Flying high again
(Editor’s note: Katie Writer is a Truckee resident and a pilot. She spent last summer as an apprentice to a bush pilot in Alaska)Dillingham, Ala. – Floats decorate the ground near Shannon’s Pond while Super Cub pilots fly to the coast for prime time beach combing.The fat tundra tires make for bouncy landings on the stony beach where glass ball floats, whalebones, a walrus carcass, and other sea treasures have drawn us.Viewing the tundra where caribou, moose, and bear wander awaken my senses to a wilderness scale unlike anything in the lower forty-eight.As the lake ice melts in The Nushagak Basin, the floats are christened in Shannon’s Pond for another busy season of flying in a place where lakes and rivers are plentiful, and runways sparse.The Beaver’s engine on takeoff catches my attention with its deafening sound. The pond is just that, a small body of water that creates tension for pilots hauling heavy loads.Often, the floats peel off a mere 10 feet before the edge of the marshy tundra. As an apprentice to a bush pilot, I’d pause from my dock-painting to watch just how incredibly cool float-flying is.The ability to shift from nautical to aeronautical beckons the flying craft to visit the most desolate of backcountry destinations.Just North of Bristol Bay seaport lies the largest state park of North America, Wood Tikchik State Park. 1.2 million acres of pristine beauty which include peaks as big as 5000 feet, 14- to 45-mile long lakes, and vast tundra in a wilderness Mecca that has hundreds of people coming back each year.Lake Aleknagik, a Super Cub on floats and pilot Al Richardson – the perfect combination for a float-flying lesson on a clear blue day in June.Al is a bush pilot for Mission Lodge during the summers and a flying instructor in Truckee when he’s not in Alaska. Al and I logged 3 hours taxiing around Shannon’s Pond learning docking skills, how to step taxi, sail the plane, and the procedures of takeoffs and landings.The differences between a Cessna 172 wheel plane and a Super Cub on floats are considerable. There is a stick instead of a yoke, the second person sits behind the pilot rather than next to him, the throttle is on the side of the cockpit rather than on the front panel and there is the constant required awareness of the rudders, the water, its currents, depth, and movement.There are no yellow lines or fixed runways, and the water surface changes constantly. The transition from wheel plane to seaplane may be comparable to a soccer player thrown into a water polo game. The novice seaplane pilot has to fly while obtaining his or her skills, thought process and adaptability to water.With the engine started, we taxi to deeper water, go through the CARS checklist…Controls, Airspace, Rudders, & Stick. Full throttle and we are moving through the water like a bulky boat that has its nose high, creating poor visibility.As the speed increases, the floats skim on the water surface and the plane is on its step. This is similar to a motorboat that is up and on the water rather than dredging in the water. When the plane is on it’s step, the nose lowers, improving visibility.As it reaches a certain speed (depending on the plane and its load) I peel off one float to reduce the drag, followed by the second float and we are airborne.Watching the water disappear beneath the plane, followed by the instant aerial view of heaven on earth sends my spirit soaring. I am ecstatic beyond words while Al is telling me to make some turns and acquire a feeling for the plane.Peaks reaching 3,000-4,500 feet surround Lake Aleknagik and salmon can be seen in schools of 150-plus swimming up rivers and lakes to their spawning grounds.The lushness of ferns and alders are glowing like neon green in their early stages of rapid summertime growth.”Have you ever seen an airport so pretty?” asks Al. He is just as excited as I am. He points out a friend’s summer cabin. Below us are the lichen covered rocks and mountain passes where he often sees caribou hanging out just eating up the view.”I just had to introduce you to your destiny,” he says with a smile, as I am momentarily suspended between reality and dream world. He seemed to be reading my thoughts, as he shook my seat saying, “This is real!”I practice some landings and takeoffs on various water conditions. There is a different technique for glassy water, rough water and the conditions in between.”Glassy water can be your worst nightmare as it has a mirror quality that makes it difficult to know the distance between your floats and the water.”He teaches me how to taxi on the step on rough water in the middle of the lake. We take off and fly to a cove where there is glassy water and land. We taxi around a buoy and he teaches me how to open the door and use it as a sail.My mind absorbs all of this new information like a sponge, while my spirit is awed by the magic of Wood-Tikchik State Park. The snowmelt creates hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the mountains. We spot a moose and it’s young wading through a pond. “Don’t they look so docile from here?” says Al.”There are more reports of moose attacking people than grizzlies. Did you know that it is a state law to carry a gun in your airplane up here?”Alaskan terrain is so rugged and the alders are so thick that the bird’s eye view is such a luxurious way to appreciate the incredible beauty.There are no nagging mosquitoes, or powerful grizzlies or un-passable brush while airborne. The security bubble in the air can pop with an engine failure or force time in the bush. It’s part of the attraction of Alaska that requires wilderness savvy by those who spend time there.This wilderness element scares people away or draws them back for the rest of their lives.We land the plane at our starting point across from Mission Lodge and taxi to the riverbank. I pull up the rudders while shutting off the engine and pause a moment as one does after being overwhelmed by the richness of a life enhancing experience.”Quick, Katie, get out!” yells Al. “Grab the line on the float while stepping on shore.”I snap into action for the docking procedures with the river current providing a challenge. While I am on shore holding the plane, I watch Al get out. He looks like an adult getting out of a kid’s go-cart.”You know, for an action-based woman, you were pretty slow on getting out of the plane! It’s not like shutting off the engine at the Truckee airport,” he says.I am buzzing from the stimulation of my first true seaplane lesson in paradise. Signing my logbook, he creates a column for “Sea Plane Time” and another for “Alaska Time.””1.2 hours,” he says as he writes. “You know, I am grooming you for my replacement!”
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