I got to Juneau in April of 1976, after a long Econoline van ride from Florida. I was there for a job—I hoped. Back in those days, before the age of Facebook and Google, how was an aspiring bush pilot living in the tropics to find out about jobs on the other side of the continent?
Trade-A-Plane, of course. I ran across an employment ad offering a list of air taxi operators ($15). I received a page of 25 or so names, addresses and phone numbers of air taxi operators. I shot off a few letters describing my experience—mostly hauling emergency repair parts from the Vero Beach Piper factory to Miami International in a Cherokee 6, some dual given in Cessna 150s, a few seaplane and tailwheel hours scraped together renting over the previous years. In my dreams, I expected a few replies asking me some questions and an offer to hire me. Back then, there was no pilot shortage, no ads from commuter airlines offering signing bonuses, no flight schools begging for instructors, no airlines shuttering flights due to lack of pilots.
I knew the minimums listed by the operators in Alaska—500 hours with commercial and instrument. The kicker that got me was the 500-hour Alaska-time requirement before anyone would even look at you. All but one letter replied like this: “Give us a call when you have some Alaska experience. Conditions up here are tough. Heavy snow squalls, wind, fog, rain, two-hour preflights, heat the engine, scrape snow and ice off the wings. And not only bad weather, but the pay is low, there are few places to live and, even if you find something, rents are out of the park.”
However, one reply was different. I remember it to this day, from a woman who worked for a small air taxi. The letter started with the usual negatives I expected—the long winters and bad weather—but ended with the simple line, “This place is so beautiful that it’s worth every effort to live and fly here.”
Then and there, I decided to take a chance, drive up and look for a job. I thought I would try to show that I had the desire to fly in Alaska by driving all the way from Florida. That should make an impression, I thought, even though I still wouldn’t have the minimum flying experience.
So I quit the Cherokee 6 job, loaded my stuff in the van, and drove northwest across the continent to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. From there, I boarded the Alaska State Ferry to Haines. After Haines, I expected to drive the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks, wheel plane country. Along the way, I saw the southeast Alaska of razor peaks and deep glacier-carved water mazes, real floatplane country. In Ketchikan, Petersburg and Juneau, I called an operator or two if I had time till the ferry departed.
The replies were, as expected, “Sorry, we need float pilots.” I left the ferry at Haines, drove into the snow-banked town. I stopped at the first air taxi office on the main street. Entering, I asked about a flying job, and the counter lady pointed to a pilot stretched out on the couch, pant leg draping over his boot tops, belly draping over his belt, three days of stubble. He measured me up and down, “We’re based in Juneau. I’m stuck here for weather, probably the whole day. Snow squalls. Turned around going to Juneau…lucky I made it back here. We get stacks of letters every day from people looking for jobs. What do you have to offer?” I said, “Three-thousand hours, just drove all the way from Florida,” and I pointed to my van out the window. “I figured I’d be able to sleep in my van along the way.”
He looked at me again, stared at my live-a-board van out the window and said, “Well, you got the right attitude for these parts, I can see that. Put your van back on the southbound ferry to Juneau. Stop at the main office. We need to put on a few pilots for the summer. You are here, and you’ve got a place to live,” he chuckled. “They’ll probably give you a check ride. If you can fly a 206, they might even hire you.”
To make a long story short, I was hired. Southeast Skyways wanted me ready for the summer tourists who would be arriving in late May on ships cruising their way along the inside passage from Vancouver. They’d check me out on the wheel plane 206s and 207s and, if that worked out, then the C206 floatplanes for the summer.
I learned a lot of lessons early on while right-seating with the more experienced guys in the wheeled Cessna 206s, 207s and Cessna 185 amphibians. The first day on the payroll, I rolled out of my van parked alongside the hangar. Ralph, one of the veteran pilots, approached. “First thing—get yourself a pair of coveralls and some work gloves,” he told me. “You’ll be doing more loading than flying. See that pile of boxes? Throw the beer cases in front, the light mail sacks in back. If the tail hits the ground, you got too much weight behind the seats.”
Before long, I could tell the difference between the high-pitched whine of a long-propped C185 from the de Havilland Beaver’s lower rpm-ed rumble. I learned to read the water, too. At mid-tide or lower, the rocks were just a few feet underwater—best not to taxi over them. After a 20-foot tide, you need to be aware of debris and logs drifting that had been floated off the lower, high-tide line, and to not land a wheel plane on the blonde, dry beach sand but aim for the upper edge recently wetted by the outgoing tide—and its harder-packed sand.
I learned to pay attention to the outside air temperatures, too. A temperature of 35 degrees meant heavy wet snow impossible to see through, while colder temperatures meant tiny, dry flakes, which made it easy to maintain good visibility through a snow shower. I learned to put the wing covers on at the end of a rainy day if the forecast called for temps to drop below freezing. I learned the hard way—by spending a night on the mud—to avoid shallow-sloped Admiralty Cove on an outgoing tide. I learned to cycle the water rudders after takeoff on a sub-freezing day or expect a slippery walk back on the floats after landing to kick them down.
One of the first lessons that had little to do with flying was the power of first impressions.
It was a warm early May morning, training over, temps well above freezing with drops of light rain, scattered shreds of stratus melding into the overcast. The Lynn Canal at 2,000 feet was wide open, 60 miles all the way to Haines. It would be my first air taxi flight with passengers in Alaska!
I loaded a few suitcases, a green mail sack, a box or two of groceries and several passengers into the C206 wheel plane. April was too early for tourists. My passengers were locals probably returning from shopping, a visit to a doctor or dentist, a late spring vacation in the lower 48.
I wanted to act professionally. With the passengers loaded, I climbed in the left front seat, buckled in, reached for the checklist in the lower left side pocket. And it wasn’t there! How could I look professional? I reached across, opened the glove box and pulled out the Cessna handbook. I flipped to the checklist pages and read them off. Just like a pro pilot!
After takeoff, I settled into the short flight. The passengers were relaxed, glancing down at the water, perhaps looking for the breach of a humpback, the splashes of killer whales? I landed in Haines, a smooth one, too, off-loaded the passengers into the van, and we drove the few miles to town. I had an hour or so till the return flight to Juneau was scheduled, so I took a short walk around the block. After I returned, having had my umpteenth cup of coffee, our ticket agent glanced at me, called me behind the counter and sternly commented, “One of the passengers said you had to read the how-to-fly manual to fly the plane. She was a bit nervous, but the flight went okay anyway.”
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Flash-forward 30 years or so, and I was standing at the bottom of the ramp alongside a Beaver floatplane waiting for my passengers for a flight to Pybus Point Lodge for a week of salmon fishing. The van pulled along the dock, and out climbed a group of men, mostly 60s, thick around the middle, latest L.L.Bean flannel shirts, rain jackets, blue jeans. The driver handed me a slip with the pax names and weights. All legal, of course. I stood, one foot on the float, ready to assist each one up the maze of struts and steps. I rarely met anyone with experience climbing into a floatplane. “Good morning, I’m Bob, your pilot. Watch your step. One foot here on the float, then this step.” Not much enthusiasm out of me at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.
All I really remember clearly of that morning was the comment of one of the graying, older passengers. As he stepped on the float, he measured me from head to toe. He reached to shake my hand, looking me in the eye and commented, “Glad to meet you. I like my pilots and surgeons to have gray hair.”
Today, 15 years later, I don’t do any more float flying. Much of my flying is in the back now, but I always remember those days and first impressions. When I do fly, I try to take a look at the pilots, and I, too, like to see gray hair on the pilot in the left seat, belly maybe straining at the seat belt. In that case, I’ll feel confident in my first impression that the left-seater has tens of thousands of hours, like I had in the Beaver. If I see a sharp-dressed kid looking like my grandson or -daughter, I’ll disregard my first impression, knowing that at least they don’t need to read the how-to manual to fly the plane like I did back then.