• Sunset on Leaf Lake, Minnesota, a pause for technical issues less than halfway into the flight.
    Sunset on Leaf Lake, Minnesota, a pause for technical issues less than halfway into the flight.
  • Lake Tapps outside of Seattle is not used to the sight of stricken Cessna 195s.
    Lake Tapps outside of Seattle is not used to the sight of stricken Cessna 195s.
  • N3877Y attracts attention during the 1984 EAA convention at Oshkosh.
    N3877Y attracts attention during the 1984 EAA convention at Oshkosh.
  • The Cessna 195’s small split flaps do little to aid lift, but add a little to drag – as if the floatplane doesn’t have enough!
    The Cessna 195’s small split flaps do little to aid lift, but add a little to drag – as if the floatplane doesn’t have enough!
  • The romance of seeing the USA in a 1949 classic Cessna 195 floatplane.
    The romance of seeing the USA in a 1949 classic Cessna 195 floatplane.
  • (L to R) John King, Roger Seiler and Nick Oppegard on Lake Oneida, New York.
    (L to R) John King, Roger Seiler and Nick Oppegard on Lake Oneida, New York.

Kiwi pilot John King relives his trials, tribulations and joys in crossing northern USA in a rare 1949 model Cessna 195 floatplane back in 1984. In the spirit of Jerome K Jerome’s classic comedy novel Three Men In A Boat from 1889, King shares his humorous memories from his adventure.

Chapter 1 – In which our heroes travel
Nick and Lita Oppegard, Alaskans living near Seattle, Washington, had spent some time in New Zealand and invited us to stay with them at Crest Airpark, one of those residential airfields that seem so successful in the USA. The King family duly arrived in Kent, Washington, after two days’ driving from Los Angeles, whereupon Nick whisked me first thing next morning by airline to New York, leaving our wives to look after the young children back in Kent.
John King Roger Seiler and Nick Oppegard
CAPTION: (L to R) John King, Roger Seiler and Nick Oppegard on Lake Oneida, New York.

By that evening in Nyack, an interesting and picturesque town on the west bank of the Hudson River just north of New York City, I was starting to feel the effects of several days of unrelenting travel. A good night’s sleep in the house of Lita’s brother, Roger Seiler, and his wife Sally and family had reduced the eyelid sandpaper coefficient, and the next day we all trooped up to a lake near the southern edge of the Adirondack Mountains to meet the object of this expedition.

N3877Y, of 1949 vintage, had probably been made into a floatplane at some later stage in its career. While it had the obligatory extra fins on the tailplane to compensate for the increased forward side area of the floats, nobody seemed to have got around to adding the usual floatplane door on the port side. The single starboard (one tends to think in nautical terms on the water) door gave ready entry to the three-place rear bench, with a gap between the front seats for access to the bridge.

The front seats were set high, with occupants’ heads forward of the substantial main spar. Even so, the 300 hp Jacobs radial engine took up most of the view forward, with the centre of the windscreen not far from horizontal. From either front seat the view ahead and to that side was reasonable, but the other side of the centreline was really only good for studying clouds, and a crew of two would be essential for manoeuvring in tight spaces. The throw-over control wheel was typically American.

Nick wanted to show me his country and thought an adventure by buying an interesting
aeroplane might be a good way to do it, including a visit to Oshkosh. No half measures
here! Roger, also a pilot (few people hailing from Alaska seem to lack pilot licences), came along to add to the overall expertise – which increased steeply over the next few days.

Chapter 2 – In which the key is sunk & the aeroplane doesn’t fly
Lymond Farr was selling N3877Y for reasons of his increasing age and, being an instructor, was in a good position to give Nick a thorough checkout on his local lake. That done, we all repaired southwards to Oneida Lake, larger and more suitable for heavy take-off weights, to begin the trek itself. Departure had elements of low farce. Lymond handed over the ignition key, attached to a plastic float for obvious reasons, whereupon
the thing broke and the key escaped with the sort of kerplunk that all maritime pilots dread. Cap’n Nick demonstrated that old adage — he who loses the key has to fish for it himself — and with the aid of a magnet we were back in business. Lymond looked unimpressed.

The crew of three climbed aboard and strapped in, the Jacobs rumbled reassuringly into life and we taxied out, a long way downwind with wavelets sloshing over the floats. Into
wind and Seattle here we come! Away we go! Except we didn’t. The Cessna declined all
offers of flight, so we taxied back, tails drooping somewhat, to investigate. It seemed the floats weren’t quite as watertight as Edo had intended and many of the compartments needed pumping out to varying degrees if much more than flat water was encountered. Float pumping became a routine part of pre-flight checks and actions.

But before long we were airborne and pointed west, across the northern part of New York State to circle Niagara Falls and alight on the Niagara River, well upstream of the touristy bit and in no danger of falling off the edge. American rivers tend to be rather bigger and more navigable than we’re used to in New Zealand. Well equipped with boat docks and fuel pumps, they also simplify matters on a long cross-country in a floatplane running on mogas.

The second, and final, leg of the day was across the southern part of Ontario (“Don’t put down anywhere here — I didn’t bring my passport!”) and past one or two odd-looking
and futuristic industrial structures, to the Saginaw River near Bay City, Michigan, close to where the river flows into Lake Huron. The river was lined with docks and marinas on both sides, so we did a spot of cruisin’ while we made up our minds. East bank swish and high rent, or west bank with smaller boats? East bank with its floating gin palaces had stony-faced watchers, while west bank people waved. Easy decision. Many boating people identify with floatplanes, regarding them as essentially boats with an extra capability or two, and N3877Y was welcomed everywhere.

Chapter 3 – In which is Oshkosh
Day two was just one leg, almost due west across Michigan and Lake Michigan which,
with the other bank out of sight and large swells rolling past, was the only part of the whole flight to make three floatplane occupants nervous. Lake Winnebago was much more reassuring, and we circled for a while overhead Wittman Field, Oshkosh, watching the arrival streams and listening to that remarkable controller’s patter, before descending over the lake and trickling into a marina right under the circuit – not the usual floatplane base.

When I remarked on how nice it was for these large cabin cruisers to give way to a mildly
scruffy floatplane, Nick replied, “Remember that big scimitar we’re swinging up front.
They’re also more manoeuvrable than we are.” By now our docking routine was well established, and my first job after initial tying up was wiping the oil off the cowl and oil
cooler fairing to avoid those embarrassing rainbow colours on the water.
Cessna 195 floatplane at Oshkosh 1984.
CAPTION: N3877Y attracts attention during the 1984 EAA convention at Oshkosh.

Chapter 4 - In which our heroes explain minimum Vs
Footsore after a weekend at Oshkosh, the year the globe-circling Voyager made its debut, we loaded up, pumped out and headed west again, stopping on the St Croix River at Stillwater (because we liked the name) to refuel. That produced the scariest take-off when, just airborne, we passed under a cable. No two take-offs in N3877Y were ever the
same. The 195’s narrow split flaps didn’t do much for angle of attack, and the broad chord wing needed a fair angle of attack at low speeds — something not possible with floats.

The normal technique was to apply full noise and horse it up on to the step, then wait until it stopped accelerating while watching the oil temperature rise faster than airspeed.
Vmax on floats and Vs were about the same, so around that point the pilot heaved back on the wheel, at which point one of two things happened. The Cessna either staggered into the air, stall warning horn blaring, to be held in ground effect until things settled down, or it flopped back on the water but going a couple of knots faster. In that case step two was repeated, usually with success. It helped to have the C of G forward and so the back seat passenger stood between the front seats, but Occupational Health & Safety hadn’t been invented back in 1984.
1949 classic Cessna 195 floatplane
CAPTION: The romance of seeing the USA in a 1949 classic Cessna 195 floatplane.

Chapter 5 – No flying causes a hiatus
Next stop was Leaf Lake, Minnesota, state of the claimed 10,000 lakes, to stay the night
with Nick’s aunt and uncle. But there the 195 remained for a while. Next morning it refused to get up on the step, let alone fly, no matter how dry we pumped the bilges or
jumped up and down in our seats. Roger hopped an airline flight back to New York
while Nick and I hitched a ride to Seattle with Steve Hell in his Cessna 310, on his way home from Oshkosh, to think about it for a bit.

A couple of weeks later we flew back with Steve, a useful sort of bloke to have around
with his A&P licences, to investigate the problem. The cure was simple — the sheet metal air duct to the carburettor had popped some rivets, collapsing the top surface and
blocking air supply. Air was therefore taken from the alternative source as hot air, but
that reduced power to the extent that N3877Y couldn’t get up on the step. Some new rivets, filing out some of the more obvious water damage on the propeller, a quick test flight and we were back in business, with ample time for a swim in the warm lake (which in winter is frozen solid and supports ice fishing). Steve continued eastwards to the Bahamas or some such exotic place while Nick and I retired, ready for an early start with a reduced crew of two.

Chapter 6 – Limbo dancing in oil
Airborne around dawn, we headed west. Navigation in that part of the country was pretty straightforward with all roads running north-south or east-west, so in pre-GPS times I was getting used to the charts. The next three refuelling stops were all on the Missouri River. The first, at Bismarck, North Dakota, presented something of a problem — the only dock was on the left side, facing upriver, and we had no door on that side.

Normal access from one float to the other was across a cable permanently fixed across the bows, hanging on to the propeller, but shutting down mid-river with a bridge not far downstream was not an option in case the Jacobs decided that was enough for the day, or a battery terminal slipped, or … Nick pulled rank with some sort of feeble excuse about knowing what the switches did and needing the captain in charge, so it was left to the remaining crewman to organise the docking. With shoes, socks, watch and wallet left in the cabin, I inched across the oily spreader bars under the fuselage, sympathising with Gordon Taylor’s efforts 50 years earlier aboard the Southern Cross in mid-Tasman. I don’t recall ever seeing lifejackets in the Cessna, but I reckoned if I slipped and fell in I could yell loudly enough to be heard.

I made it, to the detriment of the new Cessna 190/195 T-shirt I was wearing in the interests of positive thinking (rudder cables under radial-engined floatplanes will never
rust), and we paused only long enough to top up the tanks.

Chapter 7 – Avoiding a night in jail
Fort Peck Lake, the first of three stops in Montana, added crew sandwiches and drinks to the Cessna’s fuel, and we pressed on, flying up the massive hydro lake on the only leg
where engine failure wouldn’t necessarily have been disastrous. The city of Great Falls
was an obvious refuelling point, but its 3300 ft altitude in the heat of a summer’s day made Fort Benton, a small town downriver at only 2621 ft, a better proposition. Density altitude means something in a Cessna 195 on floats.

But waiting for us on the dock was Fort Benton’s police chief, complete with gun on
hip, unnerving to a sheltered Kiwi unused to such sights. What had we done wrong?
Was speeding on the river an indictable offence? We were greeted effusively. The last
floatplane to have visited Fort Benton was Jacques Cousteau’s Cessna 180 some years
previously, so the pistol remained holstered and we were given a lift in the unventilated
back of the police car to the gas station to fill our jerry cans. We weren’t entirely confident about getting off the river again in the 35C heat and thought we might have to stay the night - “Does your jail have air conditioning?” “No, but it’s real historic.” But it turned out to be no problem at all, with a light breeze running against the current.
Cessna 195 floatplane
CAPTION: The Cessna 195’s small split flaps do little to aid lift, but add a little to drag – as if the floatplane doesn’t have enough!

Chapter 8 – Rocking through the Rockies
Western Montana contains North America’s main divide, a large and high chain of rocky mountains imaginatively named the Rocky Mountains. N3877Y obviously wasn’t capable of leaping tall peaks with a single bound, so it was a matter of finding a low enough pass in a roadless region. Close map inspection suggested a likely gap and Nick, to his credit, left the finer points of navigation to me.

Landmarks came and went — a reservoir here, a ranger station there — and we entered
the wilderness more than usually alert. By this time I’d grown familiar with the sectional charts and directed us through a series of right-angle high valleys, with no exit visible until we reached the next one, while Nick found enough blue thermal activity against the valley walls to ease upwards. The promised pass eventuated and we popped out into that part of Montana west of the main divide with some relief to put down at Flathead Lake.
Lack of wind and a flat calm lake made take-off a challenge, but Flathead Lake was one of the biggest around and we finally got airborne, heading west across the narrow part of Idaho and the poisonous devastation caused by lead and silver mining near Kellogg. By this time the sun was getting low and, thanks to westbound progress and time zones, it had been a long day.

That last leg seemed interminable. Moses Lake was at least in inland Washington, our destination state, and we touched down in the semi-dark to find probably the last two beds in town – as a state fair was in progress. Airborne time was something over 10 hours in a 13-plus hour day across five states, not bad progress in a 35-year-old floatplane with high built-in drag.

The plan next day was to cross the Cascade Mountains, pick up another passenger at Silver Lake and drop into Vancouver, Washington, for a fly-in. A major wake-up near Yakima was an evil-looking A-10 Thunderbolt II appearing off our port wing, and a rapid map inspection revealed the presence of a large military reservation. Oops! Black mark, navigator, but a rapid departure towards the nearest boundary seemed to satisfy our escort. Either that or our speed was too much for him. On the Columbia River at Vancouver we tied up among a floating community and wandered around the antiques and classics at the fly-in, but on arriving back at the Cessna we found a problem. The Columbia River level fluctuates considerably, something to do with hydro power generation, and the starboard float had been against a previously unseen log, with a bump on the log working a seam below the waterline. More pumping, something we were pretty good at by now.

Chapter 9 – That sinking feeling, again
Northwards this time, to Lake Tapps, a largely residential artificial lake on the southern edge of the Seattle built-up area. Reunited with families, we could relax for the first time in days, adventure over. Yes, one float compartment had a leak, but the things are designed so that the other compartments have sufficient buoyancy to keep everything afloat. Perhaps. Nick was awoken early next morning by a phone call bearing news that
N3877Y was semi-submerged in the lake and he might like to come and have a look. It was not a pretty sight. One float was fully submerged and the weight of that side was taken by the wing on the dock, with attendant wrinkling of the top surface. It appeared that float had sunk far enough for the minor leaks in the other compartments to start letting in water, and things progressed from there.
Lake Tapps Seattle with stricken Cessna 195
CAPTION: Lake Tapps outside of Seattle is not used to the sight of stricken Cessna 195s.

The salvage effort took all day, not helped by Lake Tapps being glacial water from the
slopes of 14,411 ft Mt Rainier, the most prominent peak in the Cascades. With no
noticeable progress by lunchtime, Nick rang the local floatplane operator on Lake Washington for advice. The solution was simple in the extreme — stuff a deflated inner tube inside the largest compartment and inflate it. The buoyancy would lift the float top
clear of the water and the rest of the compartments could then be pumped out. And so it proved. The Cessna floated properly once more, the wrinkly effect went away, and a test flight suggested no lasting effects of the dunking. But N3877Y had one last trick up its sleeve. Just before we headed south again as a family by car to Los Angeles and home, Nick ferried the 195 to Lake Washington for more permanent attention to the floats.

Before putting it ashore, he took the rest of the King family on a local jaunt around Seattle to show them what had kept me occupied all that time, away for a birthday and wedding anniversary. Waiting for them on the slipway, I skidded on the weed and ended my time in Seattle with wet shoes, wet and stained jeans and a knock to the coccyx.

Looking back over the long flight, a striking aspect was the complete lack of significant
weather. A similar period of flying in New Zealand would bring a full cycle of anticyclones and depressions, but across the entire width of the USA there was little wind to speak of and no conditions to stop flying. That was all of 27 years ago, but I’ll never forget Cessna 195 N3877Y.

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