I had a space physics conference in Juneau, AK this weekend – a destination where the tourist websites are mostly devoted to cruise ship passengers. I saw tons of recommendations for both helicopter and float plane trips to the 5 Juneau neighborhood glaciers. I had to try and do it!
CFI2 was able to recommend a float plane company to me owned by a buddy. Sadly, my trip was ~5 days before tourist season started, so no glacier sightseeing tours were operating. However, small island communities of the Alaskan inside passage are serviced year-round by float planes (or planes on skis where needed in the winter). I got booked on a cargo flight to Elfin and Pelican.
I’d never taken a small commercial flight before, so I was definitely excited. When I checked in at the counter, there was a minor concern about whether or not I’d be allowed to go since I was nonessential weight and there was an unusually high mail load going out. Happily, the company airplane dispatcher let me proceed 🙂
My carry on hiking bag was weighed and body weight entered into their weight and balance program. The funniest part of my morning was when the guy checking in next to me was asked for his weight. He didn’t know and just proceeded to weight himself up on the luggage scale. Awesome! 😛
When it was flight time, the 2 other passengers (each going home) and myself were loaded into a van and driven to the float pond.
The pilot was loading the last of the mail and it was great to hear the other passengers comment on what was going where (mail included unwrapped paper towels, fishing gear, and food&drinks). I was thinking “Man, these communities must be tiny. Everyone knows everyone else. Mail includes paper towels. ” Oh yes.
We were handed earplugs and I definitely got a little sad that I wouldn’t be able to listen to all the radio communications. Unlike the training aircraft I’m used to, the deHavilland Beaver only had flight controls on the left; I’m not sure if there was the option for multiple people to plug in headsets.
Funny moment: I was allowed to sit up front since I wasn’t expected to get out during the trip. I got to board first, but I completely forgot which side to sit on! All those student pilot hours got me. Ha, caught myself by remembering that I cannot operate the flight controls, sit on the right.
The pilot untied us from the dock and we taxied/floated to the end of the rectangular pond. Taxi was so slow compared to what I expected. Takeoff was incredibly smooth, I didn’t even realize we were airborne because it was essentially a soft field takeoff, get airborne and fly close to the surface for a while.
When we reached Elfin, we circled over the ‘normal’ landing strip at least 4 times (stomach churning really steep turns, mild turbulence). The pilot later told me that landing near the village would have been fine, but takeoff would have been a bit dangerous because of immediate downdrafts (coming over the the mountain between the open water and the village) and crosswinds. Amazing what the water surface can tell a pilot. The surface looked completely calm to my untrained eye.
We landed right in the sheltered area right beside the mountain in the middle of the water. Scary exciting because our path was low right over mountain and then sharply down into the wind protected zone. A very smooth landing nonetheless. I want piloting skills like that someday.
A fishing boat met us out in the middle of all that water, and the pilot unloaded 1 passenger and some mail. The amazon.com box made me smile – this company is everywhere, even remote villages with a population of ~10 🙂
Back up we went for the short hop to Pelican.
Landing at Pelican was super tame, taxied right up to the dock. We unloaded passenger 2 and the remaining mail. Pelican doesn’t currently have a grocery store (closed due to the economy) so there was undoubtedly snack food in some of the the mail parcels. Also took on boxed frozen fish. Pelican is a fishing community and since a supply ferry only comes once a month, the fish being sold is flown out to Juneau. I estimated at least 500 pounds of fish were loaded, 50 lbs at a time. We also took 2 packages on. Each was covered with about 30 $1 stamps – So much prettier than the normal labels the post office places on your parcels.
When we tookoff from Elfin, some mist had hit the plane’s windshield. The water evaporated but left behind a salt residue. I was given the task of cleaning the windshield (and not falling into the water).
On the flight back, the pilot took us low when he spotted breaching whales! I didn’t get pictures from the air but did see whales later on my beachside hike:
This was such as beautiful day!
I never got to land on a glacier on this trip, but at least I did get to see one from the air on the way back to Juneau:
And here we are, coming in for the final landing at Juneau. Landing on water is still such a weird concept for me.
I’m so excited that my flight school has recently started offering float plane training. I can’t wait to try it myself.