In early July 2015 I took off with fellow pilot and friend Albert Finocchiaro from my home airport at Marion, S.C., in a single engine Cessna 172 bound for Fairbanks, Alaska. Our goal was to fly the Alaska Highway, the famed 1,387-mile roadway that connects Canada with our 49th State. First we had to cover almost 2,000 miles across the United States and Canada before reaching British Columbia where the Alaska Highway begins. From there we flew through the Northern Rocky Mountains to the Highway terminus at Delta Junction, Alaska, and then on to Fairbanks.
This book is an expanded written and photographic log of the Alaska trip first chronicled in a six-part series for General Aviation News in 2016. It records 74 hours of flight covering approximately 7,500 miles in an airplane most people would call a flying old timer. The aircraft, which bears the tail number N3245G, came off the Cessna assembly line at Wichita, Kansas, in 1956, about the time Dwight D. Eisenhower was ending his first term as president.1 When we headed for Alaska our aircraft, routinely identified as ‘Four Five Golf ’ in radio communications, already had been flown more than 6,000 hours during its 59 years.
The idea for this flying journey began more than 20 years earlier while I was driving the Alaska Highway, a legendary roadway often called the ALCAN. That memorable adventure in 1995 ranks among the most scenic America and Canada have to offer and was the finest driving trip of my life, a life spent traveling the world as a journalist. My uncle and aunt, C.P. and Betty Mincey of Nichols, S.C., and my wife Elizabeth, made the Alaska driving trip with me along the route first carved out by U.S. Army Engineers during World War II.
The Alaska Canada Highway was begun March 8, 1942, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor and tens of thousands of U.S. Army soldiers and civilian contractors worked feverishly and successfully to complete the route to Alaska by late October 1942. The original length was 1,680 miles, stretching from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska, across some of the most inhospitable wilderness in North America.
During the war years the Highway was continually improved, and thanks to upgraded, often shortened sections, the distance was pared to 1,422 miles by 1946. In 1948 the ALCAN opened to the general public and work crews have been repaving and modernizing the Highway ever since.
It was during my many hours behind the steering wheel on the Alaska Highway in 1995 that I came up with a plan to fly the route. The magnificent valleys of the Northern Rockies, through which the Alaska Highway passes, would be even more spectacular from the air, I knew. Private pilots usually keep bucket travel lists, dream trips they would like to make. And the Alaska Highway shows up at or near the top of most of those lists. Each year, most frequently from June through August, hundreds of pilots from all over the world set out with the goal of flying the Highway. There is no way to know exactly how many pilots have attempted and made this trip in the seven decades since the Highway opened to tourist traffic.
Even for a skilled and willing pilot with a good airplane, the air journey remains one not to be taken lightly. Most flyers make it without incident, although there are enough stories about mishaps to keep any good hangar roundtable discussion going all afternoon and then some.
Over the years since the 1995 driving trip I read everything I could find about flying the Highway. I joined the pilots associations in Alaska and Montana to meet more people who had made the trip. At the big yearly gatherings of general aviation pilots in Lakeland, Fla., and Oshkosh, Wis., I sought out Alaska fliers, listened to their experiences and asked their advice. I built a library of the most popular books, tapes, videos and DVDs on Alaska and flying the Highway.
Even with the extensive research, my Alaska flying trip idea was far-fetched in the beginning. At that time I had neither a pilot’s license nor an airplane. I did not even live in the U.S. I was a journalist based in Germany. I began to work on the biggest obstacles by earning my private pilot’s license in 2001 and acquired N3245G shortly afterwards. For the next decade I only flew the plane 30 to 40 hours a year during periodic visits home from Germany and later Italy. The airplane spent most of the time parked in a hangar at Marion, S.C., not far from a river house purchased for a planned retirement that kept getting delayed year after year. Regardless, the dream persisted of pointing the aircraft north and not coming back until I had flown the Alaska Highway.
Those retirement delays finally ended in 2012 when I came home to the U.S. for good after 40 years in Europe. I began telling friends the summer of 2013 would be the time for Alaska. But the trip was postponed a year by research for a book about paddling the Little Pee Dee River which passes in front of my door in northeastern South Carolina.2 The trip was delayed another year because I found a volunteer to accompany me and he couldn’t make the journey in 2014. Albert Finocchiaro, who I had known in Germany, said he would join me if I waited a year. I readily agreed. Having Albert along would be a sensible move considering his long years of experience as a U.S. Army aviator, former flight instructor and retired airline pilot.
Our flying numbers told two distinct aviation stories. Albert had about 10,000 hours of fixed wing and helicopter flying experience while I had managed to accumulate less than 1,000 hours in those years of limited summer flying while visiting the U.S.
In the first week of July 2015 Albert drove down from his home near Syracuse, N.Y., and we packed the plane. That included clothing, camping gear, survival and medical kits, bear spray, insect repellent, food and water. We weighed every item and ourselves and found Four Five Golf would be lifting off loaded almost to the max, weighing just under 2300 pounds. That included 42 gallons (252 pounds) of aviation fuel that would enable us to stay aloft a little over four hours on each leg of the journey.
We departed Marion near the South Carolina coast on July 6, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains the same day and arrived in Indiana where a time-consuming weather delay stymied us for several days. Once underway again, we continued up through the Midwest into Minnesota and North Dakota, then across Canada and the length of the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks. At the end of July we returned via Montana and South Dakota, then back into the Midwest and on to Marion.
This book is a record of our flying days. It details an aerial adventure in a small aircraft, a connected series of flights few people get to experience, the antithesis of modern-day airline travel. That’s the kind of journey where you endure hours crammed sardine fashion inside a jet-propelled tube with wings before being dumped out on a distant perimeter gate of some sprawling metropolitan airport.
Ours was a trip in which the wind whistled through the narrow cockpit of our little airplane. If it was hot outside, it was hotter inside. In the mountains, where the temperature dipped below freezing in July, we shivered. The four-cylinder, 180-horsepower Lycoming engine out front roared so loudly we could only talk to each other through headphones. N3245G has no autopilot to hold a course or maintain altitude. Thus one of us held the control wheel every minute of the 74 plus hours. Unlike a jet airliner trip, the Earth did not race under us at 500 miles per hour, nor did we peer down from 37,000 feet. Rather we hardly ever averaged more than 100 mph and on a few occasions with stiff headwinds, the cars on the highway below us kept pace and sometimes pulled ahead. For most of the trip we were barely 2,000 feet above the ground. Albert and Bill, not an unnamed pilot at the distant front of the plane, had full responsibility. That is the way those who fly general aviation aircraft want it. Our plane, our route, our skill and our luck wagered against the challenges of cross-country flight.
Most of the flying to Alaska and back was heaven, mixed with occasional short minutes of the opposite. N3245G lacks the power and range to fly above or even around most inclement weather. We either went through the weather facing us, or, in most cases, sat on the ground until it passed. Our trip was done under Visual Flight Rules with almost no instrument flying although we both have ratings to fly solely on instruments.3 That often meant waiting out the weather in little airports stretching from the North Carolina Foothills to the Alaskan wilderness.
During our trip we met an unusual collection of individuals who, with rare exception, were willing to help two fliers journeying from the South Carolina Low Country to Alaska and back. These people, many of whom appear in this book, reaffirmed my conviction that flying a small airplane cross country remains one of life’s great learning experiences and a travel adventure of the first order.
During the trip I took about 2,000 photographs, recorded hours of video and typed nearly 40,000 words of notes. More than once I nodded off well after midnight with my hands on the keyboard trying to paint an accurate picture in words of a unique air journey up the Alaska Highway and then home again. My notes and the stories for General Aviation News have now been expanded into this book including an extensive photographic record of the journey. I invite you to turn the page and join me on that journey, an Alaska Highway flying adventure.
William S. Walker
Fork Retch, S.C. April, 2017