FLIGHT TO KETCHIKAN: Floatplanes are a Way of Life

FLIGHT TO KETCHIKAN: Floatplanes are a Way of Life

When my brothers were little, every time they heard the roar of a floatplane take off in the fishing village where we lived, they’d spread their arms and tear around the house imitating the plane outside. Since the floatplanes were always coming and going they did this…a lot.
     Alaska is called the flyingest state in the union with about 1 in 75 residents being an active pilot and almost all of us being passengers. I couldn’t even begin to count how many air miles I’ve logged in floatplanes since I was a child.
     Some flights stick out more than others, like the time my sister and I flew home from Ketchikan in the teeth of a gale with a hotrod pilot (who later died in a crash). When we got to the floatplane base the cars in the parking lot were bouncing on their wheels from the force of the gusts. The plane, when we got to it, jerked up and down against the dock like a rocking horse. We could barely stay on our feet as the waves splashed over the dock.
     Megan looked at me. She was fourteen. “I don’t want to die,” she said.
     Neither did I, but we got in the plane and buckled in, hanging on for dear life. Our stomachs spent most of the time on the ceiling as we plummeted through huge air pockets and the plane trembled and the wings shuddered in the wind. The pilot just looked over his shoulder at us and grinned.
     All of us have had our close calls. But we keep flying.

This time, when my dad and I pulled up to the dock in the fishing village to wait for my floatplane, the weather was calm, if overcast. I was greeted by a woman I’d known since our family first moved to this small outpost.
     I asked her if she was leaving, too, but she said, “No, I just haven’t seen you in a while and wanted to say hi.” She helped unload my luggage and she and I got caught up as we and some other locals with their summer guests waited for the plane to arrive. Amazingly, the plane came promptly, a little ahead of schedule.
     When the pilot parallel parked against the tire-studded floatplane dock I got on the pontoon and passed him up the luggage that he stowed in the tail. “Are you headed for the airport or town side?” he asked me and the other passenger.
     “Town for me,” I said, while the other woman said she was headed for the airport.
     “Then you’re in front with me,” the pilot said to me. “We have one more stop, in Thorne Bay, then we’ll head for Ketchikan.”
     I climbed into the co-pilot seat in the cockpit of the DeHavilland Beaver. For some reason I always seem to end up with this seat whenever I fly. The pilot went through his safety spiel and afterwards I asked for earplugs, which pilots always have on had. You know those scenes where people chat companionably in the cockpit of a small plane? Never happen. You’re sitting with the engine almost in your lap and directly behind the propeller. The racket is literally deafening.
     We took off, waving through the windows, and set out into a heavily overcast day. By the time we crossed the strait and got to Thorne Bay it was raining.

As soon as the pilot began his descent in a long, lovely curving turn I knew that I was in the hands of an expert. He set the pontoons down on the water so gently I could barely feel the transition.
     As we taxied toward The Port’s dock, where my dad and I usually buy fuel, the pilot removed his headset. I removed my earplugs and said, “You love to fly, don’t you?”
     He smiled. “I do love to fly.”
     “It shows. You can always tell when a pilot loves flying and when he’s just doing it as a job. That was a beautiful landing.”
     “Thanks. Sometimes I get lucky.” He cut the engine and jumped out. He was early once again and since it was raining, no one was there to meet the plane. He strode up to the small convenience store at the head of the dock and rounded up his passengers, complete with seventy pound fish boxes that he loaded into the tail. Pilots get a real workout during the summer tourist season, especially when visitors to sport fishing lodges travel home with their catch.

On the uneventful, rainy flight to Ketchikan I studied the dials, switches, and plaques in front of me. I always love the one that says that the aircraft is “not approved for acrobatics, including spins.” Who in their right mind would attempt a spin with pontoons? Pilots needed to be reminded not to do it? Another one said: “To avoid optical illusions and severe vertigo, turn off anti-collision lights in snow, fog or haze.” A dizzy, hallucinating pilot was really not a comforting thing to contemplate.
     It took us around twenty minutes to reach Ketchikan and the pilot took us first to the large floatplane dock attached to Gravina Island, opposite the city, where the miniscule international airport is located. He once again “got lucky” with a perfect landing.
     All of the other passengers disembarked here to catch a jet to points south, to the Lower 48, their summer adventure in Alaska comming to a close.
     The pilot and I took off in the short hop across Tongass Narrows to the seaplane base on Revillagigedo Island that the city of Ketchikan is on. The pilot’s third landing was as effortlessly flawless as the others.
     When I was on the dock he handed out my luggage and jumped down beside me as the dock attendant secured the plane. “Can I carry one of your bags?” he asked with the old-fashioned courtesy floatplane pilots all seem to have.
     “I’ll let you get the heavy one,” I offered, tongue-in-cheek, and he grinned. “What’s your name?” I asked, as I usually did when I flew with a pilot new to me.
     “Chad. And you?”
     “Tara.” We shook hands and headed up the dock toward the seaplane base’s tiny office. I was adjusting to the traffic all around us, up on the street, flying overhead, chugging up the Narrows. Three ginormous cruise ships were moored to the streets, dwarfing downtown, and probably tripling or quadrupling the normal population. The long, narrow city wedged between forested mountains and water would be bulging at the seams with visitors.

When I asked Chad how long he’d been flying, he said, “Eight years. Three here.”
     “I like to see people doing what they love,” I remarked. “Especially when they’re good at it.”
     He grinned. “I just got back from vacation so I’m–” He gestured.
     “Really feeling the love?”
     He laughed. “Really feeling the love.” When we got to the office he asked, “Do you have a ride, Tara? Can I call a taxi for you?”
     “Thanks, someone’s picking me up.” I thanked him for carrying the heavy bag and for such a good flight and he said, “It was nice meeting you. I’ll see you around.”
    That was probably true. Everyone in the outlying communities gets to know the pilots on a first name basis, and we all know who the best ones to fly with are. I mentally put Chad in that category.
    The friend who picked me up is even more familiar with floatplanes than I am. Her father was one of the pioneers of Alaskan aviation in Southeast and her home, especially the room I stay in when I visit her, is decorated with floatplane paintings from his collection.
    I love to get her talking about growing up with a famous aviator and hearing all of his adventures. Never more so than when I visit her do I remember that Alaska truly is the flyingest state in the union.

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