Part 1 of 3
All commercial flights into Castlegar British Columbia had been cancelled for the past week except for the one day we flew in and even then we had to dive through a hole in the clouds (power off in a full sideways slip). The problem is that the 10 day forecast called for rain and snow each and every day. It appeared we may be there until April.
I’ve flown to Utah and Colorado many times in the winter for skiing – sometimes a challenge – but I’ve always wanted to fly to British Columbia for some of the famous powder skiing. The plan would be to have the time to fly up in a nice weather window, get snowed in for a few days or a week, then grab a nice weather window and fly out. Turns out that isn’t possible.
That isn’t entirely correct because we (my friend Graeme and I) actually did it, but we barely pulled it off and I may have, possibly, but maybe not, flew VFR in clouds. Flying instruments would have been very useful except for one thing – icing. The freezing level in the entire Nelson, BC area is basically ground level, meaning if you are in the clouds you have risk of icing. So the plan was not to fly in clouds.
The trip up to BC was the first challenge. The forecast called for clear weather all the way up, and it wasn’t. We gradually got into misty weather. I climbed to 17,500 feet to get above it but couldn’t, so I returned to about 10,000 feet to fly under. The next three hours were spent dodging snow flurries and going from small town to small town, prepared to land if needed. The visibility was around 20-30 miles which usually is pretty comfortable but in the middle of nowhere in eastern Oregon among the mountains it definitely wasn’t comfortable. However I always had an “out”, of either an airport within reach or a clear shot to the east.
We continued to weave around weather and mountains and was relieved to have the weather open up just south of Spokane in eastern Washington. Spokane was our alternate and I made note that it was clear (it fogs over often in the winter) and we proceeded to fly between multiple cloud layers into British Columbia. Castlegar (un-affectionately called Cancelgar by locals) is at the confluence of the dammed Columbia and Slocan rivers, which creates a persistent low cloud layer over the airport, which is nestled in mountains.
There is one instrument approach into Castlegar and it ends at 4,380 feet above the runway! That is nuts. It means the pilot, at the end of approach guidance, has to be able to ensure a clear-of-clouds path and then circle down into the valley to the runway. It is common for outgoing passengers to look up and see their plane fly by but never land. It is also apparently common for the planes (and the tower) to define “clear-of-clouds” differently than, say, all the other airports I’ve landed at.
I did screw up a little. I had a static problem on my radios caused by the ice crystals we had flown through earlier and I had the volume turned down. All the way down. I made a radio call coming into Castlegar 25 miles out, 15 miles out and 5 miles out but never heard a response. Wow, I thought, I guess the weather is so bad they went home. It looked like it was fully clouded over but when we got over the airport Graeme spotted the runway. I did a tight circle back, dropped the gear, pulled the power and went into a slip into the hole and onto the runway. Whew, we made it.
I pulled into the one FBO, Brilliant Aviation and it looked closed. But soon a guy came out with a phone and handed it to me “The tower wants to talk to you”. Uh oh. That can’t be good. The tower told me he clearly heard my radio calls but I wouldn’t respond. I immediately realized the problem and told him. He was fine with it so I really didn’t get into trouble but I hate – all pilots hate – making mistakes like that.
As we got our rental car the hole actually opened up and a commercial flight came in and left – turns out the only day in two weeks. I guess I should have done some research because next time (although next time I’ll drive up) I’ll go to Cranbrook. I should note you do have to land at an official airport of entry so you can’t just land anywhere.
Even though I’m back home now writing this, I just now went to the Castelgar airport website and grabbed this webcam shot. Yep, that’s the place.
In Part 2 of 3, we ski.