The underbelly of owning and operating your own plane
After years of depending on air taxis and all day snowmachine treks to supply our remote, off-grid, off-road home north of Anchorage, we finally bought a small, ancient float/ski plane. What a difference this has made to my sense of isolation. We aren’t at the “honey, we’re out of milk” stage, but we can much more spontaneously travel to a nearby town for medical care or supplies or to a lovely lake for a picnic or to one of the fun festivals around Alaska.
Getting in and out of the plane itself, though, is not so easy. The Piper PA-20 has two doors, but the one on the port side is behind the front seats, for cargo access. The pilot and passenger enter through the door on the starboard side. Since my husband prefers to fly from the port seat (the plane has two pairs of steering wheels and rudder pedals), he enters first. Once he is ready to go, I untie the float ropes from the dock cleats, step onto the float with one leg while pushing us away from the dock with the other. Then, I climb as quickly as I can up into my seat, since he doesn’t start the propeller until I am inside and meanwhile, we are drifting with the wind.
At some locations, and virtually all summer at our lake because of wind direction, the access door is on the side away from the dock. To get in, we have to cross a tight wire stretched between the fronts of the two floats, grabbing onto the cowling and nose cone (but not the propeller) for balance. Once on the other side, we walk along the float, swing under the two angled wing struts and then climb up into the plane. I have to do this after I have kicked the plane away from the dock, while it is floating toward wherever, and as my husband is invariably yelling, “Hurry up! The wind is pushing us the wrong direction!”
Exiting is even more disconcerting. Never one to give advance notice when last-minute instructions will do, my husband simply said, “Out” the first time we landed at another lake. He had cut the engine so that inertia and wind would take us to shore.
“What do you mean ‘out?’” I asked, with obvious incredulity. “We are in the middle of a deep lake!”
“I can’t see directly below the nose cone. You need to let me know if I am coming into the dock at the right angle, and then jump out to secure the plane. Now!”
With grave reservations, I opened the door of the plane, hoping I could see something informative through the window. No dice. Then I climbed down the skinny L-shaped step to the float, leaning out beyond the door while clinging to the wing strut. We were obviously coming in too fast and at too steep an angle to dock properly.
“Stop!” I yelled (which is not a useful term, since float planes have no brakes). We bounced off the dock and started to float away from shore.
“Paddle,” my husband instructed.
“What do you mean, paddle?” For the first time, I saw a banged up, well-used wooden paddle clipped to the inside of the float. With not a bone in my body believing it would work, I knelt down on the float, hoping not to fall off into the frigid lake, and did indeed successfully maneuver the plane toward the dock, where, thank goodness, someone had witnessed our hapless approach and arrived to secure the plane.
From this and other early experiences, I now know to wear waders every time we fly. Some of the lakes we visit are very shallow and the put-in points don’t have docks at all. We just chug in toward the shallows, where I jump out into the water and haul the plane in by the long float ropes, tying them to ubiquitous willow bushes.
Other times, the lake levels drop so much that we can’t actually float to a dock, but get bogged down in the muck some distance away. In those cases, I have to do the same thing – jump into the water and tow it forward, feeling like Humphrey Bogart in “African Queen.”
One of these days I’d like to bark, “out” to my husband at some inopportune time. I just haven’t found the right one yet.
Laura Emerson is a freelance writer living with her husband in a solar- and wind-powered log cabin, 42 miles from the nearest road, north of Anchorage.