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.
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.
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!