It is salmon fishing season in Southeast Alaska, and in the far back corner of the Juneau (JNU) FBO’s somewhat ratty hangar, behind a beat-up old yellow propane powered fork lift and miscellaneous trash, there sits an ancient white deep freezer. The brand name plate is long gone and there are numerous scrapes and dents that match the color of the fork lift. Not to mention, the lid has some unappealing areas of a brown dried-out fluid you really do not want to touch. But, at least the unit appears to be functioning well because I can hear its motor humming in the background.
I push the debris on the floor out of the way with my foot, take care not to trip over the fork lift’s tongs and open the freezer lid. Inside, I see a pile of salmon fillets of unknown age, at one time worth a good $50 each in the lower 48, and obviously left by some prior flight crew in their haste to depart and return to a sunnier location. I am carrying a 40-pound container any locals would immediately recognize as a “fish box.” Fish boxes are about 30 inches long, 15 inches wide, and 8 inches high and are made of a wax covered, waterproof cardboard. Should any of the fishy contents melt while they are in the baggage compartment, no salty foul smelling fluid should leak into your airplane.
My fish box is going in the freezer because our departure in the Lear 40 has been delayed due to weather, and I do not want its freshly-purchased contents to thaw. The aggravating part is it is not our airplane that is causing the delay. As a Part 91 operator, there is little in the way of weather out of JNU that would prevent us from taking off, particularly over open water to the west. No, the problem is the Beaver on floats that was supposed to take off from the adjacent pond and collect our passengers at a fishing lodge in Pelican Bay (some 60 miles away) that cannot leave as long as the fog and rain persist with visibility down to a half-mile, and ceiling down to 100 feet. And, it is for this eventuality that the FBO has this old freezer.
Fellow pilot Tim and I have been in Juneau for the past two days, having flown up a group of business people for a fishing trip. For this kind of occasion, if the fishing trip does not require flying floats to some distant lodge, the pilots usually get invited along. But as this was not the case, we are spending the two days looking through the mist at the Mendenhall Glacier, and visiting the rather interesting Alaska History Museum in town (all the while trying to dodge the crowd of cruise ship passengers who flood the place).
On any trip to Alaska at this time of year, it is generally expected that the crew will return with some fresh fish for family and friends. And if the pilots were not able to go fishing themselves, there is often a kind of humorous understanding that when the passengers return with all of their fish, there will be a “fish box tax” upon boarding. However, on this trip, not knowing how successful our passengers were going to be, we stopped by a fish wholesaler located in an industrial area near the airport to buy an assortment of the local catch, all of course packed with ice in a fish box.
The flight up to Alaska two days before was interesting. Our departure airport just north of Seattle, had 1-2 miles visibility with an indefinite ceiling due to smoke and haze from an epidemic of forest fires that extended from British Columbia down to Oregon. From FL400 on the east side of Vancouver Island, we could just barely see into the fjords and valleys due to the amount of smoke. In addition, the GPS units (on a Lear 40, there are two separate systems) kept intermittently displaying a loss of satellite signal. And the two units were not doing this simultaneously; one would show a yellow MSG sign about the loss of GPS, then later would go off and the other side on. This mild irritation continued as we descended over the Sisters Island VOR (SSR) which is the initial approach fix for the RNAV approach to Runway 08 at JNU. This was a problem because JNU was reporting 1,800 overcast with 2-mile visibility in light rain and fog, which are the minimums for the approach, and it obviously requires a good GPS signal.
After some discussion, we decided to set up the panel on the right side with the LDA approach, with its green needles as a backup, while keeping the GPS approach on the left. The problem with this is that the LDA minimums are a 3,200-foot ceiling and 4-mile visibility, meaning if the GPS went out on the approach, it would probably be an automatic go around. To cover our bets, even though it was just 1 o’clock in the afternoon, we asked the tower to turn their approach lights up high. JNU has an unusual situation in that because of mountains out to the north and east, the final approach course heading is 070, while the runway is 080, a 10-degree offset to the right. Fortunately, whatever was causing the GPS to go offline, held off during the approach and just as well, because we did not see the approach lights we asked for until the altimeter hit exactly 1,800 feet.
Now ready for the return flight, we have been lingering around the FBO for a couple of hours, while our passengers text us from their cell phones asking about the location of the float plane. We inform them that between the layers of fog rolling in, we can see the float plane pond from the FBO and that there are a whole flock of Beavers still tied up to the dock. It does not look too hopeful. Finally, the fog lifts to barely VFR and we hear the characteristic radial engine sounds as those airplanes hastily depart to pick up their isolated passengers. We text our people that transport is on the way, and not too worry if they are late, because the Lear will not leave until they are ready. They reply that is a good thing, but other guests out at the lodge are now going to miss their scheduled Alaska Airlines departure.
Lunch time arrives with still no Beavers in sight, so we drive to a bakery near the airport well known to flight crews, grab a bite to eat and return with a large bag of fresh apple strudel. We stash it in the passenger compartment of the airplane, while also making sure the coffee container is filled and fitted into its slot. Finally, our passengers appear in the van operated by the float plane company. They have not shaved since we last saw them and are wet from standing on the dock in the rain, looking thoroughly miserable. It is clear they are anxious to get home. The van disgorges a stack of fish boxes near the airplane, and while the line crew loads them into the crowded baggage compartment, we all work to stuff the personal luggage into the cabin. When we are done, we hurriedly close the door, and get the airplane started.
While all this has been going on, the rain has increased and the fog returned, reducing visibility down to less than half-mile, with indefinite ceiling and a 6-knot wind from the east. We have two departure options: into the wind on Runway 08, with the takeoff immediately followed by a sharp right turn in low IMC conditions back to the west to avoid the mountains on all three sides. Or to make a downwind departure on Runway 26, then go straight out over salt water to the BARLO intersection, then the SSR VOR. Obviously, we want to choose the lowest risk departure possible, but there are no clear right or wrong answers in this kind of situation – it is all a matter of pilot judgement. We look up the airplanes performance numbers and decide the lesser of evils is to depart downwind, which the tower readily allows, there being no other traffic within 100 miles. Five minutes later, we are climbing through FL180 over SSR and turn direct to Annette Island (ANN) just south of Ketchikan, and from there to the Victoria VOR (YYJ), about 700 nm to the southeast.
We had told our passengers we would be in sunlight shortly after takeoff, but that turned out to be overly optimistic. Often in Southeast Alaska, a low-pressure system over the Gulf of Alaska to the northwest will push moist air well up into the flight levels as it comes ashore over the mountainous terrain which makes up a good deal of the area. Finally, climbing through FL360 we get ourselves clear of all the cloudy mess and potential ice to see the promised sunlight. The passengers, however, are not paying any attention as they are lost in the box of fresh apple strudel and hot coffee we had boarded earlier. An hour later, we pass over Victoria, BC, set up for the GPS approach into our home airport, break out at 4,000 feet and land without a problem.
The warm cabin has dried out our passengers and having eaten their fill of strudel, they are feeling much better about life as we pull up to our home FBO’s door. They energetically haul out their suitcases from the back, while the line guys start to unload the fish boxes from the baggage compartment. There are a dozen or so boxes each with blue “Fresh Alaska Fish” signage on them, and labeled with the passengers name, which they each promptly carry out their cars. Everyone departs for home, leaving one unclaimed fish box sitting on the ramp alone. Upon inspection, it has “PILOTS” written on it. Apparently the “fish box tax” is about 8 percent, and it seems to actually work. Maybe I didn’t need to buy that extra fish that I left in the old freezer after all.