The Caravan’s pilot, Mark Stadsklev, came to aviation almost by accident. After high school in Nebraska, he fell victim to wanderlust: “I bought a motorcycle and went out to California.” He worked as a waiter, roofer, chimney sweep, scuba diver, and actor, and earned a theater degree from the University of Oregon. But he changed his path: He entered a flight technology program at a community college and, two years on, got piloting credentials. He discovered immediately that you don’t fly professionally in Alaska without many years of experience, so he returned to Oregon for a time, then got a job with Forty-Mile Air, in Tok, a tiny Alaskan community about 60 miles west of the Canadian line.
“I don’t think we ever took a tourist flight,” he says. “Kids, prisoners, gold miners, fuel. Everything. In and out of villages. Highways, dirt strips. We flew year-round. I was there about five years.”
Back in central Alaska, Stadsklev flew for a time with Frontier Flying Service. After a few years of floatplane experience, he took a job with Rust’s, as chief pilot.
On this day, Stadsklev puts the Caravan down on Lake George, high in a narrow mountain valley, and taxis up close to the crumbling rim of the advancing glacier to show his passengers the four-story wall of ice that has shattered into giant translucent molars. Back in the air, he flies close enough to the sheer mountainsides so that the passengers see the occasional Dahl sheep, balanced high on shards of black granite.
Stadsklev is not sentimental about his work, or about aircraft—to cowboys, most of the time a horse is just a horse. But, as cowboys must be, he is keenly aware he follows a precarious profession. One of the only sure things in aviation is that there will always be more pilots than airplanes. “Owners have no incentive to pay things like retirement or medical,” says Stadsklev. “No pilots’ union, like there is for taxicabs, forklifts, roofers.” A talented professional photographer, he sees himself migrating into the arts. But he gives no sign that he’s ready to stop flying in Alaska.
“In spite of a life of chronic unemployment,” Todd Rust says, “most Rust’s pilots return each season for a four- to five-month job. I’ve got pilots who’ve been with me for 10 years or better, and some off and on for 20 years. There’s something about the job that keeps these guys coming back year after year. And it’s not the benefits, of which there are darn few in a seasonal position. There’s a base monthly salary and an hourly wage if they fly, yes, but they get paid to turn around and come back to base if the weather’s bad. Not everyone is cut out for our type of flying.”
In late September, a thin sheet of ice forms on Lakes Hood and Spenard. When the ice is six inches thick, airplane owners trade floats for wheels or skis, and the lakes become runways.
Most owners have traditionally had their floats installed at one of several float specialists on the lakeshore. According to Robert Tasker at Floats Alaska, the company used to do two full changes a day for a month and a half. This seasonal transformation, like everything, has changed. “More and more,” Tasker says, “they just haul their floatplanes out and let them sit out the winter.”
At Rust’s, the workforce drops from about 40 people to a dozen in winter. The big floatplanes are hauled out and stored.