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. I am just giving some highlights with a lot of helpful links to other websites that give more details. Our Alaskan Regional Office has also put together a collection of helpful information which is actually more extensive than what I have compiled here on this page. You will find a link to that content located on the far left side of this page labeled, "Flying to AK."
Please check out the rest of this page as well though, as I believe the regional office and myself have each included information the other did not, there may be some duplication, but there are many differences too. Any links provided to websites outside the faa.gov domain are for informational purposes only and their accuracy has not been verified. I want to be clear that we are not recommending one company or organization over another, but it took me many hours to locate the websites I found, so I have included links to many of them here as a convenience to you. The most comprehensive website I have found by far is in the AOPA flight planning section. AOPA Flight Planning - Alaska.
It is probably an understatement to say that thorough planning is a must for anyone planning a flight to Alaska, especially if it is the first time doing so. First of all, you will be flying through foreign airspace to get here, so you will need to know about Canadian regulations and procedures for both aeronautical and customs purposes. You will 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. I was unable to find an official government website that gives details on that, but here is a link to a website that claims to have 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 definitely 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). If this number does not work for any reason, from a satellite phone for example, use the Victoria, BC local phone number 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.
U.S. Customs have major changes in notification procedures that became mandatory 05-18-2009 for private non-commercial aircraft operations. All notifications must now be submitted electronically through a system known as eAPIS. A lot more information is now required, including a list of detailed passenger information. Notification is required not only for arrivals to, but also for departures from the U.S. and not only do you have to notify customs, but you must also receive authorization from U.S. Customs prior to departure regardless of whether you are inbound or outbound. These requirements do not replace any other requirements, they are in addition to all other requirements. If you are inbound to the U.S., you must also call the destination customs office by telephone to coordinate your arrival.
The requirement to submit notifications electronically has been quite a challenge for some pilots since internet access is not available in some areas. I can tell you from experience that virtually no services are available in Northway, AK for example. There are a lot of other details you need to know as well. Check out these links for more information:
Flight Plans, User Fees and Insurance in Canada
It would be hard to overemphasis the importance of filing a flight plan for every flight both in Canada and Alaska. It is required in Canada for most flights but it is also urgently recommended in Alaska. Your chances of survival are probably near zero if you go down and no one is looking for you.
Expect user fees in Canada. All Canadian Air Traffic Control including Flight Information Centers (FIC's) and Flight Service Stations (FSS's) are operated by a private company known as Nav Canada and they charge for their services. Nav Canada Flight Service Stations (FSS's) have mostly been replaced by Flight Information Centers (FIC's). FIC's provide essentially the same services as a FSS in the U.S. The Canadians consolidated their FSS's into FIC's just like we consolidated FSS's into Automated Flight Service Stations (AFSS's), however the FAA has discontinued using the term AFSS in the U.S. and now refers to those facilities as simply Flight Service Stations (FSS's) again. There are some Canadian FSS's still open, but they do not provide pilot briefing services, they mainly just do Airport Advisory Service.
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).
I am not sure if it is absolutely required to use Nav Canada services on every flight, but I suspect it is, or at least it would seem unavoidable. An active flight plan is required crossing the border and is also required for VFR cross country flights within Canada. U.S. FSS's are not allowed to accept VFR flight plans departing Canada, so if you are landing in Canada, you are legally required to file a flight plan with Nav Canada at some point.
We do sometimes see light aircraft overfly Canada VFR from Haines to Northway, or some similar route, without landing in Canada. There is no requirement to clear customs or file eAPIS on such a flight. I don't know if it's required to contact Nav Canada on such a flight, but it's certainly recommended. You may recall the disclaimer we use for international flights to check data as soon as practical after entering foreign airspace as our international data may be inaccurate or incomplete. You never know when there could be a Temporary Flight Restriction or some other important information you need to know for the Canadian portion of your route.
Also, round robin flight plans departing the U.S. are prohibited if you are landing in Canada. For example, a flight departing Eagle, AK with a landing in Dawson City, YT returning to Eagle, AK can not be filed on a single flight plan. You would have to file a flight plan with a U.S. FSS to Dawson City. Then file a flight plan with a Canadian FIC from Dawson City back to Eagle. You would also need to file an eAPIS notification and receive authorization for both flights and clear customs on both flights. It is perfectly legal however, if you are not landing in Canada, to file a VFR flight plan to depart Eagle, AK, fly over Dawson City, YT without landing, then return to Eagle all on a single flight plan without clearing customs or filing eAPIS. There is a requirement to activate the flight plan(s) in either case however.
The Nav Canada user fees are actually pretty low for light single engine aircraft. The fees are charged per quarter, meaning: January-March, April-June, July-September or October-December. If you have good timing you may only need to pay for one quarter. If your timing is not that good you will need to pay for two quarters. Check out their website for fee information: NAV CANADA - Service Charges. 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, not only the NOTAMs you get from your friendly neighborhood FSS, but also the published NOTAMs in the Notices To Airmen Publication (NTAP), the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD), the Canadian Flight Supplement and the Alaska Supplement. At the time of this writing there are several published security NOTAMs in the NTAP you need to make sure you are aware of. Many of these are located in the FDC General NOTAMs section.
I want to discuss two of the many requirements in these NOTAMs at the time of this writing. First you must be on an active flight plan while crossing any international border. This can be VFR, DVFR or IFR. Second, when crossing the border between the lower 48 and Canada, the aircraft must be equipped with a mode C or mode S transponder, the pilot must continuously squawk an ATC assigned squawk code and maintain two-way communications with ATC while crossing the border. Between Canada and Alaska, north of the fifty-fourth parallel, you must be on an active flight plan but you are not required to be transponder equipped. If you are transponder equipped you are required to squawk 1200 crossing the border if you are VFR. These procedures may be subject to change at any time, so be sure to check the latest NOTAM's immediately prior to flight.
A pilot can apply for a waiver to the transponder requirement. To apply, the pilot fills out the same application as he would for flying over a stadium, so don't be confused about the fact that there is no mention of a no transponder waiver on the login page. After you get through the first couple of pages in the application process you will be able to select "no transponder" waiver. The application does need to be filled out well in advance as it takes 5-7 days for processing if there are no complications. You do not need a waiver for the Canada/Alaska border. For more information on waivers see TSA General Aviation Airspace Waivers.
Canadian ELT Requirements
You likely will soon need a 406 MHZ ELT installed in order to fly through Canada to Alaska. You will need to research the details on that. For more information see Special Notices.
I also want to emphasize the importance of fuel planning. 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. I have heard, for example, that some airports only accept one type of credit card such as VISA but not Maser Card or vise versa. I have also heard of airports that run out of fuel and don't get another load in for a week or more.
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. Bottom line, 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 Cassiar Highway Route is basically a loop off the Trench Route. It branches off the Trench Route at Prince George and rejoins it and the ALCAN Highway Route at Watson Lake.
Generally the farther east the route is, the safer it is considered to be. 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. Keep in mind if you are not near the highway, it's just you and the bears hanging out together. Well … there are the mosquitoes and moose too. 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. Most airports in Alaska do not sell charts. I worked Northway FSS one season and saw a few pilots trying to find charts but they were not available. 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. For example, 14 CFR Part 93 contains Special Air Traffic Rules for both Anchorage and Ketchikan. Information on this and a lot of other special procedures are contained in the back sections of the Alaska Supplement.
Do you know what a mandatory frequency is, or a danger, restricted or advisory area is in Canada? The Canada Flight Supplement contains information on that.
Anyone planning flight to Alaska should study these resources carefully and they are available free online, although 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. The only two distributers of Canadian Charts in the U.S. that have a website listed at the time of this writing are Sporty's Pilot Shop and Aircraft Spruce & Specialty Co which are also two of the many chart agents for U.S. Aeronautical Charts. 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. I know outside Alaska, pilots avoid gravel like the plague, but up here, gravel is very common. Some precautions are probably appropriate and I will pass along some ideas I have heard from other pilots although I have no personal experience to confirm how well they work.
Use the least amount of power you can to get moving as you are more likely to pick up stones when you are not in motion and/or have a tailwind. Try to avoid making complete stops especially with a tailwind. If you have sufficient runway length, advance the throttle slowly on takeoff so as to pick up speed before reaching full power. Try to avoid making 180 degree turns during taxi. Some suggestions I have heard, such as doing a run-up during taxi or takeoff roll would certainly have the potential to compromise safety, so I do not want to make any statements for or against those ideas. However, a propeller damaged by stones can also be one of the most dangerous situations an aviator can face, so it's not clear to me what is the safest way to do a run-up and it may involve other factors as well.
Aircraft with greater clearance between the propeller and the ground are at less risk of picking up stones, therefore tail wheel aircraft have an advantage. Many aircraft in Alaska, both tail wheel and tricycle gear, are equipped with larger than standard tires which are also helpful. I would assume installing larger tires requires some sort of special approval, but that's not my area of expertise.
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. Not so in some parts of Alaska.
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, so watch out for that. Your visual inspection of the airport not only lets you know the condition of the runway, but if anyone is working on the runway it also gives them a better chance to see you and get out of the way.
Native Villages and Alcohol
There are also some airports at native villages that are listed as public airports but the residents are not very friendly to outsiders. You would probably need to talk to some local pilots to find out more about that. Many villages also prohibit alcohol and just landing at some villages with alcohol on board can result in the confiscation of the aircraft. The State of Alaska's Flying in Alaska website discusses this and more: State of Alaska Website - Flying in Alaska
If you are not already an experienced mountain aviator, you should at the very least read up on the subject beforehand. If you are an AOPA member, there is an online mountain flying course you can take for free at: AOPA online safety courses. What you really should to do though, is to take a mountain flying course that includes actual mountain flying. There are various flight schools that offer this. If you do not already have one in mind, you could do an online search. I used my favorite internet search engine and typed the phrase "mountain flying course." When I place quotes around the phrase I got 549 hits, without the quotes I got 736,000 hits, so I recommend you use quotes. It looks like there are a lot schools out there but we cannot recommend one over another.
Keep in mind you will need to allow extra time for weather delays. The chances of traveling VFR from the lower 48 to Alaska and back without any weather delays are close to zero. A day or two before the flight, I would recommend that you use the internet to get the big picture on your weather situation. Check it two or three times a day to get a feel for the trend and confidence level of the forecasts. Try to get a good idea what route you want to take before you call Flight Service because adverse weather anywhere on the route can prompt a change to the whole route and you could easily get into a lengthy briefing on the phone if you have to look at multiple routes. I hope it is obvious to you that you do need to call a Flight Service Station to get a thorough preflight weather briefing before the flight.
One frustrating thing that we deal with is the lack of aviation prog charts for Canada. Actually there are no true prog charts available at all as we know them. What is actually available is called a Graphic Area Forecast which is only valid for 12 hours from the issue time. That means that as we approach the time for this product to be updated we only have forecast data for 6 hours from the current time. There is an IFR outlook section that is valid for another 12 hours, but it is text only and is limited to IFR areas only, so all other areas are presumed to be Marginal VFR or VFR. There is no depiction of pressure patterns or fronts included for the outlook time period.
I did find some websites that provide long range non-aviation charts with weather patterns and precipitation areas which may be helpful for planning purposes only. This is data that a FSS will not have available.
For Canadian aviation weather data within 24 hours of flight time see:
The following websites provide aviation weather data mainly for the U.S. portions of the route but the Alaska charts actually do show all of the Yukon and some of British Columbia so you can get some Canadian data that way. The FAA has a weather camera program in Alaska which has been very successful. It is available on the internet and all FSS facilities in Alaska have access to it. The NWS link is non-aviation public forecast information like you would get on TV or radio.
- Aviation Weather Center
- Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU)
- FAA Alaska Weather Cameras
- NWS - Alaska Region (Non-Aviation)
I am sure you know that in the lower 48 all Flight Service Stations are now operated by Lockheed Martin. Since FSS facilities in Alaska are still operated by the FAA, we have not seen some of the changes that have taken place in the lower 48. In Alaska your phone and radio calls will not get routed to other stations like they do in the lower 48. You will always talk to a briefer that is familiar with the local area. The exception to this is if you are using a cell phone and dial the nation wide 800 WXBRIEF number, but we recommend you use our dedicated phone numbers in that case. Every Alaska FSS hub facility (FAI, ENA and JNU) has both toll free and local phone numbers that always route to that FSS. The toll free and local numbers are:
- Fairbanks FSS: 866-248-6516 / 907-474-0137
- Kenai FSS: 866-864-1737 / 907-283-7211
- Juneau FSS: 866-297-2236 / 907-789-7380
Here are some other links to resources that will help you plan a flight to Alaska or within Alaska. Check out the links along the left side of this page as well as the links below.