From Shore to Sky:

Kodiak’s Planes that Float

By Timothy Smith, web author, 2011

Introduction:  

The article on Kodiak’s “Runways to Remember” talked about the airport out at the Base and the infamous Barometer Mountain at its end.  This article (with its fabulous, never-before-seen photos) explores the other ways that Kodiak residents take to the sky.  This article covers the Near Island Channel, Lily Lake, and the new Seaplane Base on the back side of Near Island.  Boats are the livelihood for most of Kodiak, and vehicles are just tools of necessity, destined to rust through long before the warranties give out.  But for me, planes still capture the imagination as nothing else can. That may only be my perspective, but view these wonderful photos and see if you don’t agree.

Float Planes in the Boat Harbor

One part of aviation history in Kodiak was the use of the shoreline near Knudsen’s store (later incorporated into the boat harbor) as a site for mooring float planes.  The following rare photos document this early part of the story.

This Helsel photo from the early 1940’s shows a float plane moored next to the Knudsen’s store building, and another taxiing toward the shore, in the area that would later be incorporated within the small boat harbor’s breakwater.

The Windbird, Dr. A. Holmes Johnson’s beautiful sailboat, is to the right, and a float plane in the upper center (follow the wake) within the boat harbor in this small photo from Alaska’s Kodiak Island.

The Kodiak Channel: the Way it Was

As well as being the main thoroughfare for small and medium-sized boats (up to and including the MV Tustumena), the channel between Kodiak and Near Island was the landing and takeoff spot for amphibians and float planes for over 30 years.  Kodiak Airways had its main terminal there before and after the Tidal Wave.  The early terminal was just east of KEA, and the post-tsunami terminal was near the entrance to the boat harbor.  It was always fun to be in a skiff and get out of the way of the plane traffic, enjoying an up close and personal view of the action. As I mentioned in another article, the first time I looked out at the channel from atop the bridge, I was momentarily disoriented, since previously that view had only been visible from the window of a moving plane.  Although the Kodiak channel air traffic is well covered in the other articles at this site, here is photographic evidence of a role that the Kodiak channel no longer plays, thanks to these photos, most of which have never before been posted or published.

The Kodiak Airways terminal in the Near Island channel near Kodiak Electric is featured in this photo from the book Alaska’s Kodiak Island, courtesy of the Yule Chaffin estate.  Two Grumman Gooses and a Widgeon (center) are parked near the hangar.

This Sundbaum photo shows downtown Kodiak as it looked from the air in the early 1970s. The Kodiak Airways terminal is in the bottom left, with a couple of Grummans ready to go.  The Liberty Ship cannery known as the Star of Kodiak is in the bottom center (my first cannery job, as a king crab butcher) and to the right are the ferry dock and the oil float.  The plane is passing right over Near Island, and the channel in the foreground was where the seaplanes would take off and land before the bridge made it impractical.

The Kodiak Airways terminal at the other end of the channel, next to the boat harbor, as it looked in 1969, in a photo taken by Travis North.  A refueling truck (left) and a Widgeon and Goose (right) await a break in the weather.

A rare sight: a Sea Hawk Air “Beaver” float plane heads out in a rare channel take-off, summer of 1998.  The Beaver has a following as loyal as the Grummans, but since I’ve never flown in one, I can’t vouch for them.  I do know that they are rugged and dependable, as any Kodiak aircraft has to be!

These photos from Dirk Sundbaum capture some of the hustle and bustle of the Near Island channel when it was the main takeoff and landing site for a host of amphibians and float planes over the years.

This beautiful photo captures a float plane at the east end of the channel.  The buoy exemplifies how tricky it was to navigate through all the boat traffic!

A Goose and Widgeon wait at the Kodiak Western terminal near the boat harbor…

…and roar down the channel in a shower of spray.

One of Kodiak Western’s float planes, not quite “on the step,” prepares to leap into the air.

Channel Plane Crash: A Sequence (Dirk Sundbaum Photos)

Even with the best pilots and careful monitoring of conditions, accidents can occur in any environment because of the constantly changing variables.  Thankfully, the crash documented below did not result in any loss of life.  The Widgeon involved in the mishap was sold, and rebuilt by its new owner.  Thanks to Dirk for the photos and to Fred Ball for some of the details in the captions.

N85U, while landing downwind, veered to the left, flipped over, and sank.  Fred Ball rushed out into the channel in a Goose and plucked the pilot out of the water as the plane went under. The Kodiak King tugboat retrieved the craft after she sank.

The flotation balloons (18 wheeler inner tubes!) are clearly visible in this shot, as is the ramp the plane sits on, and the float used for pontoon planes.

The damage was extensive, and the old bird was sold to someone who rebuilt her for private use.  The current designation of N85U refers to a restored Catalina PBY, so I have no updated information on this Widgeon, but it was possibly used for parts.

Lily Lake

Lily Lake was and is also a major center of air traffic in the heart of Kodiak, with dozens of float planes moored along its shores. The west end of the airstrip is only a few feet from the very end of Lily Lake. The south side, along Mill Bay Road, is almost all business, and the north side has many homes with float planes at their docks, prime real estate for pilots! A favorite stop of mine, the “Fly By” coffee shop, is located about halfway down the lake on Mill Bay Road.  The coffee shop’s windows look right out on the lake. I once took a photo (through the window as I sipped one of their iced creations) of a float plane taking off in the lake.  

When I got it processed, I tried to give the picture to a friend of mine who worked there. And she remarked, “Why would I want a picture of work?”  I guess I have a different perspective now that I no longer live in Kodiak.  Amazing, fascinating things happen all around you, but I suppose we humans can get used to just about anything, including float planes taking off just outside your coffee shop. These photos show some of the frequent summertime activity on the lake. In the winter, it’s only good for ice skating (when not ruined by snow machine tracks).

The “Fly By” coffee house does a booming drive-thru business every morning, often accompanied by the sounds of float planes in the lake beyond.  May 1, 2010 photo

Prime real estate for pilots: this view from beside “Fly By” shows the lovely homes on the far side of Lily Lake, many with plane ramps or docks.  Two rather warped float plane docks are in the foreground.  May 1, 2010 photo

A float plane approaches the far end of the lake…

…and takes off past Lily Lake Estates in these 2005 photos. (Personally, I would love it, but perhaps these guys are the ones who complain about the noise?)

On a sunnier day in 2007, Larry, one of the Camp Woody counselors, got an up close and personal look at the process, as a plane taxis up to the end of the lake, turns around and…

Zoom! Off it goes on some exciting adventure. What a pity it would be if this scene in the middle of town faded into history; float planes are as Alaskan as fishing boats and sled dogs.  I just want to go where he’s going.  The view that day was spectacular!

Four classic photos of air traffic in and out of Lily Lake, taken by Dirk Sundbaum in the early 1970’s:  

A Goose comes in for a landing on Lily Lake

A Goose, enveloped in spray, nearly obscures the buildings on the shoreline

Tragedy:  A float plane crashes shortly after takeoff from Lily Lake, landing unceremoniously in the Aleutian Homes in this photo from the early 1970’s.

This Goose’s eye view of the center of Kodiak shows the runway (angling off to the lower right) and Lily Lake in the center of the photo.  Kodiak has built up considerably since this photo was taken in the early 1970s.  The white roof to the right of the runway is the Kodiak Western hangar where planes were repaired and repainted.

This ad from Alaska’s Kodiak Island (1962) shows Bill Harvey’s planes in many of the places described in the Tanignak.com articles.  Harvey Flying Service was based at Lily Lake and the airstrip. Bill Harvey died in a tragic plane crash in 1967 at the KDK landing strip, but his son Steve Harvey still flies a Grumman Widgeon under the Harvey Flying Service banner, carrying on the legacy.  Steve’s photos are featured in the article: “Goose and Widgeon – Still Flying,” and Steve has advised me on many of the details in these articles.  

Go straight instead of making a hard right as you cross the bridge to Near Island (left side of photo), and you end up at the Seaplane Base, a new, sheltered mooring for many float planes.

The New Seaplane Port on Near Island

This is surely an improvement over the Near Island channel, where planes had to constantly watch for boat and skiff traffic. The secluded bay is an ideal location. Several charter companies run their flights in and out of the Seaplane Base, with its easy access to town and its more dependable waters.  (2005 photo)

Two of Andrew Air’s striking yellow and orange planes wait at the ramps at the Seaplane Base in May of 2010.  The Beaver is warming up while her passengers get ready to board.  The lovely yellow Beaver from Andrew Air  made it into many of my photos in the summer 2007, including (in order, below):

One of my favorite Alaska shots: the Beaver makes a turn after takeoff from the seaplane port, captured from at least a mile away on Woody Island with my super telephoto Nikon 300 mm (film equivalent 450 mm) VR lens.  One of the “Three Sisters” mountains is on the far right.

The yellow plane makes a pass close to Pillar Mountain as we pause partway up.  This time Woody Island and Long Island are in the distance, with a tiny corner of the main Camp Woody building visible in the lower right.

Busy plane: the yellow plane passes further away with Woody Island (and the main building of Camp Woody) in the background in another shot taken from Pillar Mountain.  The same plane is also visible moored on Lily Lake in one of my shots from 2005.

Conclusion:  

This affectionate photo essay will hopefully fill your memory with the smell of av-gas exhaust and with the ringing echo of propellers slicing the air on their journeys of commerce and discovery.  And if it’s not a memory yet, perhaps you should plan a trip to Kodiak to experience one of the most beautiful and challenging locations in American aviation. Of course, it’s all just normal Kodiak stuff.  But as the scarcity of the Grummans and the cessation of air traffic in the Near Island channel have shown us, it is also constantly changing.  

With this series of articles, it’s good to slow down and appreciate the grand spectacle, and to see the daily comings and goings of Kodiak as the unique adventures they are.  As someone who now lives within blocks of two major freeways, surrounded by traffic lights, I can tell you it’s wonderful to watch Kodiak people getting around!  I wonder if they appreciate the adventures that surround them?  And on those rare occasions when one of those departing flights includes me, don’t be surprised if my camera is constantly in use, as I attempt to capture, however imperfectly, the essence of one of Kodiak’s everyday adventures.   The companion piece to this article is “Runways to Remember (NHB, ADQ and KDK in Kodiak Aviation)” at the “How to Get to Kodiak INDEX” link below.

A plane’s destination: Dirk’s wonderful photo of the bay in Ouzinkie shows a Goose heading toward the beach below the church hill (center right) in the early 1970s.  As a high school kid, I had to live in Kodiak for school. I had the privilege of making this journey a couple of times a month, since my folks lived in Ouzinkie and I was boarding in Kodiak. These planes are a very personal part of my journey, both literally and figuratively.  I write these articles out of great love and affection for Alaskan aviation, past and present.

Acknowledgements:  

I wish to thank Dirk Sundbaum, a Kodiak Western Alaska Airlines (Kodiak Airways) employee in the early 1970’s, whose wonderful slides comprise the majority of the photos in this essay.  His generosity in scanning them and allowing me to use them at Tanignak.com has now made those historic photos available for the whole world to see and enjoy. The several “photographer unknown” shots were sent via email to me over the past ten years, but I lost my separate text backup in a computer crash a few years ago.  When you identify yourself, I will quickly credit you!

 

I also thank the estate of Yule Chaffin for the use of several photos from Yule’s first book, Alaska’s Kodiak Island, published in 1962 (written with G. C. Ameigh, Jr.)

 

Finally, I wish to credit Fred Ball, a master Grumman amphibian pilot, who helped me identify aircraft, correct mistakes, and clarify wording throughout.  His photos (and my photos of him in action) are featured in the new article “Goose and Widgeon – Still Flying” here at Tanignak.com. Timothy Smith, web author, March, 2011  Tanignak@aol.com

 

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The Legacy of Harvey Flying Service