Learning to Fly a Float Plane in Alaska

It was my first trip to Alaska and after five days all I’d seen was the inside of the Anchorage Hilton. A business trip doesn’t allow for extended sightseeing and I was scheduled to leave for home in eight hours. What could I do in eight hours to really see Alaska? It was early May and the tourist season was a few weeks away. The weather wasn’t exactly balmy, with the temperature hovering at 40 degrees and the tops of the Chugach mountains covered in clouds as well as snow. The hotel concierge had a large rack filled with flyers advertising such diversions as the “Kenai Fijords Sightseeing Trip,” or the “Denali Bus Tour,” or the “Portage Glacier Excursion.” All of them together might have captured the essence of Alaska. But experiencing only one would be like trying to eat a single Frito: more frustrating than fulfilling.

What I really wanted to do was learn to fly a float plane. I had fallen in love with airplanes at an early age, and had actually obtained a commercial pilot’s license through the Denver University flying club while an undergraduate student. Pretty impressive, except I hadn’t piloted a plane in ten years. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to locate the wings on an aircraft, let alone remember how to fly it. Nonetheless, if a person wanted to learn float planes, this was the place. Anchorage has the largest float plane base in the world: Lake Hood, which nestles right up against Anchorage International Airport. The phrase “If not now, when?” came to mind and I reached for the yellow pages.

Considering that Alaska reportedly had more planes per capita than anywhere in the country, I was surprised that only a few flight schools were listed. Perhaps one didn’t learn to fly in Alaska. One came to Alaska after already knowing how. The first advertisement took up the whole page, and offered complete flight instruction: everything from private pilot to Airline Transport Rating. They also mentioned floats. I called them up.

“A float-plane lesson? You’re too early in the year. Lake Hood only melted a couple days ago. Most of the planes still have their skis on them. We won’t start teaching floats until the middle of the month.”

Just my luck. I was tempted to give up immediately and go for the Kenai Fijords tour, but there was one more number to try. They had a tiny ad: “Arctic Flyers — Heidi, Herman, and Rick. Specialists in Float-Ratings.”

Yes, a female pilot in the Arctic would certainly be named Heidi, although I suspected Heidi would be the last to take the skis off her plane, not the first.   I dialed the number.

“You’re in luck!” said Heidi. “They’re putting the floats on the plane right this minute. We can schedule you for three o’clock.”

No turning back now. I began to get nervous. How could I take a float plane lesson if I didn’t even remember how to fly a regular plane?

I asked the concierge for directions to Lake Hood and drove in my rental car. No reason not to check the place out ahead of time. Approaching Anchorage International I was sure I must have missed the turnoff. I was already seeing signs for passenger check-in, customs, etc. The control tower was looming directly above me. Ah, here it was. Lake Hood Drive. I turned right and in 200 yards arrived at the lake. The first thing I noticed was a large orange sign reading “Taxing aircraft have right of way.”

No problem. I would have yielded to a taxing aircraft in any event. The lake itself was obscured behind numerous building vaguely resembling hangars for light-aircraft. But there were plenty of light aircraft not in the hangars. I could see several hundred just in my present field of vision. Most still had wheel/ski combinations on, but many others were actually equipped with floats, in the water, and tied to docks. My pulse-rate increased as I drove around the lake. For a guy who’s been known to stare at a single float plane for thirty minutes, or even a picture of a float plane, this was unbelievable riches. Lake Hood contained hundreds of float planes!   And an army of mechanics was hard at work installing floats on still more. I noticed that most of the planes seemed to fall into two categories: sleek, modern, and relatively-large craft, such as Cessna 182’s and 206’s. Or tiny, almost toy-like planes such as Piper Cubs. It had never occurred to me that a plane as small as a Piper Cub could carry floats.

I had quite a bit of experience in Cessnas, but I’d never flown a Piper Cub or any other tail-dragger. I prayed that Heidi’s plane would be the kind of modern craft I was used to.

When it was time I followed the directions I’d been given for locating what I’d been told was a light blue float plane, with the number 80447 painted on the fuselage. I found it, and my heart sank. If anything this plane was smaller than a Piper Cub and I could not help but notice, to my horror, that it wasn’t even made of aluminum. This was some kind of antique thing covered with fabric!

Heidi had scheduled me to fly with Rick, and here he came now. Rick looked to be in his early thirties and had the competent air of an experienced instructor. Behind Rick was Herman, who was kind of a grizzly grandfather type with a Swiss accent. He held out his hand and nearly crushed mine as he shook it.

“I’m Heidi’s husband, he explained. “She was up all night flying a plane in from Ketchikan. Had to go right through a snowstorm so she’s pretty tired. That’s why you’re scheduled to fly with Rick.”

“I have no problem with Rick,” I explained, wanting to be cooperative. “But there’s something you guys need to know about me. Bad news and good news.”

“What’s the good news?” asked Herman, as if he could well imagine the bad.

“I’ve got a valid commercial pilot’s license with instrument and multi-engine ratings.”

“But the bad news is you’ve got no tail-dragger time,” volunteered Rick understandingly.

“No, that too,” I admitted. “But the real bad news is I haven’t touched an airplane in ten years.”

“Hmm,” said Rick, “This should be interesting.”

“What kind of plane do we have here?” I asked, wanting to divert the conversation now that they knew what they were in for.

“It’s a Taylorcraft,” explained Herman proudly.

I vaguely recognized the name. It was classified in my mind with a Sopwith Camel a Model-T Ford, and other examples of early technology.

While Rick did the pre-flight Herman gave me a tour. He pointed out the wing-camber.

“Taylor used to be the chief designer for Piper Aircraft,” explained Herman. “He insisted a wing should be built this way, but they refused. So he left and started making Taylorcrafts. They have incredible lift because of the wing.”

Well, that was reassuring. This miniature plane was going to need incredible lift if it hoped to become airborne with a full load of floats, one instructor, and one student. I began regretting the extra helping of french fries I’d had at lunch, knowing the margin of safety would be reduced that much further.

“And how does a Taylorcraft compare to a Piper Cub?” I asked, suspecting he would have an opinion.

“Baah! Piper Cub. A rich man’s toy! They’re so expensive who can afford them? I could crash my Taylorcraft twice and still not go through as much money as a Piper Cub. And they have so much power anyone can fly them. Takes no skill at all. This Taylorcraft only has 100 horsepower!”

I wondered if it was too late to cancel the lesson. But the Kenai Fijords tour had already left and we continued the inspection. Rick was checking the ailerons. I watched him for a few moments and then turned to Herman in alarm.

“This plane has no flaps!” I said.

“Baah! Flaps. A real pilot doesn’t need flaps.”

“Well, we’re all ready to go,” said Rick. “Help me get the plane turned around.”

He untied the lines holding the floats to the shore and we slowly rotated the little blue craft so that it was pointing out towards the water. I climbed in to the left seat, the pilot’s seat, and Rick took the right.

“Have a good trip!” said Herman.

I didn’t quite understand how Rick and I both managed to fit. The plane seemed too small on the outside. Of course the fuselage was only the thickness of canvas so that helped. I started to close and latch the door but Rick stopped me.

“In a float plane you want to leave the door unlatched until you’re ready for takeoff,” he explained. “That way if the engine quits while you’re taxiing and you start to drift into something you can jump out onto the float and start paddling.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled. “Too bad we don’t have a paddle!”

“Right here,” said Rick.

I glanced in the back and there was a large oak paddle. It looked well-used. I left the door open. I began to fasten my seat belt but Rick stopped me again.

“In a float plane…”

“Right, right,” I interjected. “Not until we take off.”

“Yeah, and you’ll notice there’s no shoulder harness. That’s because in a float plane if you were wearing a shoulder harness and the plane flipped on the water, you’d never disentangle yourself before you sank.”

“Uh huh,” I said, as if that was utterly obvious now that I’d thought about it.

“And let me suggest, if we do flip, don’t unbuckle your belt strap without pushing off the ceiling with one hand. Otherwise you’ll bash your head when you fall.”

“Makes sense.”

I wondered if, in the event we flipped over, I would have sufficient presence of mind to remember such details. Knowing the answer I dismissed the suggestion so as to leave room for more useful knowledge.

“The first thing we do in a float plane on Lake Hood,” said Rick, is get the ATIS.”

Oh, so it’s jargon time already is it? ATIS. My mind drifted back a dozen years. ATIS stood for something like Air Traffic Information Service. Or maybe it was Advisory Terminal Information System. Or…   To hell with it. I couldn’t remember what it stood for but I knew what it was. ATIS is a pre-recorded message continuosly broadcast on the ATIS frequency at large airports, airports like Anchorage International. Rather than the controllers in the tower having to use up their time giving out wind directions and altimeter settings to every pilot, you simply tune into ATIS and get the dope. Then you contact the tower.

Rick gave me the ATIS frequency and I tuned the radio transceiver. Immediately the ATIS recording filled our headsets.

“Anchorage International Airport, Lake Hood Information Juliet. Winds zero nine five at twelve knots, gusting to 15. Temperature thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. ALTIMIETER TWO NINER NINER FIVE. Pilots should be on the lookout for migratory waterfowl. Advise tower you have received Information Juliet. This is Anchorage International Airport, Lake Hood Information Juliet. Winds zero nine…”

Rick switched off the radio.

“Migratory water fowl?” I asked.

As if on cue a flight of two dozen geese turned onto a short final and made a graceful landing right in front of our little Taylorcraft. They came to a stop and fluttered their wings.

“Will they be a problem?” I asked.

“Not at all,” said Rick. “As soon as we shout “CLEAR” they’ll scatter.”

“You mean they’ve learned what the word CLEAR means?”

“Yeah, they’ve learned.   Speaking of which, let’s start the engine.” Rick flipped on the magnetos and adjusted the mixture control.

“OK, hit the starter switch.”

My feet were resting on the rudder pedals and with no conscious effort my toes suddenly pressed forward onto the brake pads. You always want to have a firm grip on the brakes before you start the engine. I’d forgotten it but my toes hadn’t. Wait a minute. Something was wrong.”

“They’re aren’t any brakes!” I exclaimed.

“Of course not,” said Rick. “How can you have brakes on a float plane?”

Hmm. Good point.

“So I just start the engine without any brakes on ?” This was like asking a driver of a stick-shift car to turn the ignition while still in gear. Rick nodded.

“CLEAR” I shouted out the window. The geese scattered. I hit the starter switch. Rick played with the throttle. The little engine roared to life. It’s solid, powerful sound was comforting. Maybe it was only 100 horsepower but all hundred were awake and ready for business.

Even at idle power the plane was moving forwards.

“You know I’ve got no brakes,” I reminded Rick.

“That’s OK. Just steer into the middle of the channel.”

The channel? That was a nautical expression, but of course at this point we were more boat than aircraft.

A float plane has little rudders attached to the back of its floats which provide directional control even at slow speeds.

“The most important thing to remember when taxiing a float plane,” said Rick, “is to hold the yoke almost all the way back. You let the nose down even for a second and the floats will nose-dive on you. You’ll stop so fast you’ll be thrown into the control panel. See this dent?” He pointed to a big dent in the dashboard. “That was because one of my students didn’t listen to me about holding the nose up. That dent was caused by my head!”

I examined the dent. There was an identical one on the opposite side of the panel. In fact, I realized it was part of the cast aluminum shape.

“Yeah, right!” I said, going along with the joke. But I kept the nose high nonetheless.

We were receiving taxing instructions from Anchorage Tower. It sounded like Greek to me, but I wasn’t expected to understand the runways or channels or whatever they were. I concentrated on steering the plane through the water and keeping the nose high. A robust little wake was being generated by our floats.

“Keeping the nose high is even more important on landing,” continued Rick as we taxied across the lake. I had a student two years ago who was real cocky. Knew all about flying tail draggers. I kept reminding him you can’t land a float plane like a tail dragger. If you do the floats will dig in and you’ll flip. He said ‘yeah, yeah, I understand.’ On the first landing we were just settling to the water and he immediately assumed a tail-dragger position for landing. I knew what was going to happen and I reached for the controls and yelled ‘Let go!’ and just as I got out the word ‘Let—’ the plane hit and we cartwheeled three times. The point is, I just couldn’t break the guy’s habit.”

“You won’t have that problem with me,” I explained. “I’m too inexperienced to have picked up any bad habits.”

Rick smiled uneasily.

“T-Craft 87404 you’re cleared for take-off” said Anchorage International Tower.

“Negative,” responded Rick. “We’re not ready.”

“Advise when ready, 404” said Anchorage.

“Affirmative,” said Rick.

I knew we weren’t ready because we hadn’t yet done our run-up. The run-up is where you set the brakes hard and run the engine up to take-off rpms, while you check the magnetos and make sure you’re getting full power.

“How do we do our run-up with no brakes?” I asked.

“Just press hard left rudder and go in circles,” he said.

OK, that made sense. Weird, but it made sense.

I pushed the throttle to the firewall and kicked in full left rudder. The Taylorcraft started turning rapidly in a tight circle. It was only a matter of seconds before dizziness would set in.

“Check the mags,” said Rick.

Oh yeah, right. The mags. I had to focus. Left mag. Right mag. Both mags. Everything was OK.

“Check the carb heat.”

Wow, stab from the past. I’d forgotten all about checking carb heat. But I knew what to do. Carb heat’s OK I said to Rick.

“Tower, T-craft 404 is ready for takeoff,” said Rick into the microphone.

“Affirmative 404, you’re cleared for takeoff.”

“Which way do we go?” I asked Rick. There wasn’t exactly a runway.

Rick pointed out a direction and I noticed it would entail a very slight cross-wind. My hands automatically moved the ailerons into the proper position to compensate.

“Yoke all the way back, then one inch forward,” said Rick.

“Ready?” I asked him. “Do it,” said Rick.

I advanced the throttle to full take off power, and the Taylorcraft surged forward. Spray shot off the floats violently as we accelerated. Thirty knots. Forty knots.

“When do I rotate?” I asked.

“You don’t rotate in a float plane,” said Rick above the roar of the engine and the splashing of the water. “You’re nose is already as high as it can get.”

“Well what do you do!” I demanded, seeing the far edge of the lake approaching at disturbing speed.

Ease the nose forward now, said Rick and I obeyed.

Fifty knots. Fifty five.

“OK, bank slightly away from the wind, that will bring up your left float.”

The left float tore free of the water, somewhat violently, I thought. And then we were flying, the lake falling away beneath us as we rose steadily into the cold northern sky.

“Start your turn to the left at about 300 feet,” said Rick, “and level off at 700.”

Now I was on home turf. The altimeter was showing 300 and I began my left turn. Whooah! The airplane slipped to the right.

“In a float plane you’ve got to use a lot more rudder,” said Rick. “In fact get in the habit of actually turning with the rudder, and banking only as necessary.”

This was backwards from normal flying. Rudder’s have become almost superfluous on modern aircraft, being used primarily for cross-wind landings. You turn by banking the plane with ailerons.

“The floats really mess up the aerodynamics,” explained Rick. “You’ve got to use the rudder’s constantly to bring the nose around in a turn.”

I completed my left turn and leveled off at 700 feet.

“What heading would you like,” I asked, glancing at the directional gyro. Old habits were coming back quickly.

Wait a minute. There was no directional gyro.

“There’s no directional gyro!” I protested.

“That’s right,” said Rick, nonplussed. “You have to use the compass.”

The compass! What were we in here, a stone-age aircraft? The only reason planes even have compasses is to provide backup for the directional gyro.

“I hate compasses!” I said to Rick.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. But that’s all we’ve got! Look, he said sympathetically. Don’t worry about the compass. Just head for that little cove there across the water.”

Reluctantly I pulled my attention away from the panel and looked outside. We were already over Cook Inlet, the arm of the Pacific Ocean just west of Anchorage. The city itself was in shadow as a dark overcast had descended, making the tops of the mountains invisible. On the far side of Cook Inlet I could see only wilderness: tundra and spruce trees and here and there an occasional lake. It was another reminder of just how limitless and undeveloped Alaska really is—even just outside Anchorage. We don’t really understand that in the lower 48 states. A slogan found on T-shirts says it perfectly: “Alaska is what America was.”

Looking north I could see all the way to the Matanuska Valley, famous for its giant vegetables: six-foot diameter cabbages and so forth. Today a thick fog bank obscured the view, but it didn’t look exactly like fog…

“What’s that?” I asked Rick, pointing north.

“Glacial dust,” he said. “The winds pick up all the dust from the glaciers and blow it right into the Mat valley. I wouldn’t even want to fly through it, let alone breathe it on a regular basis.”

“Hmm. Glacial dust. I wondered if that was what caused the Matanuska valley to be so fertile. After all, the dirt being deposited must have lain fallow for 50,000 years. Probably filled with Pleistocene nutrients and who knew what else.

We were over the tundra now, brown short-cropped grassland interspersed with forests of Arctic spruce, wetlands, and lakes.

“Where are we going?” I asked. I didn’t really care but since I was flying the plane it seemed like something I should know.

There’s a little lake up ahead a bit farther. I like to use it for float-plane instruction. The question is whether the ice will have melted. Two days ago it was frozen and even this morning there were chunks of ice still floating in it.

“By the way you never want to land in a lake if you see ice floating in it. That’s asking for trouble.”

I had no desire to ask for trouble. I could imagine plenty available without asking.

Rick looked out the window and signed nostalgically. “Man, I know every tree down there, every lake, every inch of that land. This is my backyard. I love this place.”

“How long you lived up here?” I asked.

“Moved here in ‘68.”

“Ever thought of leaving?”

“Leaving? Leave Alaska? You gotta be kidding.”

I looked out over the forests, and the glimmering lakes, and the mountains in the distance and decided he was right. I must have been kidding.

“Let’s drop down to 200 feet,” said Rick. “There’s a bald eagle who lives near here and I want you to see him.”

At 200 feet we were skimming the tops of the trees. “There’s the nest!” Rick said excitedly. “There, see it! That tall spruce with a flat top. Now where’s the eagle?”

I flew the plane directly over the eagle’s nest. It was a huge structure, somehow attached to the top of the tree. But it was empty.

“Oh well, he’s probably out looking for food,” said Rick. “He gets real pissed when you fly over his nest. He looks up at you with this expression like ‘Get that noisy thing out of my face!”

“Nothing worse than an eagle with an attitude,” I agreed.

I climbed back to 500 feet and pretty soon Rick pointed out the window.

“There it is!” he said, indicating a spot on the horizon. A small lake was coming up on the left and I banked towards it. Nothing happened. I tried again and this time I used the rudder first, then followed with the aileron. The Taylorcraft headed for the lake.

“Looks pretty clear,” said Rick. “Let’s drop down to about 300 feet and make a pass just to be sure.”

I pushed the yoke forwards and re-trimmed the elevator tab.

“So I guess I’m Alaska’s first float-plane student for the year,” I said.

“Oh, I think you take that honor pretty easily. Four hours ago this plane had skis on it and most of the other planes still do.”

We both noticed it at the same time. There was another plane on the lake, just taking off.

“That’s Acme Air,” said Rick, naming one of the large charter operations based at Anchorage. “They always come out early to check their floats and make sure everything’s working. If they’re able to use the lake then it must be free of ice. Too bad we won’t have it to ourselves, though.”

The Acme plane was several hundred feet above the lake and starting to turn on its upwind leg.

“This could be messy,” said Rick. “Those guys never monitor the radios.” He called them a few times to make sure but got no response. “OK, give me a 90 degree turn to the right and let’s at least get out of their way. Gotta see how they’re going to land.”

We watched Acme Air in silence for a moment.

“Yeah, that’s what I figured. They’re using regular commercial technique.”

“And what do we use?” I asked, wondering what commercial technique was.

“We use bush pilot technique,” said Rick. “That’s all I teach, bush pilot technique.”

“Bush pilot technique sounds good to me,” I said, impressed. “By the way, what is bush pilot technique?”

“Bush pilots always land and take-off as directly into the wind as possible, even if it means using a smaller dimension of the lake. Notice how Acme Air is circling to land to the Northeast. That’s because the lake is longest in that direction, they have more room to land.”

The lake was in fact quite elongated. I could not imagine any other way of landing on it.

“But a bush pilot would land on this lake heading East, given the wind,” continued Rick. “See that little inlet down there?”

There was a tiny finger of water, or at least moisture, jutting to the west. It looked about as wide as our wingspan, and perhaps 50 yards long. A tall strand of Arctic fir guarded it in all directions.

I’d been curious how a pilot determines where he can land. Apparently the rule of thumb was ‘anywhere that’s wet.’

The Acme plane had landed and was now taking off, apparently departing for Anchorage.

“That’s one less thing to worry about,” said Rick.

But there were plenty more. Rick was expecting me to land the plane, now they’d he’d told me where to land it. I tried to remember everything I knew about landing. Let’s see. I had to reduce the throttle, bring the nose up to slow the airspeed, establish a glide path, determine a pattern— This wasn’t fair. I needed an hour or so of practice with a normal plane on a normal runway—a nice, straight, definable runway. Making an approach to an amorphous body of water surrounded by pine trees was generating too much new input for my brain. Old input wasn’t getting a chance to re-surface.

Rick gave me some hints.

“Power to 1500,” he said.

I brought the throttle back to glide setting.

“Carb heat on.”

Oh yeah, carb heat. I turned on the carb heat.

“Start your turn onto base leg.”

I did. Whoops! Got to remember to use more rudder and less aileron.

“Approach speed is about 70 knots in this plane.”

I trimmed for 70 knots.

We were still flying over wilderness. There were no houses or roads or any sign of civilization as far as the eye could see. The endless tundra stretched to the horizon, or at least to Cook Inlet. I turned on final approach.

This was more familiar. The edge of the water was analogous to the end of a runway and I ignored everything else. Now we were over the fir trees, a bare patch of tundra flashed by underneath.

Thirty feet above the ground. Twenty feet. Fifteen feet. We were over the water. The inlet was bigger close up: at least twice as wide as our wing span.

“OK, power all the way back and keep the nose high,” said Rick.

Whoosh! The floats made contact with the water and spray flew everywhere.

“Keep the nose up, keep the nose up…”

I felt like the nose of the plane was already nearly vertical but I kept the yoke back. Airspeed dropped rapidly and finally the craft kind of settled down into the water as we coasted to a stop.

“Nice job,” said Rick. “You did real well on the rudders. I was glad to see you using them for steering just before we landed. Most pilots take longer to break their aileron habit.”

“You don’t fly for ten years, your aileron habit gets rusty!” I said with a smile.

I looked around. Here it was. The real Alaska. This pristine little lake, surrounded by fir trees and tundra, with snow-capped mountains in the distance, was like something out of a postcard. And it was utterly uninhabited. No fishing cabins. No rusty pickup trucks. No water skiers. And there were several hundred thousand lakes just like it spread out across Alaska. No wonder Rick didn’t want to leave.

“Drop the float-rudders,” he said.

Each float had a little rudder on the back that was raised out of the water most of the time but which was brought into use for slow taxiing.

“Now do a one-eighty and head back up the inlet.”

The tiny branch of the lake we’d landed on was more visible as we taxied down wind. It didn’t look very deep and I was intending to ask how much draft we needed but we came to the end and there was no time for questions. Rick told me start my turn just a few yards before our floats would have hit the shore. “Bush pilots use every inch of water,” he reminded me.

Now we were lined up into the wind, pointing straight down the inlet.

“OK?” I asked.

“OK.”

For the second time that day I accelerated to full takeoff power and held the yoke all the way back. The Taylorcraft surged forward with a roar.

“What you’re looking for,” said Rick, is the double rise of the nose. You’ll see it rise up just for a second. Then you’ll see it rise up once more. On the second rise is when you want to bring the nose down a bit. That means the floats are what we call ‘on the step’ or ‘planing’ across the water.

“OK, there’s the first rise,” he said. “There’s the second.”

I brought the nose down slightly and I could feel the plane accelerate. As it reached 60 knots I pulled the left float loose by banking to the right. We were flying again.

“Climb to 300 feet before starting your turn for a left pattern,” said Rick. “Airspeed at 70 knots.”

Already things were beginning to seem routine. I turned onto the downwind leg and levelled off at 500 feet.

“Bring your pattern in a little tighter,” said Rick. “On your downwind is when you want to be checking the water to make sure a moose isn’t swimming across your landing site.”

A moose? “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m very serious. You always gotta check for moose before you land. In fact—”

Rick pointed out the window. A moose was ambling across the tundra right towards the lake.

“That one’s no problem,” said Rick. “We’ll get to the lake before he will. But you’ll want to check on his progress next time around. If there’s one thing you don’t want to do in a float plane it’s land into a moose.”

Yeah, landing into a moose would probably ruin your whole day.

Power to 1500. Carb heat on. Airspeed to 65. I banked onto downwind. Here came the water. Keep the nose pointed high. Power all the way off. Whoosh! We were down again.

We coasted to a stop and Rick reached over and turned off the engine.

Now a bush pilot doesn’t want to waste fuel,” he said. “And you know we need to get the plane back downwind. So what you do is ‘sail’ back to your takeoff position. Here’s how it works. First, you check your wind direction. It’s coming from over there, right? So you want to open both doors like this. Then you want to use full opposite rudder, like this. But you want your ailerons reversed, like this. OK, now we’re moving backwards but we’ve got to go more that way so give me opposite rudder and then I’ll close my door but you keep yours open. Whoops! There’s a windshift. OK, open your door and reverse the ailerons. Good. Now neutralize the rudder. OK close your door and give me some left rudder. See how it works?”

I had no idea how it worked. This was like patting your head and rubbing your stomach and dancing a two step all at the same time. But the plane was moving nicely back downwind towards the takeoff point.

“Pretty cool,” I remarked.

On the third take-off I paid careful attention so I would recognize the two brief “rises” of the nose. Ha! There was one. It was just barely noticeable.

“There’s two,” said Rick.

I hadn’t seen ‘two’ at all. But one out of two isn’t bad. We climbed away from the lake and came around for another landing.

“Power to 1500,” said Rick. “Carb heat— Oh you already got the carb heat. Good for you.”

I glanced at the carb heat lever. Damn! I’d left the carb heat on from the last landing. Bad mistake. But I didn’t bother to explain it to Rick. Too much noise in the cockpit for idle conversation I figured. And besides, when you’re worrying about glacial dust and swimming moose who has time for carb heat?

As I lined up on final Rick explained that we were going to simulate a smooth water landing.

“Smooth water is actually harder because from the air you can’t tell where the surface of the lake is. There’s no depth perception. So you want to slow your rate of descent while you’re still a ways up, but don’t bring the power all the way back until you actually touch down. You want to just kind of sink until you get there.”

I tried that and it worked. On the next approach I was to simulate a short-water landing. That meant coming in right on top of the fir trees and touching down just where the waves were lapping the shore.

“I know it looks like we’re going to hit those trees,” said Rick.

It did.

“But you’ll actually float right over them.”

I studied our approach to the trees and reached for the throttle just as Rick said “let’s add a little power.”

We cleared the trees by what felt like inches and touched down so close to shore I was expecting to hear the floats scrape on the rocks.

After another half dozen take-offs and landings Rick decided it was time to head back and he pointed out the direction that would get us there.

“You did real well,” he said. “If you hadn’t told me about not flying for ten years I’d never have known. You seem pretty comfortable with the airplane.”

Aw shucks, I thought. He probably says that to all his students. But I rose to the bait.

“So, how long would it take me to get a float rating? I mean, I have to leave tonight so it’s academic, but I’m curious.”

“Oh, I’d say another six or seven hours of instruction, you’d be ready for the flight test. I assume you’re coming back up here pretty soon.”

“Oh sure, maybe even this summer,” I lied. “Have to finish getting the rating!”

My fantasy life has always been rich and varied.

We crossed Cook Inlet as the sun finally came out from the clouds and bathed the skyline of Anchorage in a rich glow. The Chugach mountains had a fresh dusting of snow and sunlight shimmered off the waves. I tried to freeze the serene image forever in my memory.

“F-14 fighters coming at you from three o’clock,’ said Rick.

So much for serenity. Two menacing aircraft were streaking towards us trailing dark plumes of kerosene exhaust .

“I don’t think you need to worry,” said Rick. “Those Tomcats should be above a thousand feet.” We were at 700. “At least they’d better be,” he added angrily, watching them approach.

Better be? Yeah, like they were in big trouble if we decided to engage them.

The F-14’s roared past, and perhaps they were three hundred feet higher. I wasn’t going to tell them they weren’t.

Anyway we had other problems. Rick had contacted the tower at Anchorage International and advised them of our intent to land.

“Winds 180 at ten knots,” said the tower. Rick looked at me puzzled.

“Winds at 180?” he said. “That doesn’t sound right. Do you think the winds are at 180?”

“Doesn’t sound likely,” I agreed. Heck, how would I know? Without a directional gyro I didn’t even know which way we were heading. Anyway I had my hands full worrying about the carb heat.

“T-craft 404, be advised multiple other aircraft ahead of you.”

Mmmm. Nice job of air traffic control, there, tower. Do you handle the 747’s the same way? “Uh, United Airlines Flight 206, arriving from Tokyo, be advised you’ve got a whole mess of other planes in your way. Deal with it.”

But the tower hadn’t lied. I could see four other planes circling around Lake Hood. Two seemed to be taking off and were departing the pattern. Two others were arriving. The air over Lake Hood was beginning to resemble that scene from the movie Top Gun: airplanes flying every which way in controlled chaos. Rick was still concerned with the wind.

“Tower, say again wind direction.”

“Winds 180 at ten knots,” said the tower stubbornly.

That can’t be right,” said Rick. One of the arriving planes had already landed and the second in line was turning final. We were number two behind him. Suddenly the plane in front pulled up from his glide and banked sharply to the right, the direction we were coming from.

Some things you don’t have to be told. I added power and banked sharply to get out of his way.

“Those winds are not from 180,” said Rick, vindicated. “That guy just realized it and changed his landing direction. He’s going to come in from the west.”

“Should I follow him?”

“You bet! That’s the only way to land with this wind. The tower’s crazy.”

The plane ahead of us landed and we were now on final approach. This was going to be easy. No fir trees, no moose, no glacial dust to speak of.

Our floats touched the water just as our headsets came alive with an urgent message from the tower.

“T-craft 404, execute a step turn to the left. Urgent, execute a step turn to the left for incoming traffic.”

I wondered what a step turn was.

“More power!” said Rick. “Give me more power!”

I gave him 1500 RPM’s, wondering what was going on. The Taylorcraft surged forward with a roar, spray flying violently from its floats as I held the nose up.

“More power! Give me 1900!”

1900? I’d thought fifteen was excessive. I moved the throttle forward until the engine reached 1900 RPM’s. At this rate we were going to be airborne pretty soon.

“Give me 2100!”

“I obeyed. Rick had seemed reasonably competent so far, he must know what he was doing. But the opposite side of the lake was approaching fast. Beyond that were some two-story maintenance sheds and rising above them was the huge Anchorage International control tower coming towards us at frightening speed.

Just when it became obvious we were going to crash Rick pressed full left rudder. The Taylorcraft skidded into a sharp turn as if it were an Indy race car. The name ‘step-turn’ was now obvious. The floats were still “on the step,” or still planing because of our high speed. I held the ailerons into the turn, which may have helped, but the craft showed no tendency to tip to the outside. Maybe it had something to do with the weight of the floats compared to the weight of the plane.

“OK, power all the way off,” said Rick.

We coasted to a stop and dropped the float-rudders. I began taxing back towards our slip.

“I guess the tower was concerned about the aircraft behind us,” explained Rick. “Thought they were too close and wanted us out of the way. Actually I don’t see anyone behind us. I’m not sure why we were required to do that step turn.”

“Maybe it wasn’t a plane,” I suggested. “Maybe it was incoming migratory waterfowl…”

Rick grinned.

“Or a moose,” he said, and winked.

Memories of the Anchorage Hilton’s lobby had been washed away by visions of geese, eagle’s nests, fir trees, snow-capped mountains, wilderness lakes and yes, even a moose. Maybe I would come back this summer…

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