Lake mower clears paths for floatplanes

Posted: Monday, August 13, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Mowing the lawn at the world's busiest seaplane base requires a life jacket, air traffic control clearance and lots of training. Fishing poles are optional.

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That's because the Lake Hood mower slices through water as well as weeds.

Property of Stevens International Airport, the mower is actually a boat as big as a school bus with submersible blades that carve 11-foot-wide swaths through underwater foliage.

Incoming floatplane pilots see the mower's patterned handiwork from the air. They're why the state bought the $170,000, pumpkin-colored contraption, said Gary Moore, an equipment operator who laughingly calls himself the boat's captain.

Over the years, deicing fluid and other jet goop from the nearby airport seeped into the floatplane lake, poisoning the olive-green water and smothering aspiring weeds, he said. But around 2000, the airport cleaned out the lake. Plants sprouted a few years later.

When the weedy tentacles reached the surface, they tangled in rudders and sent more than one taxiing plane crashing into the bank, he said. With several planes queued for takeoff - Lake Hood boasts nearly 500 slips - seized-up rudders are dangerous.

"You can run into other planes if you have five or six planes trying to take off and you can't steer," said Moore, a floatplane pilot who owned a flightseeing operation on the lake until he sold it two years ago.

Airport officials prevented such smashups by borrowing a small boat mower from a floatplane lake in Homer three years ago, said Dean Powell, an airport environmental field supervisor and sometimes captain. Two years ago, they bought the 46-foot-long vessel, the biggest model available, from Alpha Boats in New York, he said.

Part paddlewheel boat and part combine harvester, the nine-ton vessel goes by a variety of names, including the Lake Hood harvester and the "lake rake."

The mower cuts nine feet deep and holds seven tons of wet grass, about an hour's worth of mowing if the weeds are thick. They need cutting once every two weeks.

Driving makes for a nerve-racking experience when lots of planes are taxiing, said Moore. Still, you can't beat some days on the water.

He's joked about attaching fishing poles off the back and trolling for meals, but the lake has only small black fish that aren't good for eating, he said.

And the lake rake travels just 7 miles an hour.

"You can't water ski behind it," said Powell.

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