This article is geared toward flights between the "lower 48" and Alaska. It is a collection of ideas from a flight service station specialist who is also a pilot, but it is not intended to be a comprehensive guide for flying to Alaska.
Any links provided to websites outside the faa.gov domain are for informational purposes only and their accuracy has not been verified. An additional resource is the AOPA flight planning section. AOPA Flight Planning - Alaska.
Thorough planning is a must for anyone planning a flight to Alaska. You may be flying through foreign airspace to get there, so you will need to know about Canadian regulations and procedures for both aeronautical and customs purposes. You may be flying over mountainous terrain and vast wilderness areas where no services are available at many airports (including fuel, food and lodging). Survival gear is required by regulation both in Canada and in Alaska. You will need to know what items are required, although they are no longer listed in the Alaska Supplement. Here is a link to a website that has information on these regulations as well as some other tips on survival gear: Equipped To Survive.
Unless you are just overflying Canada without landing, you will need to clear customs in Canada and again in the U.S. Passports are required for everyone at all ages on board the aircraft. Passport cards are not sufficient, you must have the passport book. The pilot is also required to present their pilot certificate, medical certificate, restricted radio telephone operator permit, aircraft radio station license and aircraft registration (temporary registration not acceptable). A restricted radio telephone operator permit and aircraft radio station license are required for international flight even though they are not required anymore for flights within the U.S. There may be other requirements as well.
Fees are charged in both countries. Flight plans with ADCUS in remarks are no longer an acceptable means of notification for flights between Canada and the U.S. in either direction. Canada uses one phone number for all general aviation customs requests nationwide, which is 888-CANPASS (266-7277). An alternate local Victoria, BC local phone number is 250-363-0222. They will handle requests for all of western Canada, west of the Ontario/Manitoba border, and possibly other parts of Canada as well.
All U.S. Customs notifications must now be submitted electronically through a system known as eAPIS. A list of detailed passenger information is required. Notification is required not only for arrivals to, but also for departures from the U.S. and you must also receive authorization from U.S. Customs prior to departure regardless of whether you are inbound or outbound. If you are inbound to the U.S., you must also call the destination customs office by telephone to coordinate your arrival.
Other details are available in these links:
Flight Plans, User Fees and Insurance in Canada
It's required to file a flight plan in Canada for most flights, but it's also recommended in Alaska.
Expect user fees in Canada. All Canadian Air Traffic Control including Flight Information Centers (FICs) and Flight Service Stations (FSSs) are operated by a private company known as Nav Canada and they charge for their services. Nav Canada Flight Service Stations (FSSs) have mostly been replaced by Flight Information Centers (FICs). FICs provide essentially the same services as a FSS in the U.S. The Canadians consolidated their FSSs into FICs just like we consolidated FSSs into Automated Flight Service Stations (AFSSs), however the FAA has discontinued using the term AFSS in the U.S. and now refers to those facilities as simply Flight Service Stations (FSSs). There are some Canadian FSSs still open, but they do not provide pilot briefing services.
There is another type of facility known as a Community Aerodrome Radio Station (CARS), but they are not operated by Nav Canada. They only provide Airport Advisory Service for the airport on which they are located. Unlike the U.S., however, at most locations the use of Airport Advisory Service, if available, is mandatory even for over flights. This is indicated in the Canadian Flight Supplement as Mandatory Frequency (MF) and is provided by both FSS and CARS facilities. A description of the MF area will be included, for example; 5NM 5200 ASL. Translated that means within 5 Nautical Miles at or below 5200 ASL (same as MSL).
Nav Canada charges user fees and more information is available at their website. Also be aware that there are insurance requirements in Canada including a requirement to carry proof of insurance.
There are more similarities than differences between U.S. and Canadian flight procedures, but you will need to know what the differences are. You will also need to know the requirements for crossing the border on both ends. There are also some areas, especially along the coast, where you could enter an ADIZ which may require a DVFR or IFR flight plan although most common routes do not cross any ADIZ.
- AVweb Article - Differences in Canadian and US Procedures
- Transport Canada - Canadian Aviation Regulations
Be sure to check all NOTAMs, including those published NOTAMs in the Notices To Airmen Publication (NTAP), the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD), the Canadian Flight Supplement and the Alaska Supplement.
You will be flying through areas where most airports do not have fuel. It is recommended that you contact each fuel provider personally to verify that they do have fuel and find out what forms of payment they accept.
You should also consider how you would handle a mechanical break down on such a flight. It gets very expensive when you have to fly in a mechanic and parts from hundreds of miles away. Especially if multiple trips become necessary. You should have some extra funds and time available to cover unexpected problems.
Commonly Used Routes
There are four commonly used routes between the lower 48 and Alaska. They are known as; the Alaska Highway or ALCAN Highway Route, the Trench Route, the Cassiar Highway Route and the Coastal Route. The Trench Route and the Cassiar Highway Route both lead into the ALCAN Route at Watson Lake (if you are northbound).
The coastal route is the most likely to have the poorest weather because of the available moisture and the fewest options for landing, especially emergency landings.
Staying close to a highway is considered to be a great advantage. Often the highway may be the best option for an emergency landing and even if you don't land on the highway, being close is still a huge advantage. It would mean faster and easier access for rescue workers and the option of hiking out to the highway if you decided to, but weigh your options carefully before you decide that. In most cases it is recommended to stay with aircraft and wait for rescue. Alaska Canadian VFR Route Map (PDF)
Charts and Publications
Do a lot of planning. Be sure to buy all your charts and supplements before you start your trip. They are very difficult to obtain en route. In addition to all the charts for your route, you should have a copy of the Canada Flight Supplement and the Alaska Supplement, which is similar to the Airport Facility Directory.
These supplements contain information on many airports plus a lot of other helpful information. Information on this and a lot of other special procedures are contained in the back sections of the Alaska Supplement.
Anyone planning flight to Alaska should study these free online resources carefully. You should also have a paper copy with you in the aircraft. Information on these supplements are generally found in the same place you find information on aeronautical charts.
Canadian Aeronautical Charts are produced and printed by NAV CANADA. To learn more about Canadian Aeronautical Charts, go to the NAV CANADA Publications page. To learn about U.S. Aeronautical Charts and see a list of chart agents, go to: Aeronav Products - Catalog of Products.
Alaska Airports and Runways
Few airports in Alaska are hard surface outside the larger cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks. Gravel is the most common runway surface, so keep that in mind.
Another consideration is the suitability of certain airports for public use. There are some airports in Alaska that are operated by the military and are not open to the public except with prior permission which usually has to be requested either 15 days or 30 days in advance at a minimum. That information will be clearly indicated in the Alaska Supplement and is not too much different from the rest of the U.S. What is a little different is that in Alaska the military airport may be the only airport in the area. In most of the U.S. you would be able to find another airport that is open to the public within a few miles of the military airport.
Some airports, even some that are listed in the Alaska Supplement, are private and not open to the public. There are some airports that require prior permission to land even though they are a public airport. The Alaska Supplement will show that information in the remarks section of the airport data.
Most of the smaller airports post a remark that the airport is unattended, the runway condition is not monitored, and visual inspection is recommended prior to using. Often there may be personnel and equipment working on a runway that has not been closed.
If you are an AOPA member, there is an online mountain flying course you can take for free at: AOPA online safety courses. There are various flight schools that offer mountain flying courses that include actual mountain flying.
Allow extra time for weather delays. Always review the weather forecasts before your flight. Contact the Flight Service Station and get a thorough preflight weather briefing before the flight.
Some additional weather resources include:
- Weatheroffice (Canadian Government Website)
- Canadian Aviation Weather (NAV CANADA)
- Canadian Aviation Weather Services Guide (NAV CANADA)
The following websites provide aviation weather data mainly for the U.S. portions of the route. The FAA has a successful weather camera program in Alaska.
- Aviation Weather Center
- Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU)
- FAA Alaska Weather Cameras
- NWS - Alaska Region (Non-Aviation)
Additional resources that will help you plan a flight to Alaska or within Alaska:
- Northway - Gateway to Alaska
- Alaska Supplement
- Lookup Location Identifiers
- Notice to Airmen Publication (NTAP)
- Fairbanks FSS Frequency Card (PDF)
- Air Traffic Control in Alaska
- U.S. Air Traffic Publications
- Transport Canada - Aeronautical Information Manual
- Guide to Bush Flying by F.E. Potts
Last updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2022