Finding your way through Brooks Range mountain passes by Tom George, AOPA Alaska Regional Manager
An FAA policy change approved last November allows the use of VFR checkpoints in the vicinity of hightraffic mountain passes to improve safety. Three Brooks Range passes are the first in the country to
take advantage of this change, designed to help pilots find their way and communicate with other VFR
pilots while in confined terrain.
Major mountain passes are marked on VFR flight charts, typically with an hourglass symbol and labeled
with the name and elevation of the pass. In some cases, however, a pilot may fly upwards of a hundred
miles in confined terrain before reaching the pass and perhaps a similar distance before reaching lower
and more open terrain on the other side. With this change, we now have the ability to add additional
features on sectional charts to help while flying through these areas.
Pilots flying in the Brooks Range this summer will find a set of VFR Checkpoints added to three passes:
Anaktuvuk and Naqsralugiaq in the central Brooks Range and Carter Pass in the eastern segment of that
range. This is the result of a national working group, lead by AOPA, that reviewed Alaska mountain
passes and recommended a change to policy that allowed checkpoints to improve aviation safety.
The points selected for these passes were picked for two purposes: 1) to provide situational awareness
for VFR navigation, helping pilots know where they were along their route leading to the pass and to
note key points where decisions might need to be made, and 2) providing a set of named features that
pilots could use to make radio calls on a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) in order to reduce
the risk of mid-air collision.
Two kinds of checkpoints are used. A colocated VFR Waypoint/Checkpoint is employed as a pilot starts
toward a mountain pass route, but before entering confined terrain such as a river valley or canyon.
Depicted with the magenta flag symbol, these have a name and an identifier, such as VPHUH, and may
be found in a GPS database, using the identifier. Once inside confined terrain, however, only standard
VFR Checkpoints are used. These, also depicted with a magenta flag, only have a pronounceable name,
lack an identifier, and are not included in the GPS database.
Bettles to Anaktuvuk Pass
To illustrate how these features may be used, look at the April 20, 2023 (or later) edition of the
Fairbanks Sectional. Departing out of Bettles, the low terrain route leading to Anaktuvuk Pass is via the
John River. The chart (see Figure 1) contains a colocated VFR Waypoint/Checkpoint at Timber Creek, a
small tributary flowing into the John River. This point is before a pilot would enter confined terrain and
serves as a double check that they are in the right valley. As the valley narrows, a few miles further
upstream, ThreeTIme Mountain is depicted as a VFR Checkpoint. This landmark is easy to spot, providing
a good reference point to make a radio call on the CTAF frequency announcing position and altitude, in
case there is other traffic approaching down the valley.
Continuing up the valley, the next VFR Checkpoint is found at the Hunt Fork Lake (Figure 2). This is
about sixty miles out of Bettles and twenty-five miles from the pass. At this location, the valley splits
and, while it may seem tempting to continue up the valley to the northwest, the route to Anaktuvuk
Pass swings to the northeast. Having a positive confirmation of this location helps the pilot know when
to make that course change. Hunt Fork Lake is also used by float planes to drop off boaters that plan to
float the John River. This is another good place for a CTAF call and to be alert for other traffic.
Once through Anaktuvuk Pass, the terrain widens out rapidly and a pilot can maneuver more freely.
One last colocated VFR Checkpoint/Waypoint at Tulugak Creek signals the end of confined terrain for
Not an IFR Route
There is one word of caution about the use of VFR Checkpoints and Waypoints around mountain passes
- these are not designed to be used as IFR style point-to-point routes. They do not provide terrain
clearance and are strictly visual reference points to help with situational awareness. The network of
points also facilitates CTAF calls, which can increase your awareness of other traffic that may be sharing the airspace.
AOPA offers its thanks to the Alaska Airmen’s, other industry groups, charter and government pilots,
FAA personnel, and military representatives who served on the working group to develop this capability.
If you fly in the Brooks Range this summer, look for the addition of VFR Checkpoints on these three
passes and see if it helps as you transit through the mountains.
Tom George serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Regional Manager for
Alaska. He resides in Fairbanks and flies a Cessna 185. He may be reached at
email@example.com or 301-695-2092
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