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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“We added aircraft during the 1970s,” Rust adds, “typically one Cessna every two years. The late ’70s brought bigger aircraft such as the de Havilland Beaver, partly because of more passengers and partly because sportsmen no longer considered a sheet of Visqueen and sleeping bag to be an adequate camp. We probably added a Beaver to the fleet every three years, and then we scored a major tour company account in 1988 that brought in 44 people three times a week. It was a fleet effort, with seven aircraft launching in sequence from Lake Hood.”

That contract continues to this day, as do the hunting and fishing excursions. But, increasingly, Rust’s clients come for flightseeing and bear viewing—and to have the experience of flying in an honest-to-God bushplane, enveloped in the reviving din of a big radial.

Rust’s fleet now comprises a DHC-3 Otter and Cessna 208 Caravan, three DHC-2 Beavers, and four Cessna 206s, all based at Lake Hood. A second squadron was added by Rust’s acquisition of K2 Aviation in Talkeetna (see “The Pilots of Mount McKinley,” p. 46): four DHC-3 Otters, three DHC-2 Beavers, two Cessna 185s, a Piper PA-31 Chieftain, and a PA-32 Cherokee Six. This huge stable has made Rust’s one of the largest bush operators in the United States.

There seems never to have been a time when Todd Rust was not surrounded by aircraft. After high school, Rust got his commercial ticket with a seaplane rating and, the following season, started flying for money “after my dad convinced the insurance guy that the 18-year-old kid was a good stick. We flew all the time, seven days a week, until the job was done. And it never seemed to be done until October.”

By then, Todd would be back in school, probably “the only kid bush pilot at Occidental College and Caltech.” After graduating, he spent several years with Lockheed and Northrop.

The powerful gravity of the Alaskan bush drew him back to Lake Hood. In 1983 he returned to Rust’s as chief pilot; when his father stepped down in 1995, Todd became director of operations.

But things are not as they were. “The hunting and fishing trade is down,” Rust says. “That’s one reason that there are not as many commercial aircraft on Lake Hood as there were 10 years ago. But air tourism is way up, particularly bear viewing and the volume of people who want to see Mount McKinley. That’s what has driven the market for turbine Otters. Ten years ago we had the only one around locally. Now there are eight in Talkeetna and probably another eight in Anchorage and vicinity.”

Todd no longer flies regularly, but he keeps his hand in with a Super Cub—the same one, greatly modified, that was present at the creation of the family business.


On a cool, windless morning in September, Rust’s Caravan, large enough to be classified as a short-haul airliner, taxis across the lake. The airplane seats eight; each passenger has a big window for viewing and photography, and each seat is equipped with its own David Clark headset, which links the octet of strangers and pilot. It is like flying in a winged Bentley.

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