Friday, February 3, 2012

Float and Ski Planes - No Roads, No Cars

A Cessna 185
(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura) 

Because Alaska is so vast, and because any arbitrary straight line intersects more mountain chains and bodies of water than people, it is sensible that Alaskans rely so much more heavily on air transportation than roads. A look at a map reveals very few highways, with numbers like Hwy 1 and Hwy 3!   Since the capital, Juneau, is squeezed in between mountains and the sea, it is accessible ONLY by air or water (and that is true for many communities).  Its grand total of 42 miles of road lead nowhere outside the municipality.  To drive elsewhere, Juneauans load their vehicles onto the Alaska Marine Highway ferries in order to depart at Haynes or Skagway for highway connections to the rest of the continent.  It is no surprise, therefore, that Alaska has the highest per capita ownership of private planes in the country, most of them small, old, beaten up, and beloved.  

With about 280,000 residents, the largest city in the state, Anchorage, contains about half of the state’s population. Logically, the city also hosts several airports for private planes.  The ones that visitors are likely to encounter for flight tours are Merrill Field, primarily for wheeled planes, and Lake Hood, the largest float/ski plane airport in the world, adjacent to Ted Stevens International Airport (ANC).  We fly in and out of Lake Hood on float planes and ski planes to get to our bush cabin, because we have no roads or grass strips for a runway. 

What is it like to commute by float plane?  What would your experience be?

It is almost as convenient as a taxi (and the companies are referred to as air-taxis) but it is expensive.  A multi-hour commercial flight to Anchorage from most points in the lower 48 may cost $300.  A thirty minute air-taxi flight from Anchorage to our cabin costs $100 because the companies can’t spread the fuel costs across a lot of passengers. The planes are small – 4-11 people, including the pilot.  No peanuts.  No beverage service.  We usually fly in a Cessna 206 (4 seats), or a de Havilland Beaver (6), the latter of which is the “Dorian Grey” of planes.  The manufacturer stopped making it in 1959, but it is still in use – a rugged, reliable utility plane.  When we buy a lot of bulky purchases for gardening or construction, we have chartered a de Havilland Otter (which can otherwise seat 10 passengers). Any purchase requiring a larger vehicle for transport is pretty much unavailable to us unless it can be dismantled (although our one set of full time neighbors had a tractor delivered and dropped by helicopter).    

If you visited in Alaska and took a float or ski plane to someplace off the road system, such as a fishing or hunting lodge or a tour of Denali or glaciers, this is what you would experience:

Like any air reservation, you would need to book in advance.  Summer is when the air-taxis make most of their annual revenue and they are BUSY.  You may not get the exact departure time you want, and the flight may not be direct. Particularly if you are flying alone to some remote location that requires a lot of fuel, the company may schedule your flight in concert with passengers who can be dropped off at another lodge or cabin before or after you.  The alternative is for you to charter the whole plane. Like any taxi, these planes usually lack written schedules and will drop you off at private residences or commercial establishments.  Most air taxis do not fly in evening hours (due more to employment regulations than light). Because they fly VFR (by visual cues rather than by instrument only) due to frequent landings and take offs in locations that lack ground to plane communications, they do not fly in inclement weather where they can’t see well! 

These two limitations can disappoint eco-tourists on a short vacation, if fog, rain, or wind delays a much desired side trip.  I’ve heard irate tourists who couldn’t pilot a kite berate the guy behind the counter because the weather ("here") "isn’t that bad.'  I have another cup of coffee in the waiting area and think, “you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” 

 One year, my husband was stranded in Anchorage for four days before he could fly out to our cabin.  Another time, the air-taxi called us several hours before our intended departure and asked if we would like to leave ASAP to beat an incoming weather system or wait, and likely be stranded in situ. Fortunately, we had already delivered to them the bulky items which they could start loading while we dashed through the dairy section of Fred Meyer near Lake Hood to grab the most important perishables on our triaged shopping list.  Thank goodness they called us!  We flew out (a very bumpy ride) ahead of three straight days of rain.  Because such travel elements are different than many people may expect, I heartily encourage visitors to contact air taxi services before booking a whole itinerary, and once in Anchorage, make sure the company has your cell phone number.  And for goodness sakes, be flexible. Find out what time of year, time of day, or day of the week rhythms might impact elements of your otherwise highly organized itinerary.

What does a float plane airport look like?  When you turn off Spenard to Wisconsin Avenue and head toward Lakeshore Drive, you’ll see hundreds of little painted wooden sheds, usually 8x12, set along dredged fingers of the lake. Adjacent to each shed is docked a colorful float plane, usually a Cessna, a Piper Cub, or sometimes a Citabria.  In the winter, many pilots trade out their float kits for skis, but if they don’t, you see the planes all bundled up against the winter. Some of the more expensive planes are amphibious.  On these, the pilots can crank up the skis mid-air to free wheels for landing.  Because of the highly variable weather at sea level and in the mountains, and along the coast and in the interior, these are very useful!  We needed such a plane one April because our lake was still frozen, but Lake Hood had open water, so the pilot started with skis and ended with wheels on a tarmac adjacent to the lake.

 When you book a reservation with a professional air taxi, you may expect your cab to drive up to something like a terminal, but you won’t find one.  Each air taxi company has an office on the lake, ranging in size from a mobile home to a small house, with waiting areas inside and out. Maybe it has a flush toilet but perhaps just a porta-potty.  No restaurant, but they may offer T-shirts or caps for sale.  (In case your flight is delayed an hour or more, you may want to bring a snack or walk back to the Millennium Hotel and wait for them to call you.)  Adjacent to the office are storage sheds for bush deliveries.  Since remote cabins get no mail delivery, we order items on-line shipped to the air-taxi company we commonly use.  They kindly store the items in their sheds, sometimes for months, until we fly with them again.

A friend arrives on a Beaver
During the reservation process, the office will have previously asked about your weight and accompanying luggage/supplies in order to balance the plane properly.  Protocol hint: Don’t arrive late.  Showing up last minute with excessive weight may require repacking the plane for safety, which delays not only your flight, but also the next one using the same plane on the back haul from somewhere after you.   

Cargo is stowed in the rear of the plane directly behind the passengers (or else the seats can be folded flat for additional room) and then tied down under netting.  A multitude of small items that don’t suffer from the damp can be stowed in the floats themselves, like bags of canned goods.  Long items are strapped on top of the floats.  The largest item we transported this way was a 19.5 foot steel tube for the solar tracker, but I’ve also seen air taxis fly with kayaks, ladders, hunting carcasses and construction supplies strapped outside.  

To enter the plane, you clamber from the dock onto the float, grab a wing strut, swing one leg up about 18 inches to a little step and hoist yourself into a narrow seat.  If you are in the co-pilot’s seat, you will have leg room, but if you are in the rear row(s), you won’t.  Women should not wear short skirts or high heels or floppy sandals for this flight! The pilot gives you a required safety briefing (like where the homing device, axe, and emergency food are stored) and then you take off, wearing headphones to protect you from the noise and also enable you to hear communication with the tower and other planes, if you choose.  Since small planes like these are required to fly low (like 500 feet), often the pilot will point out moose or bear ambling along a creek, or a gaggle of geese or bright white swans on a lake below.

Once we cross Cook Inlet, there are no roads.  During the next ½ hour, we spot a few cabins scattered here and there along a river or around a lake. Upon arrival, the pilot circles our lake and the power tower my husband built (see blog), looking for obstructions in the water.  Then he lands into the wind for a natural aid to slowing down.  (Since our property had been unoccupied since a homesteader built and abandoned his little shed two decades before us, the first few summers, we spent many afternoons in the lake wearing waders, hauling away from the dock all the storm tossed tree debris that had piled up in front of our shore that could ensnare a float plane. We hauled out whole tree trunks with a come along and log dog, then chopped them up and dried out those exceptionally smooth logs for firewood.)     


Take off and landing in a float plane can be disconcerting the first time.  Whereas in a wheeled plane, the goal is to lift or land on both wheels at the same time for balance, in a float plane, the goal is to lift or land one float at a time because of the drag effect of water weight.  This angled tipping may seem counter intuitive to us landlubbers!  While the plane slowly motors to shore, whoever is in the co-pilot’s seat gets ready to jump out of the moving plane.  As soon as the plane touches the dock, he jumps down and grabs the under-wing rope to slow the forward motion and then ties the float ropes to the cleats or turns the plane around first for easier unloading. If the water is low and the plane heavy, it may bottom out some distance from the dock in our shallow lake, in which case, the pilot jumps out in his ubiquitous waders and pulls the plane to shore, reminding me of Humphrey Bogart pulling the African Queen.  Once docked, the pilot may stay within the plane to help unload from inside, or he may walk across a tightrope stretched between the front floats to get to the dock, holding onto the stilled propeller for balance.  While two of us start to unload the supplies, the other runs up hill to get the wheelbarrow (in summer, or the plastic sled, in winter) to move everything up to the cabin or outbuildings. 

Since air taxis (and their pilots) make the lion’s share of the revenue during Alaska’s short summer, unloading is a quick affair so the pilot can fit in as many flights as feasible during the day.  If tourists are on the plane with us, heading onto a fishing lodge, they often step down during unloading to stretch and take pictures of our little log cabin and outhouse. (“You live here? Really?  You have a real outhouse?”). 

Because of their busy summer flight schedule flying 14 hours days hither and yon, when pilots arrive with scheduled guests or supplies, I try to have a bag of home baked cookies or a sandwich and lemonade to hand them.  Otherwise, I am sure that they live on coffee and M&Ms. Every pilot has a host of interesting stories to tell, and during the off-season, when they aren’t so busy, we enjoy having them rest a bit on the front porch with us.  One was an ex-astronaut.  Most are ex-air force.  What must it be like to switch from such huge, expensive planes with fancy avionics to such beat up little bush planes?  They all say that they love it!    
Snow machines and ski planes
 to get anywhere

In the winter, we fly the same planes, but the floats have been switched out to skis. Since the planes are fully open for loading supplies, they are exactly as COLD as the ambient temperature until they get up in the air and the pilot turns on the heater. -20 degrees F feels really cold sitting in an open plane while some strap gets adjusted just right. Ski planes have no brakes and no focused landing goal like a dock.  They just land on the lake ice and we hope that the traction will get us pretty close to our cabin.  We unload the cargo on the ice next to the plane and then trudge through the snow to the cabin, where we keep a bright orange plastic sled handy with bungy cords for hauling the supplies up hill. (See blog on starting a winter fire) This year, Bryan wisely stored snowshoes at the air taxi shed in Anchorage.  This will save us the sweaty, exhausting work of sinking 2-3 feet with every step in deep powdery snow between the lake and the cabin.

I am sure that thousands of rural people around the country schedule their big trips to a regional city much as we do, clutching a neatly itemized shopping list and a tight schedule of visits with doctors and other service providers as well as friends and city-slicker enjoyments. Even in Anchorage, which you would think understands remote living better than most places, we encounter the spontaneity that city people everywhere take for granted, such as, “Can you come back tomorrow?  We are out of that today,” or “We are running an hour late, have a seat” or "Oops, you wanted that today?"   As a result, we assiduously call ahead to double check reservations and appointments.  We obsessively check schedules, a triaged shopping list, and bags and boxes full of items we’ve waited several months to acquire. It is really depressing to see a damp box of food split and spill craved items into the lake when it is unloaded from the plane or to have to rummage around in the cold water and mud under the dock looking for a small box of nails that broke through a thin Home Depot bag.  And because such inconveniences happen, we try hard to build in redundancies, such as two identical chain saws, and a “make something from nothing” attitude for cooking, entertainment and repairs. (see blogs on recipes and activities) I’ve learned to become more organized and respectful of other people’s time and adaptability, but perhaps by virtue of that, also more critical of those, particularly cavalier service providers and demanding customers, who are not. And it is always relaxing to be back home where the schedule for the ensuing months is whatever we want it to be.  
(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

1 comment:

  1. fangi-
    beautifully done & very informative to this city slicker.
    lova dad