Read the Water, Floatplane flying in Alaska
By Patrick Mathews
AOPA Magazine, September 2002 Volume 45 / Number 9 (printed with permission)
The scientists call it Pleistocene glaciation. That time in Earth's formation when giant advancing and retreating glaciers carved out steep, smooth valleys and when colliding tectonic plates pushed up rugged mountain ranges. In Alaska, these powerful forces created the extraordinary topography of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Mother Nature had also created one of Earth's most challenging and spectacular aviation environments.
It was the summer solstice, and I had come to this remarkable part of the world to experience authentic bush flying and to hopefully obtain my single-engine seaplane rating. Like many pilots, I had always been intrigued by the idea of adding the float rating to my certificate, not as much for its utility as for the pure experience. So, if this was to be for the experience then I wanted the real thing — to fly the way professional bush pilots do.
And I wanted real training, not just the rating.
After considerable research I discovered Vern Kingsford. He and his wife, Lura, operate Alaska Float Ratings in tiny Moose Pass, on the Kenai Peninsula.
Vern has earned a fine reputation. He's a stickler for safety. He does things right, insisting his students closely follow his well-honed syllabus. He's passionate about float flying. After 30 years of teaching and flying his Part 135 float operation, he is a master of the craft. Vern moved to Moose Pass 10 years ago when he realized that some pilots, like me, wanted experiences like the ones he now offers. The Kingsfords set up shop, as well as their cozy home, with Trail Lake right at their doorstep. As the only operator on the lake, Alaska Float Ratings has a unique location. It is surrounded by the Chugach National Forest that assures students of almost exclusive airspace. Here Class G covers the lofty snow-capped Kenai Mountains, arctic forests, glaciers, deep green valleys, swift-flowing rivers, and numerous lakes of all sizes, some in remote locations. All of this is accessible to students.
The weather is the real challenge here and it's what sets this course apart. It is in perpetual change. In three days of flying, I experienced firsthand all the vagaries of mountain conditions. Most private pilots will rarely encounter this intensity of weather. It included wind shear, mountain waves, opposing surface gusts, microbursts, and gusting crosswinds with quartering tailwinds, often in rain and frequently under low, broken ceilings. Proficient float pilots who operate here have an uncanny knowledge of mountain weather and have acquired the observation skills needed to "read the water." While floatplane flying in the wild allows the pilot the ultimate freedom and exhilaration of landing and departing from almost any body of water, it extracts a severe price if your judgment and weather knowledge is even slightly impaired. In my opinion, it is the most difficult and most testing aspect of float piloting.
Students fly in two meticulously maintained Piper PA-18s — the legendary Super Cub — adequately powered by Lycoming's reliable O-320 engine. Suspended below are EDO 2000 floats (2000 is the freshwater displacement per float, expressed in pounds). These are tandem, stick-controlled airplanes with the student sitting up front and one of three highly skilled float instructors nurturing every move from the rear seat.
If you have not flown a stick before, which I had not, it soon becomes second nature, enhancing both the ease and the romance of this flying experience.
Kingsford advertises his course as "the boot camp of float ratings." And being the colorful, outspoken character that he is, he is not understated in what he offers: "The float rating is just that, a rating. It's not an automatic add-on or a logbook endorsement. This rating can't be successfully achieved in one day. No student of mine leaves here without at least six to seven hours of flying and a minimum of two hours of ground school and several hours of self-study. And the checkride is a full checkout to the practical test standards for private pilots, and higher for a commercial student. Pilots also have to complete the oral portion, based on self-study, including weight and balance and the pertinent FARs. We're also dedicated to improving a pilot's judgment and confidence. Whatever kind of pilot you are, and regardless of what you fly, you are guaranteed to leave here a better and safer pilot."
The kind of pilot that Vern attracts could well have intimidated me upon my arrival. There were three airline captains from the majors, all Air Force Reserve F-16 fighter jocks; a farmer from South Dakota; and me, a city boy from Los Angeles. The highly informal and casual structure of the course and the common bond of pilots learning together made us all fast friends. Vern and his instructors are always involved, accessible, and open for additional assistance if needed.
Soon it will be time to fly. But first we have to get familiar with the aircraft moored to a floating dock in Vern's backyard. Then the preflight. How do those water rudders and floats work anyhow? Then instruction on getting the airplane started. How do we leave the dock? How do we taxi? Turn? What's the surface weather doing? Read the water and the winds. How do we run-up without brakes? Finally we're airborne. Slow flight. Power-on and -off stalls and steep turns. The learning curve is also steep now.
After flying my Bonanza this was really back to basics, a new kind of flying for me — a little stick and a lot of rudder with lots of trim needed to compensate for those big floats out front. This is difficult, I thought. Will I get through with only two more days to go?
The next lesson was important. It was to gain an understanding of "the step" angle and to consistently pitch for that angle for takeoff and fast taxi. Landings, too, would critically depend on this same step angle, but that was to come later. Floatplanes perform best in water, at speed, in the step position that is the precise angle that results from hydrodynamic and aerodynamic lifting. This permits the seaplane to rise up, allowing the floats to ride on top of the water rather than in it.
It's a great thrill as you gather speed on the water and the airplane's nose steeply rises higher and higher. Then, momentarily you relax back-pressure and return the aircraft to the step angle. "Hold it there. Let the airplane fly off the water!" came my orders from the backseat. The floatplane takes flight in a more profound way than a terra firma aircraft. Then the rotation and climbout smooth, then suddenly quiet as you recognize a positive rate of climb, bring in the required flaps, and leave the lake silently behind.
Each flight was more exciting than the last, not just the learning but also the scenery and the extraordinary experience of being alone and having the freedom of access to the lakes, valleys, and mountains. Once while I was flying with Vern on an approach to a small aqua blue lake, fed on one side by an icy waterfall just feet away, he said, "Do you see that bald eagle watching that salmon stream down there at nine o'clock?" The big brown-and-white bird of prey was clearly visible just 400 feet below. "He's wanting to bring a fish to his mate in a big nest over there. Here, I'll show you." He steeply banked the airplane and thoughtfully flew downwind of a large arctic pine. Sure enough, below in a giant nest, mother eagle anxiously waited for her fresh salmon lunch to arrive by airfreight. This man surely knows these mountains, I reminded myself. On a later flight he pointed out a wide variety of birds and then a family of bears as they foraged for hemlock and wild cranberries high in a mountain clearing. Looking down at the altimeter I noticed we were at 2,500 feet with our wing just feet away from the mountainside.
I was learning a lot more than mountain flying.
But the serious side of flying continued as I was instructed in landing on normal, rough, and glassy water. Most people think that a smooth, mirror-like surface is a float pilot's dream. It's hazardous. Depth perception disappears and "finding water" becomes near impossible. The procedure is to use the shoreline trees as reference. Come in high with flaps extended and manipulate power to ease the aircraft onto the glassy surface as you rigorously maintain your nose-high, step attitude.
Back on the water there was more instruction, this time in docking and beaching, plow turns, and sailing. Sailing teaches the pilot to utilize the aircraft's control surfaces and weathervane tendencies, without power, to literally sail the aircraft backward into any given safe anchorage. It's an art form when performed well. Then we covered takeoffs and landings in confined spaces like picturesque Bench Lake. It is possible for a pilot to be able to get into a tight lake, but will conditions allow a takeoff? Making sound judgments and thinking through every contingency always come into play when flying here.
It's the last day and I have a final lesson in putting it all together. Chief pilot Duane Hallman gives me some invaluable insights.
Hallman is tough — he's done it all on floats — but is a kind and decent man. Will Boardman and Norm Kalat, the younger instructors, have been patient and most helpful too. They have forsaken the upward mobility of an airline career to fly by the seat of their pants, staying close to the face of nature. Somehow I envy their lifestyle.
The time for my checkride has come. I have a last review of the 120 study questions, part of which will form the basis of the oral. I'm nervous but ready to go. In the last few days I have learned quite a bit about myself. And I have earned a new respect for these men who fly every day in extraordinary mountain conditions. The go/no-go decision really counts around here. A pilot of only average skill will have a short life span on these unforgiving mountain lakes.
I passed my checkride. I'm a seaplane pilot now. Well, at least that's what it says on my ticket.
Patrick Mathews, AOPA 1134012, of Studio City, California, is a 1,200-hour private pilot. He is a freelance writer who owns and operates a 1993 Beechcraft Bonanza F33A.
Planning Your Trip -
When to go
The short summer dictates the flying season in the land of the midnight sun. Alaska Float Ratings (907/288-3646; www.alaskafloatratings.com) is open for business from May 15 through September 30. While the season is short, the flying days are long. Last lessons are often conducted, in good light, as late as 10 p.m. Slots fill fast so book early.
How to get there
Anchorage is the closest airport. Major carriers serving Anchorage include Alaska, American, America West, Delta, Northwest, and United. International carriers are Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Korean Airlines. On arrival, rent a car and drive the 97 spectacular miles along the scenic Seward Highway southwest to Moose Pass.
Where to stay
There is limited accommodation in Moose Pass. Alaska Float Ratings can help you get settled in the town's only motel or in one of the superb area bed-and-breakfasts. Everything is in walking distance. There are a couple of good local restaurants, but they are a drive away. Seward, just 29 miles south, is an easy and pleasant trip. It is a busy port town — home to one of Alaska's biggest fishing fleets and a summer gateway for the luxury cruise liners.
I took my patient wife, Debbie, along. However, be warned: If you bring a non-flying spouse, there's not much to do in little Moose Pass except walk, read, and take in the spectacular beauty of mountains and lakes.
While many professional pilots come for the fun and challenge, low-time pilots are welcomed and encouraged. You are required to bring your pilot certificate, current medical certificate, and logbook. Headsets and most study materials are supplied.
While the Alaska float rating is not the least expensive, it is real value for money. Three separate courses are available. I took the three-day course. There is an extended course of four to five days and an adventure flying course of five to six days. For pilots already holding a float rating, a refresher course is offered. A $500 deposit is required at time of booking. All courses count as a flight review.