(November 2011) Alaska is a state with a few hundred runways, about 13,000 roads and more than 3 million lakes. With so many options for landing sites, it is no wonder that Alaskan summer skies are filled with all kinds of aerial watercraft with pilots on their way to visit neighbors, load up on groceries, deliver supplies to remote settlers or drop hikers, hunters and fishermen into lodges to enjoy the abundant wildlife, untouched wilderness and clean air.
While it is prudent to verify that a lake is open for public use prior to dropping in, most lakes in Alaska can be used for seaplane operations. There are also around 140 official seaplane bases in the state. One of those seaplane bases is Christiansen Lake (AK8), a small lake with more seaplanes than homes and lots of tall trees. It is located in the outskirts of the tiny, touristy village of Talkeetna in the pristine flatlands below the great 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. Nestled in a small bay in Christiansen Lake is a flight school called Alaska Floats & Skis, specializing in bush plane, skiplane and seaplane flight training.
I met Don Lee, the founder and owner of the school, during a vacation several years ago, and I was thrilled to return to Alaska Floats & Skis to get my seaplane rating.
My flight instructor was Esther Hershberg, who had been working there for four summers. After a ground school session in which Esther discussed seaplane regulations and basic operations, and performance characteristics of the Tri-Pacer on floats in which I was to conduct my training, we went out to preflight the small blue-and-white airplane. Esther showed me how to use a simple plastic pump to remove the water inside the floats. Even a small amount of water can be a serious safety issue since it adds a significant amount of weight — more than 8.3 pounds per gallon — to the airplane.
Though the space in the Tri-Pacer’s cockpit was limited, I was able to pretzel myself into the airplane. Even though I’m fairly tall, I still had to sit on top of a life jacket and put a pillow behind my back in order to see over the Tri-Pacer’s cowl — a necessity according to Esther.
As habit would have it, I stepped on the brakes to get ready to start up. Even though this habit is crucial when you’re on the ground, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference when starting up the airplane at the dock in front of Alaska Floats & Skis.
With the immediate movement, it is critical to know that the path of intended travel is clear of airplanes, docks, boats, swimmers or any other things that may get harmed or harm the airplane. Fortunately, steering a seaplane on the water is quite easy (at least with light winds) with help from the water rudders, which are linked to the rudder pedals.
While we water-taxied slowly through the scenic lake, Esther explained how to look for the wind direction and how to find the optimal departure path. Small ripples had formed on the water’s surface from the slight wind, and a tall sailboat parked in front of the home base also pointed out the wind direction for us.