Recently, I got the opportunity to fly in the right seat of a King Air 350 on the way from Fargo, ND to China. It was probably the coolest aviation-related experience of my life and I’m way too eager for the next one to come up. Here’s a report on the trip that Joe and I each contributed to. My words are in italics and his are in normal print…
I got the nod again from Travis Holland and his crew at Shepherd Aero to fly a King Air 350 from Fargo, ND to Taijuan, China in April 2019, and I was super-excited to do the trip because I hoped to bring along Ben, my oldest son along for the ride. Ben has been working with me for about two years now, and progressing nicely in his aviation credentialing and experience. So, it was a natural for him to join me on this flight. Ben has travelled with me before on a long ferry before (USA to Europe via the North Atlantic), but this is the first flight where Ben is a licensed pilot and able to truly contribute to the overall success of the mission. For any other father out there, it is a true blessing to be able to spend time with your kids professionally when they are adults, and I am particularly pleased to have Ben on this trip.
Whereas the trip was supposed to start in April, the trip got pushed back to May, and then again to June. It actually launched on June 18th. Ferry flights can have notoriously unpredictable starts, and this one just seemed to get pushed back more often than not. But, the green light came on and Ben and I bought airline tickets for Fargo, ND (KFAR).
KFAR is a lovely place in the summer, and we both had light jackets on the morning that we picked up N379FS, a King Air 350 that had received some modifications from Weather Mod, a really neat company dedicated to the meteorological sciences. The pros as Weather Mod gave us all the required documents and soon we were airborne for Edmonton, Canada (CYEG). The scattered fair-weather cumulus below provided perspective to the view of criss-crossed farmland below. It was a beautiful day in southern Canada. Our stop at CYEG was short and soon we were airborne again for Anchorage (PANC).
The mountains rise quickly as flew northwest of CYEG, but most of the mountains were obscured by the clouds below. We flew at FL300 and were skimming the tops of the clouds in occasional light turbulence. It is a long way from CYEG to PANC, and we watched the fuel levels closely. Interestingly, there are not many alternate airports along this route, and we had to calculate the fuel accurately. But, the winds picked up as we flew along, and we ended up with a 40 knot tailwind, easily pushing us to comfortable range of PANC. After 4.4 hours of flying, we landed at PANC to beautiful blue skies, calm winds, a sun that was still high in the sky, and the expectation of a really good dinner in lovely Anchorage.
The dinner in Anchorage was lovely (pizza in downtown Anchorage), and soon we were off to the hotel to get some shut-eye. The blinds at the hotel did not cover the window well, and we went to sleep at 10pm with the daylight illuminating our room. We were both quite tired, and neither of us cared about the sunlight. We awoke to more sunlight in the morning, and the realization that we might get to see more of Anchorage this day.
Our flight plans had us leaving PANC for Nome, AK (PAOM) with subsequent flights to Petropovlosk, Russia (UHPP) and Chitose, Japan (RJCC), but the headwinds from PAOM to UHPP proved to be forecast strong. It is a long way from PAOM to UHPP, and there simply are not any good alternate landing locations along that route. We looked closely at changing our destination to Adak, AK (PADK), an island along the Aleutian Chain, but the weather there was not acceptable without an alternate. So, after much deliberation with Travis and his team of pros, we decided that remaining in Anchorage one more night was prudent.
So, with a free day to play in Anchorage, Ben and I decided to take a drive out to Kingdom Air Corp, a missionary pilot training organization at an airport about 100 miles northeast of Anchorage. We rented a car and drove on HWY 1 for about an hour and a half. The scenery was stunning and the weather absolutely perfect.
We were greeted at Kingdom Air Corps by Dwayne King and about 30 others who were working on airplanes, flying airplanes, and otherwise supporting the work at the airport. A truly one-of-a-kind place that is doing really good work for Christ’s Kingdom, Ben and I were blown away by the good work that is happening in this remote part of the world. There were about 10 airplanes that were operational, and CFI’s were training flight students to support the movement of the gospel in remote lands via aviation.
Suffice it to say, this is one neat place led by some really neat and devoted people. I plan to go back to Kingdom Air Corp soon, probably as a CFI/DPE in short-term work supporting their good work. Ben and I drove back to Anchorage and soon were bedded down again in the much-too-bright hotel room awaiting the plans for the next day.
Talking to the folks at Kingdom Air Corps was a good reminder that God gives gifts, talents, and passions to people for a purpose. It’s a common misconception among Christians these days that to serve God you must give up your hobbies or passions when in actuality, there are many ways to serve the Kingdom through those things you might think would take you away from honoring God.
The weather at PADK had improved enough to use that as our planned stop, and there were solid alternates as well. With the forecast favorable winds, we launched from PANC in the morning hours into a perfectly clear sky. Soon we had mountains on either side and the glory of Alaska shone in full brilliance as we climbed in the mighty King Air 350. Soon we were at FL300 again, enjoying seeing the mountains contrasted against the low-lying near-swamp looking ground near King Salmon. It seemed that water was everywhere below. But, we had the pleasure of a smooth ride and great views as we progressed westward along the Aleutian Chain.
Easily the coolest part of the trip was flying over the Aleutian Chain. No pictures do it justice, but the volcanoes jutting out of the clouds is an extremely cool sight. On the few spots where you can see the ground, it’s striking how much of the islands are almost completely untouched by humans. As we descended towards PADK, we saw several smaller islands with no manmade structure on it at all.
The Aleutian Chain is a series of volcanoes that are hidden by low clouds and poor visibility much of the year. I had in my mind earlier that they were something different, but they jut out of the ocean in a most beautiful manner. As we flew along, the low clouds were mostly less than 500’ thick, and the presence of the island below was noted by the volcano that poked through the top of the undercast. As we came upon Adak, the skies became broken to scattered, and we enjoyed seeing the beauty of most of Adak from the air. Ben landed the King Air nicely and we taxied off the runway to large question marks.
The biggest question was about our parking spot. No one was on the radio, and we just taxied around slowly until we saw a fuel truck near a hangar. There were lots of buildings on Adak, but little movement. We parked in front of a huge blue hangar and hoped we had the right spot. Two guys from the fuel truck came to refuel us, and we soon learned about the sparse population. The US Navy used to have a base on Adak, but they pulled out and pretty much left the island a ghost town. There are probably more buildings on Adak than individual people. And, when the Navy left, they must have left in a hurry because nothing was cleaned up properly.
We stepped into a few of the buildings and all were dank, dirty, mildewing, and clutter was everywhere. Much of the furniture remained, but the contents of the desks and shelves were thrown onto the floor. Everything of value was taken, but phones, books, papers, wires, and old electrical devices were scattered everywhere. It was a scene straight out of a movie. The coolest scene was from inside the control tower. We walked to this buildingand found the staircase that leads up to the top. Ben took some cool pics that show the beautiful view of the outside contrasted against the Navy’s quick departure and the subsequent disaster that was found on the interior.
I left Adak with the feeling that the island is truly beautiful, but that the US Navy did a terrible job of leaving the island. I cannot fathom that someone didn’t managed the departure much better. What could have been empty buildings was left a disaster that will take years to overcome. Granted, there’s not much business or livelihood remaining on Adak, but the buildings could either have been razed or left to some responsible party to ensure that the remains had some possibility of being used in the future. Neither occurred. I suspect the Navy will come back to Adak someday, and when they do they’ll have to start completely over with most of the buildings. Then, they’ll have to do that which should have happened in the first place on their last departure. If the Navy doesn’t come back, then I suspect these building will rust, rot, and disintegrate for a few centuries as a symbolic reminder of man not finishing what was started. I see this same thing happening in many of our poorest cities. The razing of unusable structures is part of the cost of ownership, and many of our cities (my own hometown of Jacksonville, TX included) need one glimpse of Adak to see what improper transfer of ownership looks like. The US Navy can do better than this.
We left Adak and flew low over the volcanic peaks on our way to Petropovlovsk, Russia (UHPP). The flight was quiet and smooth, and we traded short catnaps as the day progresses. The clouds began to build on the second half of the flight, totally obscuring the otherwise really cool view of the volcanoes on the Kamstachy Peninsula. We flew the ILS to the northwest and didn’t see the ground until about 500’ AGL. It was raining, dank, and cold in Russia. An assortment of about 8 people came to greet us, with some refueling, one to accomplish the paperwork, and about 3 stood security. The Russians were very friendly on this visit, certainly more so than the last, and we enjoyed the conversations. In about 45 minutes, we were fueled up and advancing the power levers for takeoff.
The flight from UHPP to Chitose, Japan (RJCC) was solid IFR the entire trip. Ben says he saw the ocean once or twice, but I don’t remember that at all. Even at FL300, we were still in the clouds. We flew another approach down to low-IFR minimums, and we touched down on another cold, wet runway. The greeters at RJCC spoke excellent english, and we stood around the King Air watching the refuelers do their work. Evidently, the pilot must watch the refuelers fuel the airplane, and we stood around in the rain for much longer than I wanted to. Once on the way, we were escorted through a labyrinth of security, customs, and hallways to get to the van that took us to the hotel. We walked to an interesting seafood restaurant and ate WAY too much food. It was a nice dinner in a strange place.
Usually when you try some new food, there’s at least some bit of familiarity. “Oh, that tastes kind of like _____.” Not so with much of what I ate in Chitose. I had no comparison for some of the brand new tastes featured at that dinner. It was very weird in a good way.
After a quick breakfast that consisted of more seaweed that I expected followed by a taxi ride to the airport, we were rolling on the runway en route to Gimpo International Airport (RKSS) in Seoul, South Korea. Much of the flight was solid IFR, but the clouds broke about halfway across the Sea of Japan. I was struck at how mountainous the countryside of South Korea was. It’s a very rugged country outside the city, apparently.
And speaking of the city, I was absolutely blown away at how expansive the Seoul area was. It was at least double the land area of the DFW metroplex, and the vast majority of it consisted of 25+ story buildings. The population density of the area is nothing short of staggering. Flying over the area was very cool and almost distracting at times.
We landed at RKSS and had a very similar experience to landing in Japan as far as the process is concerned. I didn’t have the visa necessary to enter into China, so I hopped off the trip at this point and clumsily found my way to a hotel via the incredibly efficient but foreign public transportation system. Joe continued onto China where he dropped off N379FS and flew back commercial.
I had the privilege to go on an international ferry flight about two and a half years ago, but now that I’m a pilot with a few hundred hours, it’s a totally different experience. Everything from navigating around volcanoes to even just interacting with the strong foreign accented controllers overseas makes for a good adventure and learning opportunity.