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The Adventure Awaits!

me-on-second.jpgHey there!  I’d like to introduce myself, my name is Shawn and this is my 1952 PA-18 Piper Super Cub I affectionately call the “Green Machine”…she’s my magic carpet to many destinations throughout Maine on wheels, skis and floats.  I have been flying as a licensed pilot for over 30 years throughout the United States, including Alaska.  My first memories as a child are of airplanes and flight–it’s been my passion ever since and I cannot fathom doing anything else!  This airplane and I actually go back 40 years now and if you are interested in finding out the story of the Green Machine, how she came into my life, and some of the fun we have had…well stick around!  This page will certainly entertain you if you like flying small airplanes in the backwoods like I do (some would call it bush flying…whatever it’s called, it’s fun!).  I’m looking forward to telling you some of my stories, fact and fiction, of not only this fine airplane but of many other types of planes I’ve flown and other types of flying I’ve done.

This page will always be a work in progress as I’m forever learning and adapting to writing, story-telling, and blogging so feel free to leave me your thoughts on what I may be able to do better or what you really liked–I definitely want to make this page the best I possibly can.  Anyway, I’m looking forward to you joining me on my adventures in the Green Super Cub–so climb aboard and let’s go flying!

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Memories Are All We Really Have

 

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I could tell this was going to end badly, I was losing my grip.  I couldn’t believe it but it was happening no matter what I did to try and stop it.  The slippery, powerful brook trout slid quickly through my fingers and fell three feet back into the deep, calm, dark waters of the pond.  I wanted to just jump in after the trout and never be seen again rather than have to explain what just happened to the ecstatic man who caught the beautiful fish.  I still could not believe it just happened; and even more importantly, I could not believe I had to tell Jeff I just lost the first fish he had caught in nearly thirty years–and she was a beauty at that, the biggest one we’d landed this evening.

But I digress, let me start this story at the beginning where all good stories must start…

 

Jeff is a close friend and we are usually attached at the hip doing Lord knows what throughout most of the year.  There are, however, a few things I enjoy that Jeff is typically not really interested in doing, and I would usually do those things alone or with another witting accomplice, then Jeff and I would catch up upon my return and pick up where we left off–causing trouble.  Things like fishing, hunting or hiking come to mind as things he no longer really took part in.  Jeff had done these sorts of things when he was younger but had grown away from them as the years had passed.  Well this particular evening I had talked him into going fishing with me, this is significant because he hadn’t been fishing in something like thirty years.  While I’m at it I should come clean here–I wholeheartedly wanted his company during some evening fishing, but I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind that with him coming along on my fishing excursion we can get twice as many fish…and since he doesn’t like to eat them I get to keep his fish too!  So as you can see, not only did I enjoy his quick wit and sarcasm throughout the evening–it was a tactically astute business decision also (for me anyway!).  Honestly, I was stoked to finally get him out here doing something he used to do years ago with his dad but had lost interest in doing somewhere along the road called life.  Now here we were, in my secret hot-spot, about to hopefully catch some really big brook trout.

We had landed in the small pond about three hours before sunset on a warm and still July evening, the kind of summer evening no one ever wants to see end and makes you happy to be alive.  The fish were just starting to bite a bit more enthusiastically and with no wind Jeff and I were fishing from the floats of my seaplane–affectionately known as the Green Machine.  Now a Piper Super Cub is known as “the go-to” bush plane performance-wise, able to get you into some normally inaccessible places that are far too small for most other planes.  However, one thing a Super Cub is not known for is its roominess, and standing out on those round-top EDO floats was a prime example of cramped quarters with space being a premium for either one of us.  Given the narrow floats we were moving about on while fishing, and the fact they were not flat on top but rounded, we had to be very careful of our movements in order to not perform an embarrassing–yet entertaining, unplanned excursion into the water.  I might add this is something most seaplane pilots do at least once during their flying career but I was determined to be the statistical outlier.

The evening was coming along nicely with Jeff and I conversing about this-and-that when he hooked into a gorgeous looking brook trout that appeared to be sixteen or seventeen inches long and quite fat…I was super happy for him given how long it had been since he had last been fishing.  Unfortunately I had forgotten to put the net used to land the fish in the plane this evening–a big faux pas since it was quite difficult to get any trout we caught out of the water and into our hands before they spit the hook and got away.  The all important fish net was safely stowed right where I had left it…in the back of my truck where it would do us no good tonight.  With my absentmindedness I knew it was up to me to hold on to this beauty and not let it slip through my fingers.  This task was a lot easier said than done due to this type of fish being quite slippery with a light coat of slime covering their bodies to keep ham-fisted fisherman like myself from getting a good grip on them.  This spirited fellow was no different and fought with all he had from the minute I got him out of the water and removed the hook.  I told Jeff to retrieve the cooler from the backseat of the plane so we could put him in the ice filled container keeping him fresh longer.  She was definitely the largest fish we’d caught so far this evening, nothing record setting but a very nice native Maine brook trout nonetheless.  I was perched precariously on the airplanes floats in about ninety feet of water with the very strong, active and slippery trout ever so slowly getting closer and closer to slipping out of my hands and back into the ponds mirrored surface.

Now dear reader, keep in mind we are both quite excited with his catch and we are attempting to not fall in the pond while moving about on the round tops of my narrow floats.  The fish was already giving me the dickens using every bit of its muscle and slipperiness to escape my grasp; which was tenuous at best because I was now trying to slide one hand into position to slip my fingers in the fish’s gills and get a much better grip.  During this time I was telling Jeff to hurry because I felt I was losing my grip–while internally I was thinking I wasn’t sure if I could hold on to him much longer.  Jeff climbed into the cockpit to retrieve the cooler laughing, telling me “Don’t let him get away I almost have the cooler!” I think he thought I was teasing him about possibly losing the fish back into the water.  I wish I was.

It happened in a flash?  No, it really was happening in slow motion for me…almost as if it was Karma showing me I was helpless to stop the trout from making his escape.  What seemed like a minute actually was probably more like seven or eight seconds.  When the inevitable happened the trout wasted no time swimming quickly out of reach at near light speed.  Jeff didn’t even hear me mutter some colorful, sailor lingo as I nearly fell off the floats trying to reach into the water for the fish.  When he turned around and saw me standing there fish-less, his expression said everything…”I can’t believe you really dropped my fish back into the pond (he was holding the cooler of course–he upheld his end of the bargain).  “You did it because it was the biggest one of the evening and you didn’t want everyone to know I came along thirty years later and beat out the pilot/guide with my first fish!”  Well, he may not have said this verbally…but that is exactly what I read on his face!  I wanted to slide off the floats into the dark, cool waters and never be seen again.  There was nothing I could do to convince him that I really didn’t do it on purpose.  I felt horrible but since we always use sarcasm in most everything we do that is exactly what we both reverted to with him telling me I did it on purpose and me going along with it and saying it wasn’t big enough to be a keeper anyway so I let it go!

Jeff had his line back in the water in record time, he was determined to show me he could do it again and would land his own fish this next time, taking me out of the equation.  Over the next few minutes I ended up catching a large brookie myself and this only fed fuel to his sarcasm and desire to catch another bigger one since mine was in the cooler!  As we sat there fishing and ribbing each other about the “one that got away” I could see something floating in the water about fifty feet or so in front of the plane, and every so often it would move for a second or so but otherwise it remained still for a minute or more.  The water in these ponds in central and northern Maine is very clean and rarely do we see anything foreign floating on their surface so this really had me eyeing it suspiciously.  Within seconds it dawned on me, could this be Jeff’s fish?  Could we have stunned it enough so that it didn’t fully recover and was floating belly-up on the surface?

I immediately stood up and looked from a slightly higher vantage point, there was no doubt…it was a trout wounded on the surface and we had to get to it immediately lest it get away a second time!  I pointed to the fish and told Jeff I could see his trout so we’d better get our butts in gear and go get it.  Once again we were clamoring over the narrow floats trying to get our lines pulled in and not fall over each other while stowing the rods.  I told him to grab the paddle located under the plane on the float rigging and start paddling us towards the fish, which he did quite passionately.  There was a problem however, as he paddled the plane it turned continually towards the left and no amount of paddling on either side of the right float (the float we were both on) could overcome the hydrodynamics of the floats and make us go straight towards the fish.  At this point I had an epiphany, I climbed partially into the cockpit and put both of my hands on the rudder pedals situated on the floor near the pilots seat.  As Jeff was paddling I was moving the rudders right and left with my hands, while laying nearly prone with most of my body hanging outside the cockpit!  Surprisingly we were not only moving towards the trout but we were able to steer easily in the fish’s direction as he attempted to get away!

Now you must picture this–if only someone had been there to video us two buffoons clamoring around the plane chasing down a wounded trout on the surface in this most unorthodox manner.  Until you do it or see it done this way you’ll never truly appreciate just how ridiculous it looked!  With my expert rudder work and Jeff’s handiness with the paddle we were able to bring the trout right up against the side of the float and he reached down and pulled it from the water before it made a second successful get away!  Neither one of us could believe the good fortune we had in getting this fish back but Jeff’s first words after getting the trout safely in the cooler was, “So now you let me recover my fish since yours is slightly larger!”  Not being one to get in the way of a good story I agreed wholeheartedly and we both laughed at the insanity of the nights events.

We ended up both getting our limit of trout on this particular evening and they were all very nice sized fish.  Seeing the excitement in Jeff’s eyes each time he caught another fish really topped off the night for me and we both remarked that his success was probably due to his dad looking down on him from above. His father, Wayne, recently passed and the last fishing he really did was with his dad so the significance of the night’s great fishing was not lost on either of us.  I feel pretty confident that Jeff’s father was looking down on us and smiling knowing it may have taken thirty years but we were doing the same thing he and his son had done three decades ago.

Of course we had fun that evening making memories that would follow us to our graves.  I am sure however, that neither one of us expected that evening to bring some wonderful old memories to the surface–memories now forever entwined with each other within the fabric of each of our lives.

Darkness Falls

Snowy Katahdin
Katahdin glowing in the setting sun

Darkness comes early here in Maine in late October; and it comes much earlier when the sky is nearly covered in dark, “wintry” looking clouds blocking the little bit of light given off by the setting sun.  My long-time friend, Jeff, joined me on this late afternoon excursion, an early evening mission to take some photos of the pride of Maine–Baxter State Park and more specifically, Mount Katahdin.  I had recently taken some pictures of the mountain for a friend and she was quite happy with the photos, very happy actually.  Well those photos were pretty good but they were taken during the day and without this new snow cover on the mountain, so I figured the semi-darkness and early season snowfall would make the photos even more alluring.  Of course time was running out, with every passing minute the light was fading fast.  Normally this would not be much of an issue but this evening I was flying the Green Machine, a 1952 Piper Super Cub on floats, and landing a floatplane on the water after dark is not something I really wanted to do today (or ever) so Jeff and I were in a bit of a hurry to get the plane ready and get airborne.

Despite our best efforts we did not get off the water and into the cold October air until quite a bit later than we had originally intended.  So be it.  This sortie was still a “Go” and I knew I could abort in the air and make best speed back to my home base at Smith Pond if it looked like we could not complete the flight.  Did I tell you that this whole mission was conceived in seconds as a last minute hail Mary flight to see if we could even get these pictures before dark?  Originally we had no intention of flying this evening, but when I realized the opportunity that was going to be presented, given the lighting and new snow, I just had to give it my best shot.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve screwed something up, broken something, or gotten into some trouble when I do things at the last minute with minimal planning–but what’s the fun in being predictable?  Impetuous was going to be the word of the day.

For those of you that have flown before, even on a commercial flight, you may have noticed it can be raining, dark and gloomy while you’re boarding the plane and taking off, but when the plane finally claws it’s way up through the murky cloud cover and breaks out on top, it is bright and sunny as if it was an entirely different world.  In fact, it looks so completely different than it did just minutes prior, you’d think it was a whole new day or location!  Today was no different and climbing up out of the icy darkness of the few holes left in the sky, the warm sunset to the west beckons me to climb higher and higher.  It’s call is like a siren calling an ancient mariner towards the dangerous rocks, only this evening it is calling me as if I’m the ancient mariner, and the dangerous rocks are the mountain in front of me jutting out of the wispy clouds.  The draw is subtle yet strong, and I have to be back on the water before darkness…

It was quite cool outside this evening while preparing the plane, it would be called cold my many.  Regardless, whatever one would call the temperature, it was certainly colder a mile high in the crisp fall air flying northward towards the mountain called Katahdin.  Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and a great way to end that nearly 2,200 mile trek.  The mountain stands out prominently in northern Maine with it’s rocky slopes climbing well above the treeline and its enormous cirque named the Great Basin, carved by glaciers during the last ice age, leaving hikers standing speechless and awe of the magnificent vistas.  The views from the air are no less captivating and my copilot in the backseat was pretty quiet–he too was probably as spellbound with the scene before us as I was.

Katahdin cloudy, winter sunset
It’s dark in those clouds–and they’re full of rocks

No time to sit back and fully enjoy the view this evening though, we knew time was a commodity that was running out and we had to act fast if we wanted to be successful and get home safely.  As beautiful as the clouds were from above, they were ominous and dark from underneath–certainly treacherous for my little Cub while climbing and descending through them.  The sun appeared to be dropping faster and faster so we took the pictures we could quickly and rushed back down into a rapidly closing hole in the clouds back into the mountains.  Although the hole in the clouds looked fairly large for the plane to safely traverse from above, it looked smaller and more menacing as we grew closer.  I could not help but notice the hole was changing too, the winds, which were invisible except for their movement of the clouds around the rocky ledges of the mountain, were constantly changing the shape of the hole and making it a moving target for my passenger and I.  These holes are called “sucker holes” for a reason and rest assured this was weighing on my mind as we descended into the darkness below.

I never actually entered the clouds, I managed to stay in a tight turn inside of the rapidly changing hole and I was continually conscious of the safest direction to fly if we should inadvertently enter the clouds–East, away from the rocky slopes of the mountains.  Once safely below the clouds I began to realize just how dark it had become in the short time we were above the clouds, and although we managed to safely keep ourselves from hitting anything in the rock strewn clouds, we high-tailed it the short distance back to our home base to an equally dangerous glassy water landing in the semi-darkness.  It was important to keep our guard up during this critical phase of our flight, it is far too easy at times to relax after a stressful flight and have a mishap on landing or during the approach.  Alas, this was not the case this October day, and a beautiful evening landing on some glassy water was what greeted Jeff and I.

We had cheated the flying gods again, and while doing so gained some beautiful photos–mission accomplished.

Where I Feel Most Alive

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After leaving the clear, deep waters of Hurd Pond behind me, I fly low over the trees to the east passing another beautiful body of water known as Hale Pond.  Within seconds of Hale passing by my left wing I come upon the fast moving waters of the West Branch of the Penobscot River–in a relatively calm portion that lies immediately below the rapids downstream from Abol.  My eyes dart left then right as I search out the occasional moose, bear or other earth dweller passing quickly below me.  Suddenly I clear the last of the large hardwoods along the shoreline of the dark water and I ease the stick forward ever so slightly descending towards the rippled black surface of the mighty river that is now mere feet below me.  As I do so I feel myself get a little light in the seat and over the throaty roar of the engine I can hear the muffled, surprised cry of my passenger who was not expecting this “weightless” sensation.  I smile slightly and remind myself that not everyone likes these types of maneuvers and promise to think of my passenger in the back seat and make these next three to five minutes as smooth and enjoyable as possible for her with no further surprises.

In the short time it took me to think through this last thought I’ve subconsciously eased the stick back to level the plane five feet above the surface of the water–right where I wanted to be.  Right where everything feels just right.  The Cub and I are speaking the same language this afternoon, each of us knowing exactly what the other expects having done this many times before.  Even at this speed, and strapped inside this cockpit, I can smell the trees and water quite well with the side window wide open, it’s a sweet aroma one never forgets in the warm August air and I’m enjoying this ride immensely, especially knowing what the next few minutes will entail…

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First half — Coming down into the slot

The water near me is a blur and only takes on any definition if I peer further ahead of us at the scattering of ducks on it’s surface.  It may only be ninety miles per hour but the speed feels much faster given we are operating in three dimensions and so close to the surface of the river and it’s surrounding forests.  The movement of my feet and hands are really happening subconsciously; as my mind–and decision-making, are seconds (or hundreds of feet) ahead of where we are physically.

It has to be this way.  For as the water, rocks, and trees steadily pass by in a tantalizing blur the machine must be responding to my every move as if we are one…locked in a short-lived dance that may only last for minutes–but having potentially fatal results if either of us makes a misstep or loses focus.  It’s where I truly feel alive.  It’s what makes hours and hours of tedious, mind numbing work worth every minute–allowing me to escape the chains of my earthbound body and experience this.

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A run down Debsconeag Falls happens at about five feet above it’s surface

I remind myself that Thoreau has navigated these waters a number of times in his travels to Mount Katahdin situated not far behind me.  Knowing I’m seeing the beautiful views he wrote about in his stories only serves to enhance the experience for me as I swiftly cover his same path only in the opposite direction.  Just knowing he passed these very same rocks and falls, these very same bends and slack-waters writing about his travels and adventures makes me smile as the plane and I maneuver around small islands and the occasional flustered duck.

One of my favorite parts of this low level run is upon us before I know it and it demands a steep right turn of nearly ninety degrees of heading change then we enter a section of cascading falls as the water attempts to drop away from us even as we seek to maintain our same five feet of height.  These falls are Debsconeag Falls to be exact, and it is our last bit of excitement before a break in the action at the relative quiet of the dead-water.

The wings are still in forty degrees of bank as a beautiful camp passes by on our left but only seconds later the wings are momentarily level when a handful of campers and their tents come into view passing down our left side as well–in a flash I can see the half dozen or so campers waving frantically in excitement as we scream past their tidy campsite only yards away.

Before you know it we have passed over all of the falls and around a few bends in the river with beautiful cliffs rising out of the still fast moving water.  Then a hard left turn shoots us out into a fairly large dead-water that is home to many birds and other wildlife including bears, moose, deer, and other assorted game.  But it’s those birds that I really have to be on the lookout for, they are very adept at getting out of the way of my green machine but nonetheless I keep a sharp lookout for the one or two not paying attention that could cause me trouble.

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Intermission from the intensity — Cruising the Debsconeag Dead-water

It’s not long and then I’m leaving the wide open and mellow portion of Debsconeag Dead-water transitioning to the second fast-paced part of the West Branch, the portion that takes us down stream to Ambejejus Lake.  This portion of the river is intense and fun but only last for two to three minutes…just long enough to get the adrenaline pumping before being dumped out into Ambejejus Lake at the Boom House, where the old river drivers would stay.

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Second half — Leaving the Dead-water on the last leg to Ambejejus Lake

As we exit this part of the river and fly out over the lake they call Ambejejus, I start to relax my concentration and slowly pull the stick back while adding power in order to climb up to a more cautious altitude.  We are getting closer to many lake-side camps and the town of Millinocket so I want to ensure we abide by all the pertinent laws regarding my plane and its distances to people and man made structures on the surface.  I hear my passenger in the seat behind me screaming out loud that she loved this portion of our flight and I don’t have to look back to know she is wearing a huge grin that will not be gone anytime soon.  She, like many others before her, will be sitting down to an evening meal and a beer laughing, joking and smiling with the rest of us, while reliving her aerial adventures from the preceding hours.

I can’t help but smile knowing I’ve introduced another fortunate soul to the experience of flying a floatplane amongst the beauty of Maine.  This is what it’s all about–sharing my most precious memories with those that enjoy it also, they make the joy of my experience magnify tenfold!

 

Early Morning Mission

Early Morning Mission on Smith Pond
The calm, glassy, water of Smith Pond

The engine is just lugging along at a leisurely 600 rpm, not slow enough to really hear the individual cylinders turning over but slow enough to sound more like a low rumble rather than the typical smooth purr.  Fact is, it’s the only sound on the pond this morning–shamefully I’m the only one making noise this early.  I hate to disturb all the pond’s residents before the sun is up this peaceful morning but the plane is really very quiet right now while I taxi across the water, far more quiet than any boat would be.  However, in a few minutes, once the engine has warmed the oil sufficiently, she will be considerably louder during the takeoff.  Even then she’ll still only be making a fraction of the noise many planes make, and only for a minute or so at that–long enough for me to takeoff and head north.  My Super Cub will make noise hardly long enough to be a nuisance to any of my neighbors.  No, not a nuisance at all, more like the sound will serve as a reminder to all those listening that some fortunate soul is rising up into the grayness of this still morning sky and embarking on an adventure.

An adventure, what is that really?  Well, should one look it up in a dictionary they may read words like “an exciting journey” or maybe something along the lines of “a dangerous activity,” things of that sort.  But what is an adventure really?  I suppose it depends on who you ask.  An adventure to you may prove to be mundane to me, and an exciting, dangerous adventure to me might seem like child’s play to some.  So this morning for instance, I could be just taking off and flying north to Spencer Cove for fuel and a visit with my friend Jim–a trip barely taking five minutes.  Or my morning flight might be the first leg of a multi-leg trip across the country covering thousands of miles and dozens of hours.

See that is the beauty of it, an adventure is really whatever we want it to be and those around us do not determine if it is an adventure or not–we do.  Try to imagine this…these neighbors of mine living around this pond, still in their long-johns and nightgowns, waking up this splendid morning in their cozy little cabins along the shoreline.  Picture them shuffling their feet out to the kitchen and pouring their hot cup of coffee, finally sitting down at the kitchen table and staring out the window thinking of  how peaceful it is here on “their” pond.  Then you can almost see them smiling as they look out the window at the beautiful, calm water and reflecting on how lucky they are to live here and enjoy this serenity.  All of a sudden, out of the quietness of the early morning they hear my plane’s engine as it struggles to carry me and my passenger over their cottage and north to destinations unknown.  They will look up and wonder, “Where is that green airplane going this early in the morning?  What could they possibly be doing this time of day and what kind of sites will they see from up there?”  Then before they know it my plane will pass over them and disappear to the north, leaving them to hear the quiet slowly creep back in as things return to normal.  Those folks don’t know if I’m setting out on a great adventure or just sight-seeing around the pond for 15 minutes, but because they are human and we are yearning for adventure–they will more likely believe I’m setting out on a dangerous journey to parts unknown.

I’m actually just enjoying the cool morning air coming in the open door and the sight of the mirrored surface of the water reflecting the soft light and clouds.  The surface tension of the water is only marred by the small wake of my floats as they pass effortlessly through the water–it’s surface otherwise lies flat like glass and undisturbed.  I’m the first of the day to mess with natures beauty, but certainly not the last.  There will be countless boats, canoes and other craft plying these waters throughout the day but right now I have the place to myself.

I can see from the temperature gauge in front of me that the oil is now warm enough for my full power takeoff and I have completed all of my essential checks before taking flight–which admittedly there are not that many considering I’m flying a simple Super Cub!  I swing around to ensure my passenger is as ready to go as I am and I can see her hair blowing well behind her in the early morning light as she stares at the spruce lined shore.  I ask if she’s ready to takeoff and see the sun rise from a vantage point reserved for only a few adventurous souls, she smiles the most beautiful smile and nods her approval–no words are needed.  I advance the throttle and the plane is on the step and in the air in mere seconds, then my green machine pulls us both easily into the ever lightening sky.  I can’t help but notice as we pass over the shoreline, one of my neighbors is sitting out on his deck watching us fly over his cabin and I roll the plane slightly so he can see me wave from the cockpit.  Is he thinking those same thoughts we discussed earlier?  Or is he annoyed we are making noise this morning and disturbing his tranquil view?  His wave back is my answer, he certainly didn’t seem to mind the short period of broken silence.

As the plane climbs through 1,000 feet the suns first rays are striking the plane leaving us with a typically beautiful sunrise as the rays play off the surrounding mountains, lakes and ponds.  This is my passengers first time in a floatplane and I’ve been telling her it is the best type of flying there is, that she really must try it–so I can’t help but turn around to see her expression.  In the warm reddish light cast by the rising sun I see a beautiful smile that started as soon as she climbed aboard the plane 20 minutes ago and has only widened as we have continued climbing higher.  I needn’t ask how she’s liking it thus far, her moist eyes and beaming smile says it all.  I think she likes this flying thing.  I turn around and set a course that I’d been dreaming of forever, I set a course for our adventure…

A Landing Worthy of Attention

Super Cub in the Grass at Millinocket
End of Season Landing in the Grass at Millinocket
End of Season Landing in the Grass II
Landed in the Grass Along Side Runway 29

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.

Perspective

Rockland Harbor Sunrise
Looking east towards a Penobscot Bay sunrise
Birch Point Sunset
Looking east away from the sunset at Birch Point

The warm breeze gently ruffles the t-shirt on my back, I could be facing a very pretty sunset but I choose instead to stare out to sea towards the island of North Haven, away from the setting sun.  I can feel the last of the sun’s warmth on my back as I face the sunlit clouds to the east back-dropped by a beautiful, but quickly changing sky.  It has been a wonderful spring day worth remembering and my mind does it’s best to take in every sight, sound and smell to relive for another day when I’m not so lucky.  But I don’t have to relive it today, today I get the luxury of the day’s beauty first hand–a late April day started by the most amazing sunrise and capped off by an equally brilliant sunset.  In between these bookends lies 14 hours 12 minutes and 9 seconds filled with remarkable views and some wonderful flying, all stored away neatly and concisely in half a dozen photos and a line in my pilot’s logbook.

As I stand here enjoying the sound of the peepers singing one of my favorite songs from childhood, I can’t help but think that just minutes before I was slipping gracefully through the same sky I was looking at now.  I had just picked up a school teacher that was returning from Matinicus, an island off the coast, bringing her back to the mainland.  I knew it was my final flight of the day and I planned on savoring every second of it, as was my ritual on the last flight of the day.  During that return flight I was looking down at this very same point of rocky coastline that I’m standing on now; a point of land confidently jutting out into the cold Atlantic waters of the Gulf of Maine.  But now I was just relaxing with my thoughts and thinking how differently it looked from above compared to what I’m seeing now.

If I could be in two places at the same time and one of me was in the plane looking down on this point, while the other was on this point looking up at the quickly passing plane, I would see two very different views, even though each would be at the same general location at the same exact time–and yet each would be captivating in their own beautiful ways.  Which perspective would be more enticing?  Which view would be more rewarding or memorable?  Which would most people care to see if they could only choose one?  No matter really, I don’t have to give it much thought because I was fortunate enough to see both and they were each equally inspiring, not needing the other to stand out.  But if I had to choose, if I was forced to choose,  flight will nearly always win out–that goes without saying.  Flying is just woven into the fabric of my life, I’ve never known a life without it.  There is just something that cannot be described with words alone when flying, one has to experience it for themselves to truly be able to understand it.

I’ve always felt fortunate for the flying I’ve been able to do and memories I’ve been able to make.  Once again I was able to do just that, fly and make memories.  Fortunately one lucky school teacher was able to see, and feel, the same views I did while we soared together, a foot apart, smoothly along at a thousand feet above this beach.  Although she saw the same views I did it’s probably safe to say she did not feel the same emotions that I felt–there are just too many variables involved and we all look at things differently.  She may not even remember the flight’s details–although I hope and pray she does.  It’s not every day we get to do the things we love, and see the beauty around us from a vantage point given only to the birds.  For me the days events are added to the hundreds, more likely thousands, of memories I have of flying.  Someday it’ll be all I have.  When that day will come is anyone’s guess but I’m not waiting to find out, I’m filling those empty spots in my mind with as many memories as it’ll hold so when the time comes to replay them I will be able to relive each and every one.

 

Witherspoon’s Landings

 

Witherspoon's from Above
Early morning view of Witherspoon’s Airstrip with the long shadows from the rising sun
Witherspoon's Parking
Parking at Witherspoon’s Airstrip next to the grange hall and road

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!