Take a Seaplane Ride!

My father was a pilot in World War Two, so it should come as no surprise that I was fascinated by airplanes. Whenever we went to the dam, I begged my parents to let me take a seaplane ride. I finally got my wish in 1965 and I remember it to this day. Join me now, won't you, as we take that ride again. Buckle your safety belts and grab hold of your seats, for this is the stuff of memories.

Seaplane rides were expensive. In the mid-60s you could expect to pay five dollars for a ten minute ride. Typically, the pilot would fly south to the vicinity of the Grand Glaize Bridge, then turn north and approach the dam from the east. Most of the planes used over the years carried the pilot plus three passengers. Usually the pilot would wait until there were at least two paying passengers to make the trip profitable.

Taking off and landing on the lake was no simple task. The pilot had to take off into the wind, which usually was from the southwest. So he would taxi well out into the channel, turn the plane into the wind, and wait until boat traffic had cleared. With the prop set to maximum pitch, the engine would come alive with a deafening roar and the plane would dart forward faster than anything else on water. The take-off run could be a little bumpy if there were wakes to cross--hopefully they were small wakes, then all of a sudden the plane smoothed out and you knew you were airborne. A hill or point that only moments ago loomed ahead like an unsurmountable barrier suddenly dropped below the plane's nose and as you looked down you saw it pass well beneath you.

Your ears popped a bit as the plane leveled out and there before you and on all sides of you was that shimmering blue lake surrounded by verdant green hills stretching from horizon to horizon. The beauty of it defied description--you found yourself speechless as you took it all in. If you knew the lake well, you could easily discern the sweeping curves of Horseshoe Bend and Shawnee Bend. Off to your right and a bit over your shoulder you could see the mouth of the Gravois Arm--always blue and living up to its reputation as the clearwater arm of the lake.

As the plane continued soutward you might get a glimpse of the Grand Glaize Bridge. As majestic as it appeared at ground level, it was now reduced to insignificance--a mere string stretching across the bright, open water. Individual boats were nearly indiscernable, their passing marked only by their wake, which appeared as long vee-shaped lines. As the plane turned more to the northeast you could glimpse the narrow ribbon of Highway 54 winding beneath you; here and there a wide spot indicated the gravel parking lot of some tourist establishment.

Up ahead was more water, but this time narrow and brown. It was the Osage River below the dam. As it drew nearer you marvelled that anything that puny and dull could have been transformed into such a beautiful, wide sheet of sparkling water. The line of demarcation between the lake and the river struck you as a bit surreal. On the one side the wide and vibrant lake, on the other the diminished and lazy river. As the plane banked sharply to the left and the pilot closed the throttle, details of that concrete line known as Bagnell Dam loomed dangerously ahead. Indeed, the plane seemed to be diving right for it. Those two crane towers, so harmless looking when viewed from the shore now seemed as though they might snag the very pontoons from under the plane. You found yourself involuntarily raising your feet from the floor as though an extra inch or two might make the difference. With your stomach somewhere up in your throat and your ears popping louder than the engine, the dam passed below you in a blur and the lake seemed to rise to meet you. A sudden "whoosh" and the sensation of being thrown forward against your seatbelt announced that you had landed and were now a mere boat with wings.

As he guided the plane to the dock, the pilot, a mustachioned fellow with sunglasses and epaulets on the shoulders of his white shirt, asked you what you thought of the ride. You grinned and mumbled something that sounded like, "It was great." But it was more than great--a lot more. You would go home that night and relive it in your dreams. And the memory of that ride would stay with you forever.

While most seaplane operators at the lake flew DeHavillands or Cessnas, this circa 1950 photo shows a Seabee amphibian with a pusher propeller coming into the Loc-Wood Dock at the dam.

Photos courtesy of Brad Atkinson, Fenton, Missouri, and Charley Knerim, Eldon.

Text © 2002 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.