Confessions of a Floatplane Pilot in Alaska

This pilot has been flying floatplanes for 25 years—here’s what goes on in his head
Ko Im

From the cockpit: Enjoy nature around us.

Ko Im—Mark Stadsklev has been flying floatplanes for 25 years. The Nebraskan turned long-time Alaskan is also a nature photographer who leads photo safaris. The charismatic pilot for Rust’s Flying Service shares what it’s really like in this sub-airline industry.

Yes, it really is a glacier.
The question I get a lot is: “Am I looking at snow or glacier?” Sometimes people are looking right at a glacier and ask if that’s a glacier because it’s out of their realm of reality.

Not all pilots are the same.
I think there’s a perception that I’m like an airline pilot. I don’t want to sit in the cockpit and talk to other pilots, even though that job pays more. The difference between driving a dump truck and this is I’m not driving freight, but people. This job is a glorified cab driver. That’s why they call it air taxi. 

Every little bit counts.
Often, people forget to tip. But for some people, $2 means they had a great time.

Related: Confessions of a Pilot: Debunking the Biggest Air Travel Myths

Mark Stadsklev has been flying floatplanes for over 25 years. (Photo: Ko Im)

Watch it.
We always tell people to hold onto their things, especially when they’re getting on and off. This happened to one of my colleagues — an amputee got really comfortable in his seat and took off his prosthetic leg. The pilot opened the door and plop went the leg into the water. We recovered it.

Don’t freak out and don’t throw up.
Just pretend like you’re riding a raft down the river. When people get tense, they forget to breathe. Roll your shoulders. Also, we take a certain pride in coming back with people who don’t use the air sickness bag.

Have some perspective.
Some of the tours will look for glaciers and wildlife, and people will ask for the moose, thinking there will be wolves everywhere. Yes, we’re going to look for wildlife — and they are there — but unless you happen to be flying low, you won’t see them. Just realize we’re flying at 100 miles an hour. If you need a picture of a bear, you’ll have to fly through in July then land and go on the same trails. The other misconception: there’s an assumption that because Alaska is such a big place people think, “How can we hurt it.”

Related: Airplane Insider: Secrets I Learned Sitting Next to an Airline Pilot

The floatplane lands on a lake by the glaciers for a quick photo op. (Photo: Ko Im)

It’s an easy job, kind of.
The things that pilots have to deal with include visual flight rules and weather. Flying an airplane is easier than driving a car, except takeoff and landing, which is like parallel parking. Why I have gray hairs is because I have to make in-flight decisions. Weather is not dangerous, as long as you respect it. I used to hire pilots and wouldn’t feel comfortable unless they came back and said weather was bad. There’s a pressure to complete the trip. Part of flying is exercising judgment.

Some clients are worrisome.
I had a guy who wanted to fly just me and him for 10 days — and he didn’t care where we went. But he also had some issues and at some point I felt I wasn’t safe with his disturbing comments. My pilot’s license doesn’t have a psychology degree, so we called it quits!

Related: Secrets of the Skies: Flight Attendants and Pilots Tell All

We like children — sometimes.
We like to have children on board, but they get amused by hearing themselves on the microphone. They think it’s a toy. Well, it’s not a Mr. Radio. On the flip side, I had a 10-year-old-kid who asked me some of the best questions, like, “Why is that river squiggly?”

Put the camera down.
No matter how great the photos are, they won’t translate to your friend. Don’t get so wrapped up in taking a picture that you don’t absorb it. People are so focused on taking the photo they forget to put the camera down and enjoy the view. Also, the mistake some folks make is they think the camera makes the picture. Some people go buy an expensive camera the week before and don’t know how to use it. You’re better off with old faithful.

WATCH: Flying Singapore Airlines in First Class for an Hour Ruined My Life

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