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Dazzled by Alaska, veteran returns to manage Lake Hood seaplane base

Katie Medred
Photo courtesy of the Alaska department of Transportation and Public Facilities

When Tim Coon started his new job as manager of the world's busiest seaplane base a month ago, he was prepared for the jaw-dropping view at Lake Hood, but that didn't leave him any less appreciative.

"There is absolutely without a doubt no more beautiful place ... to fly in the world than Alaska, and it has so many wonderful things to offer. And maybe the only way you can get to them is by flying, and flying light aircraft in specific. And so, to be right here in the very heart of it, at this lake right in the middle of Anchorage, it's a treasure. I feel very privileged to be here, in a way, to help steward and safeguard this resource."

The sprawling lake, now frozen, is barely perceptible beneath the layer of white that creeps across the horizon before abruptly running up against the distant Chugach Mountain range. The dim light of midday hovers just above the ridge line creating the soft metallic ambiance that envelops the senses and shrouds the scene.

It really is a beautiful sight.

"Looking out the window at the view from the Lake Hood office, looking at the mountains and all the aircraft, I'm reminded on a daily basis just how Lake Hood fits into the wonder that Alaska is."

Passion for planes and Alaska

Lake Hood houses an estimated 500 floatplane slips and 500 wheeled-airplane tie downs and averages nearly 200 takeoffs and landings a day. As manager, Coons supports day-to-day operations -- including safety, complying with federal regulations, contact with the Federal Aviation Administration and other general aviation groups, hearing Lake Hood pilots' concerns, meeting with pilot associations and conducting physical checks of air strips and the lake. 

Although new to the job, Coons is not new to Alaska, nor to aviation. He was born in Boston, Mass., but grew up in Canada with his mother. He moved around the U.S. with the Air Force and in 1996 was sent to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.

"I was lucky enough to be stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base," Coons said. "I flew with the 90th Fighter Squadron, The Dicemen, and just completely fell in love with the flying and with the people. Just as the terrain and the air space and the scenic beauty of Alaska is a wonderful thing (and) the people are equally wonderful. They go hand in hand."

Coons eventually relocated. He and his wife had to leave Alaska, but they never could shake their admiration for the state. So after Coons retired from active duty last year, he and his wife moved back to Anchorage. He went to work in airport operations at Ted Stevens International Airport before being selected to take the helm at Lake Hood, starting Oct. 16.

In-between times a challenge on Lake Hood

Of late, Coons had been preparing the lake and airfield for winter operations. He's been watching the ice carefully.

"Naturally, during the change of seasons, we go from a liquid to a solid surface and vise versa. As any Alaskan knows, in between there things get a little mushy and it's a little bit difficult to predict exactly what's going on," Coons said.

During this "in-between time" the lake can be a bit difficult to navigate. "(Lake Hood has) been frozen for maybe about three weeks now, but as the ice starts to form ... it's still obviously quite thin." He said, adding, "And the ice doesn't form completely uniform. It will be thicker in some spots and thinner in others, due to variations in water temperature or if the sun gets on it ... there's a myriad of reasons." The uncertainty of early winter leaves some pilots wondering if the lake is safe to take off from or land on.

But Coons explains the process for determining surface safety. "What we do is assess the ice (and) until it gets to a uniform depth of six inches, we say it's unsafe to go out on."

The Lake Hood office issues regular reports to pilots on ice depth, letting them know if it's safe. But in the end, Coons says, the pilots' judgment prevails. "We're not telling anyone what to do," Coons said, "only offering them our best assessments. Wisdom and knowledge runs deep around here. If pilots choose to fly against our assessment, then they probably have their reasons."

Tim Coons replaced long-time Lake Hood manager Andy Hutzel, who stepped down in June. For more on Tim Coons visit Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announcement here.

Contact Katie Medred at katie(at)alaskadispatch.com