The Problem with Juneau

The Problem with Juneau

The Problem with Juneau

I am sitting in the left seat of a King Air 300 simulator configured for the Runway 08 departure from the Juneau Airport (PAJN) in low IFR conditions. I have the power up and the airplane rolling only to find the simulator (unlike a real King Air) has more rudder pedal sensitivity than a Pitts Special in a 30-knot direct crosswind. I nearly hit a couple of runway lights (luckily you don’t have to pay for them in the simulator) before I get the hang of the thing, and then concentrate on the real task at hand – avoiding terrain on all quadrants by making an immediate right 180-degree turn after liftoff. Sitting to my right is Scott, who is acting as the PNF (pilot not flying) and behind him is Spence Campbell, our Aviation Training Center sim instructor. We just finished a long morning of ground school and are beginning an afternoon of simulator training. If all goes well, at the end of the day, we will be certified to use the FAA’s Special Approach Procedure into Juneau. The simulator cockpit is already as hot as a sauna; it’s going to be a long afternoon.

Juneau is a unique airport with some real issues from a pilot’s perspective. The city is the capital of Alaska and conducts all kinds of important business. It is the only state capital in the mainland U.S. where you can only arrive by boat or airplane and the boat trip takes a long time. The town is located on a saltwater inlet with the Gulf of Alaska and the entrance to Glacier Bay sitting off the to the west. To the east is a range of mountains that go up to about 10,000 feet and a narrow fjord (Lynn Canal) that terminates in Skagway, the town of gold rush fame. The airport sits on reclaimed land northwest of the city, but due to the surrounding terrain, does not offer a straight-in instrument approach. 

To make matters worse, a series of low-pressure systems are constantly being formed nearby in the Gulf of Alaska due to the way the planet turns and tilts during the fall and winter months. One after another, they then move to the east carrying a great deal of moisture. The systems pass over the towns to the west such as Sitka which sits on the shore of the Gulf, but then gets stuck in the vicinity of PAJN because of the rising terrain to the east. This results in Juneau seeing 236 days of rain per year, whereas the average U.S. city sees 206 days of sunlight (Juneau locals joke that it rains 250 days per year and snows the rest). The city is also located at 58 degrees north – nearly two-thirds of the way to the North Pole, which translates to very short days and long nights in the winter.

If you are a professional pilot flying business jets in the Northwest, it is inevitable you will visit Juneau because of client needs and lack of other access. You also know, at best, the weather is going to be marginal VFR (typically 1,500 and 3) with the surrounding terrain and lack of ground equipment making standard straight in 200 and half-mile ILS type approaches not possible. In spite of the city’s importance, there are only two instrument approach procedures into the airport: an LDA X and an RNAV/GPS both to Runway 08. There are no approaches from the east to Runway 26 because mountains are in the way. Of the two normal published approaches, the RNAV has the lowest minimums, which are 1,900 and 2, with the missed approach point 2.2 miles from the runway. The final approach course is 069 degrees, but the runway is 080. All of this means that even on a good day, you will break out of the clouds at the missed approach point (MAP) at only 2.2 miles from the runway and not lined up. In a 130-knot jet that is less than one minute from touchdown, yet the airplane is still at 1,900 feet with the runway nearly at sea level.

Given that kind of approach and the prevailing weather for most of the year, it is challenging to get into PAJN in anything but a float plane at 200 feet above the water. So, the FAA has devised a “Special Approach Procedure” that as you may have already guessed, requires specialized training, a simulator check ride and special pilot certification. It is for this reason that following my erratic takeoff, I am now banging around just west of the Barlow intersection heading for the Sisters VOR (SSR) to demonstrate my airborne prowess at making the special LDA-Z approach to Runway 08.

The IFR minimums for this “special” approach are 1,020 feet and 2 miles if the airplanes final approach speed is 120 knots or less, and 1,540 and 3 if between 120 and 140 knots. The missed approach point is Cochlan Island (CGL) which is still 3.2 miles from touchdown. Now, if you have been reading carefully, you will have noted that a 2-mile minimum visibility is required, but the MAP is 3.2 miles from the runway…how does that work? When at CGL, what you are required to see is not the runway per se, but the strobe lights (JNUA RLLS) well to the west of the runways approach end. And to make sure you are not confusing the strobes with someone’s house light, you are required to see two of them.

So, back in the simulator now, I have not seen the ground since 100 feet after takeoff. We have arrived at the Sisters VOR (SSR), turned around in the holding pattern at 5,600 feet and are headed 007 on the NoPT (no procedure turn) transition back to the LYNNS intersection. At LYNNS, we turn right 64 degrees to 071, which is the final approach course. From there, we descend to 3,500 feet to the BARLO intersection, then to 1,020 feet until reaching the MAP at CGL. The tricky part is that we have no certainty if the simulator has been set to barely let us see the strobes at CGL or if they will be hidden by weather, in which case we will promptly have to execute a rather unusual missed approach. If doing 120 knots at CGL, we will have less than 5 seconds to make that determination. It is how pilots handle that brief time interval and the maneuver which follows that determines if they get the approval or not. Proceeding
further toward the runway places one in a canyon from which a turnaround in IMC conditions without hitting terrain is nearly impossible. Hitting the nearby mountainside at 120 knots would (and has) kill all onboard.  

As we start down on the approach leg on heading 071, I tell Scott sitting to my right that I will be “eyes in” and he is “eyes out.” If he does not see the strobes at CGL, I will immediately execute a missed approach with the required 30-degree banked right-hand turn and start a climb. The other requirement is that the airspeed is kept down because if allowed to get too high, it would increase the radius of the turn which would result in crashing into the mountains that are invisible in the clouds just to the southwest. I am paying close attention as the ADF needle set on CGL twitches slightly and cannot help but ask, “See anything, Scott?” His reply is a discouraging, “Nothing, still looking.” 

A depiction provided in ground school of the terrain surrounding PAJN, which is shown in red. The red is what you will hit on a Runway 08 IMC departure or missed approach if you do not stay tight to the airport. The desired path is the yellow one. In a Lear 45, this requires a 30-degree bank, flaps at 20 degrees and speed no more than 140 knots.

A couple of seconds later, the ADF swings through 90 degrees to the left indicating we are passing CGL. Scott calls out “no lights,” and I say “missed approach” and immediately roll into the required right-hand turn in a 30-degree bank, pitch up to 15 degrees, push power all the way in, then slowly back it off to stay under 120 knots. I call for gear up, flaps up and ask Scott to set the heading indicator to 280. Given that a 30-degree bank puts you way over a standard rate turn, the airplane quickly arrives to the heading, at which time I change the flight director to NAV, turn on the
autopilot and fly direct to Barlow, then SSR. 

Once back at SSR and in the holding pattern, Scott and I change seats and it is his turn to play the game. I have flown into PAJN several times and the simulator visuals are quite realistic. As a result, when arriving at CGL, I know where to look, and can just barely see two strobes at about 10 o’clock. I call, “Strobes in sight.” Scott says, “Continuing” and starts a descent, being careful to stay above the 400-foot ridgeline to the west of the runway. As he slows down, he begins a slight left-hand turn to widen out our path to the runway. Finally, about 30 seconds from touchdown, the runway lights become visible and we both call out, “Runway in sight.” The simulator throttles don’t power back like a standard King Air, and as a result, we are buzzing along over the approach zone still doing 120 knots with no hope of a successful flared landing. Scott instead plants the airplane on the runway and calls for immediate reverse. Even though the rudder pedals are twitchy, he manages to get the machine stopped on the white line way down at the far end.

As we wrap up, our simulator instructor says, “You guys did a good job.” I take this to mean I did not exceed the one-mile limit from the airport, we did not hit any mountains and as a crew, we managed to make the tight weather-based “missed approach” vs. “continuing” calls successfully, then land without incident. An hour later, we leave the session with “Special Authorization Certificates” in hand.

Even though now fully “certified,” I still think that for much of the year getting into Juneau is a problem. Fly up there and try it sometime. 

About the Author

Leave a Reply