Alaska Air Tales: A Lesson in Safety on Lake Hood

"My First Swim of the Year"

Taking a dip in Lake Hood and learning a valuable lesson.

story by Rick Morrison as told to Jack Gwaltney
 - from the book, Alaska Air Tales 

One spring I was asked to check out a friend of mine in his Cessna 185 on floats on Lake Hood. He was a Four Star General and a very experienced military pilot. He had thousands of hours in a myriad of fighters including F4s, F15s, F16s, F100s, as well as many other military aircraft. As one could imagine, he was a very good hands on pilot, but as I soon became aware, had little experience in one of Alaska’s favorite bush planes.

Lake Hood | Credit: Flickr - Joseph As an instructor with several thousand hours of teaching experience in Alaskan flying, I have had students try to kill me in many different ways. Like when I asked a student to lean the mixture as we were crossing Cook Inlet, and he pulled the mixture all the way back and killed the engine, then when a lady student tried to do a knife edge turn, about fifty feet above the ground. This story is a really good example of why proper communication is essential. We put on our hip boots and float vests then put the plane in the water. Everything was progressing along just fine. Then the moment came for my friend to get in the plane and start the engine. Being new to the atmosphere of a float plane lake with other aircraft also tied up to the same dock in close proximity, he asked if I would angle the airplane out from the dock so he would be sure to miss the airplane in front of us as we taxied out into the lake. He is now getting ready to start the plane, running up the fuel pump, priming the engine, etc., and I heard him call, CLEAR. A routine event so far, but the next couple of minutes will surely change our plan.

I could only imagine what people around Lake Hood were thinking...

I turned and pointed the plane out into the lake. He will start the engine, I will step off onto the float as we start to move away from the dock, and then slip into the right seat. We will get the necessary permission from the tower for taxi, take off, clear the tower, and fly across Cook Inlet and do our maneuvers and generally have a fun time of flying in South-central Alaska on a fine spring day. What I didn’t realize was, somebody taught him to start this plane with FULL THROTTLE. He hits the ignition switch and the engine fires after about a half a revolution. In a matter of a second the engine spools up to three thousand RPM. The aircraft moved smartly away from the dock. Totally surprised, now I have a choice, do I let go or stay with the plane. One does not have a lot of time to make a decision, so I jumped onto the float, tap dancing trying to keep my balance, while the prop blast immediately pushes me back to the end of the float. I am looking for something, anything, to hang onto. Not real great but better than nothing, I wrapped my arms around the rear stabilizer as I am headed off the back of the float. I realize what I just did was really stupid because he is now taxing to the middle of the lake. I could only imagine what people around Lake Hood were thinking, as I am hanging onto the tail of the airplane. Perhaps they would think I was going to try a new stunt flying technique, or maybe I just liked the rush of cold air around me. Anyway, I tried one more time to get back onto the float to no avail, and then it hit me, I am going to go swimming no matter what I try to do to avoid the chill of the water. The ice on the lake had only gone out a few days before, and I instinctively knew it was going to be a cold swim. Of course, the longer I hung on, the longer the swim back to shore was going to be. To make matters worse, because of the amount of power he was generating, there was also a substantial bow wave.

...while being dragged along hanging onto the tail of a 185 in Lake Hood...

My friend still doesn’t know I am hanging onto the back of the airplane. He thinks I am standing on the float. I guess his rear view mirror was turned the wrong way. In the meantime my favorite hat had blown off somewhere, my legs are dragging in the water, and, I am still trying not to have to make the obvious decision. Alas, the decision is inevitable, I slowly let go of the tail and I dropped into the thirty five degree water. When I let go I went all the way under the water. I quickly surfaced but was gasping for air due to the shock of the icy water. I still had my hip boots on, but fortunately I am a good swimmer, and I made a beeline back to shore. By now my student senses I am no longer on board. He finally gets the airplane turned around and taxis back to shore where I am now waiting. After looking at me, drenched and cold, he says, “Well, I guess that’s the end of our flight lesson isn’t it?” I could tell he was pretty serious and not too happy with what had taken place. I said “No, I will dry off,” so I took my shirt and coat off and wrung them out, and as cold as it was, I put it all back on. Then I remembered I lost my hat. I exclaimed to him, I lost my favorite hat. He said, “Don’t worry I will get you another one.” Thinking he must have not understood its importance I said, “But that one had an F15 on the front of it.” Once again he said, “I will get you another hat.” After all, since he was a general, he could probably have gotten me a case of them. After we got back into the airplane together, I could see what he was doing wrong. Somebody had taught him, everything goes forward, so he had been taught to start even a cold engine at full throttle. We went out and did our touch-and-go’s and other fun stuff and my student did really well. But I was still concerned about my hat, so when we got back on shore I went over to the area where it might have blown and there was my hat. The neat thing was the hat left me so fast it didn’t even get wet, and he didn’t have to get me a new hat. The lessons I learned were, no matter how much experience a person has in other aircraft, doesn’t mean he knows how to properly handle a new category or new type of airplane. I should have sat with him long enough to talk through the upcoming procedures, and discuss what was going to happen so we would both have the proper expectations. He didn’t know I had taken a swim, and had left me stranded in the lake. He no longer heard me out on the floats when I finally splashed into the water. Of course, he then turned around and came back. When two people are going to work together in or around an airplane, it is absolutely essential there is clear communication between them to insure the success of the flight or for that matter any other activities that involve the airplane. It may seem rudimentary, but it is absolutely essential in the success and safety of the flight. One of the best examples of the necessity of absolute communication is the case of one airplane I heard about. It occurred at one of the New York airports. It was a commercial jet and was coming in to land. Because each pilot thought the other one was flying the aircraft, they lost control and the airplane crashed. All on board were killed. Had we had a good preflight discussion, about who was going to be responsible for each part of the process, at the very least I would have stayed a lot drier. When he started the airplane in the fire walled position, instantly my world changed. In thinking back on the situation, I would have been better off not to jump onto the float but rather just to let the plane go. I had rehearsed in my mind what my plan was going to be, and I executed that plan, and was not prepared for the surprise he gave me when he left the dock under full power. This was an extremely good lesson without any great cost, other than getting wet, embarrassed, and perhaps being seen, while being dragged along hanging onto the tail of a 185 in Lake Hood, the busiest float plane lake in the world.

A check ride should be like a skirt, short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover everything. -Unknown

Purchase the book "Alaska Air Tales" for more true stories of flying in the Last Frontier.
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Could that have been Brigadier General Ken Taylor?

CATHERINE e ROSS April 17, 2021

This is why we used to babysit generals getting into the cockpit. By the time you’re that rank, you’re putting in more time behind a desk than behind the stick. From this retired maintainer. Ya may remember a lot, but you don’t remember everything. That’s what that checklist is all about.

Margie S. April 17, 2021

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