Alaska by Air

June 1, 1994

Flightseeing: General aviation showing off the last frontier.

Lucky fellow, this Todd Rust. At 37 he's locked into a 14-hour-a-day job and he gets to enjoy his work six or seven days each week. And that's only because there isn't more days in the week or hours of daylight.

Rust will admit he's a lucky pilot and he'll be the first to tell you he's got the best flying job in the world. There's others who will contest that statement, however, and we'll hear from them later. Right now, Rust is getting ready to earn his money, no time for chit-chat, let's fly.

A low-hanging cloud bank, dark with Pacific moisture, shoves off to the east, leaving the Anchorage sky sunny and bright. The "always changing" Alaska weather has been better than usual this summer, but everyone knows the sun may shine only briefly. They also know that just because Anchorage is in the clear, some of the best sights in the state might not be.

Todd Rust has already done his homework and he is winding up a pilots' briefing, his crew of experienced bush flyers gathered around. They have each been through this dozens of times in recent weeks but they all listen carefully, as if it's their first meeting.

Rust heads up his crew of pilots gently but firmly.

"John, you're lead Cessna today and Andy, you lead the Beavers. We've got over 40 guests today, and we'll be taking them on the Capps, Triumvirate, and Strandline Lake route with a stop at Flathorn Lake. If the clouds hold off, we'll give them a look at Spur."

Now to us poor flat-landers who do our flying in the Lower 48, Rust's instructions may need a little translation. He is mentally preparing his crew of pilots for the upcoming flight, a multi-lane parade of red and brown floatplanes, that will soon be winging over some of Alaska's most spectacular scenery including Capps and Triumvirate Glaciers, an iceberg-filled lake, and maybe, just maybe, a close-up view of a steaming, active volcano.

It's called flightseeing, the only reasonable way for tourists to experience the overwhelming beauty of the Frontier State and nobody does it better than Rust and his gang. There's no limit to the sights in Alaska, and with a choice of equally spectacular routes to choose from, the weather nearly always does the choosing. Today is no exception.

"Alright, they just called from the hotel and they are on the way. Let's go," Rust orders, nodding to a dock full of ready airplanes, each getting a last minute window buffing by the dock crew.

Preflighted and spit-shined, four Beavers taxi out from the docks and circle in Lake Hood. They are simply getting out of the way so an equal number of Cessna 206s can line up at the dock to load. In minutes, a bus load of anxious tourists jam the dock area, cameras at the ready and hearts in hand. A mixed bag of smiling faces, most middle age or more on this day. They laugh and kid each other with the usual preflight one- liners like, "I hope it flies, and the pilot looks awfully young."

One woman, flushed with excitement, says, "My daughter will never believe this."

A clipboard-toting tour leader calls the roster and each airplane is stuffed in seconds. Rust smiles and whispers, "Isn't this great. Lots of these folks, especially the older ones, wouldn't consider flying in a small airplane but in a group they have a different mentality, a certain built-in trust."

He's right, because according to most first time flightseers, if it's part of the tour, they are doing it so don't get in the way.

Each pilot, Rust included, goes through a detailed orientation with the passengers, explaining the door latches, the safety equipment, and the seat belts. A white-haired widow from Florida tightens hers and nods at her older sister to do the same.

It's easy to tell what's going on and Rust is a master at it. He's making everyone feel good about the upcoming adventure, safe and secure but prepared to buck a few mountain air bumps along the way.

The passengers, anxious to get to this thing called flightseeing, are fitted with headsets and plugged into the intercom. They adjust ear rings, hearing aids, and ball caps with Alaska written in bold letters. They are ready.

So let the parade begin. Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane base in the world, looks like main street USA as the fleet of shining red airplanes taxi to the active water lane. Rust is the first to get clearance from the tower at nearby Anchorage International.

"November Four Six Six One Zulu cleared for the westbound," is the welcome message. Rust puts the power on go and brings the Cessna up on step. He lifts the floats out of the water so gently that his passengers don't realize they're flying until the lake shrinks behind them. Nice touch Mr. Rust, nice touch. A second Rust aircraft is cleared, then another, and another.

"The Cessnas go first, then the Beavers," explains Rust. By placing the fastest airplanes ahead, their pilots don't need to worry about another airplane overtaking them. It's part of a practiced, well- planned formation, a flight plan that Rust and his pilots have perfected. Only the lead pilots can alter the plan in flight.

Once off the water, Rust can feel his passengers relax but he gives them only seconds until he starts his patter, an informative review of Alaska history, geology, and juicy tidbits of fact frosted with local lore. You can tell he loves this state, both its people and the place. It oozes from him and now he gets to share it with his passengers. Add that to the fact that he's driving a smooth running turbo and seeing it all from treetop to mountaintop.

Rust slices across Cook Inlet, then starts a wild moose hunt as he flies over the tidal flats to the west. "At one time, glaciers covered all this, but now this delta region is all that's left, "he offers, winging over an intricate weaving of oxbow rivers below.

"We'll see if we can spot a moose or two, and don't worry if you miss the first one," he says, lowering the left wing so the passengers behind him can help with the hunting. In minutes, the left side gang has seen their share of the beasts, and in another few minutes, the right side has too.

"I don't believe it, I saw a moose," says one. "Me too, me too, and me too," chime the three others.

Next it's a low pass over the inlet to see if there are any beluga whales this day, and indeed there are. Hundreds of them frolic in the surf, white and mysterious in the milky glacial runoff that floods the sea near shore. They are feeding on the salmon that stage there, waiting for the instinctive urge that will send them up one of the many rivers of the delta.

Kodak stock climbs as cameras click between comments that fill the intercom. "Wow." "Look over there." "My daughter will never believe this."

Rust relays his find back to the other airplanes so they can pass directly over the whales. He wants every passenger to get their money's worth. Later, other pilots share finds. Everyone is having fun, pilots and passengers alike. It's infectious. It's flying fun, and it's Alaska at its best.

Rust smiles as he senses the excitement and he starts his ascent to the west and the Alaska Range that rises from the horizon. He's locked into his captive audience and he cashes in on the opportunity to wow them. During the climb, the passengers get a lesson in river siltation, migrating salmon, and the nearby Iditarod.

The 206 Stationair climbs through a few cottonballs, then pushes higher, following a path of frozen wonders and closing in on the jagged peaks ahead. At 4,000 feet, a blackened ribbon of ice gets all the attention, a glacier covered in spent ash from the recent eruption of Mount Spur. At 5,000 feet, the Cessna hiccups at the hint of a mountain downdraft.

Severe mountain downdrafts, turbulent and dangerous, are called williwaws by Alaskans but today, the air is friendly. Nobody complains.

At 6,000 feet Rust flies near the steaming vent of angry Mount Spur and then banks to the right, passes through a saddle of rock and snowdrifts, then glides over the birthing spot of yet another glacier.

The lady in the back is no longer wondering if her daughter will believe her story. Instead, she is lost in the wonderment of it all. She forgets to take pictures, ignores the intercom, and simply smashes her face against the plexiglass. She can't get enough and Rust knows it. He rolls sharply to the left, close enough to the mountain that it seems one could touch it, and then he flies straight at the shear, canyon wall. What seems like a short distance is really miles as the massive slopes of the mountains engulf the Cessna like a whale swallowing a mosquito.

There is little to say now, better to let unblinking eyes do the talking. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the incredible sights that surround the aircraft are saying volumes.

Rust flies over a gray-green lake filled with ice cubes. It's pretty enough, but he can make it better. He lays the yoke over and spirals down, and down, and down. The ice cubes become huge icebergs, sky- blue chunks as big as city buildings, calved from melting glaciers. We level out safely above them, then proceed out over a lower river of ice.

Rust's grin threatens to connect his ears. He asks if everyone is having fun, knowing full well they are having the time of their life. There's not a queasy stomach in the lot.

Now it's a bear hunt, a watch for grizzlies and black bears as they fish along the rivers. And from there, it's a stop at a "real" wilderness fishing lodge.

"This is something we put into the tours for a couple reasons," said Rust. First, it allows passengers to stretch their legs, but more importantly, it gives them a unique opportunity to visit some "real" folks who live in the Alaska bush. It's become the highlight of the air tour, he said.

And indeed, 40-some flightseeing tourists converge on the deck of Flathorn Lodge, snacking on fresh-caught salmon spread and shaking hands with a bearded sourdough or two.

Another circling parade of red floatplanes split the peace of Flathorn Lake and then it's back to Lake Hood.

Maybe the end is the best part for Rust and his gang of pilots. The comments. The sincere thanks. The pat on the back and the assurance that they completed another unique flying assignment with gusto. The pilots know that Alaska has 40-some new friends, and they know they made it happen.

"This was the best part of our trip," said one tourist.

"Awesome," said another.

"My daughter will never believe this," giggled a white-haired lady from Florida, and pity any thug who would try to rip the cameraa from her clutch.

According to the Alaska Division of Tourism estimates, in excess of 100,000 tourists each year take at least one flightseeing trip while visiting the state. Rust Flying Service alone caters to nearly 10,000 flightseers.

"The most popular tour is to Mt. McKinley," said Rust, adding that during typical summers, the 20,000-foot mountain, the highest peak in North America, is lost in the clouds about 25 percent of the time. Because of that and the constantly changing weather around the coastal area, he offers an equally enjoyable flight to another attraction on those low ceiling days.

"We've never had to cancel a bus tour because we have so many choices," he said. Flightseeing over Columbia Glacier and a salt water landing amidst the splendor of Prince William Sound is another of Rust's favorite trips.

Although flightseeing focuses on low, VFR piloting over some of Alaska's most remote and rugged terrain, it is, by its very nature, one of the safest aviation activities. No frightseeing done here. No chancy routes and no turbulent air. The thrills are in the sights not the flights.

Rust's safety record is unblemished and that includes a business history of 30 years of "off the water" flying.

"We don't do dare devil stuff, and we never fly when the weather is bad. Flightseeing is showing off the state at its best, not when it's bad out or dangerous," said Rust, adding that the safety record coupled with the excitement of flying over the plentiful wildlife and unequalled scenery of Alaska made it possible for the family business to be a leader in developing the flightseeing industry, now a significant part of the tourism business.

Rust has been so successful at marketing flightseeing that during the peak of the season, top tour groups keep his 35-member staff, including 11 pilots and two mechanics, hopping. The fleet flies so much that at least two airplanes are 100 houred each week.

Strapped in the left seat of one of Rust's nine perfectly maintained floatplanes is the place to be according to Lake Hood pilots. In fact, a pilot's position with Rust is one of the most coveted jobs in Alaska, a state which is widely known as a top spot for aviation related jobs. Sure, any bush flying job is a dream job, but to be able to mix daily shuttles of anglers, hunters, and bush-bound freight with a bus load of camera-ready tourists, is the best of the best.

"It isn't like work at all," according to Rust, who still enjoys sharing every flight and every sight with customers. In fact, the best flightseeing pilots are those who like to share their hard-earned knowledge of the wilderness with "outsiders" from the lower 48 and other parts of the world. "The most outgoing pilots are the best at it," said Rust.

Of course some legendary Alaskan pilots (mostly deceased) are well known for their seat-of-the-pants flying skills, spirit of adventure, and free-wheeling nature, but that doesn't make it with Rust. Certainly, each of the pilots bring vast experienced and well-honed skills to the job but there is no room for free-lancers in the fleet.

"When we do the groups, we must know where we are and where everyone else it — all the time," stressed Rust, referring to the pilot briefing and instruction that take place before every flight. And, if coordinating a formation of seven or eight floatplanes sounds complicated, picture this.

Rust, on occasion, has been asked to fly larger groups, some of them stretching his resources to the limit. Try flying 60 anglers to their destination in the morning then returning to Lake Hood to entertain a couple hundred flightseeing passengers. Oh, and don't forget, those 60 anglers and their stringers of salmon need to be picked up in the evening. Thank goodness, an Alaska summer day is close to 18 hours long.

Flightseeing is a relatively new phenomena in Alaska. Hank Rust, 73, Todd's father and founder of the flying service, remembers the days when all of his flying was transporting outdoors enthusiasts to remote areas.

During the 1970s, Hank, a sharp entrepreneur, saw a market niche, tourist who didn't care about getting from point A to point B. They just wanted to see Alaska. It just grew from there, according to the elder Rust. And yes, Hank Rust is still as ready and able to take a group flightseeing as the next pilot. That is, if he hasn't pulled rank and jumped off somewhere in his refurbished Super Cub, the airplane he started the business with in 1963.

Believe it or not, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the popular television series, Northern Exposure, have brought tourism to Alaska and flightseeing customers to Rust's docks. Alaska, especially in the last 10 years, has become a mainstream stop for touring groups and vacationers.

So Mr. Todd Rust, you've shared your state, drew raving reviews from your passengers, delivered some fishermen, and dropped some packages. The day is about over and you have to be beat. Now what about your claime to the best job in the world? Not so, says pilot John Seaman, a Rust flyer with over 7,000 hours including 5,000 hours of flying floats under his safety belt.

"This is pure fun and I've got the best job," he brags, but not before Andy Fowler, a 10,000-hour, 37-year-old bush pilot, claims that he, a pilot who has done nothing in his life but fly and who has practiced his trade all over the world, has the best job in the world.

But don't fret, before anything gets out of hand, they all share a love for floatplanes, a talent for entertaining awestruck tourists, and deep appreciation for the world of flight. You see, it never gets old. Fly the same route 1,000 times and see something different and more interesting each time. Lucky fellow, that Todd Rust.

Alaska's Right Stuff

What it takes to fly in the great white north

>Who flies for Rust? It takes 2,000 total hours, 500 floats, and 500 in Alaska to get a second look. Add to that, an impeccable safety record. Of course pilots need to be good, technically and in practice, but a thorough knowledge of Alaska is most important. Most Rust pilots have 7,000 to 8,000 hours and they range up from there. One has close to 30,000 hours. Typically, job openings are few and far between because most Rust pilots return each year. Keep in mind, however, there are many flying services in Alaska.

The flying season is short, only a few months. Most Alaska pilots do something else in the winter or travel to other flying jobs. Many of Rust's pilots are AOPA members.

Seaplane Central

Where seaplanes are a way of life

>Lake Hood is the busiest seaplane base in the world, with flying activity ranging to 80,000 operations each year. Keep in mind that the year for Alaska seaplanes is short, just a few months worth of open water, but the days are long with only a few hours of total darkness each night. It's not unusual to have several floatplanes lined up to take off and more in the pattern above waiting to land. Every pilot who travels to Alaska owes it to themselves to keep at least one day free just to nose around Lake Hood.

Lake Hood is adjacent to Anchorage International and has its own tower-based controller. It is actually two lakes, Hood and Lake Spenard. Taxiway anad waterlane canals join the lakes, creating a long east-west primary waterlane.

Besides several commercial flying services based on Lake Hood, the shorelines are filled with private floatplanes and there is a hard surface runway for wheeled planes as well. The private slips are coveted by families and it is nearly impossible to get one unless an airplane owner dies and the family relinquishes it.

To find out more about flightseeing, contact Rust Flying Service, Post Office Box 190325R, Anchorage, Alaska 99519; 800/544-2299, or contact the State of Alaska, Division of Tourism, 3601 C Street, Suite 700, Anchorage, Alaska 99503; 907/563-2167.

Mike Tontimonia, AOPA 1086730, has accumulated more than 400 hours in five years of flying and owns a Luscombe 8E.