Matinicus

Matinicus Runway 36

Looking to the north and back towards the mainland at Matinicus’s airstrip

With the wind aggressively buffeting the plane, I sit here in the pilot’s seat contemplating my choices in life as I taxi the heavy Cessna 206 down the dirt/gravel airstrip on Matinicus.  The end of the runway, where it meets the sea, is just ahead and it is where I will turn around and takeoff uphill towards trees and the barn…but more importantly–into the wind.  To be more precise about my wandering mind, I’m contemplating my immediate decision to take off uphill and over the obstacles in this heavy plane; but with the strong, gusty southwesterly wind this is undoubtedly the better choice in my humble opinion.  As I glance around the full airplane I can see all of my passengers are lost in their thoughts also.  Being year round inhabitants of this tiny island community they are seasoned passengers and this is something they do all the time knowing we pilots will do everything within our power to make their flight as safe as possible.

Matinicus is an island approximately seventeen miles off the coast of Maine in the Atlantic Ocean.  Affectionately known as “Mat” to those of us that work in our small charter outfit, it is not a large island and measures two miles in length by one mile in width.  It is said to be the furthest offshore island on the east coast that is inhabited year round and is served by a thriving fishing community, schoolhouse, post office, airstrip and church; in addition to the homes of its relatively few inhabitants.

At somewhere just shy of 1,700 feet (1,668.5 feet to be exact) the airstrip is quite long compared to some of our strips on other islands, but Mat has its quirks as most of our airstrips do; there is a significant hill to take into consideration when landing and taking off which is very important given that often our planes are heavily loaded when arriving and departing.  More importantly there are the persistent crosswinds to consider, Matinicus is known for some hellacious winds which like to blow directly across the strip–and the passengers know these can make for some interesting landings.  Given that Mat is an island, the wind can really get to blowing out here and with nothing to slow it down a pilot trying to land can really be in for an interesting ride trying to get the craft safely on the ground.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the notorious barn at the south end of the runway.  Taking off uphill (or landing downhill for that matter) there is a barn to contend with…it has a way of looking like it’s going to reach up and snag the planes landing gear as we pass by because often times we barely clear it!  To a pilot unaccustomed to flying into this strip the barn can be an intimidating structure ready to strike the fragile plane from the sky…but after a few times you learn there are more important risks to consider, and the barn becomes a nonissue most days.

With the tough old Cessna heavily loaded I obviously prefer to depart downhill to the north because as you can see in the accompanying photo there are no obstructions at the end of the strip, nor are there any obstructions all the way to the mainland for that matter.  I’ve often said as long as I could clear the foot high berm at the end of the runway I could fly all the way back to our home base at Owls Head in ground effect–within feet of sea level!  One of our pilots jokingly says he prefers to have the tide  out because it buys him another fifteen or more feet of clearance…enough to take another lucky passenger when weight is a factor!

Either way, the time has come to focus on what I’m getting paid to do, and the plane is turned around facing uphill towards the barn.  I smoothly but forcefully push the throttle fully in giving us the maximum power available and the best possible chance of a successful take off.  The plane accelerates nicely but noticeably slower than when she is not weighted down so heavily.  Regardless the plane is at the speed I would like and off the runway by my previously picked go, no-go point marked by light posts on the side of the runway.  I allow the plane to fly down low in ground effect and accelerate even more than normal to account for the large gusts today and we sail comfortably over the barn without issue.  My trusty steed makes me look good by allowing me to appear as conqueror of the turbulent air, when I actually know it’s mother nature that has once again given me a pass and allowed me access to her realm in the sky.  Being the first flight of the day I know I will be doing this dozens of times today at this airstrip and other strips with their own unique challenges.  How much longer my contract with mother nature continues to stand is anyone’s guess, but I’m hoping it’s for many more years, takeoffs and landings.

Weather Flying

Late September iPhone 056

This fog forms in minutes and can disappear as fast–it is quite typical of the Maine coast

I love the challenge of weather flying.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the sunny days as much as the next guy but it can get a bit repetitive on your thirty-second leg of the day; especially during the few minutes of cruise flight we get between islands when you’re up high (relatively speaking) and there is nothing to do but watch the engine gauges and the grey Atlantic from three thousand feet.  Granted it’s important to monitor the health of the engine, but it’s not the same focus I have when I’m down low trying to find a path around the fog or showers while avoiding obstacles and keeping the flight legal–all of that together is what keeps things interesting and challenging.  That intensity is what I thrive on and desire.  If I wanted to cruise along from my high perch and turn on the autopilot to relax, I would have sought a job with Delta.

I grew up flying in Maine and after thirty plus years of aviating here and elsewhere I am quite familiar with the weather patterns of my home state, so oftentimes I know what to expect.  This in no way makes me an expert on the weather nor am I impervious to complacency.  So with this in mind I most definitely have a “plan B” up my sleeve and many times a “plan C” in order to safely conduct a flight.  Weather is always a leading cause of accidents in aviation; for that matter it is a leading cause of fatal accidents–which makes it even more ominous.

In comparison, I found while flying in southeast Alaska that the weather was very similar with what I was used to in Maine only with a significantly different topography.  Thankfully each area allows you to fly over the ocean in many locations, this is important when dealing with low ceilings and/or visibility because one could potentially fly nearly down to the ocean’s surface in an emergency without much fear of hitting an obstacle.

I sometimes get asked why I don’t have pictures of the really bad weather.  Well, I’m sorta busy flying the plane and trying not to scare the devil out of my passengers (this can be an art itself and worthy of a chapter in a book!) so the really bad weather typically gets my undivided attention.  Every so often I do get a picture of some nasty weather I’m flying through but much of the time they are not the best photos anyway.  Think about driving to work in the fog and rain and taking pictures as you motor down the highway.  Not only dangerous, it would also make for some pretty boring or downright ugly pictures.

Fairly often I see before me a scene that truly tugs at my emotions and am able to safely get a picture, the photo above was one of those times.  This particular day the weather wasn’t bad really as long as the airstrip wasn’t in the fog, it just made things interesting and also provided some beautiful photos given the wind made the fog appear to “flow” like a liquid around obstacles on the waters surface.  Another important point I’d like to make is I don’t take photos with passengers on the plane so there are times I just stare at an awe inspiring scene and enjoy it for what it is.  These are the times I wish I could just blink my eyes as though they are a shutter on a camera and have my mind act as the memory card–so I could share the picture, the spirit, the feeling of the beauty I’m seeing with all of you.

Exploring My Backyard

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Nahmakanta Lake from the south looking north–the campsite is on the point far left

The airplane settled onto the water as the floats slowed and came off the step, now the weight of the Super Cub was completely supported by the floats and the wings were lifeless at these speeds.  With no wind the plane idled along slowly towards the shoreline as if drawn there by some unseen force, a force that said “Steady as she goes…come see what secrets lie hidden in the darkness of my spruce lined shore.”

The water was flat calm.  There didn’t appear to be a single ripple on the entire lake making it appear as though the mountains surrounding the large body of water were reflected perfectly on its surface only upside down.  Even during times like this with absolutely no wind it is prudent to lower the water rudders, this would allow me to steer the plane much more effectively should I see a rock, sandbar or other obstacle in my path.

Reaching over with my right hand and lowering the water rudders I instinctively reached back and to right, opening the door on the side of the Cub.  I can’t help but notice the cool, sweet-smelling dampness of the air as the propeller blows it back through the cockpit.  Even when the prop is turning at a leisurely six hundred rpm or so the breeze is very noticeable.  Had there been anyone in the back they would have been pretty cold with that breeze blowing in on them.  However, sitting up front like I am, I’m pretty well protected by the majority of the prop blast; only feeling the remnants of the air as it moves throughout the interior of the craft.

As I near the beach on this remote lake I shut down the engine and slow my forward progress over the water by pulling the mixture control and watch as the prop quickly comes to a stop.  The only sounds I hear are the steady ticking from the cooling engine and the water passing slowly by the floats–even that water sound stops and is replaced by the sound of the aluminum floats as they gently meet the coarse gravel of the beach.

Not needing to rush with no wind or current affecting my plane, I prepare to disembark and explore the shoreline.  I’ve already unbuckled my seat-belt so I climb out onto the float and step off onto the deserted beach to see if this location is suitable for pitching a tent and spending a night or two.  Prior to any further exploration I must at least pull the plane further up onto the beach; lest it floats away.  With my weight out of the plane it rides higher on the floats and the immediate increase in buoyancy threatens to take my plane “out to sea.”  Finally, with the plane secure on the shoreline it is time to see what the beckoning spruce shore has to offer.

At first glance it appears I found the perfect place for a campsite with all the favorable amenities once could ask for in a remote location such as this.  Truth be known this is one of hundreds of potential camp sites in this part of Maine, and I’m just trying to narrow down a few spots for my next outing with my friends or family.

As I stand on the beach looking around assessing the sites potential, I hear the soothing call of two loons communicating–one close and one quite far away.  Right then and there my mind is made up…this location has made the cut and is on my short-list of half a dozen sites.  Sometimes I feel that exploration of these woods and forests for any reason is oftentimes more fun and rewarding than the final mission itself–this is one of those days.

Memories

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At this altitude taking pictures is fairly easy but on still has to be careful

The window is open and the warm wind whips through the cockpit carrying with it the pleasant scent of the damp evening air accompanied by the spruce trees lining the lakes shoreline…it’s as close to heaven as I can get while earthbound.

I’m concentrating on holding the camera steady with my right hand and framing my subject perfectly in the viewfinder while holding the stick with my left hand–it’s more art than science really.  I once told a dear friend I could use an extra set of hands and eyes during this part of the flight–she would have not only made the process much easier and safer, she would have felt what I felt, seen what I saw, and be moved like I was moved.

I can feel the vibration of my plane through the control stick and the throttle reverberate through every nerve ending in my hand as we fly northward towards the darkening mountains.  The plane is very nearly flying itself one hundred feet above the deep water as we cruise along at ninety miles per hour.  My hand is there on the controls only as a safety of sorts…my craft could fly itself like this for long periods of time without my intervention given the calm evening conditions, but I want to ensure we stay under control even should a stray gust of wind or other anomaly surprise us.

My eyes are drawn back to the left as I look out the open window at the only sunlight I’d seen all day.  This sunlight actually was the first anyone around this area had seen in a few days, a few days of grey, murky skies and heavily diffused sunlight.  But this sunlight I was seeing now was so welcome, so warm, so beautiful, and it would only last for a few more minutes.  This sunlight was slowly fading as the sun slipped more and more behind the mountainous horizon making its way to more exotic places than mine–creating a beautiful sunrise to offset my gorgeous sunset no doubt, in far away lands more foreign than where I sat.

I glance ahead to ensure all is well and we are not going to fly into any hillside or other obstruction, then back to the view finder for some last second adjustments before taking my hand off the stick and gently pushing the shutter button–forever capturing another memory.  After a quick check to make sure the picture is adequate, I roll the plane hard to the right and get back on course to my home base before night sets in.  Fate does not shine upon those who tempt it and I know without doubt landing a floatplane after dark is tempting fate.

Another successful flight, another memory locked away in my mind that will be with me until my last breath.  This life is exactly what I’ve been searching for and thankfully found…it keeps me sane, happy and whole.  Without these things in my life I would not be complete.  I suppose this life I found and built has a foundation based on being happy and content.  All things being equal, I suppose my life is in a state of symbiosis.  My friend would be proud.

The Last Flight

SG Late Afternoon

The plane I usually fly while at work–Sierra Golf–is ready to go on her last flight of the day

The last flight.  Anyone that I work with or takes the time to read my ramblings know I truly enjoy the last flight of the day.

Quite often the last flight is given to a “volunteer” of sorts.  We tend to alternate the days flights as much as possible in order to maintain a level of fairness amongst the pilots but by the last flight that fairness system can change a bit.  For instance, one of the pilots may have a prior commitment outside of work and by seven in the evening we are winding down because we cannot legally fly over fourteen hours and of course we start the duty day by six in the morning at the latest so we are rapidly approaching the end of our duty time (there are exceptions but we rarely use them because they have a duty time cost on the following day which can really throw off scheduling).  Well if that pilot has an engagement that he cannot miss and he would have been next in line for the last flight oftentimes we will assign it to someone else to try and help the affected pilot out.  In this case the dispatcher will ask if someone will take the last flight.  This is where I will usually step in–I love that last flight even when I’m completely exhausted.

To me the completion of the last flight is a symbol of “another successful day of challenging flying” safely completed.  Nearly as important, is the last flight of the day is my chance to reflect and unwind…it’s my opportunity to cap off a rewarding day with the proverbial cherry on top.  It’s totally therapeutic and allows me to soak in some amazing views because the lighting is usually at its best this time of day, the sun is setting and the flight will happen in a time photographers call the “golden hour”.

This day being no different, what I originally thought was to be my “last” flight was completed and before I could tie the plane down I was asked if I could do one more flight for some friends/frequent flyers that just showed up and were dying to get to their small, remote island to spend the weekend in their cabin.

It only took me a nanosecond to jump at the opportunity to fly again even after having completed a long, grueling day.  This flight was all set to be a sunset trip on a beautiful evening and the potential to see a great sunset was there given the atmospheric conditions–so I offered the copilot’s seat to a friend and the four of us made the ten minute flight out to Green Island in silky smooth air while watching a beautifully deep red sun slip below the horizon leaving behind an afterglow that was breathtaking.

The landing among the seagulls was anticlimactic and we were greeted by an entourage of nearly two dozen folks who were already started on their weekend party…it was an amazing site to say the least.  Now understand, this island is extremely small with no trees, three cabins, a flag pole and a grass airstrip.  Seeing that many people out waving and greeting the plane as the engine shudders to a stop made for a great atmosphere…sort of festive as if we were celebrating the last ten minutes when we were enjoying the sunset flight.

Before long I had to say goodbye to all those friends and quickly make the flight back to our home airfield before I timed-out.  By timing out that meant I was coming up on my fourteen hours and I had to have all my work completed; including securing the plane, fueling as needed and the associated paperwork.   I love the final flights of the day…many times they will stick in my memory for years and often top off my day…exactly as this one has done.  In terms of legality I cut this one kind of close though, it was exactly eight in the evening when I finished everything so I was right at my duty time cutoff and I legally satisfied the regulations…

…well that’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it,

Live Each Day

Late September iPhone 966

A work day that can last 14 hours is long–but can be very fulfilling

 

Over seven hours of flying time today and I’m about worn out.

A United 777 captain would smile at this because he routinely logs legs this long and much longer–while making more per hour than I make the entire day, maybe even two days.  But should you have the gumption to ask that captain how many landings he made, how many minutes of those seven hours or more his hands were on the controls maneuvering the airplane, how much of the cargo he loaded and unloaded, or how many times did he personally add fuel and oil to his plane–his answers in contrast to mine would make him blush.  He may have hand flown the craft a half of an hour maximum…probably less.  He would tell you he had to make one landing maximum–again maybe less because his first officer may have been flying this leg.  Load or unload cargo?  Not happening–his own two bags would be the most he’d be handling.  And flight crew in the airlines do not add fuel and oil to their planes, they have a large team of people handling all of these duties.

Pilots like myself on the other hand, can do this seven or more hours of flying in a day while flying legs less than fifteen minutes long and load/unload thousands of pounds of freight and bags throughout the long, hot summer day.  This while completing thirty-two demanding landings with over half of those off-airport landing in the mud, gravel or grass–all while battling rain, fog and wind from sunrise until tying the plane down at sunset.

Completely worn out, that’s pretty much how I feel after a half a day’s work (In the Navy we would say a “half day” is 12 hours.  Correct?).  We can legally work a 14 hour duty day and  do fairly often…but not every day, most are on average around 13 hours during our peak part of the flying season.  Show up not later than 0545, preflight and run-up complete by 0610 then flying the first load into North Haven with a 0615 departure time.  This continues throughout the day but with possibly worsening weather and more demanding missions until sunset.  We fly people, freight, animals, construction equipment, rocks, trees, bees, motorcycles, groceries, hazardous materials…basically whatever it takes to make life work.  It’s physical work…intermixed with some of the most rewarding flying one could ever ask for.

Sure you can make more money in the airlines.  Sure you can fly some of the most advanced equipment around at ridiculously fast speeds–but the real joy for me comes from handflying the plane while threading the needle through the tall pines and landing on a dirt or gravel strip with winds gusting to “Oh my God!”

You see, I need that hands on stimulation of actually flying the plane rather than pushing buttons and twisting knobs to tell the autopilot how to fly the plane.  I need to feel the pulse of the machine as we fly at 500 feet above the picturesque coastal towns of Maine zipping along at 140 miles per hour under an overcast cloud layer with wisps of fog rolling by my wingtips like white cotton balls–all the while starting at the sun rising slowly in the east, painting a picture that would melt the most hardened soul.

These impressions in my mind are all I will have when I pass from this life to the next.  I won’t be taking my plane, I won’t be taking my truck, I won’t be taking any of my physical possessions.  I, like you, will only leave with my memories.  Did I make the most of it?  Did I treat people fairly?  Did I strive to do the right things and make the right choices when no one was around?  These are the important considerations, these are the things that will matter when the end comes.  Enjoy each day and live life to the fullest while doing so honorably.

However, there is one thing equally important as those items listed above; take the time to enjoy each and every day while making those memories–our memories are all we truly own when it is all said and done.

Maintain Course

Sunset in the Gut

Cruising at 30 feet above the water and 90 mph…chasing the sun

The last of the warm late evening sun is slowly dropping below the horizon leaving the clouds a pinkish hue as the water turns to a darker shade of grey; changes that are happening quite quickly at these latitudes.  My Supercub knows neither day nor night, it only knows that it is flying–and flying is where we both prefer to be.

We skim along thirty feet above the lakes surface at a brisk ninety mph heading nowhere in particular, only chasing the quickly disappearing dark red sun on its journey to far away places.  For now the sun is rising even while setting.  The Green Cub and I may be witnessing a beautiful sunset here in the forests of central Maine but those in India or surrounding areas may very well be witnessing a just as beautiful sunrise–the sun waits for no man as it appears to continually move through our sky.

The engine drums along rhythmically leaving my mind to wander amongst fleeting random thoughts while my right hand holds the craft steady on a westerly course…a course that I know will have to change soon due to the rapidly advancing darkness and the inevitable landing that will come.  My left hand rest easily on the throttle, it’s not really doing anything other than guarding it should a quick adjustment be needed in power.  But no quick adjustments are currently needed, the airplane is in a state of equilibrium with all forces being equal and with the evenings smooth air it feels as mundane as sitting in your recliner at home.  However be aware!  This really isn’t mundane by any stretch of the imagination, this is a breathing, living machine less than three stories above the dark waters of the lake moving at one hundred and thirty-two feet per second…one must pay attention even when the mind wanders.

Although the landing is only minutes away, it is in the future and not a priority; for now all I want to do is enjoy every second of this flight.  For now I just want to feel the gentle pitching and rolling of the plane as we traverse the regions between  the loosely scattered islands, I want to see the pink fade to orange then gray and black before my very eyes.  I want to savor every second of this flight for I know I will remember this ’till my dying days, I will look back when I’m eight-five and recall the feelings, the sights and the smells.

I won’t change course just yet…three or four minutes maybe, but not just yet.  Right now I’m content sailing along effortlessly chasing the rapidly setting sun in the west.  Of course I will never catch the glorious sun, she’s moving at twelve miles every second!  Given her speed and the speed of the Cub I’d say we will see darkness long before I get near the approaching mountains just miles before us.

With that thought I ease the stick to the right with my hand and feel the plane respond immediately as she banks smoothly finally settling on a southeasterly course.  My home base is only minutes away but already I can feel the yearning set in as I know this flight is drawing to an end.  Already I know this feeling of contentment I have, these sounds I hear, this view I have, these sensations I’m feeling are drawing to an end and this will be just another line in the logbook–except it won’t.  I’ve recorded this short flight in writing as you, dear reader, can testify.  I will at the very least have words I can return to when I want to relive this flight!  It is forever locked in my memory and can be relived at a moments notice by reading these very words…

The Mind

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If my mind needs some adjustment a good place to do it is in this Green Supercub

It was a long time ago…it was a short time ago.  The mind can play tricks–it can really twist ones perception of time when allowed to do so.  Either way, I will never forget.  Couldn’t if I wanted to–which I of course don’t.

I look at the plane sitting calmly on the water and the memories come flooding back–it reminds me.

I look at the ocean in all of it’s power and mystery–and it too reminds me.

I smell the sweet scent of the beautiful spruce trees and I’m taken back–it reminds me.

I inhale the salt air feeling it’s pungent odor deep in my body and I’m there again–it reminds me.

Three hours ago, four months ago, a year or more ago…my mind is constantly in turmoil.  Should one let go of those we miss easing the sorrow and hurt…or should we constantly keep their memories alive both in our minds and in our daily tasks?  I’m not sure there is even a “correct” answer to this question.  I mean if one thinks about it, it’s a very personal choice.  I know it’s a decision I struggle with daily–hence the mind clearing exercises I find myself doing–the walks on the beach, the hikes in the woods, the flights over my beautiful state, these exercises are truly my therapy.  I’m not sure of the “right” answer as it seems to change by the minute as of late.  Maybe there is a symbiotic relationship between “letting go” and “holding on”.  I mean maybe symbiosis has to be maintained in order to keep our sanity.

Too deep for my jumbled thoughts this day.  One thing is for sure…the mind is more powerful than my self control in recent times…and being a slave to it I will do whatever it asks…

 

Life

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Beautiful sunset on Great Pond, Maine.

I used to think I could pass on to the afterlife any day and be content–satisfied.  I felt I’d done most everything in life that I wanted to do and anything else was just frosting on the cake.  Not that I was looking for my life to end early or anything that dramatic, but I was happy with the way my life had turned out and I had attained most of the goals I had set for myself.  It was a comfortable feeling–like there was very little pressure and I was enjoying life…but sort of coasting through it so to speak.

So this bit of info demands a smidgen of background on my and my outlook lest you think I’m some sort of arrogant know-it-all that thinks he has life all figured out by his mid-thirty’s.  This isn’t the case at all.  You see, I had semi-intentionally stayed single until I was thirty-nine years old while making a career at sea in the Navy (sorry to the few ladies that had captured my heart up until this time, I had no idea this would pan out this way…it was just life…as I was finding out).  So with this in mind, I had most of the toys I’d wanted and seen nearly everything that I cared to see…I had it all neatly done and the “box” checked.  Or so I’d thought.

Apparently I didn’t have much of it figured out at all, life came along and threw me a curveball…I’ve noticed it has a way of doing that.  Somewhere along the line I had an epiphany, I found that sharing the things I enjoyed in life with someone who appreciates them also is even MORE fulfilling than doing them alone!  I know, I know, not a news flash to most of you–but it was a turning point in my life.  This learning point was the basis of my finding the right person and settling down, I had the knowledge that with the right person my life would be enrichened immensely.

So as the years passed by, my life on earth as a married man were fruitful and I saw that I had been missing something after all…even if I didn’t realize it.  We truly don’t know what we are missing when we’ve never experienced it…but as soon as you do experience it, you can’t figure out how you ever did without it.  It’s like a hole is filled that you didn’t even know existed.

As time went on I started to feel content again and comfortable once more…but life happend as it tends to do.  I learned I had a son coming into this world and Nathan completely changed me before he’d even arrived!  Now I think twice before doing the more risky things in my life, be it at work or at home.  I realize my wife would go on just fine without me (some would argue she’d do better! ha!) but this young boy, he needed a father; he needed someone to help guide him through life’s obstacles as those great souls helped guide me during my upbringing.

Now no longer do I feel like I’m ready to go anytime soon.  Now I feel as though I have to do my best to live as long as possible–at least until I’ve done my part in shaping my son into a kind, caring, thoughtful and gentle man that will be a positive addition to society.

So on to the next chapter in life.  The chapter I will forever call Nathan…a toast to our future success.