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Floatplane Sanctuary

The ice has melted in the hood

Rust's Flying Service's de Havilands and Cessnas reflect like spilled red paint across the lake's water. It's 6:30 a.m.

A Day in the Life of America's Airports

Rust's Flying Service's de Havilands and Cessnas reflect like spilled red paint across the lake's water. It's 6:30 a.m. and the dazzling sky rouses the world's largest floatplane base, harboring some 1,000 aircraft. A serene, cool morning unfolds while Rust's 206 — with three fishermen, their gear, and the pilot — departs without delay for a remote Alaskan fishing hole; the anglers are eager to fill the ice box to the brim with fish by day's end.

The lake ripples as waterfowl fish breakfast under the eaves of numerous idyllically painted float slip shacks dotting the shores of Lake Hood and Lake Spenard. A Continental 230 engine splits the early morning stillness as an aircraft lines up with a channel connecting the two lakes. One float breaks free from the glassy surface to release the aircraft into breathtaking Alaskan scenery.

Cars spill pilots in tall wading boots eager to open cabins in the vast wilderness unreachable by road. But Lake Hood is caught between seasons. Four feet of ice melted within the past three weeks, energizing land-locked pilots to feverishly replace aircraft skis and wheels with floats.

A Piper PA-14 sways precariously above the water suspended from the boom of Steve Bryant's truck. As the lake receives the little airplane, a group of pilots begins a heated discussion about their senator's tie-breaking vote keeping user fees in the Senate's FAA funding bill — a palpable threat to Alaska with six times as many pilots per capita and 16 times as many aircraft per capita compared to other states.

As the day unfolds, Dick Betz, local icon and historian, drives his antique-red boom-truck to assist with the transitions to floats. Aeronca N1425H landed on ice last week and a sandbar this morning, now eager to kiss the water. At 88, Betz expertly maneuvers his truck to hoist the airplane off the ground. "Historic, just like me," he quips, of his '52 military vehicle. He waits patiently for the Aeronca's wheels to come off, and produces family pictures, one of his "sweetheart and love of his life," Lavelle, 81.

It's after 6 p.m. Rust's early morning pilot clocked only 6.3 on the Hobbs. "Folks got married; had to wait," she says matter-of-factly while munching a leftover wedding cookie and recording her flight time, before darting out.

Like a small gem on a mirror, Lavelle's Piper Super Cub glitters bathing in the lake's warm glow. The late-evening sun creeps horizontally across the lake.

Will the sun ever set?

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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