 minutes early so the wait at the airplane (in the cold but clear weather) was not too terrible.  On climb out I was able to see the immensity of the growth in Korea…the night before was terrible weather, but I was now in the clear on climb out so I could see everything below.  Seoul is an impressive city from above.  I climbed westward over the Yellow Sea enroute to China, catching glimpses of North Korea to my north.

As I came to the geographic center of the Yellow Sea (near the intersection AGAVO), I was changed to Chinese controllers.  China uses metric altitudes for cruise flight, and this was my first experience to operate in meters.  Fortunately, the ProLine 21 will convert to meters and it was no trouble for me at all.  There were lots of low clouds below but as I flew westward they began to dissipate.  Where the clouds began to dissipate, something else began to increase…smog.  I was mildly expecting the smog, but it was more prevalent than I anticipated.  As I came upon the China coastline I could only see the ground by looking straight down, even though there were no clouds at all.  The whole fight to Taiyuan (ZBYN) was characterized by this dingy, thick smog.  The smog is one of the big reasons that China anticipated the arrival of this King Air.  The equipment on this King Air is known “cloud seeding” equipment, which is able to assist a cloud to produce rain.  The rain subsequently is effective at “washing” the atmosphere of the smog.

I was vectored for the ILS 31 and came over the densely populated Taiyuan.  I landed long and rolled out to the end of a very long runway and then taxied to a more remote part of the airport, far away from the airline area.  The sun was just setting as I arrived and was greeted by a bunch of people with cameras and warm wishes.  Clearly, they had been anticipating my arrival for some time.  I exited the airplane to be greeted by snapping cameras, and felt like a movie star.  They gave me warm handshakes and a bouquet of flowers.  We took pictures and everyone milled around looking over the airplane.  It was a nice greeting and a very pleasant ending to a long trip.

The Chinese treated me well when I arrived, but that was just the beginning.  I was soon introduced to Jennifer, the lady who was to be my guide while in China.  She spoke perfect English and literally guided me the whole way along.  She took me through security, found ground transportation, and found a nice hotel.  I had some guidance about the logistics of my return to the USA from Travis and his team, but nothing was firmed.  She really helped. The next morning Jennifer found the best flights, negotiated shipment of my survival gear, and arranged for ground transportation to the airport.  My previous planning had me leaving Taiyuan at 0800, which would have required my departure from the hotel at an uncomfortable 0600.  She found a better flight later in the morning, but one that required that I land at a different airport in Shanghai.  She then figured out how to arrange for ground transportation in Shanghai, which was no small feat.  It’s not that she had a big plan and then executed that plan…I threw her curveball after curveball, and she just seemed to know how to “work the system” and make things happen.  I cannot over-emphasize the impact Jennifer had on my China experience.  If I ever go back to China, I assure you who will handle my logistics!

The immensity of China cannot be overstated.  China has more growth, construction, and people than can be illustrated in writing.  I leave China with the remembrance of smog and smoke, but also of growth and friendliness.  I’m sure everyone treated me well because of the status of the King Air I brought to them, but I encountered many that did not know me and they treated me well too.  Much of this probably is because of the work that Jennifer did, but still I felt that the Chinese people wanted me there and were proud of many aspects of their country.

As I write this I’m again sitting in 1st-Class on the Boeing 767 (now over the Canadian wilderness), and I have Travis to thank for getting me an upgrade. I thank the folks at Holland Air for their continued excellent support, the other good folks at Weather Modifications (Fargo, ND), and look forward to the next time I get to “take a long trip”.

About Joe Casey

ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, CFI-G Commercial Pilot - SE, ME, Rotorcraft, Glider US Army AH-64 Pilot and UH-60 Instructor Pilot and Instrument Flight Examiner
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