An unusual first solo, Alaska-style

It was on a Friday the Thirteenth, in April of 1956, that I soloed out at Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage, Alaska. I had waited for several months for this date, as I had, for some misguided reason, always thought of Friday the Thirteenth as a lucky day for me. I’d had eight and one-half hours of dual instruction up to that point, and my instructor thought that I was ready.

Champ panel
Not a lot going on in the panel of a Champ.

In those days, our small trainers had no radios, no lights, no engine starters, and, in fact, not even so much as a generator or battery. VHF communications hadn’t yet caught on in Alaska, and LF radios worked only about as far as you could throw a brick. When ready for departure, we simply spun our ragbag taildraggers around in a tight little circle, faced 45 degrees toward the control tower, and waited for the green light that would signal our approval to taxi to the active and take off.

If that light didn’t come right away, we just whipped around in that tight little circle once again, and waited some more. When we finally got the steady green, we would bang the ailerons up and down to let the tower know we had received the approval, and would then take the active.

That Friday in April of 1956, we were operating off Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane base. Lake Hood is actually two lakes: Lake Hood and Lake Spenard, connected by a man-made canal about 30 feet wide at the runway, or waterway, surface. On this particular day, it was snowing pretty hard, and there was a 20-knot crosswind through that little canal. Traffic had already worn deep ruts in the lake’s overburden of snow. That wasn’t particularly difficult, but it wasn’t the norm, either.

After my instructor had made one circuit around the traffic pattern with me, he told me that the weather was much too bad for a new student pilot to leave the nest, and we would have to wait for another day. I told him that I had waited a long time for that particular date, and if I couldn’t solo out that day, I would simply change flight schools. That didn’t fall upon deaf ears, but it wasn’t particularly well received either. When we had stopped after that first, and only, circuit of the lake, he climbed out and away I went.

He hadn’t told me to limit my flight to a single circuit, and I immediately headed for the high practice area, hard up against the Chugach Mountains. I wanted to do a few spins to see if the turbulence would really flip my little Aeronca Champ over onto its back. After a few spins, I decided it couldn’t, and I returned through the heavy snow to Lake Hood for the landing.

I had to hold the right wing down against that gusty right crosswind, and had to watch carefully that I didn’t dip the right wing into the hard-packed snow cover. Other than that, I thought the flight had gone extremely well.

Lake Hood
Lake Hood, on a decidedly nicer day than the author’s first solo.

Given my meager flight experience, my instructor probably did have a few moments of real concern, for his little airplane if not for me. He jumped on me right away. That he was moderately upset could be seen as a definite understatement. He was really red in the face! When I tried to explain that he had neglected to tell me to make only a single trip around the traffic pattern, he seemed only to get angrier. Well, I guess I can’t blame him, can I? He was so upset he even forgot to clip the tail of my shirt!

I was a little nervous at his anger. You see, this was a guy who crawled into hibernating black bear dens and slit their throats with a hunting knife in order to provide winter meat for some of the more remote Indian villages. He wasn’t a guy to take lightly.

Did I learn anything that day? I certainly did. I learned that bad weather sometimes isn’t all that bad; and that control of a small airplane depends pretty much on the attitude and use of the pilot’s skill set. I also learned that landing on a single wheel, ski, or float, wasn’t the end of the world.

And… I learned not to mess with a guy that hunted black bears with nothing more than a little ol’ knife!

9 Comments

  • Great story, to be completely fair my first thought was, “You acted like that and complain my generation shows no respect!?”

  • Sorry, Jim, that you feel that way. The only “complaints” that I recall ever having made about any pilot—or generation of pilots—is the fact that I don’t understand, nor agree with, the quality and content of today’s flight instruction and its results. I’ll give you two examples: I complain about CFIs who seem to not instruct their students to make proper approaches. I see no need to make every approach with a one-mile (or longer), extended final approach. At normal pattern altitudes, a failed engine will not allow a safe landing from a mile or more out, in my estimation.
    And it’s certainly inconsiderate of others in the pattern. I complain about the fact that full stalls are no longer taught to new students. I know that requirement has been removed from the FARs, but I think that removal was a mistake. I believe the loss tends to create pilots with a niggling little trepidation about full stalls and their potential danger. I even consider having removed spins from pilot training to have been a mistake. There is no question but that that leaves behind a wealth of new pilots with deep concerns about the “fatal tail spin.”

    I consider these facts to be dangerous. Every landing includes a full stall, otherwise the airplane will just continue flying. So, why not learn them and how to use them?

    Finally, my instructor hadn’t told me that I was to make only one circuit of the lake and then land. This was in the pre-flight school days. There were no written curricula for the student pilot. His only source for information and training was his individual instructor. I never even had my shirt tail cut off! Looking back on it, I can appreciate my own ignorance about the niceties of a more “formal” style of flight instruction. But we did learn how to fly an airplane.

    Now I’ll give you an example that you can truly be critical of. Before my first solo, I used to fly to the low practice area just south of Anchorage, Alaska, and time my airspeed to match that of the train I knew would be headed to Seward. Then I’d just settle my little Aeronca atop one of the cars and fly along with the landing gear straddling the middle of the car and the tail still in the air. Should I have been doing that? Certainly not, but it did teach me how to control the airplane. I admit it was a poor, perhaps even dangerous, thing to do. And I know, too, that I should neither have done it then, nor admit it now.

    Again, Jim, I apologize if I’ve in some way offended you or your generation.

  • Mort! You’ve certainly helped us understand why the accident/incident rates in Alaska were historically eye-popping compared to those in the lower 48. I gather that they still are higher than average, but I hope better than in the ’50s. I quite agree with you that removing the full stall requirement from the Private Pilot curriculum was a bad idea. Not only was I taught full stalls in all regimes, I came to regard stalls as fun– my little bit of C-172 aerobatics that my son begged for more of– and gained tremendous sensitivity to impending stalls and the proper automatic reactions. I also got to enjoying doing 360s at minimum controllable airspeed, with the stall warning blaring. It seemed to me that these exercises helped make me a safer pilot.

  • The vast majority of Alaska’s general aviation accidents seemed to occur during its annual fall hunting seasons. Everyone and his sled dog owned his own airplane up there. A busy life kept most of them from flying as often as they should. Come the fall hunting seasons, all of them became “bush pilots” in their pursuit of next year’s meat supply: moose, caribou, sheep, goats, and black bears. Along with the fish, of course.

    Bad weather almost always welcomes these fall hunting seasons. Constant rain, forever overcast skies, and sometimes truly high winds. Comes now the moose hunter who takes his little airplane out to some little gravel bar, pops his moose, loads a couple fresh hams aboard, and, late in the day, takes off. It’s always raining during moose hunting season, so the hunter’s clothing is wet. The minute he starts the engine and does his engine run-up, he’s ready to go. About the time the tail comes up, the windows fog over and he can’t see much at all outside. It doesn’t dawn on him to open a window and look outside. And he doesn’t clear the trees ahead . . . A typical circumstance.

    This sort of “everyone’s a bush pilot” syndrome caused an average of 88 such accidents and incidents EACH WEEK for Anchorage pilots alone. It is telling, too, that most Alaskans considered their little airplanes to be little more than pickup trucks, and used them that way. Couple that with Alaska’s statewide challenges of bad weather and unforgiving geography and you have a prescription for disaster at the very outset. You may consider these excuses, but I see them as pretty close to reasons.

    Balance that against the fact that, like most light aircraft pilots, not many can afford the flight time that provides the RECENT experience to face such challenges. In the case of most real bush fliers, recent experience means lots of it. In my own case, as in the case of many others, I flew an average of 12 hours per week for 35 years. Given that, the Alaska outback airplane driver had the ability to fly near to the edge of both his and his airplane’s abilities.

    As an aside, it was difficult for many outback pilots to earn their instrument privileges. We just were a bit too impatient. We seldom had the comfort of flying standard approaches and patterns. And the little black ball was sometimes not in the middle . . .

    By the way, Hunter, you’re having mastered real slow flight was maybe the best thing you ever learned to do. It made you a much, much safer pilot.

  • I didn’t feel the least bit slighted, Jim. It’s just that, at my age, I’m no longer embarrassed to admit my boo-boos and errors. I also admit that the lifestyle of the Alaska bush pilot isn’t for every pilot for a number of reasons.

    It is said that there are no old, bold pilots. If you’re not a little “bold” while flying the Alaska outback, or any other outback for that matter, you very likely won’t live to be very old.

    I appreciate your note.

  • Amazing Mort! Being an instructor, if any student told me he will solo or go somewhere else, well….I would not be flying with him anymore. But, it’s true we all do dumb things at a young age and live to tell about it. Great story!!

  • Mort,
    I soloed back in 1952 on April 6th which was my 16th birthday. I went on and received my private, written was 50 questions true or false back then. A commercial then instructor in 1959. A few years later after my stint in the Army an instrument rating. Did some stupid things along the way too. Applied to the airlines in 1966 and was hired and did that for 30 years. I really feel if a student said to me if I did not let him solo he would go some where else I would have said “be my guest”. And on another note as a F/O and then Captain I would have handled some minor disagreements in the cockpit differently. Ah it’s so easy to be a monday morning quarter back.
    Guy Paris, the old 72 driver….

  • You’re right on all counts, Guy. I remember those 50 questions. I took my written during a company lunch hour. And I agree that my instructor should have told me to take a hike – – – which I’d have done, by the way. I had waited a long, long time to solo out on a Friday the 13th, and I meant to do that. I had set a goal for myself, and I meant to meet that goal. I know that it seems to many that I had a poor attitude. Still, and as you know, we learned to handle an airplane pretty well in those old days. In Alaska, we also learned in the world’s worst weather. That windy and snowy Friday wasn’t much of a challenge.

    By the way, that instructor and I remained friends over the years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *