by Mario Simoes | Cirrus Pilot
A few weeks ago, I earned my seaplane rating in Moose Pass, Alaska. I had contemplated other flights schools located throughout the country before deciding on Alaska Float Ratings; it is hard to describe how glad I am about my final decision. Although I went to Moose Pass to get my float rating, what I received in return was a lot more than just a rating; it was an experience of a lifetime, as I will attempt to put into words in the paragraphs that follow.
As is usually the case, before deciding on a flight school, I started with some well-deserved research. I had (and have) been looking for a flying job in Alaska and felt that a seaplane rating would increase my marketability in the 49th State. Nevertheless, due to cost considerations, I never thought that Alaska would be a viable option to get the new rating; needless to say, I was wrong!
During my research, it did not take long to realize that seaplanes and Alaska share(d) a common historical background and, before long, rather than looking for a flight school I was reading articles about the early days of Alaska bush flying on floats. I am fortunate to have flown jets above the speed-of-sound; to have flown twin-turboprops throughout most of the islands of the Caribbean; and even fortunate to afford my own Cirrus. Nevertheless, as I read about flying seaplanes in Alaska, I was struck with that horrible feeling that something big was missing in my flying experience portfolio. With that realization, I called Alaska Float Ratings and put down my deposit. As the website home-page stated, I wanted to “experience real bush flying in Moose Pass” – and why not? After all, I was in the process of seeking a flying job in Alaska.
Moose Pass rests on a flat patch of land adjacent to Trail Lake, some 97 miles south of Anchorage. My GPS indicated that the drive from Anchorage would take about 1 ½ hours. And so, with a full tank of gas and a completely charged digital camera, I headed south on the Seward Highway. I was on my own schedule, free to stop as often as I wished, which turned out to be quite a lot. The drive itself is worth a few full pages of narrative, but I will leave that for another time. Suffice to say that rather than 1 ½ hours of driving time, it took me just over 3 hours to reach my destination.
I had chosen the “Optimal Course,” which provided me with 10 hours of flight time and 3-5 hours of ground instruction to “master” my newly-sought flying skills. Ideally, I had been told that if I flew 2-3 times per day, I should be done in 4-5 days. In an abundance of caution, I had planned to stay in Moose Pass a full week. As I parked the car, Lura met me at the front of the school, and after a warm welcome I found myself admiring the beauty that surrounded me: Trail Lake was framed by majestic mountains and the lake’s calm water reflected the 2 docked Super Cubs, as if floating on a giant mirror.
While I was standing on the dock, Vern Kingsford introduced himself as the owner of the school and the FAA Designated Examiner. While this dual role would constantly test the average person’s conflict of interest standing, Vern has no such issues. In fact, there were times during my training I wished otherwise. It is hard to accurately describe Vern Kingsford, in part due to his complex nature. It was easy, however, to listen to his life experiences as a pilot in Alaska and as a well-travelled man. Ground-knowledge quizzes, however, cannot be described as easy. In fact, while Vern was quick to underscore my strengths, he was quicker in identifying my shortcomings. After a few embarrassing moments, I increased the level of self-studying, not in preparation for the checkride, but in preparation for my next conversation with Vern. After 8 days interacting with Vern, I learned to admire him as a person and a pilot, and, as I write this post, I miss the long conversations we had at the end of the day while drinking a good 10 Year-Old Port.
Darlene, my flight instructor, guided me through the quasi-military syllabus and flight training as a skilled professional – a rarity in today’s flight training reality. I was taken out of my comfort zone and challenged in ways I haven’t been since my days at the Air Force. If I got too comfortable at one lake, I would immediately be directed to another. Moose Pass is surrounded by numerous lakes, of different sizes, at various altitudes, and all surrounded by unforgiving terrain. Winds and water conditions often changed radically from lake to lake; this dynamic flying environment constantly tested how prepared I was for any given flight. In addition, I actually had to fly the airplane; stick and rudder in its basic form, with energy management always on the background. There was no autopilot, no attitude indicator, no GPS, no XM radio, no runways, no signs, no ATC, and no weather reports. For the first time in a long time, I actually felt like a pilot and not a systems’ manager, and I will go back next year for more advanced training.
For the most part, my time at Moose Pass was consumed by self-study and flight visualization (aka chair-flying). The written test alone (in preparation for the oral examination) consisted of over 100 questions and took me the better part of 12 hours to complete. In short, you cannot buy your seaplane rating at Alaska Float Ratings; you will have to earn it. Despite the busy schedule, there was enough time to interact with the other pilots seeking their float rating, which included the Captain of the B747 that transports the Space Shuttle from California to Florida. The classroom walls were peppered with pictures of former students: astronauts, airline captains, airline chief pilots, fighter pilots, and professional bush pilots. Despite such diversity, one could easily see a common trait to all those pilots: they were not deterred by challenge; they sought it and welcomed it. After my checkride, Darlene and Vern took me on a couple of sightseeing flights over the Kenai Peninsula. There are no words to describe the scale and natural beauty of this part of Alaska, and the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” is right on target.
Not only do I recommend that you get your seaplane rating in Moose Pass, but I also challenge you to do so. If you really want to know what kind of pilot you are, get your float training at AFR and take the checkride with Vern. For those excellent-above-average pilots out there, you will be rewarded by constant praise and recognition. For those of you like me, you will have your weak(er) skills identified, isolated, eliminated, and re-trained. In any case, despite some foreseeable frustrating moments, you will come out of Moose Pass a better, safer, more knowledgeable and confident pilot. During your training, you will have had the opportunity to fly in one of the most beautiful and challenging places in the world. You will not regret it!