Flying in remote Alaska is just about the most memorable fun one can have in an airplane.
If you’re like me, you’ve often read about bush flying. We all have different definitions of exactly what that is, but most of us can agree it involves VFR flying in basic airplanes to and from unprepared landing surfaces and away from ATC.
That said, it’s one thing to do an out-and-back to a remote grass strip or a quiet lake, which many of us have done. It’s quite another to conduct several days of flight operations without once using pavement or refueling from anything other than five-gallon cans.
I was very fortunate years ago to get a taste of this kind of flying, in Alaska, with a group of pilots and salmon fishermen. Admittedly, I was rarely more than 100 nm from civilization, but we didn’t see it for days at a time.
Everything we had at our base cabin had to be flown in — no phone, no lights, no car. The good news is the equipment — a Cessna 180 and a Piper Super Cub, both on straight floats — was well-suited to the task.
The Cessna 180 on straight floats is to general aviation what the Toyota Camry or Ford Crown Victoria are to automobiles: Solid transportation that does lots of things well. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.
The Super Cub on floats, meanwhile, is more like a sports car, maybe a Mazda Miata. It can do everything the 180 can do and doesn’t need as much water to do it, but it’s smaller, slower and doesn’t carry as much. They’re both fun, but in different ways.
It was that trip and that kind of flying that convinced me to add a single-engine seaplane rating years later. Being around a couple of VFR-only seaplanes for a week while using them as intended was something new and different for this IFR-everywhere, every time, straight-and-level guy. I liked it.
Before adding the rating, though, most of my stick time in seaplanes had been as self-loading freight. But one afternoon at a quiet lake, I finagled some right-seat time in the Cessna 180 and had a blast.
Earlier, as the newbie who wanted some stick time, I got first-officer duties on both airplanes: Pumping out the floats at the end of the day. Pumping them out again in the morning as part of the preflight. Handing up Jerry cans of avgas. Wading into cold lakes or fast-moving rivers with loose-fitting hip boots to turn the airplanes around for launching. Pulling vegetation off the water rudders.
I learned rather quickly that it doesn’t pay to pump bilge water into my hip boots — turn the pump around, dummy. And those drag-generating ropes — err, lines — on each tiedown ring become useful when pushing and pulling the airplane on the water.
I was amazed the paddle strapped to each airplane’s float stayed there, but then realized the chine kept fast-moving water away from it. And the float compartments are great places to stash those Jerry cans, along with freshly caught salmon and other stuff you don’t want in the cabin.
For this kind of trip, the utility of a seaplane was undeniable. There simply was no other way to go where and when we wanted, and do what we wanted to do. Sure, the fishing was a big part of the attraction, but so were the airplanes, at least for me.
One memorable landing area was a nearby river. This was a popular spot, both banks well-populated with people fishing. A variety of other seaplanes were coming and going. Another river we fished was about 45 minutes away in the 180 and an hour in the Super Cub.
As we got closer on approach, the more challenging this river seemed. If the plane hits a floating log or a rock while landing, you’ll be swimming. And it’s a long way to dry clothes.
Just as I was convinced the pilot was going to land in that maelstrom and we were gonna die, he racks the plane over to the left and…lands in a mud puddle.
Seriously. This was about a 100-foot-wide area of fresh water with some aquatic grass, maybe 1,500 feet long. It was so shallow, we hopped down from the floats in hip boots and towed the airplanes to the slightly higher wet ground the locals referred to as “shore.” Then we anchored the airplanes with some rebar and tiedown lines we brought for the occasion.
In contrast to the first river, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
“But how are we getting out of here,” I thought to myself. There simply wasn’t enough water to get the 180 airborne before it ran out of mud puddle.
The Super Cub shouldn’t be a problem. The answer is you reduce the 180’s weight to improve its performance, something easily accomplished by leaving behind a portion of the self-loading freight it brought in. Me.
I was handed a scoped hunting rifle — this was remote Alaska, after all, and there was no one else within five miles — and told to stay put. The plan was for the 180 to carry only two people over to a large nearby lake. That lightened it enough to get out. Two also went out in the Super Cub, which came back about 30 minutes later with an empty rear seat.
But my favorite of all the places we stopped was a third river, much quieter and smaller. We beached the planes on a well-pebbled sandbar, and fished a few yards upstream in a tributary. The setting was something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, if Norman Rockwell had been into seaplanes. And the fishing was great.
That’s the kind of thing that makes aviation so special to me: Making memories. And a seaplane is one of the best ways I’ve ever seen to make memories.