Sometimes cars stop short of the strip for landing planes–sometimes they don’t
Silence in my headset, just the steady, comforting drone of the Continental purring in front of me and the normal vibrations felt on my fingertips through the airplane’s yoke and throttle. The radio had been totally quiet other than my position report when I was initially outbound from the airport at Owls Head, my home base. With no one else in the air this early in the morning I pretty much had the sky to myself which is the norm–one of the reasons I love the first and last flights of the day.
Having the sky to yourself is a joyful and fulfilling feeling. It’s as if for a few moments you are the only one alive and all the surroundings; such as the sky and clouds, the ocean and the mountains, are there for you, and you alone. This sort of feeling is a truly unique feeling that has always been very spiritual for me. Of course as the minutes tick away and others take flight, you realize there are other people joining you in your magical domain of the sky and it ever so slightly loses a bit of its allure.
So although I felt I was the only one riding on the gentle, coastal air currents this morning there were others. For example, there were the occasional seagulls down near the dark Atlantic waters floating effortlessly within a few feet of the waves. We had an agreement those gulls and I–they were to stay low and I had the rest of the sky above them to do whatever I please so long as I didn’t violate our contract. That was the agreement from last season anyway…when we had all sorts of altercations with them on Big Green Island (aka Large Green). All I had to do is look out at the end of my left wingtip for a reminder of what happens when a gull plays chicken (and loses) with the plane as one of our pilots found out while landing. No issues today though, they kept their end of the bargain and I planned on keeping mine at least until it was time to land…then I had to descend into their realm. When that time comes I will just have to be looking for them even more so than normal.
Right now though all is well and right in the world, I am in my element. As the power is being slowly pulled back in anticipation of landing at the Witherspoon’s Airstrip on North Haven, I see that I am just coming up on Thayer’s Boatyard, so I consciously slow the Cessna to the proper speed and descended to the correct altitude knowing I am only a couple of minutes at most from feeling the smooth grass and rumbling gravel under my wheels. I had been looking forward to this flight for months. Stuck at my home in Florida during the winter months, I was awaiting the day I’d have a load of mail on-board and be slipping across the bay to this island off the coast of Maine. As a pilot for our company, I get to fly to a number of interesting and challenging locations, but I enjoy this particular flight and destination for many reasons. It’s always enjoyable to drive the mail down to the post office after unloading the plane and gossip with Mary, the Post Master, on all the local happenings. It’s also a great way to ease into a busy day and she treats all of us at the company very well. It’s like visiting family.
Well, it’s time to pay attention and step up my game, this airstrip at Witherspoon’s is known as one of our hardest to land in and takeoff from due to it being extremely short and with significant obstructions on each end. One of the ends is also bisected by a major road on the island and cars are notorious for not stopping at the flashing lights when planes are landing. The locals are very good at stopping for us but the summer residents are oftentimes unaware of the airstrip and its low flying planes or they are just too caught up in the freedom of their vacations to care of such minor annoyances as landing airplanes landing over their roads withing feet of their cars. Either way, the gravel airstrip is in sight and as I line the airplane up for landing I can’t help but notice a big bird out ahead of me. Not a seagull like we were speaking of earlier mind you, this is a BIG bird I’m seeing and he appears to be circling right where I will be coming down over (through) the trees for landing. He is enormous…looks like a turkey buzzard if I didn’t know any better. Obviously he is not aware of the agreement the gulls and I have, or he’s unconcerned with said agreement given his rather large size.
In order to get down and stopped by the far end of the runway we have to fly very close to the trees, nearly brushing them with our wheels, in order to land safely. In doing this we don’t get much room for error and cannot attempt to avoid birds and other objects nonchalantly–there is no room for such luxuries. Just as I think he’s given me some room to work with and will be out of my way, he turns sharply and lines up on a path that will surely intersect mine at the worst point in my landing profile. I have but a second or two to determine if this new flight path of his will miss me sufficiently to be an acceptable option, if not I am triggered to initiate a go-around which will allow me to fly past the field and start the whole landing process over again.
In less time than it took you to read that last sentence I determined there was going to be just enough room for me to safely get by this big pile of feathers providing he didn’t do some erratic maneuver that turned him back towards me, so I continued towards my destiny of meeting the ground–hopefully in a very smooth and controlled fashion. Thankfully the enormous bird continues on his way and I see him pass easily off my left wing about twenty feet away and opening that distance by the second. With him no longer a concern I concentrate fully on the landing and get the plane down safely and in a reasonable distance allowing me to pull off into a parking area mid way down the thousand foot long strip.
As I step out of the plane and prepare to unload my cargo of boxes, letters, newspapers and flyers, I can’t help but look back down towards the end of the runway and think of what all of that landing approach looked like from the birds perspective. Did he even notice me? I’m sure I will never know about his specific concerns, but I do know of a seagull on another island not far from this one that surely wishes he would have dived towards the ground rather than climb upward into the flight path of this airplanes wing!