Water World

Where airplanes have floats, and everybody flies.

During a tranquil moment at Lake Hood, the world’s largest seaplane base, a Piper PA-14 skims a watery runway (Adam Wright / FlightDeckImages)
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About a thousand aircraft have congregated at Lake Hood, where nearly 200 takeoffs and landings occur daily.

For residents and visitors, however, the conjoined lakes are much more than an aquatic aerodrome. Wonderfully accessible to the public—the lakes are circumscribed by a two-lane road and a pedestrian path—it is also a place to take the kids and walk the dog. Unlike most urban airports, it is not coveted by hungry developers; Anchorage likes Lake Hood as it is.

One reason for its popularity is that the Lake Hood complex takes us back to an earlier style of aviation, when runways were mostly level patches of grass or gravel and bodies of water. There are few places left where you can watch a 60-year-old de Havilland Beaver in gleaming vermilion livery step-taxi across the water like an out-sized Gar Wood runabout, and hear the old radial’s nine cylinders pounding like the hammers of Asgard on takeoff.

In some ways, and under ideal conditions, seaplanes are easier to fly than other aircraft. Ideal conditions may exist at takeoff from Lake Hood, but not at landing in some remote destination. “Next time you fly,” advises one pilot, “try touching down with your eyes closed. That’s about the way it is out in the bush in the dark.” Without runways, you don’t worry about crosswinds, and, in coastal Alaska, the whole world is your airfield. But stir in plummeting temperatures, lowering stratus clouds, high winds, and dirty weather, and a seaplane loaded up to its gross weight—and then turn out the lights—and you begin to see the challenge.

Government safety pamphlets are full of photos showing tails sticking out of the water, generally the result of a pilot’s failure to keep that nose up on landing. Touching down in isolated lakes and braided rivers, you have to look out for floating and sub-surface debris, avoid encroaching trees, and read the wind and currents, always keeping in mind that seaplanes land short but take off long—you don’t want to set down on a lake that’s too small for a takeoff.

At the Lake Hood base, the shore is rimmed with leased seaplane slips—500 of them. The allocation of slips says a lot about the Alaskan aeronautical mindset. “There’s a waiting list for slips and commercial leases,” says Dee Hanson, the executive director of the Alaska Airmen’s Association. Her office is a small cabin on what is called Airmen’s Point. “It used to be 17 years. When kids were born, people put their names on the list.” The expectation was that if the child were a normal Alaska child, by the time she got her slip, she would have a license and an airplane. The current waiting time is about seven years, according to Hanson, who flies her grandfather’s Super Cub 150A.

The slips cost $105 a month, plus another $10 for commercial operations, and they are not intended for stashing derelicts one hopes to fix up someday. All the aircraft in the Lake Hood slips are airworthy.

But they are not young. Most date from the 1970s, or earlier. Here and there one encounters something extraordinary: an immaculate Cessna 195 on floats, a Grumman Widgeon. Super Cubs and antique Aeroncas line the shore, along with a host of 1960s and 1970s Cessnas. The newest airplane on the lake is probably a white RV9A two-seat homebuilt, sitting toy-like on floats as dainty as dancing pumps.

The commercial operators here lean more toward the Cessna 206 and the big classics: de Havilland Beavers and Otters, some converted to turbine power, and the turbine-powered Cessna 208 Caravan.

Pilots brag about the older airplanes’ ability to fly with whatever can be loaded into, or onto, them. The old de Havillands take off with lumber, sea kayaks, an aluminum fishing boat, snow machines, and various other bulky objects strapped to the floats, the cabins stuffed with a four-by-four vehicle or a rank of 55-gallon fuel drums—or a half-dozen passengers.

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