A Ward Air seaplane takes off on July 23, 2022. Low cloud ceilings and limited visibility have scrubbed a number of flights from small airplane operators who are in the Southeast recently. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

A Ward Air seaplane takes off on July 23, 2022. Low cloud ceilings and limited visibility have scrubbed a number of flights from small airplane operators who are in the Southeast recently. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Low ceilings, low visibility: Weather interferes with flights

Persistent weather conditions can interfere with the flights that connect the Southeast.

Travelers around the small communities of Southeast Alaska may have noticed stoppages and delays in aircraft travel around the region recently and correctly attributed it to the weather.

How exactly does the weather affect flights, and what’s needed to fly safety?

“About the last week has been one of the longer stretches of low visibility and low ceiling cover that we’ve seen in years, at least for that duration of time,” said Sean Kveum, director of operations for Alaska Seaplanes, in a phone interview. “We can really only go when the weather’s good enough, when it’s safe and legal to do so.”

[Two stable following plane crash near Outer Point]

Small aircraft are often governed by visual flight rules — meaning the pilot needs to be able to see where they’re going, Kveum said. In the Southeast, especially when socked in by low clouds and fog or rain, that’s not always possible, making it unsafe to fly, Kveum said.

“Southeast Alaska is known for having a lot of misty, poor-weather days and there’s nothing but water and mountains,” Kveum said. “We do our best to move people and stuff when we can.”

That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, as the weather conditions that create the low, hazy weather are forecasted to continue, said National Weather Service meteorologist Ben Linstid.

“On the northern half of panhandle, we’ve got this onshore flow. It brings plenty of moisture in,” Linstid said in a phone interview. “It’s a positive feedback loop. We have the clouds there keeping the temperature cooler. With the cooler temperature, we get higher humidity.”

That positive feedback loop means the weather is creating the conditions it needs to persist cool, damp and cloudy, Linstid said. And it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, with Wednesday’s brief sunshine all Juneau is likely to see for a while, Linstid said. .

“That was your break (Wednesday) morning. We got another system coming in,” Linstid said. “Looking into the weekend, after this system comes by, we still have that onshore flow. There’s another system coming in Saturday night/Sunday morning.”


For planes equipped for instrument flight rules, clouds pose less of an imposition, Kveum said.

“With VFR flight, you have to have good visibility. You cannot be in a solid cloud,” Kveum said. “Whereas with IFR, you’re able to fly in the clouds, and you’re able to fly on the instruments on the aircraft to get where you’re going.”

In Southeast Alaska, shot through with its rugged mountains and fjords, the terrain often reaches through the ceilings created by the clouds.

“With VFR, you need to fly lower and stay below it and maintain good visibility all the way to your destinations which is a challenge,” Kveum said. “(In) the history of flying in Alaska and especially Southeast Alaska, many accidents are CFIT accidents — controlled flight into terrain.”

While many small planes, including Seaplanes’ seaplanes, are governed by VFR rules, others with appropriate onboard instrumentation are able to fly on instruments, Kveum said.

“The one thing we do have in our advantage is most of our wheel planes are IFR equipped,” Kveum said. “We don’t have the ability to fly the floatplanes IFR.”

Juneau’s microclimate creates unique problems for planes seeking to land at Juneau International Airport flying VFR, Kveum said.

“The problem with Juneau is you’re in this little dome here. It’ll be reporting good inside Engineer’s Cutoff but outside Auke Bay it’ll be socked in,” Kveum said. “A lot of the time it’ll look good when they launch from Haines, and by the time they get down here it’s closed back in.”

Seaplanes began a program to expand its IFR landing guides around Juneau International Airport, scheduled to be completed next year, Kveum said.

“We’re building our proprietary approaches in and out of Juneau,” Kveum said. “With those, with all the advancements in automation and whatnot, we’re able to build some of these with lower visibility and cloud clearance requirements.”


Safety is the topmost consideration when deciding whether or not to launch, Kveum said.

“We understand folks need to get where they’re going. We’re doing everything in our power to be as safe and efficient as we can,” Kveum said. “I wouldn’t want one of these guys launching out into conditions where I wouldn’t put my own family on that aircraft. The weather is what it is.”

Technology can help remove some of the guesswork leading to pilots needing to abort mid-flight, Kveum said.

Some of our float destinations, Pelican, Elfin Cove, Sitka — all of those destinations are seeing a lot more localized conditions with marine fog,” Kveum said. “We also use aviation weather cameras on the coast to help us make those go/no-go decision.”

Technology can only go so far, Kveum said, and sometimes, pilots hit bad weather and need to turn around or find somewhere else to land. Kveum mentioned a flight he flew recently to a smaller community that ended up with the plane and passengers needing to overnight in a third community since the weather was bad in both the launch and landing locations.

“Usually we’re able to make a pretty good guess based on the weather forecast. Here lately the forecasts have been really unpredictable,” Kveum said. “That’s the thing with flying in Southeast Alaska: you always want to leave yourself an out.”

Technology has made flying in Alaska safer in the last 20-30 years, Kveum said, but it’s never entirely without risk. Making good decisions with the best available weather data reduces that risk further, Kveum said.

“There were a number of accidents down in the South end here that low weather played into,” Kveum said. “But overall for Alaska, it’s definitely gotten better.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

More in News

Aurora Forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Feb. 5

Folks at the Alaska State Capitol openly admit to plenty of fish tales, but to a large degree in ways intended to benefit residents and sometimes even the fish. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
The bizarre bills other state legislatures are considering

Alaska’s Legislature isn’t mulling the headline-grabbers some statehouses have in the works.

This photo shows snow-covered hills in the Porcupine River Tundra in the Yukon Territories, Canada. In July 1997, a hunter contacted troopers in Fairbanks, Alaska, and reported finding a human skull along the Porcupine River, around 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the Canadian border. Investigators used genetic genealogy to help identify the remains as those of Gary Frank Sotherden, according to a statement Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, from Alaska State Troopers. (AP Photo / Rick Bowmer)
Skull found in ‘97 in Interior belongs to New York man

A skull found in a remote part of Alaska’s Interior in 1997… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Officer William Hicks stands with JPD Chief Ed Mercer and Deputy Chief David Campbell during a swearing in ceremony for Hicks on Thursday at the JPD station in Lemon Creek. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)
New officer joins JPD’s ranks

The Juneau Police Department welcomed a new officer to its ranks Thursday… Continue reading

These photos show Nova, a 3-year-old golden retriever, and the illegally placed body hold trap, commonly referred to as a Conibear trap, that caught her while walking near Outer Point Trail last week. (Courtesy / Jessica Davis)
Dog narrowly survives rare illegally placed trap in Juneau

State wildlife officials outlined what to do if found in similar situation

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Public defender agency to refuse some cases, citing staffing

ANCHORAGE — A state agency that represents Alaskans who cannot afford their… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police: Gift card scam connected to hoax Fred Meyer threats

This article has been moved in front of the Empire’s paywall. A… Continue reading

This is a concept design drawing that was included in the request for proposal sent out by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities seeking outside engineering and design services to determine whether it’s feasible to build a new ferry terminal facility in Juneau at Cascade Point. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
DOT takes steps toward potential Cascade Point ferry terminal facility

It would accommodate the Tazlina and or Hubbard, shorten trips to Haines and Skagway

Most Read