Nomad on the move… Piper Aztec on floats

Thomas Leaver recalls a few of the ups and downs of ferrying his Piper Aztec twin on floats from Alaska to Florida, as 2002 came to a close…

Having had a casual conversation with Jon Brown of Brown’s Seaplane Base about using the Nomad for MES ATPL (figure that one out!) training, I found myself in Anchorage in early October 2002 on the edge of a dream about to unfold, which was to fly my 1969 Aztec on straight floats (aka Nomad) from Lake Hood, Alaska (LHD) to Winter Haven, Florida (F57) via Seattle. That is a distance of 3,657nm, and was to take place over 10 days. 

Accompanying me was Jonathon Whaley, a great and patient friend who shares my love of flying, and who also has a broad and varied experience. 

To put this journey and this portion of the trip into perspective, I need to start by saying that I had about 900 hours total time from 1968 to 2002, with a 15-year gap in the middle! Of that total, I had approximately 50 hours of MES time, 17 to get my MEL & S in a Twin-Bee in 1995, and more or less the rest in 1996 ferrying the Nomad from Muskoka, Ontario to Anchorage, Alaska after I first acquired the aeroplane, and a touch of AirCam on floats thrown in. To help me get up to speed prior to leaving Alaska, my business partner in Kenai Fjords Outfitters, Inc., Billy R Smith, undertook to give me a ‘grilling, gruelling and intensive recurrency ‘bush’ course’ totalling 4.7 hours to make me ‘safe and comfortable’ again with the aeroplane. 

And so we begin this saga on a cold, clear and windy day heading East into distant snow storms from the beautiful Coeur D’Alene, Idaho having started the day from Kenmore Air Harbour, Seattle, Washington.

This is how our 2002 journey unfolded…

Friday, October 11

The wind at Coeur D’Alene is easing off a bit and we decide to push on to Fort Peck keeping Fort Benton, both in Montana, as an option, as the weather could be closing in at Fort Peck by the time we get there.

Jonathon takes the left seat this time and we are off the water just after half-past two, winds still about 15kt, but the lake is still very rough from the morning. Because of the cloud base we take the pass route via Thompson Falls, Plains, St Ignatius, Lindey’s West / Seeley Lake, Lincoln and Rogers Pass before we are out of the Rockies and on to the plains of Montana. Our GS drops to 117kt, the winds are not favouring us anymore (so far we had been averaging 135kt) and the weather is looking less friendly towards Fort Peck than it is in Fort Benton.

So, Fort Benton it is, and we follow the Missouri River to our destination. Jonathon circles the town twice as I relate what was explained to me about the standard procedure for landing at the town and what to look out for – the new and old bridges, land downstream after the old bridge and keep to the right-hand side of the river, island on the left.

I see the roundabout where the boat ramp is supposed to be located but it is so small that I can barely make it out, a seaplane base for one, perhaps? We can see snow flurries approaching from the south and we are within an hour of sunset.

Lake Berkeley, Kentucky. Home for a day of repairs

We agree on the approach over the town and over the old bridge as briefed, although we will have about a five-knot tailwind landing this way. However, there is enough water and floatplanes decelerate pretty quickly on the water. We are a bit fast at 90mph over the trees on final to the river but Jonathon does a textbook landing, with the island on our left and the bank of the river to our right.

However, at two thirds of the run out we see shallows ahead and Jonathon does the only thing he can by going left to avoid them, as there is no room to turn right with an eight-foot vertical riverbank in that direction.

…a rather sudden, very loud, grating noise and progressively rapid deceleration that sounds and feels and is… the bottom

Tom cleaning injectors

Next, a rather sudden, very loud, grating noise and progressively rapid deceleration that sounds and feels and is… the bottom. And we end up in about 12 inches of water on a gravel bar in the middle of the Missouri River! I can’t imagine a worse sound… similar to fingernails on a chalkboard but louder! Not pleasant!

Jonathon shuts everything down, and we have a quiet moment as we absorb what we think happened to the float bottoms… then we get out and put on our waders to survey the situation in the declining light and to assess any damage we can.

Several things are going through my mind not having been in a situation like this, but I take a pragmatic (if brief) view of the universe and try to put the situation into context, whatever that may be. It is now too dark to see any visible damage and the water is extremely cold, so much so that our hands quickly become numb feeling the hulls of the floats for torn and shredded aluminium. It’s definitely beginning to look like it’s ‘beer o’clock’, as snow begins to fall and the lights from the local school playing fields cast an opaque dome of light in the distance.

Now the fun really begins. Where is everyone? Surely, I think to myself, it’s not every day you get a seaplane in October flying a low approach over your town with the distinctive sound of two engines that someone must have heard, even if they have not seen us… An hour of whistling, shouting, turning on the strobes and the rotating beacon produce nothing. It seems we just can’t compete with the Friday night school football game.

The morning after, high and dry on the Missouri River, Fort Benton, Montana

To top it off our mobile phones don’t work – and then it really starts to snow. Jonathon then hits on the idea of using the satellite phone (why didn’t I think of that) and I pull it out, turn it on and call the local seaplane base alternate number (you can’t ever have enough phone numbers for situations such as this). Kevin, understandably suspicious to be getting a call from a stranger in a floatplane in the middle of the Missouri River at night, assures me he will contact the appropriate people and get them to come out to us. About the same time someone hails us from the shore to ask if we need help, whereupon we give an emphatic: “YES!”

We are now not only mid-river in heavily falling snow, but it is very dark and very cold. About two hours after our landing, Chris and Dave of the Fort Benton SAR crew, make their way downstream in a metal boat with a very large Mercury outboard on the back (bass fishing, anyone?), asking us if we are all right.

By this time a large whiskey and a warm fire would suffice, that is if our first option of turning the clock back three hours wasn’t granted! It must be -15°C and dropping!

After determining that the aeroplane is not going anywhere tonight, there is nothing further to be done, so we get out our toilet article kits, shoes, and with our waders on, get into the SAR boat to head back to land… or so we thought. Question: How long does it take to get to shore? Answer: How ever long it takes… What then transpires is a two-hour comedy of trying to get there. I thought we were the rescuees with our aeroplane stuck on a gravel bar, ready to soak my misfortune over a tall scotch around a warm fire, but how naïve of me! We now find ourselves pushing, pulling, stumbling, slipping, sliding and otherwise clinging on to the mechanically stricken motor boat, as Chris and Dave make several repair attempts to the impeller, which is stuffed with river weed/kelp, repeatedly getting in when we thought we had fixed it, only to get back in the water when it broke down again.

Missouri River, Montana
Airborne approaching second bridge

All the while the radio traffic to and from the base station became increasingly creative and comical, as Chris did not want it to get around town that they got stuck on a rescue mission!

“Rescue 1, this is Base, over.” Silence.

“Rescue 1, how do you read, over?” More silence.

“Ahh, Rescue 1, Chris, are you alright?”

Clearing throat, “Base, this is Rescue 1, we are on our way.” Big Lie.

“Roger Rescue 1, it just seems you guys have been gone a long time and the boss says make sure not to wreck that boat!” Pained expressions all around with a few smirks, too.

This radio traffic occurs with an increasing frequency of urgency over the hours until Chris admits the impeller is jammed and the motor mount is broken. Chuckles all round back in the radio room!

My feet, hands and face are now frozen standing in the river, wader deep, clinging onto the metal boat in a 10kt current, falling snow, and pitch black except for our flashlights, and slipping and sliding on all this river weed! We finally manhandle it to shore, through thigh-deep water, and tie it to a stake hammered into the ground to secure it for the night, delighted that the fiasco is over!

A very worn out, but very welcome, Chevrolet Suburban with faded ‘SAR’ painted on the side, trundles through the fresh snow and overgrowth to collect us by the river bank. The driver, his girlfriend, a chocolate bar and a great heater are very much  appreciated! We drive and bounce through a pretty empty town, the football game is over and everyone must be huddled away at post-football parties. We are given choices for hotels and opt for the up-market Grand Union, feeling it may be our last. We also learn in passing conversation from Chris that there has been a five-year drought in this part of Montana and that five floatplanes came to grief here in the past year. That would have been worth knowing from the seaplane base people on our briefing prior to departing Coeur D’Alene…

Hauling out for float compartment repair, Fort Peck, Montana
Tom inspecting suspect compartment

We check in, change out of our boots, clean up, and proceed to dinner. We are famished but well on the way to thawing. The chef kindly agrees to stay open for two more orders. We had been in the river for more than four hours… Chris and Dave agree to meet us in the morning sometime after 0900, despite our attempts to lure them in for a drink in appreciation of our rescue. My guess is they have some explanations of their own to make about the boat to whoever it was on the other end of the radio, and they take their leave.

Jonathon and I settle into a sumptuous dinner and venting anxiety through great conversation with the locals and guests. I feel we both need to release tension and try to get our minds off what has happened today. What is done is done. The measure of us will come in the morning.

Saturday, October 12

I awake to crystal clear blue skies, bright sunshine, and a white carpet of fresh snow, and go down for coffee and check out of the hotel, awaiting the SAR team. Jonathon is already up and has been outside to walk the river, and he relieves my anxieties by assuring me the aeroplane is still there. I did have fears of fluctuations in the river level before we left her last night but was assured by Chris that she would be safe and still on the bar.

I need some fresh air and so I walk south-west along the snow-covered riverbank, past the two bridges and beyond until I see shoals and boulders in the river. I pace from here to the new bridge, then pace off the distance between the new and old bridge. Thereafter, I estimate the distance to the island in the middle of the river, below which the Nomad sits in the pristine morning sunlight covered in snow.

Fort Peck Lake, Monatana

Taking into account the following current and the positive impact of the cold on density altitude, it is more than likely the Nomad could make it out loaded as she is. However, I am not feeling particularly brave this morning, and so we plan off load the Nomad, make as thorough an inspection of the floats and airframe as we can, and if all is well, have Jonathon drive to Fort Peck with our gear and internal fuel containers where I will meet him, after having flown there on my own.

I check the local hardware store for enough rope, as I imagine securing the aeroplane to the island and pulling her off with a truck from the shore once we have lightened her of her cargo.

Chris and Dave arrive at the hotel and drive us down to the boat ramp with the sheriff’s (other and favourite) bass boat on a trailer behind us with orders to be very careful with this one (the boat from last night is still tied to the shore where we left it). Jonathon has gone into town to collect a pickup truck, which the hotel kindly arranged for us to use.

Chris, Dave and I head out to the aeroplane in the sheriff’s boat and promptly run aground (déjà vu). This is some river! We get out and walk the boat in and tie her to the starboard float of the Nomad.

The aircraft looks OK in terms of struts and floats which can be seen or felt by hand. The river bottom is composed of smooth and elliptical stones no larger in diameter than a cricket ball, mixed with smaller pebbles. Copious quantities of very slippery and slimy river weed is everywhere, which was the problem last night with the first SAR boat’s impeller sucking it up and jamming, but was our saviour when it came to helping the floats get moving. We off load everything into the boat, I pump the floats and there is only a little water in the number five port compartment, but as she is sitting high, who knows what will happen when her weight is fully supported in free water? The guys leave with our stuff and I stay to pace off around the aeroplane, where the shoals are both shallow and deep, to map out in my mind where the channel is in order to determine the best exit route – and any other contingencies I can think of.

Waiting for refueller, Eufala, Alabama

The guys come back with Jonathon and after some discussion and more pacing, we decide that pulling her off could be worse than simply powering her off, as there might even be more risk as she slipstreams in the current when tied to the shore.

Jonathon reviews the fuel left on board and suggests the management of the same to Fort Peck, for which I am grateful as I am becoming increasingly focused on the bridges. I review the route to Fort Peck and at 171 miles, it will take one hour and 20 minutes and I have two hours and 15 minutes on board. We also compare notes on the best route to taxi out and up river, as well as my wish to minimise time on the water in case there is something more serious with the floats until we can pull her out and have a proper look in Fort Peck.

“The lightened Nomad, is ready to lift off shortly after the first bridge but not enough to climb out over the second and bridge, so I hold her just off the water…”

Old-school GPSIII Pilot from Garmin was high-tech at the time, though we did have two other GPS’s and an intermittent mobile phone app!

Engines started, I only need 1,200rpm to move her off the shoal and into free float within five yards! I turn up river, into the deeper current and proceed cautiously holding enough power to make a modest headway against the stronger portions of the current. Once back in the main flow of the river, the current eases off and I taxi up under the two bridges, noting that they look lower than they are and keeping an eye out for any other surprises (all the while thinking to myself that really I’ve had enough at this point in time). I do the run-ups between the bridges, everything checks and set flaps. I continue on up the river to where I saw other shoals from my walk that morning and turning well short of them, lift the rudders, fuel pumps on and make for the centre of the river at full throttle. The Nomad, so light, is ready to lift off shortly after the first bridge but not enough to climb out over the second and older bridge, so I hold her just off the water, until clearing the second, older bridge and then climb out in a right turn to avoid and stay well clear of the island.


What a tremendous sensation of relief, what elation. And how strange to be alone. My first solo in Nomad… I pass over the town and boat ramp before heading east for 5,500ft and Fort Peck. I did not feel anything odd on departure and hoping against hope all was normal, I began to relax a bit and feel rather good about myself and how lucky I am to be here. However, I remind myself that the landing at Fort Peck must also be expeditious until we see what the floats really look like.

Aztec arriving in Winter Haven, Florida

One hour and 18 minutes later, I land at Fort Peck after circling overhead assessing the approach to land and the entrance to the marina. It looks very small contrasting with this huge body of water, and with only 10-15kt of wind the waves are even less as I am landing in the lee of the land. By the time I get into the marina the winds are very light and I have no problem securing the aeroplane to starboard unassisted (I really am impressed with myself…). I look at the position of the aeroplane in the water and she looks OK, but I will check again as I will have all afternoon in the Fort Peck marina chatting, as it happens, with its proprietress, a woman of formidable attitude, a strong opinion and short temper, before Jonathon arrives from his first and probably last drive across the plains of Montana.

Sunday, October 13

We are up at 0700, pack up, and check out of the Fort Peck Hotel. The hotel was the administration centre for the camps set up during the depression to house workers who built the Fort Peck Dam under President Roosevelt’s New Deal. We felt we had gone back to that time, as it has not changed at all in the 65 years since.

We drove to the boat ramp and noticed the aircraft listing to port by a couple of inches. This is not encouraging and we proceed to pump each compartment to see what we have.

There are no problems until we get to port number 4, which requires a great deal of pumping and takes what feels like forever to clear. We set out to find a way to pull her up the ramp and have a look at the floats. We contact John, the owner of the Fort Peck hotel, to ask for help with what we need. John’s brother comes to our aid (on a Sunday during a three day national holiday and the opening of hunting season, no less…), since he works at the local hardware shop and loans us the use of his truck, bringing along four sheets of 8 x 4 plywood. These we set under the keel of each float, quadruple our long line around the forward struts and tie this to a three-inch diameter mooring line he has from a Navy salvage yard.

Nomad’s destination, Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base, Winter Haven, Florida

Amid much curiosity (we are competing with the man-made salmon ladder on the far side of the ramp) and with hip waders on, Jonathon and I guide the aeroplane up the first set of boards before inserting the second set until the keel at the step is well out of the water and only the last eight inches of the floats are left in.

We remove the suspect hatch cover and pump out most of the remaining water, and dry off the outer hull to locate the leak. We find a needle-width stream of water coming from the keel where an old patch meets the keel. Inspection of both hulls reveals nothing unusual and no visible damage.

Frankly, we were both pleasantly surprised and very much relieved at what we saw. We conclude that the aeroplane’s slow speed, depth of water, the roundness, consistency and size of the river stones and the slimy riverweed saved the floats from damage.

With the added help of a borrowed generator from Dave and his truck, together with a halogen lamp and a heat gun, we dry out the inside of the compartment in preparation for repairing the compartment. I buy a can of Gluvit from the marina’s shop and we proceed to apply to the area liberally. We leave the unused portion of the epoxy in the can with the halogen light on and place the hatch cover over the float compartment. With temperatures well below freezing at night we use the lamp to keep the heat as close to 72°F (22°C) enabling the epoxy to set properly.

With our borrowed truck from Dave, we head back to the hotel for another night in a delightful time warp.

Photo opportunity, Lake Juliana, Florida

Monday, October 14: Columbus Day

We are on our way by 07:30 and after a farewell from John and his mother, we are anxious to see our handy work. Indeed, we are very pleased to see the Gluvit has cured very nicely and the compartment even warmer than we thought it would be. I decide that I will leave the hatch off (and the 54 screws to secure it!) until we are certain that the repair is water tight and will hold when the aircraft refloated.

Having pulled 4,600lb of aeroplane out of the water with a pick-up, we conclude that a gentle nudge of the same pick-up on the float bows should get her back in the water… Wrong. Our borrowed pick-up from Dave is too small for the task and John’s brother is out goose hunting with his, so we have a quiet word with the marina’s mechanic who has a very big pick-up. He gladly offers to assist, doing the driving under our direction.

Jonathon and I hold up 2x4s to cushion the float bows as the truck backs onto each float in turn and gently ‘walk’ the aeroplane down the ramp until once again she is floating. I’m really beginning to enjoy this and we thank all involved, including those who helped us the day before, who were just now returning from their morning hunt with a truck bed full of geese. A team photo, load up, check that the compartment is still dry (thankfully it is!) and 54 screws later, the hatch is back on. I taxi out into a 15kt wind from the north-west and line up for a departure and right turn over the marina and ‘downtown’ Fort Peck, on our way to our next stop – Bismarck, North Dakota and, as it was to turn out, more unforeseen challenges before we reach Florida.

Landing Sitka, Alaska, first stop
Final preparations at Lake Hood, Alaska


This episode represents four out of the 10-day adventure I was so fortunate to have experienced. I know many pilots have flown this similar route with little or no incidences and perhaps a lot more serious. But for all of us who have done it, I think it is a fantastic and tremendously rewarding experience and all the more special because it was the first time for me.

I am extremely grateful to the people who helped me on this portion of the trip, namely:

Billy, who gave me the most intensive two days of instruction I have ever received; Chris Davis and his team at the Fort Benton SAR unit, without whom we would still be under six inches of snow, if not more, in the middle of the Missouri River; the Grand Union Hotel for keeping the kitchen going and arranging for the rental pick-up; John, owner of the Fort Peck Hotel, his brother and Dave for the loan of their trucks, generator, heat gun, halogen lamp and moral support. And, of course, to Jonathon, for lending his can-do attitude, experience and engineering skills throughout!

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