Living the dream

Learning, and teaching, float flying in Alaska

Katie Writer

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." Goethe's famous quote summarized the ingredients needed when I began my job as a flight instructor on floatplanes in Talkeetna, in south-central Alaska.

A job for an air taxi operation in western Alaska several years earlier had given me an introduction to the Alaska floatplane environment. That job description entailed loading and fueling floatplanes, painting docks, and being a warm body at hunting camps in the fall. As a 90-hour private pilot, I realized that I needed a seaplane rating, exposure to floatplanes, and an introduction to bush flying; Tikchik Airventures in Dillingham, Alaska, was my starting point.

At age 30, I decided to become a bush pilot in Alaska. As a late bloomer to a flying career, following Goethe's wisdom provided some lasting mojo in becoming a flight instructor. My mentor and instructor, Al Richardson, played another role in this process. Richardson flies de Havilland Beavers on floats for Mission Lodge in western Alaska during the summer and fall, and he is a flight instructor in Truckee, California, during the winter.

Role reversal

Instructor becomes the student

Katie Writer and Ian Twombly

There comes a time in every pilot's -- and flight instructor's -- life when he or she may contract a potentially serious airborne illness: boredom. This may happen on the thirtieth practice ILS approach or power-off stall of the month. No matter when you may experience this, finding your personal medicine is essential to keeping flying fresh, exciting, and fun. I was recently cured during an adventure while learning to fly floats in central Alaska.

Arriving at Alaska Floats and Skis on Christiansen Lake in Talkeetna, I saw my instructor, Katie Writer, water taxi in with another student. I looked out over the water and lush green hills beyond, and I knew immediately that this was going to be a very fulfilling few days.

I was thrilled to once again become a student of flight. As an instructor, it is sometimes tedious to be the one who is always talking, explaining, and critiquing. An opportunity to learn new concepts or experience new facets of aviation is a welcome change indeed. Becoming a student again allows us to look within ourselves and take stock of those learning and teaching styles that we first absorbed when training to become a CFI. Knowing how you personally react to instruction often allows you as a teacher to more effectively communicate with your students.

My first lesson with Writer was an eye-opener. I began the training with the notion that float flying(that's seaplane for all those in the "lesser 48") was going to be like exactly like flying an aircraft with wheels, with the exception of takeoffs and landings. Nothing could be further from the truth. It started in ground school. You mean there are new regulations that I have to learn? was my first thought. Because flying an aircraft on floats allows the pilot the freedom to land on either water or land, depending on the hardware, there are many new considerations to learn before taking the plunge.

For example, many pilots already know that nothing in FAR Part 91 requires a pilot to land on a runway. This isn't a particularly important point for the average pilot. However, for the seaplane pilot, it is essential to the beginning of an understanding that although not restricted by the FAA, other entities govern seaplanes on many waterways around the country. There are many other new rules that an aspiring floatplane pilot must comprehend.

From your first step on the dock, you realize that float flying is going to present challenges that most pilots would never dream of tackling. For starters, the airplane is floating. This may seem obvious, but imagine checking the prop, spinner, and alternator belt while standing on a "tightrope" between two floats that are supporting a rocking Piper Tri-Pacer.

After demonstrating a standard takeoff, Writer turned over the airplane's controls to me at a few hundred feet. Immediately we started yawing left and right. "Wait. You mean it's different in the air too?" I exclaimed. The reality is that it is very different in the air. Because the floats add so much more surface area to the airplane when exposed to the wind, the yaw stability is much less than that of a landplane. Thus, the pilot must concentrate much more on the "rudder" of stick and rudder than is normally the case.

She demonstrates glassy and rough water landings, as well as plow taxiing -- a nose-high taxi that's faster than idling -- and step-taxiing, a high-speed taxi in which the airplane has enough speed to be on the keel of the float on top of the water, but not fast enough to be flying. In addition to looking at my own learning behavior as a lesson for my teaching, I'm also observing Writer and her instructional style. I find that she reminds me of myself. She is easygoing in the airplane and uses her outgoing personality as a way to communicate the concepts. Often when I look over she is smiling bigger than I am, which makes me feel comfortable. As a result, I find that I am picking up the techniques fairly well. I consider the student/instructor relationship to be the crucial piece of effective teaching and learning. If a high-time pilot can't convey concepts effectively, it doesn't matter how much experience he or she brings to the table, because the student will not absorb the material.

After a few days of lake-hopping around central Alaska with Denali in the background, I am ready for my checkride. As usual, I fly terribly on the ride, though according to Don Lee, the school's chief pilot and designated examiner, it was good enough to meet the standard.

I walk away from Alaska Floats and Skis a better pilot. Learning to fly floats does not involve a tremendous amount of new knowledge, though it does require the pilot to expand on a few topics that we all experience in training -- namely judgment and stick-and-rudder flying. In general, the add-on rating to either the private or commercial pilot certificate takes from five to 10 flight hours. Much of that is spent performing takeoffs, landings, and various exercises on the surface.

Reflecting on my new rating, I realized that float flying was what I had been searching for since my first lesson in a Cessna 152. It was fun. I flew nine hours without landing on a runway, flying a traffic pattern, or using the radio. Ask yourself why you learned to fly in the first place. Sure, some may have career aspirations or see dollar signs, but we all learn because it is supposed to be an adventure and a new way to experience life. If flying has become mundane, or if you just want to add more lines to that ticket, learn to fly floats. It's the most effective medicine that money can buy.

Ian Twombly is an aviation technical specialist with AOPA's Pilot Information Center. He is a CFI with commercial, multiengine land, and single-engine seaplane ratings.

During my private pilot training, he wholeheartedly shared his wealth of bush flying knowledge and lived up to his reputation of doing things differently. He never referred to the practical test standards or federal aviation regulations, and he did not follow the common procedures of a traffic pattern. When he told others that he was grooming me as his replacement, he meant it. Richardson felt responsible for my future as a bush pilot, and teaching me the craft of float flying was more than a seaplane rating in a weekend.

During the three months I was a gofer for Tikchik Airventures, Richardson taught me the extended version of a seaplane rating in a Piper Super Cub on floats. We logged 2.5 hours on the airplane before even leaving the water. Handling a seaplane on water in various conditions requires more skill than you'd ever imagine. We practiced docking, beaching, sailing, and step taxiing on Shannon's Pond with the welcomed distraction of swans, loons, and incoming air taxi flights.

The obvious differences of seaplane operations present their not-so-obvious skills of adaptation to the water environment. Taxiing from one end of the pond to the other in a stiff breeze will humble you, step taxiing during calm conditions will scare you, and docking for the first time will likely embarrass you. There are no brakes or yellow lines or consistency of procedures when returning a seaplane to its starting point. After that first lesson, I observed the actions of other pilots with greater appreciation of their skill. Merely getting in and out of the Super Cub and stepping onto the dock without falling into the water was a challenge. "These floats aren't like bumper cars, Katie," Richardson said.

Mountains Central Alaska

The first flight away from our training pond into Wood-Tikchik State Park exceeded all expectations of float flying. With the extensive amount of water and possible landing zones in an airplane that becomes a boat, flying 100 feet above the surface is comfortable. The sense of lawlessness permeates in the wind. We practiced multiple takeoffs and landings on the Wood River without the confinement of a traffic pattern. The sensational transition of touching down on the water in a Super Cub makes you feel like Luke Skywalker.

Here's how a touch and go feels: As the airplane descends and touches the water, you add power to keep the floats from settling into the water -- also known as remaining "on the step." It feels like water skiing on perfectly smooth water. Surreal and sublime come to mind. Adding more power with a slight pull of the stick breaks the friction of the floats, and as you become airborne, the river shrinks below. The freedom of flying among 10- and 20-mile-long lakes, surrounded by water cascading down 4,000-foot mountains, becomes the fairy tale that you never could have imagined. We practiced steep turns and slow flight while feeling the force. "Watch our shadow on the water," said Richardson. As it passed over a school of salmon, they scattered with the speed of lightning. The life force is off the scale, and while taking it all in, Al shook my seat, "I just had to introduce you to your destiny, Katie!"

About $25,000 of flight training and three years later, I was a flight instructor in Truckee -- and increasingly homesick for Alaska. A friend's suggestion that I become a bush pilot in California ignited my fire, and I spent considerable time surfing the Internet for pilot positions in Alaska. The required 500 hours of Alaska flight experience and 1,000 hours total time were discouraging.

Sheep River

I called Richardson for some advice, and he related some success stories of people building float time as flight instructors in Alaska. I remembered the saying, "Sometimes you just have to show up at the right time." I had followed Goethe's advice by boldly spending many, many dollars on required ratings -- including the commercial seaplane rating, required to teach on floats -- yet I was desperately asking for the seemingly missing ingenuity ingredient. What Alaska employer would hire me to be a floatplane instructor when I had spent little time flying solo in one?

At the 2004 Women in Aviation Conference in Reno, Nevada, I met Julie Trippe, a flight instructor who had taught for Alaska Floats and Skis in Talkeetna. She beamed when she talked about her experiences there. And she said that Don Lee, the business's owner, was looking a CFI with float experience. I contacted him immediately and found him to be a friendly individual interested in looking at my r�sum�. He liked the fact that I had spent a summer in Alaska in the floatplane bush environment, and he was willing to give me a chance. We started off with the agreement that I'd come up for a couple of weeks for a trial period. I arrived in Anchorage with luggage for a year. In addition to my stuff, we managed to fit a newly purchased water heater, washer, and dryer into Lee's bright yellow Xterra. The fellows at the Anchorage Sears were impressed with his creative car-loading ability; they didn't know about his 20-plus years packing gear and supplies into simple bush planes.

Although Goethe's wisdom was keeping me afloat with my dreams, the elements of fear and intimidation played a considerable role that first month as a green floatplane instructor. That first day as we launched the Taylorcraft into the water, I jumped in the lake to fend the wing away from another airplane. It didn't take long to realize that the lake ice had just melted.

Lee fulfilled his promise to train me to his safety standards in Alaska Floats and Skis' 100-horsepower Taylorcraft on 1947 Edo floats. I flew 20 hours that month, just getting to know the airplane and a 20-square-mile area that would be the training grounds for our school. Based at Lake Christiansen, where a handful of seaplanes were docked, the setting is ideal. The Talkeetna airport sits just a mile northwest of the lake, and Denali National Park, 20 miles north, provides a spectacular view. I always took time to take photos of students having the time of their lives with Mount McKinley towering in the background. Acquiring a seaplane rating in the wilds of Alaska has unique appeal.

One student, Jim Defrank, was my job security for the month of June. He pre-purchased 20 hours of float flying upon arrival from Chicago in his van with motorcycle in tow. I appreciated his leap of faith; Defrank wants to be a bush pilot in Alaska. While I taught him everything I knew about float flying, he taught me to be a better flight instructor simply by being the student eager to fly day after day.

Lee flew scenic tours of Denali for Talkeetna Aero Service as chief pilot but was happy and relieved to see that we had returned with smiles on our faces each evening. His 15-foot sailboat made for relaxing down time after a day of intense seaplane training, and if it was too windy to go flying, it was optimal for sailing. Goethe's wisdom was really working for me. And I was no longer the gofer with hopes for my piloting future -- I was living it!

Defrank had taken some time away from flying after earning his private pilot certificate and needed extra work on navigation. There are few roads in Alaska and when the clouds hide the obvious northern landmark of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the similar terrain of lakes, tundra, and rivers quickly misleads a new-to-the-area pilot. The Taylorcraft on floats required constant attention and right rudder input. In addition, the unfamiliarity of float flying can cause brain overload, and one day Defrank lost track of the direction of our starting point. As I waited for him to see that we were headed south to Anchorage instead of north to Talkeetna, he became fidgety with the silence. After a few minutes, he spoke up. "Hey, this doesn't seem right. Those mountains over there are different. Where are we?"

"I'm glad you noticed, I thought we were headed to Anchorage for a Costco run," I replied. He pulled out the chart and began searching. It's a lot harder to find out where you are up here if you stray from familiar territory, we agreed.

Another day, while exploring new territory up the Talkeetna River to Stephan Lake, smoke from fires in the interior made for poor visibility. That day's flight lesson was about decision making and good judgment. The ceiling was just below the 3,000-foot peaks, and as we climbed up the canyon over the chocolate-colored rapids, the options for emergency landings were minimal. Silently I sat, a very difficult task for a CFI, and the haze worsened as the rpm and Defrank's blood pressure quickened. "What's your plan, Jim?" I interrupted while pulling back the throttle and checking under the left wing. He knew I already had one and had the feeling of being stumped again by the situation.

As we circled in an open area that was soon to be behind us if we continued, I explained the importance of eddying out like a boat in order to make a decision rather than racing nervously ahead. "I'd say the visibility is getting worse, and we ought to turn around," I suggested. We did so, and sure enough the terrain that we had just flown over looked different from this vantage point. "Pull out the chart," I said, sounding like Richardson, who was big on dead reckoning and pilotage. "It's helpful that the river flows down to the bigger rivers where our home base is, so that's our first clue as to which river branch to follow."

"Wow, this country is deceiving," Defrank responded, and I had to agree.

As the summer progressed into July, Lee invested in a Piper Pacer on Edo 2000 floats. This 160-hp floatplane had a different demeanor than the cute little Taylorcraft, and students were able to concentrate on broader things than just keeping the airplane coordinated. The added horsepower and bigger floats made for easier takeoffs and landings, and the increased useful load meant we could carry more fuel.

Shortly after the new airplane arrived, Ian Twombly arrived from Maryland for his commercial seaplane rating (see "Role Reversal," p. 34). Twombly is an experienced CFI, which instantly gave my job some breathing room. He was teachable and quick to learn the take-off procedures and approach-to-landing techniques. "Your taildragger time is sure paying off here, Ian -- you have excellent control of the airplane," I said while taking pictures of the Tokosha Mountains. He had the biggest grin on his face, and the love of float flying permeated the cockpit. "I could get used to this lifestyle," Twombly beamed.

Since early July days offer 20 hours of sunlight, he was eager to take on all the flying feasible in one day. I watched him fulfilling a dream of flying floats in Alaska, and this disease was contagious amongst Alaska Floats and Skis' students. Most everyone wants to be a bush pilot in Alaska, and this course was just the carrot-to-future-life decision-making temptation.

When teaching another CFI, the attention typically focused on the student and his or her every move is replaced with the shared joy of flight. There is a mutual respect. I enjoyed the way Twombly was flightseeing, different than my own, and it reminded me to be piloting friends' passengers some days rather than PIC. I was entertained by exploring new country and taking photos of thunderstorms developing in the Alaska Range. The puffy steel-gray clouds provided an incredible contrast to the various greens of the valleys and the deep blues of the lakes below. We both were in awe; Alaska was sharing her magic.

That same day, Twombly still had to pass his checkride. Don Lee, the designated examiner, decided to perform the checkride on Lake Christiansen, where we had done little flying. It is smaller than the other training lakes and has residents with whom we wish to keep a positive rapport. The pressure of any checkride often creates a funny nervousness that only the one in the hot seat feels.

He passed his commercial seaplane checkride, and we were floats off the water, heading for Anchorage, by 9:30 pm. In early July, there are still four hours of the midnight sunlight. The visibility was 70 miles, and as we descended toward Lake Hood, the world's largest seaplane base, Twombly was busy talking to Anchorage Approach while simultaneously gawking at the view. I was snapping pictures with my camera and his camera and my other digital camera, eliciting laughter from both of us. We were kids in the candy store and wanted to have evidence.

Twombly stuck the glassy-water landing ever so smoothly in the channel and step taxied to one of the fingers where his friend was waiting. My job was not done yet at 11:30 p.m.; I had to fly the Pacer safely back to Talkeetna. During the next hour of flight, the extended sunset lit up the sky, and I was at peace with my destiny.

Katie Writer is a CFII in Talkeetna, Alaska, for Alaska Floats and Skis. She is a freelance writer and photographer and is known to be out trekking around the mountains on her skis in the winter.

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Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Flight Training Online.

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