To the Top of America – 2012 Alaskan Aviation Adventure (Last Part in a Series)


Barrow in an Alaska 737-400 Combi

In planning my spotting trip to Anchorage, I had an opportunity to choose a stopover on my mileage award ticket at no extra cost. I chose the most exotic, remote, and geographically interesting destination on the Alaska Airlines route map:  Barrow.

Barrow (population 4212) is the northernmost city in the United States and is the 9th northernmost city in the world.  At latitude 71°17’N, Barrows sits well inside the Arctic Circle and is only about 1300 miles away from the North Pole.  It’s pretty easy to find Barrow on a map: it is at the top-most tip of Alaska!

As tourist facilities and attractions are limited, I decided to spend only two hours in Barrow, returning back to Anchorage on the next flight after I get there. The airport is located right off the coast of the Arctic Ocean; I planned to dip my feet there.  A few days before leaving for Barrow, however, I saw a live webcam view of the airport.  I was surprised to see snow still on the ground.  High temperature during the day was below freezing.  I was surprised!  Even for May, I thought?  I obviously did not do my research very well – apparently the shore is only thawed for two months in July and August.  It seems my plan to dip my feet in the Arctic Ocean would not materialize. 

As an added bonus, my flight to Barrow makes a stopover at Deadhorse (what a name, huh?), which is the town for Prudhoe Bay, the starting point of the Trans Alaskan Pipeline, carrying crude oil 800 miles south to Valdez. 

My flight would be flown using the 737-400 Combi, where Combi stands for combination passenger and cargo.  The forward half of the aircraft carries four LD7 containers or equivalent pallets and the rear half of the aircraft has seats for 72 passengers.  Once the cargo is loaded, there is no access between the forward and rear cabins.  Crew is a standard complement of two pilots and three flight attendants.  Passengers are served by two flight attendants aft, and the forward flight attendant, well, serves the pilots and the cargo!

Flight: AS 50, Anchorage (ANC) – Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay (SCC)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-4Q8(C)
Registration: N765AS
Delivered new to Alaska Airlines in Oct 1992.  Converted to Combi in May 2007.

Scheduled Departure-Arrival: 2:37 pm – 4:20 pm
Actual Departure-Arrival:  2:34 pm – 4:12 pm
Takeoff ANC:  2:47 pm (Runway 25L)
Landing SCC:  4:10 pm (Runway 5)
1 hr 22 min scheduled flying time
1 hr 33 min actual flying time
37 passengers (51% full)
Cruising Altitude:  30,000 feet

Flightaware flight track plotted on Google Earth:

Monitors at the gate noted below freezing temperatures at Prudhoe Bay and Barrow: 28°F (-2°C) and 24°F (-4°C), respectively.  Brrrr….

Boarding started promptly at 1:57 pm, 40 minutes before departure.  Elite passengers were called first as expected, but when general boarding started, it was for all rows and all passengers. 

I walked downstairs to the open ramp, alongside the combi, and up the rear stairs.   

A very friendly and attractive flight attendant in the galley greeted me.  I asked her whether they gave away “Arctic Circle Certificates” (I had seen them at the airline collectible shows certifying you have flown across the Arctic Circle).  She said she has never heard of such a thing.  I thanked her and continued to my seat. 

The aisle seat in my row was occupied but the middle seat remained empty.  Atmosphere on board was very friendly.  "Community” probably was a better way to describe it.  Everyone from their respective communities knew each other.  It was like riding in a school or company bus (in a way, it was). Oil workers headed to Prudhoe Bay knew each other, while folks headed to Barrow were happy to meet up with friends and neighbors.  It seemed I was the only one that didn’t know someone on the airplane.

With a light passenger load, we pushed back three minutes early.  When the crew was introduced, the forward cabin attendant was also included but was noted as “you can’t see her”.

I had a seat on the left side wanting to see Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate (as it was for the majority of my stay in Anchorage) and remained overcast for the first part of the flight.

Beverage service started shortly after takeoff; “Picnic Pack” snack boxes were available for purchase for $6.  When the cart came to my row, the flight attendant asked me what kind of arctic beverage I would like.  I laughed and asked for an arctic apple juice.  

About two thirds of way through the flight, the clouds cleared and we were over the Brooks Range.  What an awesome sight of the snowy peaks below.  

The seasoned passenger behind me, noted my interest out the window, told me once we passed the mountains, it would be tundra all the way to the Arctic Ocean.  Sure enough, the North Slope appeared suddenly.  It was just a desolate field of vast treeless nothingness covered in snow.  The tundra is described as desert of the arctic – and I can see why.  It certainly appeared to be a very inhospitable place.  

We parallel the Dalton Highway, also known as the North Slope Haul Road (Ice Road Truckers, anyone?), which parallels the Alaskan Pipeline, which parallels the Ivishak River.  

I stared out of the window in awe.  It looked like overcast sky but it was just a flat field of snow as far as the eye can see.  I imagined how difficult life must be living out here, or worse, to be stranded here.

We soon turned to the east for Runway 5 in Deadhorse.  We saw a section of the oil pipeline before the town of Deadhorse came into view, with various cranes (maybe oil rigs?) sticking high into the air.  

We quickly taxied to the Alaska Airlines terminal, and the obvious oil workers got off the plane.  I stretched my legs and took a peek out the rear door.   

After experiencing that spectacular scenery, my friendly flight attendant sensed my enthusiasm and asked the station agent whether I could go into the terminal.  The request was granted but I would have to go through security again to come back.   Not wanting to go through all that hassle, I thanked her and elected to stay on board to watch cargo being unloaded and loaded.

Note sign above the door: Deadhorse Airport, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

LD7 containers were being swiftly handled with the Volvo forklift – it was very interesting to watch.  I noticed many pallets of Coca-Cola products inside one of the containers. After each container went on board, loud thumps can be heard in the cabin as they were moved into place.  There was no doubt I was on board a cargo plane!

Passengers for the onward flight started to board about 10 minutes after arrival.  After stopping in Barrow, this flight would return to Anchorage.  I guess similar number of passengers boarded as deplaned previously, making us still about half full.

Flight: AS 50, Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay (SCC) – Barrow (BRW)
Scheduled departure-arrival: 5:05 pm – 5:54 pm
Actual departure-arrival:  4:57 pm – 5:43 pm
Takeoff SCC:  5:02 pm (Runway 5)
Landing BRW:  5:39 pm (Runway 7)
34 min scheduled flying time
37 min actual flying time
~50% full
Cruising Altitude: 28,000 feet

We powered away from the terminal eight minutes early.  We taxied to Runway 5 for a powerful takeoff run and rotation, which was surprising because I thought we had a full load up front (obviously not that full).  We turned west for Barrow.

Clouds and fog were rolling back in as we took off and pretty soon we were above the overcast again, not before getting a peek of Ugnu-Kuparuk Airport below.

On this short flight, only orange juice or water was offered (I went with the OJ).  The pilot announced that there was a 300 feet ceiling at Barrow and the temperature was a rather cool 25°F.  

While on short final, we broke through the overcast and I saw sheets of ice covering the Arctic Ocean.  It was still solid closer to shore.  Here, you can see the ocean in the distance on the horizon, while the dark line at the right is the shore.  The ice below the wing is the frozen Arctic Ocean.

We touched down a short 37 minutes after lifting off from Deadhorse.  Minutes later, we were at the Alaska Airlines terminal.  Me, along with 20 to 30 other passengers disembarked.  I thanked my friendly flight attendant for the enjoyable flight and walked down to the stairs onto the ramp.  Instead of the usual tug and baggage carts, I noticed a LD7 container and a forklift were used to collect baggage.  

I made my way into the surprisingly large terminal to find a long line waiting to go through security for the return flight to Anchorage.  I waited a few minutes to collect my checked bag (there was no carousal, the bags came out a large opening in the wall), checked-in for my flight back using the kiosk, and got in line at the ticket counter to recheck-in my bag.

The departure board showed two daily flights and a third flight on Thursdays and Saturdays.  Bright flowers decorates the signage.

The ticket counter agent also doubled as the gate agent.  The check-in line moved slowly as the agent was busily taking care of the flight about to depart.  Two ERA Aviation pilots were waiting for their standby to clear.  The agent called out “Passenger Ponts”, and one of the pilots jumped up and collected boarding passes for him and his companion.  He looked familiar – I thought he might be a pilot on the Flying Wild Alaska reality show on the Discovery Channel.  Then I saw his Hageland Aviation jacket and then I was pretty sure he was.  I almost asked him if he was on TV when he walked by me.  Fortunately, he had an easy to remember name.  Sure enough, a quick google search later confirmed my suspicion: John Ponts is the former skateboarder, now pilot, and Ariel’s love interest on the show!

As I was slowly waiting for my turn at the counter, I noticed the line for security was really the line to board the plane.  There wasn't really a “hold room” after security.  It seems as soon the inbound flight arrives, passengers are cleared through security and boards the aircraft.  As soon as everyone (and cargo) is on board, the flight departs, making an early departure a good possibility.  I confirmed this with a TSA agent, who recommended me getting back to the airport at 7:30 pm, almost 50 minutes before my scheduled departure.  With the check-in line moving ever so slowly, this was cutting into my time to walkabout the town.

Finally, with my bag dropped off, I made it out of the terminal on to the frozen tundra.  I walked west towards the Arctic Ocean, about one mile away.  The streets were not paved due to permafrost.  There was no sidewalk and water-filled potholes were everywhere.  Choosing between walking on a muddy street or snow, I chose snow.  

Near the airport, there was a small monument dedicated to American aviator Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers.  They died in August 1935 when their modified Lockheed floatplane crashed upon takeoff from a lagoon, not far from Barrow Airport today.  They were exploring air routes from the United States to Russia via Alaska.  Barrow’s airport is named after Post and Rogers.

Next to the monument, a colorful guidepost marked the way to places near and far.  North Pole is only 1311 miles from Barrow.

Transit station, all boarded up.

At the beach.  Arctic Ocean is the blue sliver in the distance, but still frozen near shore.  The beach was not very conducive to sunbathing nor dipping of feet on this day.  

Monument dedicated to a Japanese pilot and her mother who died after their Hageland Aviation Reims/Cessna 406 crashed into the Arctic Ocean in 2003 after departing Barrow.

More of the beach.  The blue building (with tour bus) at right is the Top of the World Hotel.  I think it’s the largest hotel and tour operator in town.  I went inside to find out this whalebone sculpture I wanted to see was too far away to walk to in order to return to the airport in time.  Oh well.

Love that North Slope Borough police logo!

If you are a Wells Fargo Bank customer, you will be glad to know there is a branch here.

A Presbyterian church.

Yet another guidepost near the church.  

Back to the Alaska Airlines terminal (which, by the way, is a pre-engineered metal building built in 1998).  It is worth nothing that at these Alaskan towns, each airline has its own terminal.  So for example, if you are flying on ERA Aviation, you would go to a different building along the row of hangers at the airport.  

My plane was already there; inbound flight was early.

Finally, a parting shot of me in front of the terminal.  You really could not read the GPS coordinates I was showing on my phone, you can see the screen shot below.  In case you are not familiar with your latitudes, 71° North is really far north.  90° North is the North Pole.

By the time I got inside and was ready for the security line (at 7:30 pm sharp as recommended…the scheduled departure was 8:22 pm), another guy was just going through and I was the only other person in line.  Apparently everyone else had already boarded. 

Flight: AS 52, Barrow (BRW) – Fairbanks (FAI)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-490(C)
Registration: N768AS
Delivered new to Alaska Airlines in Sept 1992.  Converted to Combi in Jan 2007.

Scheduled Departure-Arrival: 8:22 pm – 9:40 pm
Actual Departure-Arrival:  7:54 pm – 9:15 pm
Takeoff BRW:  7:58 pm (Runway 7)
Landing FAI:  9:10 pm (Runway 20R)
1 hr 15 min scheduled flying time
1 hr 12 min actual flying time
19 passengers (26% full)
Cruising Altitude:  31,000 feet

Flightaware flight track plotted on Google Earth:

The interior of this aircraft was noticeably more worn than N765AS, the aircraft I came in on.  The sidewalls were more beaten and the leather on the seats was very polished and seat cushions all had permanent butt indentations.  

The flight was very empty on this Saturday night.  I had the entire row to myself – and the row on the other side of the aisle was empty as well.  Once again, the mood onboard was very family-like.  All the passengers seemed to know each other (well, except me) and were chatting about family and community going ons.  Again, the crew was also very friendly, joining the conversation.  Overheard – some locals were going to Fairbanks for a getaway…where there are rivers and trees…and no snow!

Two more people boarded after me.  The flight attendant announced as soon as the last person boards, we would depart.  We ended up powering away from the terminal nearly 30 minutes early.

We had a full service beverage cart, I went with Coke and got a full can. The majority of the flight was overcast except for this one bit of clearing.  

When we got to Fairbanks (25 minutes early), about half of the passengers deplaned and the other half, including myself, remained onboard for the onward flight to Anchorage.  Cleaners got onboard to service the cabin and lavatories.  It appeared that empty containers were loaded upfront.  It was sprinkling and dark out so I didn’t bother sticking my head out the back door.  We were expecting a full flight to Anchorage, so all were asked to take their original assigned seats.

Flight: AS 52, Fairbanks (FAI) – Anchorage (ANC)
Scheduled Departure-Arrival: 10:20 pm – 11:13 pm
Actual Departure-Arrival:  10:02 pm – 10:50 pm
Takeoff FAI:  10:07 pm (Runway 20R)
Landing ANC:  10:47 pm (Runway 15)
48 min scheduled flying time
48 min actual flying time
62 passengers (86% full)
Cruising Altitude:  29,000 feet

This was the fullest flight of the trip – my entire row was filled. We powered away from the gate 18 minutes early.  Weather enroute was cloudy – that along with the dusky sun did not make for good sightseeing.  Once again, being a short flight, only water or orange juice was available to choose from. I had my forth Savory Snack Mix of the day.

With a Runway 15 landing at ANC, we made a short taxi to the terminal and parked at an end gate.  While walking to the terminal, I got to see some closeup action of empty containers being unloaded from my plane.  Note the sky was still bright, even at 11 pm.

Seeing the tundra and being above the Arctic Circle in a small Alaskan town was a great experience!  And it is always fun to fly in a Combi.  If I have a chance to do this again, I would spend an entire day in Barrow to see the town at its fullest – but in the summer – after all the snow has melted.


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