By James Craig
The Transponder, A Publication of the Alaska Airman’s Association November-December 2004

“Okay, Mister Pilot, there’s a bear at your one o’clock,” announced the voice over the intercom.

“Vern, that ain’t no bear. That’s just a black rock.”

“Oh yeah? Well, your black rock just got up and walked away!”

And sure enough, just under our right wing, a huge black bear lumbered up the hillside. It seemed close enough to reach up and swat our Piper Super Cub right out of the sky.

You might consider this situation and this conversation unusual. Not the typical checkride conversation with a typical FAA-designated pilot examiner. Yes, that’s right, this happened during a check ride. But then, nothing about this Alaska experience or this examiner will ever approach typical.

This is Vern Kingsford, owner/operator of Alaska Float Ratings in Moose Pass, Alaska. Irascible, obstinate, indomitable…colorful is much too bland a word to describe this man. A perfectionist and demanding, but at the same time playful, Vern is quick with a joke and a wicked grin. With more bluster and more flying stories than ten men, images of Foghorn Leghorn come to mind. But Vern is no cartoon, and one night not long ago, he proved it to me.

Moose Pass is a wide spot in the road in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, 29 miles north of Seward. Vern’s floatplane school sits on the south edge of Upper Trail Lake on an airflow crossroads of glacial valleys, mountain peaks and turquoise water lakes of all sizes and altitudes. On this particular late spring evening, the weather was crappy. With no local Weather Channel available, that description is about as technical as anyone gets.

In fact, the weather had been inhospitable all day — winds greater than 25 knots, gusting erratically to 35 and a ceiling of no more than 500 feet. Then at about 7:30 pm, it started to rain.

Huddled inside the tiny classroom building 30 yards from the shore, five students and three flight instructors peered gloomily out the window from time to time despairing at the possibilities of flying at all that day. All of a sudden, Vern burst through the door with a big smile, pointed at me, and said, “Let’s go flying.”

Gulp…I jumped to my feet, grabbed a floatation vest from the wall rack and followed Vern to the dock.

“What do you think about these conditions, Vern?” I ventured, trying to keep the quaver out of my voice. I glanced nervously at the low clouds skittering past the shoulders of nearby Lark Mountain.

“Should be alright,” he replied marching resolutely down the dock’s rough wood planking and ducking under the wing of a Cessna 172 on Pee Kay floats. “hell, it just started to rain. That means the winds will be down and that mountaintop is about 4,000 feet above us, so we should have a couple thousand feet of ceiling. Let’s give it a try.”

He was right about the wind, at least on the surface. Taxiing one of his three Piper Super Cubs out onto the gray water, we had no trouble maneuvering and taking off. Victor Kilo took to the sky under my direction, rising from a normal takeoff, holding a steady attitude toward the narrow valley just to our south. So far, so good.

Rising two hundred feet, conditions changed abruptly. Just east of our departure point and about 400 feet higher lies Grant Lake. In nice weather it’s a beautiful L-shaped body of deep blue water bordered by steep mountainsides. But in bad weather, it’s a burbling witches’ cauldron of nasty swirling winds. The valley walls form a perfect Venturi tube aimed right at the docks we had just left. Wave after wave of agitated mountain air rolled off Grant Lake and dumped over its western ridge directly on top of the little Cub.

Hammered by the heavy wet winds, I fought back, valiantly lurching the stick left and right, just trying to keep the floats between me and the water and forest below.

“Whoa, cowboy,” came Vern’s voice over the intercom. “let go of the stick for a minute and relax, will ya?”

Reluctantly, I released my steely grip, and the ride, though still bumpy, settled considerably.

“That’s better,” said Vern. “It’s pretty gusty up here alright, but we really don’t need to add in all that pilot-induced turbulence.”

Smiling sheepishly, I had to admire Vern’s calm nature. I have flown through turbulence before, and I knew he was right. Cautiously, I made a turn to the north and once past the howling mouth of Grant Lake’s Venturi, conditions improved considerably. At least, the hammering stopped.

After 30 minutes of practice landings and takeoffs into tiny Johnson Lake, Vern announced, “Okay, let’s go home.” With great relief, I pointed the Cub south and left the narrow valley behind. Cruising a thousand feet above a lush green forest, I set up a descent to reach the 500 foot pattern altitude back to base. My hopes for more reasonable conditions vanished as we got close enough to see and analyze the water ahead.

Over the past three days, Vern and his team had trained me well to determine wind direction and speed from the appearance of the water’s surface. Our landing area ahead was a mess. Heavily dappled patterns on the lake indicated a repeating series of gusts, courtesy of Grant Lake. Lines of spray spewed from the whitecaps parallel to the wind, indicating winds higher than twenty knots, gusting to thirty. The one item in a floatplane pilot’s favor is that in a large enough body of water, you can always land straight into the wind.

Lining up into the gusts, I tried to stabilize the plane for the approach. I fought against the lump in my throat and stared at the spectacle ahead. Just then Vern cut in over the intercom again.

“Okay, my airplane. Let me show you how to handle landing in gusts like these,” he said. “We can see the gusts coming at us and we know each one will push us up. Then the bottom will drop out. So, we’ll anticipate that with a little added power.”

Vern pulled the throttle back all the way and we headed down toward the wind ravaged lake surface. “Okay, here comes the first gust.”

Sure enough, a heavy push like an uppercut to the gut caught the Cub and shoved us skyward. Vern advanced the throttle just as we reached the top of the rise. Instead of the expected sickening drop, we powered forward and descended smoothly another 200 feet.

“Here comes another,” Vern announced cheerfully. From outside the plane, we probably looked like a pair of Comedy and Tragedy masks staring out the windows as we hurtled toward the lake…Vern grinning from ear to ear and me grimacing in anticipation of my imminent demise.

The same sequence repeated twice more until we were twenty feet over the water. Adding a touch of power, Vern stabilized the Cub, held a nose slightly high attitude until the floats began to slice into the white-capped waves and finally settled gracefully onto the lake. Step taxiing toward the dock two hundred yards ahead, Vern chuckled, “And that’s what you could call the roller coaster landing. It’s not written down in any of our procedures, but maybe it ought to be.”

I was impressed. I’m an 800 hour Cessna 182 pilot and have handled gusty landings like that at home in Colorado, but floats change everything. By this time, I knew enough about seaplane flying to know that I had just witnessed the skills of a master.

If you’re like me, you’ve dreamed of this Alaska experience a million times. Surrounded by rugged wilderness, deep in the Chugach Mountains, you land your floatplane on a pristine blue lake at the bottom of a bowl of granite walls and forested banks. No roads connect to this spot, and the only trails nearby were formed by moose and bear. You nudge your plane up to a small gravel beach, hop out and after a quick look around, you unload your camping gear. Accompanied by only a lonely Arctic loon, you watch him drifting on the glassy surface, calling out forlornly to the evening sky. You sip hot coffee from a blue tin cup and feel yourself melting and merging into the wildness and strength of the environment around you.

Every year, the spring edition of some airplane magazine bursts into my mundane, working world and shatters the winter rat race monotony with a cover photo of floatplanes on blue waters. Like a spring crocus surging through the snow, the dream awakens in me and rekindles the fantasy. This year I finally made the plunge.

If you want to enter the world of float flying, I highly recommend Vern Kingsford’s little school in Moose Pass, Alaska. Known both as Alaska Float Ratings and Scenic Mountain Air, Vern and the crew provide a well-organized, intensive course of instruction in the Alaskan landscape that will teach you to fly floats safely and fill your eyes with the wonders of the magnificent Kenai Peninsula, its abundant wildlife and challenging weather.

I spent a week at the school in June 2003 and left a changed man. Not only did I have a Seaplane rating to add to my commercial ticket, I had a stack of photos and a collection of memories that I will never forget.

Did the experience satisfy my annual craving? Only slightly. Now my dream is more alive than ever. Now I have glimpsed this world from the inside. I have tasted the life of the Alaskan floatplane pilot, and my respect and awe for its reality has grown immeasurably.

Come, fly Alaska …and may there always be a walking black rock at your one o’clock.