It was a gray, overcast day with not a breath of wind. I’d been flying around the lakes and forests surrounding my hometown of Millinocket for well over two hours exploring as many lakes and ponds as possible in my green floatplane in an attempt to enjoy every second of my final flight of the season in my magic carpet. True I was getting low on fuel, but the sight tubes were still indicating I had more than an hour of fuel left in the wings, and with a thirty minute reserve I could still cover some country if I wanted to. However, I had to land soon due more to time constraints on activities after the flight than to any fuel issues. So there I was trying to prolong the final flight and not wanting it to end–while also trying to land and move on to the laundry list of chores awaiting me afterwards when earthbound. Well enough procrastinating old man, land the plane and get to work on the drudgery of your chores.
I was only a few miles south of the airport and gently guided the Super Cub in a general direction that would take me to the middle of the airfield, allowing me to look over my intended landing area and determine if it was safe for landing. As I drew closer to the airfield I could make out my landing zone in the grass off the side of runway two-nine. The area was marked off simply with two orange cones at the threshold, or beginning, of the ‘runway’ which were barely visible from my vantage point–abeam and one thousand feet above them. My friends and I had walked over this area previously to ensure there were no hidden rocks or holes in the grass that would damage my floats on touchdown. For those of you that have been paying attention, I’ve been talking about my airplane that lands on water, hence the term floatplane. But now we talk of touching down…in the grass? Landing on the land in a floatplane only equipped to land on the water because it has no wheels? You heard right, this is how it’s done here at the end of the float flying season…land the plane in the grass just like you would land it on the water on a flat calm day. It may seem strange to some, it certainly does to most of us pilots that land seaplanes in the water, but it can be done safely if one pays attention and lands as smoothly as possibly.
As I pull on the carburetor heat and slowly retard the throttle to idle, the engine noise diminishes to a very quiet purring sound and the plane slowly loses speed. Now I pull on two notches of flaps, slowing the plane further allowing me to descend more steeply. I tighten my lap belt and ensure my water rudders are up to keep from damaging them should I forget them and they contact the ground during the landing. As a pilot accustomed to landing on a lake or pond in the middle of nowhere, I can’t help but notice the oddness of my two friends, spectators mind you, standing very near the cones where I will be landing. They thankfully offered to help me secure the plane back in the hangar after my landing in the grass. I know Jeff and Tony are there to help me with the plane after I land, but I cannot shake the thought they are also there to see how well I pull this off–how well I land this Cub with an audience. They’ve both done this same thing just as have I, but we all know it’s not a “normal” procedure and something could always go wrong. Being good friends for so many years we certainly look out for one another, and I know they have my back in anything I do, but it’s just human nature to “critique” one’s peers, even if only in your head. So I now feel just a bit more pressure to make this landing a good one.
It’s the perfect day for this really, no wind and no sun in the face like we often get on runway two-nine later in the day. On the flip-side, having said this I can’t blame a lousy landing on anything other than my own inept piloting…so I focus on making this landing count. It isn’t every day you get to land a seaplane in the grass so I’m pretty alert and I know I will be committed after she touches down–at that point you’re just along for the ride!
I’m lined up on final approach now with full flaps and the proper pitch attitude to land flat, not on the bows of the floats but also not on the tails of them either. I notice that the plane is very subtlety slowing too much though…almost imperceptibly, but she is slowing and I need to stop it quickly or risk descending too soon and touching down short of the cones delineating my landing area that is free of rocks and other hazards. So I increase power ever so slightly, doing so only by sound and feel rather than by looking at an instrument in the cockpit–there’s not time for that. I try to not increase my speed too much, but just enough to put me on a trajectory to land where I’m supposed to.
Just as I think I’m going to touch down slightly before the cones I feel the keels of the floats as they drag through the grass and dirt, so I close the throttle and pull the stick full back out of habit for water landings. The deceleration is very noticeable yet nothing like an arrested landing; just the feeling one would get if they pushed the brake pedal in their car to stop quickly, but carefully enough to not lock the breaks up. Before I realize it I’m stopped and I reach forward with my throttle hand and pull out the mixture knob to shut down the motor while reaching up with my stick hand and shutting off the magnetos and master switch–the last item removing all electrical power from the plane.
I sit there for a few moments in the sudden stillness and silence. I just let my mind relax and take in the enormity of what I’d done. Not just this landing–but the entire summer float flying season. All the lakes, rivers and ponds I landed on. All the wildlife I flew over and fish I’d caught. All the people waving as I passed by them from the lowest river to the highest mountain. It was a safe and successful flying season and now it was all over and slowly sinking in that I was done until next year. For many reasons I felt an emptiness building in me that wouldn’t be filled for many months to come. Some of those reasons would never be filled…but that is another story for another day.