Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Alaska Float Plane Follies

We finally bought a small, ancient float/ski plane to help us get to and from our off-road home. What a difference this has made to my sense of isolation and worry about emergency medical care. We aren't at the “honey, we're out of milk” stage, but we can much more easily and spontaneously fly half hour to a nearby town when we are out of basics or to a lovely lake for a picnic or to one of the fun festivals around Alaska.

Our excellent carpenter leaves our dock

Getting in and out of the plane itself, though, is not so easy. The Piper PA-20 has two doors, but the one on the port side is behind the front seats, for cargo access. The pilot and passenger enter through the door on the starboard side. Since my husband prefers to fly from the port seat (a plane has two pairs of steering wheels, rudder pedals, etc), he enters first. Once he is ready to go, I untie the float ropes from the dock cleats, step onto the float with one leg while pushing us away from the dock with the other. Then, I climb as quickly as I can up into my seat, since he doesn't start the propeller until I am inside and meanwhile, we are drifting with the wind.

At some locations, and virtually all summer at our lake because of wind direction, the access door is on the side AWAY from the dock. To get in, we have to walk across a tight wire stretched between the fronts of the two floats, grabbing onto the cowling and nose cone (but not the propeller) for balance. Once on the other side, we walk along the float, swing under the two angled wing struts and THEN climb up into the plane. I have to do this AFTER I have kicked the plane away from the dock, while it is floating toward wherever, and as my husband is invariably yelling, “Hurry up! The wind is pushing us the wrong direction!”

Exiting is even more disconcerting. Never one to give advance notice when last minute instructions will do, my husband simply said, “Out” the first time we landed at another lake. He had cut the engine so that inertia and wind would take us to shore.

  “What do you mean “out,” I asked, with obvious incredulity. “We are in the middle of a deep lake!”
   “You need to let me know if I am coming into the dock at the right angle, and then jump onto it to secure the plane (because visibility is poor below the nose). Now!” 

With grave reservations, I opened the door of the plane, hoping I could see something informative through the window. No dice.  Then I climbed down the skinny L shaped step to the float, hoping the door wouldn't bang into me.  I leaned out beyond the door while clinging to the wing strut. We were obviously coming in too fast and at too steep an angle to dock properly. 

  “Stop!” I yelled (which is not a useful term, since float planes have no brakes). We bounced off the dock.

  “Paddle,” my husband instructed. 

  “What do you mean, paddle???” Looking around, I noticed for the first time a banged up, well used wooden paddle clipped to the inside of the float. With not a bone in my body believing it would work, I knelt down on the float (which is not a comfortable position) and did indeed successfully maneuver the plane toward the dock, where, thank goodness, someone had witnessed our hapless approach and arrived to secure the plane.

Drifting into shore once the engine
 has been cut

From this and other early experiences, I now know to wear waders every time we fly. Some of the lakes we visit are very shallow and the put in points don't have docks at all. We just chug in toward the shallows, where I jump out into the water and pull the plane in by the long float ropes, tying them to ubiquitous willow bushes. Other times, like this warm, dry summer, the lake levels drop so much that we can't actually float to a dock, but get bogged down in the muck some distance away. In those cases, I have to do the same thing – jump into the water and tow it forward, feeling like Humphrey Bogart in “African Queen.”

One of these days I'd like to bark, “Out” to my husband at some surprising time. I just haven't found the right circumstance yet. Suggestions?  

If you want to see some exciting flying in Alaska then check out Discovery Channel's "Flying Wild Alaska".

If you enjoyed this article, please be so kind as to post it to or link it at your favorite social media sites.   -- Thanks,  Laura 


  1. Sisterly Advice from Sara: Instead of "out", try walking away from the plane and tell him you are on strike and to grab the paddle. (>:

  2. I wanted to say how much entertainment I received from your blog entry about wrangling the plane in high winds and being told "out." The first time I wound up in the mud while trying to do what you did I would have seethed the whole trip but you took the high road and realized you just needed to wear waders. However, I think Bryan just figured out that if he said he has to use the right side that you would be left to do the wrangling. How about if you learn to fly so he can go into the water when necessary???? I have to say you are a much better sport about it all than I would ever be. :-) -- in Texas