Cold Bay: The Best Surprise So Far

Friday, September 06, 2013
Cold Bay, Alaska, United States
It was back to just the two of us: me and Johannes. We knew John wouldn't be in to his shop until late in the morning so for the 3rd day we went to our same quaint breakfast diner. It had that lovely US backcountry town feel with magnetic letters making up the menu and a nice old lady bringing free refills on the bottomless cup of coffee. From there we changed big bills into singles (something that in Germany would be a pain but here was aged up with a smile) and ran our most important errand: grabbing a tent.

The idea of camping in Attu sounded great . Every day for months I've thought about the upcoming legs. Flying along the Aleutians is often in serious IMC conditions with low freezing levels and ice known to be particularly nasty. After leaving Anchorage our desired route would be as follows:

Day 1) Head to Cold Bay. This is the last airport westward with Avgas, the type of fuel that our piston-engine aircraft takes. The other 8 aircraft on the trip are turbines taking jet fuel, which is available much more prevalently worldwide outside the US, Europe, and Asia since this is the same fuel of the airline jets. We know we'll often have issues with fuel, so topping off in Cold Bay was a must. Cold Bay is also still on the mainland, so we anticipated being able to get some food supplies there.

Day 2) Fly to Adak. This is the last civilian inhabited island in the Ale
Aleutians. It used to be a US military base with more than 10,000 troops, a
McDonalds, high schools, etc . Now about 300 people live there. It's a modern-day ghost town and I am voyeristically looking forward to checking it out.

Day 3) Fly to Attu and ferry fuel over. Attu is literally at the end of the world. It's the western most island in the US, completely uninhabited, and has a runway that hasn't been maintained since the Coast Guard pulled out of there in 2010. We'd be ferrying fuel to there that we'd pre-ordered to Adak. We had 150 gallons shipped to Adak from Seattle in drums. The idea was to take out Maggie's seat and make room for fuel canisters that I'd ferry over to Attu before returning for an overnight again in Adak.

Day 4) This day should have us waking up early, flying to Attu, refueling, and then making the long jump to Japan. The problem is, normally the fog doesn't lift from Attu until after the morning. With it being uncontrolled and I maintained, there are no longer instrument approaches into Attu . It's VFR only, meaning it can only be flown into with good weather, and that's a rarity this far north in the Pacific. We didn't want to overfly the Pacific and land in Japan at night, but I never really thought there was going to be a different option. That is, until our meeting last night...

Jan, the editor of the magazine organizing this trip, said that they were now also going to fly from Attu to Japan so they could ferry over some of the fuel for us. This eliminated the need for us to ferry the fuel over ourselves, which I was extremely grateful for. I wasn't looking forward to flying over the Atlantic alone in a plane filled with fuel canisters! That thought had been causing considerable stress on me for months. Jan also informed us that one of the other planes in the group, a Cessna 210 Silver Eagle, was going to fly to Attu and then camp there before flying to Vladivostok the following morning. And so the idea of camping was born!

A brief note: This was also going to be our first experience of what I'm sure would be many instances of how our trip was going to be a completely different adventure from the others traveling in the "group" . With their planes taking jet fuel, they could be far more flexible. They also were all flying in pressurized cabin planes, meaning they were always flying above Maggie's 25,000' ceiling. Add to that that we'd be on average 100 knots slower and have less range, and it becomes apparent that we're going to be largely left to our own devices on the trip. While this trip is coordinated by the German magazine "Pilot & Flugzeug" and that's what spurred everything from my interest to the purchase of Maggie, we were told that each plane does this on their own and no crew waits for the other. As the classic example in this case, all but Jan's plane (a Cheyenne) were going to fly via Vladivostok to refuel. Since they don't have avgas and don't accept shipments of it, we knew from the get-go our only option would be a long jump of 1500 nautical miles from Attu to Japan.

Knowing all of this yet very excited by the adventurous way we were going about this whole trip, we were happy to find ourselves in an outdoor supply shop picking up a tent, sleeping bag, and mats . We also ran some errands for Jan picking up empty fuel canisters for this whole ferry flight endeavor and dropping off a couple bags of unneeded supplies to the kind BrĂ¼ning family that a going to take it in their King Air. Every bit of weight and room we could spare would be helpful for the upcoming Pacific crossing.

Meeting up with John and picking up Maggie went without a hitch. It was reassuring to have ensured Maggie was in top shape for this most ambitious part of our entire trip. After topping off the tanks with what was the cheapest fuel of the entire trip ($5.71 per gal) we set off on this next portion of the adventure. I felt that after Anchorage we were really setting off on our own and that we were now getting seriously adventurous. Up to now I felt in my comfort zone flying in the comfortable environs of radar controlled airspace, friendly controllers I could understand, and weather that wasn't too predictable. From now on though, each of those elements would stop dropping off . First the weather, then the radar controlled environments, and finally the rapport and language comfort of flying in North America.

As if on cue for those thoughts, the weather in Anchorage wasn't sunny and balmy. We were in the clouds shortly after takeoff and icing became a possibility. Fortunately we largely avoided it and it wasn't the most strenuous cruise. The weather in Cold Bay though was going to be overcast until 600' above ground, so I'd be earning my beer tonight with an instrument approach. Everything went without a hitch. Cold Bay airport is an interesting facility in that it doesn't have a control tower, but it does have a remote communications station so you communicate with folks tucked hundreds of miles away in Anchorage and Kenai as though they were next door.

Cold Bay instantly reminded us of Iqaluit. It doesn't have paved roads, the buildings leave lots to be desired, and you could tell it'd seen better days . This used to be a giant military base even during WWII. Now it s home to just 70 people. Coincidentally a small airline flying Senecas happen to a flight landing right after us, so at least there were a couple folks at the airport from whom we could ask advice. They told us the only place to be in town s the Bearfoot Inn. And not only was this a hotel, but it was also the only restaurant, bar, grocery store, and liquor store in town. We laughed, set our expectations low, and went across the street to the fabled Bearfoot Inn.

After a call to the number on the door we were met by Chris, a bear of a man with a killer handshake and a warm smile. He and his wife showed us the small rooms and they would do perfectly. What blew us away though is when they opened the door to their grocery store. This was one of the biggest surprises of my life, let alone the trip. In this nondescript double-wide trailer of a building was a legit small-town grocery store complete with walk-in refrigerator and freezer rooms! We were blown away by the selection . It was no Whole Foods, but given how low our expectations were, we were floored.

Chris told us to wait 30 more minutes until he would open the bar and then we'd be even more surprised. Hands down this was the most fun night of the trip. The beers were flowing and with about 25 folks there it had a healthy percentage of the town under one roof. There was pool, a Wii, foosball, music, ambience and plenty of drunk folks. Hilarious. We made plenty of friends as the night wore on. It was such an interesting mix of vacationers, hunters, white & blue collar folks, indigenous, you name it. It was seemingly a perfect slice of Alaska. To add to the stereotype, they only had meat on the menu so I had chicken on my pizza. That was about the only downer to the night.

As we made a habit of doing, Johannes and I had to laugh about all that we were experiencing on this trip.

Routing from Merrill (PAMR) to Cold Bay (PACD):
ENA V46 CDB at 14,000' with a flight time of just under 4h20m.
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