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Chasing Rainbows

An Alaskan lodge pilot lives a life that’s tough—and rewarding.

Flying in Alaska presents special challenges. [image: Adobe Stock]

“Alaska is trying really hard to kill you all the time,” said Chip Ferguson. “The challenges and rewards are immense, but it is not for everyone.”

Chip and Amanda Ferguson own Alaska Rainbow Lodge on the Kvichak River, located 230 miles southwest of Anchorage. They host anglers from around the world who come for world-class rainbow trout fishing, bear watching, and incomparable scenery. Most arrive by commercial flights into Anchorage and then catch a chartered King Air to King Salmon, where they board one of Chip Ferguson’s three de Havilland Beavers for the 30-minute flight to the lodge. I visited with them on the “outside” in Galveston, Texas.

I’ve been fortunate to fly Super Cubs and floatplanes in Alaska for adventure and exploration, but never as a working pilot, so Ferguson graciously agreed to spend an afternoon sharing insights about the reality of life as a bush pilot flying the iconic DHC-2 into the Bristol Bay wilderness. “The Beaver is the perfect airplane for the mission. It is easy to fly, but it has hard edges,” Ferguson said, noting it demands careful attention to speeds and flap positions to extract the available performance. In the hands of a competent and experienced pilot, the airplane will allow access to tiny lakes and narrow rivers, where most floatplanes simply cannot go.

Once the airplane is secured, Nathan Featherston has time to fish, watch movies on his iPad, or simply nap. [courtesy of Nathan Featherston]
Nathan Featherston began working for Rainbow Lodge a few years ago after training with me for his commercial seaplane rating in Central Texas. Featherston’s goal was to fly floats in Alaska, and his path to the left seat was fairly typical for budding bush pilots. I asked why he chose this career path rather than fast-tracking to an airline job.

“My whole life has been searching for what I enjoy most about aviation,” Featherston said. “I’ve always loved talking to people of all walks of life in the aviation community. It seems like most of the people that rush their way into the right seat of a jet rarely ever find their way back into the cockpit of a smaller GA plane that introduced them to their passion for flying. I’m still fighting for the flying hours that will lead me to a bountiful career. I just took a few extra years to achieve a lifelong goal for me, and many other pilots, of flying de Havilland Beavers in the bush of Alaska.”

Featherston began working as an aircraft mechanic in Dallas, where he met Ferguson and started pestering him for a job, finally convincing him to let him work over the summer as a general handyman, dockhand, boat mechanic, or whatever. During the next three seasons, he slowly added to his logbook by flying with the lodge pilots on grocery runs, for example, or on trips to repair broken outboard motors. He spent time flying a Cessna 185 on straight floats prior to moving into the Beaver. Insurance companies require substantial “Alaska time” before they will cover a new pilot, and Featherston began to learn the critical skills needed.


“We train our pilots,” Ferguson said. “Many lodges don’t want to do this, but I think it is the best way to make sure they gain the experience needed to operate safely.”

A broad palette of skills and attitudes lead to success in this environment, according to Ferguson.

“First, it requires a strong work ethic and a willingness to do whatever is necessary,” he said. “From working as a dockhand to mowing grass and fixing busted plumbing, each day is different, and the hours are long. The season starts in May and runs through September with no days off. Next, you need to be able to work well with guides, guests, and staff. Having a positive, upbeat, and friendly attitude is essential.”

He went on to explain that new pilots sometimes push too hard. They think they need to complete the mission even when conditions make it impossible.

“Pilots soon learn they always need an ‘out,’” Ferguson said. “They need to listen to that small voice telling them this is getting too sketchy. Even in low ceilings and visibility, they learn that if they can see the next lake, it is safe to continue. They learn that when the winds and turbulence make a mountain pass too dangerous, the next pass over may be just fine. And we always want them to feel OK about canceling a flight, returning early if the weather begins to change, or in rare circumstances, deciding to spend the night in ‘Hotel Beaver’ on the banks of a remote lake while waiting for better weather.”


A pilot’s day starts early with a 5:30 a.m. alarm. First, pilots check the forecast and weather cameras before heading to the crew room for breakfast. The Beavers are checked and loaded then warmed up at the dock. The rumble of the iconic Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior helps awaken the guests who, after breakfast, load up along with their fishing guides for a 7:30 a.m. takeoff. Most trips are only around 30 minutes to an hour or so to the remote lake or river where they will disembark and set off to chase a trophy rainbow trout. Usually the pilot will remain with the airplane throughout the day, watching the weather and relaxing alongside the lake or stream while the guides and their clients chase the trout and salmon.

“Once I arrive at our destination, I like to circle the river or lake I’m landing on,” Featherston said. “You can tell a lot about the wind direction and strength of the wind by looking at the water, trees, and even the birds sitting in the water. They like to sit facing the wind most of the time. I look for water levels and current flow as well as plant life or wildlife in the water that would compromise a safe landing.”

[image courtesy Chip Ferguson.]
Once the airplane is secured, Featherston has time to fish, watch movies on his iPad, or simply nap until the guests return. Occasionally, they are joined by some Alaskan brown bears that seem to tolerate the intruding anglers as long as everyone keeps to their own section of water. In the rare event where one of the bears decides to bully the humans to access a particular spot, the guide will move the clients along to another section. At midday, the guide will prepare a shore lunch for the clients and allow them to take a rest break before resuming their fishing. Somewhere around 4 p.m. or so, the pilot will load everyone up for the flight back to the lodge.

“Once we unload the planes of guests, gear, and fish, our camp hands take the fish to clean while we clean out the planes,” Featherston said. “We all look forward to a good meal after such a long day, so we all end the day back in the crew room for dinner. The process starts right back from square one, figuring out what the next day has in store for us.”

Check out the website for a resource of U.S. Forest Service cabins available for public use. These cabins have been researched by Recreational Aviation Foundation liaisons Jeff and Kari DeFreest, and the site is meant to be a resource for pilots and nonpilots alike. For more information on Rainbow Lodge, visit the site.

During the season, pilots usually log around 150 to 200 hours of valuable “Alaska time.”

But what about the weather, specifically if low ceilings and visibility create problems and delays or even cancellations in the daily schedule?


“Actually, winds are the bigger problem,” Ferguson said. “We know the terrain really well, so we can fly safely in weather conditions that would seem impossible to many pilots. But when the winds get up, it can make things unsafe, particularly in the mountains.”

He told me about an experience as a new Alaska pilot where he tried to fly through a pass on a windy day. “I could see the bursts of wind on the surface of the lake below,” Ferguson said. “As I entered the pass, suddenly the turbulence went from moderate to severe, and the Beaver basically went inverted. I was able to get it back under control and managed to get turned around without damaging anything, but I learned to pay more attention to the indications like ‘cat’s paws’ on the water.”

He went on to point out that they occasionally deal with 40 to 50 knot winds at the lodge with the attendant large waves. “Watching the airplanes pitching at the dock in those conditions is really nerve-wracking,” he said. “We sometimes stay awake all night to be sure everything stays secure.”

[image courtesy Chip Ferguson]
Another aspect of this type of Alaska flying is dealing with “little water stuff.” Many places they fly into are narrow, short, and shallow. Many of the rivers have significant current flows, which add extra challenges. The pilots must learn through experience how to operate in pothole lakes and in shallow, winding rivers. This is where mentoring comes in. The more experienced pilots will work with the new ones to help them acquire the knowledge and skills required.

“It takes a lot of time and effort to figure out how to do this stuff safely,” Ferguson said. “We sometimes go places where the wingspan of the Beaver is wider than the creek we are flying into.”


Featherston shared some of his biggest challenges as an Alaska lodge pilot. “I never expected how hard it would be to accurately navigate a floatplane on narrow rivers with strong currents and strong winds,” Featherston said. “I thought it would be like docking the little [Piper] Super Cruiser I got my rating in. The Beaver is a large floatplane with a lot of flat surfaces for wind to hit and oversized floats for the current to grab. I always imagine every scenario before I start the engine.”

As I listened to Ferguson and Featherston describe the path to excellence that Alaska lodge pilots follow, it occurred to me that although the challenges are different, in one way or another, all pilots travel similar journeys that require pushing beyond our comfort zone, learning our lessons, and building our skills until we achieve both competence and confidence. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get to do it in the Alaska wilderness.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the MARCH 2024 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine.


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