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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More than 60 businesses and several government offices are arrayed along the lakeshore. Some of the enterprises are dedicated to keeping old aircraft maintained and updated. Some sell used airplanes or fuel, offer instruction, or provide storage for floats.

In some respects, the Lake Hood business community evokes the towns in movie westerns, with their shopkeepers, smiths, livery stables, rugged individuals, farmers, sharecroppers, and dynasties. In those settlements, everybody owns and rides a horse, but the only ones who make their living with one are cowboys. Everybody in this community flies, but only a handful make their living doing it.

Occupying a slip in Lake Spenard’s northeast corner is Ellison Air, run by John and Diana Ellison. A tiny manicured lawn and bank of flowers front a shack finished off like a dollhouse, and a sparkling Cessna 206 floats in its moorings by a narrow pier.

“I came here in 1967,” Ellison says. “My dad had been flying a Maule M4. I just grew up around floatplanes.”

He met his wife in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez spilled oil in Prince William Sound; he was hauling people and supplies, and she was working in Valdez as a helicopter dispatcher. They started Ellison Air with his father’s 206, then added a second 206 with a Robertson short-takeoff-and-landing mod.

“When we first started, it was everything and anything to make a buck with those airplanes.” Back then, commercial seaplane flying was heavy hauling, but over the years, air tourism has grown, while hunting and fishing have tapered off. “Most people want to come up and take a picture.” Hauling people is easier work, Ellison says: “The cargo walks on, the cargo walks off.” There is no heavy lifting, no large carcasses to hump around, and no antlers to rip up the airplane’s interior.


If Lake Hood Seaplane Base were a frontier settlement, Rust’s Flying Service would be its Ponderosa Ranch. After retiring from the Air Force as a command pilot, Hank Rust merged his lifelong interests in wilderness sports and aviation. Starting with a Super Cub, he gained experience flying the Alaskan bush, then bought a Cessna 185 and, in 1963, established Rust’s Flying Service at its present location on Lake Hood.

“At that time,” explains his son Todd, “there were already several operators on the north side of Spenard Lake supported almost entirely by hunters and fishermen. The season started in March with polar bear hunters, then the fishermen showed up in May through August, and moose, bear, caribou, and sheep hunters rounded out September and October.

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