Vermont to Alaska on Straight Floats - PA12

Having just sold our PA 12 on straight Baumann floats, I agreed to ferry it to Alaska. This will be a challenging 3500 mile trip over primarily wilderness area, landing only on lakes and rivers. I'm estimating that the trip will take a week in good weather and hope to depart at the end of May, when lakes have thawed and fuel and lodging options become available. I hope to be able to update this page during the trip if and when I get adequate internet access en route.

I have flown to Alaska twice from Vermont, both times in my Cessna 206 with a motorcycle in the plane, some of it along this route, but this flight will definitely be "different". The waypoints are all lakes or rivers that I have confirmed will have fuel available, although I may need to transport and fill via plastic jugs. As a precaution, I've made a platform that would allow me to sleep in the plane if needed, primarily to provide a degree of protection from bears should I get stuck on a remote lake somewhere. Modern technology, such as GPS, Foreflight, and a Personal Locator Beacon with satellite messaging option make this less of a challenge than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago, and being able to carry extra fuel in the floats provides a bit of additional safety. I've chosen to go alone, preferring the weight of extra fuel to that of a passenger.

Getting ready to launch from Plattsburgh, NY

May 22, 2018 - I guess that technically the trip started today. I took off from a trailer (after removing the straps, of course) at Plattsburgh, NY and landed on Lake Champlain to add fuel and pack for the journey. It was a pretty straightforward take-off from the trailer, and nice to land on the lake afterward. I'm waiting now for the rain to stop, and hope to leave tomorrow, May 23, 2018, and clear customs just north of the Vermont border on the Richelieu River.

May 23rd - The departure was delayed due to high winds forecast in the Ottawa area and what was going to be a late start anyway, so I took advantage of the extra time and fuel the plane today so I can hopefully get an early start in the morning tomorrow, May 24th.

I added 50 gallons of fuel, 5 gallons at a time at Basin Harbor the day before departing.

May 24th - Linda and I loaded the plane with a few more cans of fuel and all of my gear. I almost delayed for another day due to winds but decided I'd just have to deal with them, sooner or later. I took-off from Basin Harbor, flew up Lake Champlain into Canada and cleared customs on the Richelieu River. Then, flying south of Montreal and north of Ottawa the winds initially were not quite as bad as forecast, and I headed directly to North Bay, Ontario. Three and half hours later as I approached North Bay the winds had picked up considerably and I was getting tossed around uncomfortably. I landed at the seaplane base on Trout Lake with winds of 20+ mph, fueled the plane, tied up to the dock, and got a ride to the Holiday Inn for the night. Weather for tomorrow is not too promising.

May 26th - After spending two nights stranded in North Bay due to weather, I reflected on the flight to get here. About halfway into that four hour flight the vacuum pump failed, so I lost AI and DG function - no real problem because I could use the wet compass and Foreflight. But what concerned me more was watching the oil pressure gradually drop from the top of the green arc to the middle of the green arc, and an occasional fluctuation to near the bottom of the green. At the same time the oil temp had gone from a reading of about 190 degrees up to closer to 220 degrees (red line about 245 degrees). Then, after landing I noted that I had lost a quart of oil in those 4 hours with no evidence of oil anywhere on the airplane. I spoke to a mechanic there. He told me the oil loss rate was "acceptable" and that there wasn't much else to be done except to monitor it. I pondered options then decided to continue the flight, with plenty of oil carried in the plane, and then I spent the night in North Bay. I wasn't totally comfortable with the plan of "monitoring" a critical engine parameter for the next 3000 miles of wilderness but still knew I had lots of outs - although some of them did involve the potential of landing and being rescued from one of the abundant lakes along the route.

The next morning this is what I saw out the hotel window:

May 26th - I'm not going anywhere today!

A briefing with Canadian FSS advised that the fog and rain would clear later in the morning but there were thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon. I called my destination float plane base (Armstrong, ON) and was advised that their own operations were grounded due to low ceilings and that even if I could make it there their lodging was full with customers waiting to get out by float plane to their camps in the low weather. In addition, a call to an interim fueling stop informed me that their previous assurance 5 days earlier that they had fuel available was incorrect and that they had neither fuel nor lodging. I did have enough fuel in the mains and reserve in the floats to make Armstrong so I decided to continue after another night at the hotel.

May 27th - I ended up waiting in North Bay for 4 days with this weather scenario repeating each day. Evidently, during this time of year the cold Lake Superior water and the warm air masses produce those conditions very frequently, and one briefer told me of another pilot making a similar ferry flight on straight float taking three months to complete a similar trip, and that many weeks to do so was not uncommon. Yikes. The basic problem is that you have to be able to fly 300 or 400 mile legs between fuel/lodging stops and that if you can't make that distance, it's best to stay where you are.

I began to weigh out options. It's not my plane, I'm doing this for fun, I'm meeting my wife and some friends in Anchorage and at this rate I'll take much longer to get there (and miss my flight back home) and might end up stranded in the wilderness. It just looked like the realistic risks had finally outweighed any benefit. I called the mechanic who had just annualed the plane in preparation for the ferry flight and explained the situation to him. He and I quickly agreed that under those circumstances it made more sense to return to Plattsburgh, unload cargo from the plane on a Lake Champlain dock, fly it onto the grass at Plattsburgh and ship it to Alaska by truck. Ironically, the projected cost of doing that was very close and potentially lower than ferrying it there. I called the owner who agreed that was the best option so that's what was done. We should have thought of that sooner, before attempting the flight.

Here's the view departing Trout Lake in North Bay very shortly after weather had gone from IFR to MVFR, and another view en route showing the landscape - occasional dirt roads, but no buildings for miles and miles in all directions - and this was the highest density population I would see along the route between stops that were three or four hundred miles apart.

Marginal VFR leaving North Bay, but 15 minutes early a mile visibility and a few hundred foot ceiling.

At this point I was nearly 100% sure that I had made the difficult but correct decision to go back. Like flying into bad weather on a short flight, the decision to turn back is always a hard one to make, but one that often isn't made when it should be.

Finally, after landing on a rough and windy Lake Champlain Linda and I unloaded everything from the floats - 240 pounds of fuel, plus tools, shotgun, survival gear, clothing, electronics, paperwork, oil, etc. etc. Then with the help of the mechanic in Plattsburgh (Larry Trow) and the owner of the trailer (Brad Keroy) we landed it uneventfully on the grass and put it away.

So I knew at the outset that this would be a challenging undertaking and was looking forward to the adventure, despite the risks involved. I learned that it probably was not technically feasible to do it at this time of the year in this type of aircraft. It was still an adventure and a learning experience as well. Since Linda had already booked a flight to Anchorage to meet me around my projected arrival date, we rearranged one of her flights and I booked a flight with her from Boston to Seattle and we spent almost two weeks driving around Washington and visiting Seattle instead. All's well that ends well, and I'm thankful I'm not stuck in the wilderness somewhere even now, over three weeks since departing Basin Harbor.

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