By Barbara Rowell
Plane and Pilot, January 1994 (printed with permission)
"Okay, Barbara, enough of that. We're heading for a tiny lake where you have no choice but to put it down on the spot.," Vern said sternly.
I felt embarrassed-I had overshot my landing twice. I found it difficult to land short on a large body of water where there were so many choices. I was accustomed to being restricted to runways, targeting my wheels to touch down close to the numbers. Vern Kingsford sat behind me in his meticulously restored Super Cub, instructing me on my second floatplane lesson in two days. I was still overwhelmed by the added dimension of being able to touch down almost anywhere on the water.
"I don't really need a float rating," I told him when he first proposed it. "But I would like to get bush-flying experience in Alaska, especially short-field landings with real obstacles."
"There's no place else in the world to get the kind of training you'd get flying on floats that compares to the course I give in my own backyard, Vern said emphatically. "Right where I live in Moose Pass, Alaska, is as spectacular a mountain setting as you'll find anywhere."
He hadn't been exaggerating. Vern's home faces Trail Lake in a canyon where glaciers, mountains and lakes are stacked together in narrow sheer-walled valleys. As I taxied the Cub downwind on Trail Lake, Vern told me, "Go ahead and do a normal takeoff.
"CARS," I said aloud, repeating the acronym that Vern had taught me: Carburetor heat off, Area clear, water Rudders up and Stick back.
Vern said I'd owe him a Corona if I forgot to lift the water rudders up before takeoff. (Some students end up buying him a case of beer; I was determined not to buy him even one.) It was a friendly bet, but the tone in his voice was more serious when he said I'd owe him a new propeller if I damaged his. If the stick isn't pulled back, water spray is sucked up into the prop, damaging the blades.
"I'll let a student forget to pull the stick back once or twice. After that, I tell them if they can't do it right, they'll be paying $1,800 for a new propeller and can take the damaged one home.
"We turned directly into the wind as I reached down and lifted the water rudder handle, which raises the rudders attached to the floats. I hooked the handle in its place on the sidewall next to my left leg. Simultaneously, I pulled the control stick back until it was firmly against the edge of my seat, holding it with my right hand as I moved the throttle forward with my left. This was back- ward to my own Cessna TU206 and made me feel like I was trying to pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time. By the time I'd done a few landings, I realized I wasn't just learning to fly floats but learning boating as well.
The nose lifted, I continued to hold the stick until it lifted still higher. I relaxed the backpressure until it dropped slightly and the plane had gone over the "hump" phase and lifted up onto the floats, much like a water skier does.
"Tune for the step attitude," Vern said. I moved the stick forward a little more until the horizon looked like what I was just beginning to recognize as being on the "step" (or planing, as it's often called). With the throttle forward to develop full power, it was nearly ready to fly. I could feel the plane just caressing the wavelets.
"Now lift one float off the water." I moved the stick to the left and lifted the right float. Then I neutralized the controls and within seconds the left float lifted itself. I was airborne at just over 40 mph. Once the drag created by contact with the water was gone, the little Cub accelerated to 60 mph. I raised the flaps, hugged the right shoreline and climbed over the trees, moving to the right in order to make a 180-degree turn.
When Vern said, "Begin your turn," I raised my left wing and looked across tree, covered, vertical canyon walls. I wasn't comfortable flying so close to the steeply rising terrain being tightly enclosed by the mountains was downright intimidating. I maintained 75 mph as I climbed through the turn, and Vern directed me to Johnson Lake, several miles away. Soon I saw something that looked like a pond. I hugged the steep, tree-clad mountain on the left and scouted my base turn.
"It doesn't look like there's room to turn," I said when he asked me to begin making a right base.
"Sure there is," he said calmly. "There's enough room to do figure eights. Let me demonstrate." Vern slowed the plane down to 65 mph with one notch of flaps and made several figure eights back and forth in the narrow canyon. As he flew nearer to the mountain than I was accustomed, I pressed hard up against the side of the Cub as if this would somehow keep us from getting so close to the trees.
Vern had been right--there was plenty of room. "You probably wouldn't want to do this with your 206. But you can see that at this speed we have plenty of room to turn around."
As he came downwind and turned base, he said, "Let's pick a spot to land. I'll demonstrate. How about abeam the sand bar 200 feet from the shore? Let's make that our spot where we want to be down."
When Vern turned onto final, he lowered the nose steeply. With the added drag of the floats, we maintained 65 mph as we skimmed the hillside that dropped sharply to the shoreline. I gasped as we appeared to be scooting through the bushes and trees, sure we were about to catch a wing on a spruce tree. After we crossed the shoreline with the floats just feet above the water, Vern flared ever so slightly and put us down exactly on the spot he had chosen. I began to laugh out loud.
“What did you say?" Vern asked.
"That was incredible!" I exclaimed.
"I'll demonstrate once again and then you'll do it," Vern said matter-of-factly.I began to laugh again.
"What's so funny?" Vern asked, confused at my response.
"You've got to be kidding," I said. "I can’t imagine being able to do that."
"Isn't that what you came here for?"
He was right. I really did want to fly just like he did. Vern believed that I could, and that was all the encouragement I needed.
Vern demonstrated the low approach and short-water landing over obstacles two more times, adding a slip to the last two landings. He picked a point out in front of us right on the shore where he intended to put the plane down and had me watch how the spot didn't move on the horizon when we were perfectly on target. To drive his point home, he pushed the nose down too much to show how the spot would rise in the horizon if we were going to undershoot it. Then he raised the nose to show how the spot would sink if we were going to overshoot our landing point. By the third time around I felt like I could do it.
I took off and flew the same pattern, this time with confidence that I had plenty of room to make a right-base turn directly toward the mountain wall on the other side. As I turned final, I lowered the nose and slipped the Cub steeply down over the bushes and trees to the shoreline, keeping my spot constant on the horizon. The floats contacted the water just beyond the shoreline, exactly where I wanted. I was speechless with excitement and repeated the process three more times before I said I'd had enough. I felt as if I had conquered the world.
After I landed at Trail Lake and taxied to Vern's backyard where he keeps a Cessna 206 and 172 moored on floats, he headed back out with a group of hunters in his 172 while I went across the street to my motel to study. The following day we flew the opposite direction to Kenai Lake, which snakes around three bends with a shoreline more than 20 miles long.
Vern asked me to fly two feet off the water, hold it there, then contact the water and raise back up and off. I did that for miles, a series of touch-and-goes to demonstrate pitch/power control.
"What's important to learn from this lesson is the follow through when you contact the water. The increased drag on the floats dictates that you hold the stick back as the drag increases," Vern said.
He also had me experiment with the pitch as he controlled the throttle and I controlled the elevators. Then we exchanged controls. When I was comfortable with each of these exercises, we departed for Ptarmigan Lake to work on glassy-water landings.
"How do you feel in here?" Vern asked as I flew alongside the mountain, looking down at a gorgeous turquoise lake. "Do you feel like there's enough room?"
"Yes why do you ask?”
"Because I've had airline pilots refuse to turn up this canyon," he answered. Then he went on to point out how much more comfortable I was in the mountains with just a few days of flying. I hadn't realized it yet myself, but I was.
Ptarmigan Lake reflected back like a mirror. I checked for floating logs and spotted a kayak moving swiftly on the opposite side, then flew close to the shoreline as Vern had demonstrated. The goal was to keep visual contact with the trees until dropping below the tree tops. At that moment, I maintained a constant power setting and airspeed until I felt the floats hit the water. The last few seconds felt very strange; I had absolutely no sense of my distance to the water and was surprised when I felt the thud of the floats. I made a few more takeoffs and landings until Vern said it was time to go back.
"I don't like glassy-water landings," Vern admitted openly. I was learning that Vern was a lot more like me than I first thought: He was open about what he considered to be dangerous and had no qualms about expressing fear.
"The day you stop feeling afraid is the day I don't want to fly with you," he said.I loved Vern's philosophy and appreciated his honesty. I was impressed that an Alaskan bush pilot with 30 years of experience, who is also an FAA examiner, would feel comfortable telling me up front what scared him.
That evening, Vern and his wife, Lura, invited me to dinner. Lura runs Scenic Mountain Air from their cozy living room, and sometimes it sounds like the control center for Denver Stapleton when she's scheduling scenic flights for tourists over the Kenai Peninsula and Harding Ice field or charter flights for fishermen and hunters.
Over a lovely dinner, Lura commented, "Vern told me that you did a great glassy-water landing for a beginning student.”
Vern cut in with a warning for my benefit: "After about the second day, students usually start to think they have it all figured out. That's when they start making mistakes."
The next day Vern scheduled me for several lessons. We reviewed glassy-water, normal-water and rough-water takeoffs land landings. I practiced the high-speed step-turn which made me the most uncomfortable. It felt like the plane might flip over, but just when I thought I should reduce power to maintain control, Vern showed me that increasing power was the correct procedure.
Each hour on the water at Moose Pass was used to its fullest without having to wait for tower clearances or other traffic. We were completely alone in the sky in the most gorgeous setting imaginable. I had to wait on occasion when Vern flew a charter flight, but it gave me an opportunity to explore the quaint town. For my final lesson, we flew to Kenai Lake again and made emergency power-off landings. After a few of those, he shut the engine down and I sailed the plane with flaps.
Vern arranged for Duane Hallman, a flight instructor from Anchorage, to come to Moose Pass and fly with me. I was nervous taking Vern's beloved Super Cub out for a spin without him along, but the recommendation flight was necessary in order to take the check ride.
After a brief rest, Vern asked me if I was ready to go for my check ride. When the oral examination was over, we pushed off the shoreline and I slowly taxied down the lake. Vern sat behind me, silent as a church mouse. Now it was time for me to show him that I was completely capable of flying on floats without further instruction. My heart pounded a little harder, but I found the check ride enjoyable as I put the little Super Cub through its paces. I had fallen in love with float-flying, flying in Alaska and Super Cubs. I was reminded of how I felt nine years ago when I first started flying, a glee that words cannot communicate.
I didn't think I quite had it wired, but was beginning to think that someday I might like to own a Super Cub on floats. I loved the view out both sides of Vern's plane and couldn't help but enjoy its maneuverability.
After I performed every, thing I'd been taught, Vern said, "Take me back to Moose Pass."
Trail Lake was smooth as silk. I aimed for the shoreline and set up for a glassy-water landing. I dropped alongside the water trees and touched down with the power on when I heard Vern say, "If I didn't know better, I would've thought I'd made that landing myself."