Up and over the Pacific! Konnichiwa Japan!

Monday, September 09, 2013
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
So this was it. This was the big day. First and foremost the weather was looking good. Some light low hanging morning clouds burned off already by the time we were eating breakfast. With some cereal, cold bottled coffee, and our stellar view alone on Attu, again we dined like royalty. Given that we opted to overnight on Attu as opposed to fly direct from Adak to Japan via Attu in one day, we weren't in too much of a hurry. Still, as we methodically went through packing up our gear and cleaning up our campsite, the task of the looming flight was palpable. 

We kept reassuring ourselves that everything was looking good and all the signs were pointing to a successful attempt . We’d left more than 100 gallons of fuel back in Adak as a back-up, so if the winds aloft proved unfavorable we could return to Adak to wait for a different day with hopefully better conditions. Still, it couldn’t possibly be any better than this. Having only been to Attu this one time and under such fine weather, it was hard to believe it could be any different. Surely if the weather was like this more often, the island would be inhabited.

Once we loaded Maggie up and fumbled with the stall warning horn to hopefully keep that tinnitus inducing shrill at bay for today’s long flight, it was time to do some introspection. We dawned our exposure suits for hopefully the last time on this adventure and each took a minute. There wasn’t really much more we could do and conditions couldn’t possibly be better, but I was still humbled and scared. The day and night on Attu had been very memorable, but it was time to set off.

We were at our weight limits so made sure we had the ability to use all of the 6000+’ if Attu’s runway if we needed it . The wind was a bit from the side, but not gusty and nothing significant. Still, I can’t remember the last time I took off without a weather update or at least a windsock. And then to do so on such a long flight without the most recent en route weather! It was the most prudent, but without our sat phone working we had to get up in the air to speak with folks. All checks were good and thankfully today we didn’t have that damn shrill alarm whistle to deal with.

The takeoff was smooth. The climb was gradual. We passed the wreckage of the C-130, this time off to our right. Then, as soon as we rounded the last hill I set course, not wanting to risk flying any further than we’d have to.

I had filed us for 8000’. As soon as we made contact with the controllers I asked for a block range of 6000’ to 10,000’ to avoid icing concerns. Surprisingly, and without any hesitation, we were granted this by the US controllers sitting somewhere near Anchorage . We climbed to 6000’ to check the winds. About 14 knots headwind. We climbed to 8000’ and then 10,000’ to do the same. We settled on 8000’ at also around 14 knots headwind. Within 15 minutes the headwind climbed to 19 knots. My stress headache picked up intensity ;-). If the winds were consistently more than 25 knots for the first couple hours we’d have to pack it up and head back to Adak.

Slowly though, the headwinds actually decreased! We started getting a healthy crosswind component from the left. Over time that crosswind moved more and more to our rear as we entered a favorable low pressure system. Before long we were looking at a tailwind! Unbelievable! We had up to 27 knots of wind at our backs! We were flying at such low power to conserve fuel to the utmost, but had ground speeds upwards of 170 knots. This was so much better than expected. My headache started to subside ;-)

Flying at this low an altitude we quickly lost radio contact . We were given satellite phone numbers for Tokyo Control, but we found the connection so inaudible that it was of little use. Much more effective was using airliners way up above to conduct relays for us. First a Korean Air airliner and then a couple United Airlines crews gave our position reports on to the necessary controllers. They asked what a plane was doing over the Pacific at such low altitudes and were pretty astounded when we told them what we were up to. On the company frequency 123.45 we were even able to football score updates. Things were looking good.

Not just the winds, but also the cloud cover was ridiculously in our favor. Icing on wings can only come about with visible moisture, so in clouds. Remarkably, we didn’t have a cloud the entire time over the Pacific. It was largely overcast below us with some high cirrus clouds thousands of feet above us; we didn’t have the various dreaded layers of stratus clouds we anticipated. That sunshine also really helped boost our spirits .

The hours went by surprisingly fast. Johannes was able to catch most of a film and I caught a bit of The Hobbit to kill some time. We ate our pre-made sandwiches, had some more snacks, and then continued to stare in awe at the gauge showing our tailwind. At this rate we’d have fuel to spare! Our destination airport, RJCC Chitose, is a healthy stretch westward into the large Hokkaido Island. We had filed more easterly Japan islands as alternates. We also had 4-5 airports in Russian airspace programmed in to the GPS as emergency alternates. Landing at these mostly abandoned airports would have meant an immense bureaucratic headache, but if the winds turned or the oil pressure dropped, better that than the wet alternative. Far off in the distance off to our right, we could even make out some of these Russian islands and their volcanoes. Just psychologically that also gave us an increased sense of security.

After only 9+ hours we could see the Japanese shoreline. It was a great feeling to be in radar contact and speaking with controllers again. I was having some incredible difficulty understanding them and quite often had to say, "Say again". Frustrating. We also had to climb over a mountain range and deal with some clouds, all this after such a long flight. Our airport is a major one with lots of traffic. By the amount we were whisked around it was obvious they didn’t know what to make of such a slow airplane wreaking havoc on their sequencing. Still, we neared the airport and didn’t have the declare the anticipated low fuel remark. We could have flown for another couple hours ;-)

Touchdown was smooth, but again communicating with ground control was interesting to say the least. This was going to be interesting. Right before switching frequencies we heard the tower controller tell a plane to go around. I hope this wasn’t caused by us, but I think it was. We were just too slow for them, and they were also too polite to tell us to expedite our approach or exit the runway immediately. Ugh. It put a small damper on what was otherwise an amazingly successful flight. Needless to say, regardless, Johannes and I congratulated each other.

Peter Steeger was our handling agent and I can recommend him to anyone traveling by small plane that direction. He had a picnic table set up for us to go through the small stack of paperwork we had to take care of. From there it was off through customs and then in a cab. Within an hour we were off to Sapporo. It was hard to comprehend. I was also asleep about halfway through the cab ride as the adrenaline wore off.

Once settled in the hotel we did a bit of a walk. Yeah, we were in Japan alright. The neon lights and onslaught of traffic was stimulation overload having just spent the previous night in Attu. Still, it was surprisingly quiet, the people watching was great, and the sense of accomplishment was high. The beer was well deserved.

Our routing:

Crossing the dateline made things interesting. We left the morning of September 8th but didn’t get in until the evening of September 9th.

Route: PLADO OLCOT 5030N0162E NIPPI 48N156E NOGAL 4430N15030E NUBDA CHE at 8000’
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Awesome. Bloody exciting read. Can't wait for the book and film!


Awesome wolf. Iam. Freaking speechless. What i dont understand is how your mooney can go so long without refueling...you are goign to have to explain. Thatnone.