The Tattooed Man

Witherspoon's Parking
Trees everywhere…but one holds a special book.

Oh that August heat is stifling even in this cockpit high over the Atlantic.  I can feel the airs oppressiveness on the ground when I’m taking off and landing with the windows and doors closed, and I can still feel it at 3,000 feet although it’s tempered substantially making the cockpit quite comfortable.  I have all the air vents wide open and aimed directly at me—this is as cool as I’ll be until this day is over.  This day has been brutal, trip after trip after trip to the islands moving freight, mail and people.  The temperature is quite high for the Maine coast and the relief from a breeze is nowhere in sight…yet I still love this job no matter the discomforts nor the lack of downtime.  Today has been a strange day in a way, nothing big really but it has been a bit different compared to most.  Although it is relatively late in the day, I have yet to fly into North Haven.  You readers certainly have heard of that notorious airfield Witherspoons…that demanding airstrip on the island of North Haven that on days like this can be a true bear to fly out of with any sort of load in the plane.  This has been a strange day in that at this point I usually have been into Witherspoons at least a half a dozen times or more, but it’s late in the afternoon, or more like early evening, and I have yet to land in there at all today—highly unusual.  You might ask, “What difference does it really make?”  I even might ask myself, “Why would I care if I had gone into Witherspoons with the current brutal conditions and being as busy as I have been?”  Shouldn’t I just be happy I got a break from the stress of its challenges?  Well normally yes, it would be a much appreciated break.  However, as I stated earlier, this day is different.  This day I need to get into that little airstrip and I need to get there quickly.  Time is running out—I’m only going to get one more shot.  Our last flight into this strip is usually removing a half dozen construction workers that my company typically fly’s in and out Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays.

Today getting into this airstrip is important because I have a package waiting for me there.  It’s not just a package, it’s a book!  It’s not just any book either; it’s a one of a kind special book!  So what’s the big deal about some book sitting at a gravel airstrip on an island off the coast of Maine?  Why must I be so concerned about getting this particular book tonight when I could just fly in tomorrow morning and pick it up?  Surely I will be delivering the construction crews tomorrow… if not, then undoubtedly I will at least fly the mail or freight into Witherspoons tomorrow?  I can just pick up the book then right?  No, tomorrow is not an option.  Tomorrow will not cut it.  I have to get in there now and get this book, no matter what it takes.

I’m currently flying along at 3,000 feet enjoying the pleasantness of the warm summer day, heading straight for the home airport as I ponder the possible ways I could manage to fly over there and get the book.  The other pilots have been dispatched to Witherspoons already for the last run so it is appearing as though I will not make it there this evening.  As my mind wanders and the engine hums along rhythmically I get a call on the radio from our dispatcher directing me to fly into Vinalhaven, a small airstrip named after the island it sits on very near the island of North Haven—where my desired destination of Witherspoons sits.  My mission at Vinalhaven is to pick up two passengers and fly them back to our home base in Owls Head.  I bank the aircraft lazily in the direction of the rather large island and within minutes I turn southwest onto the final approach at Vinalhaven’s short dirt strip…but keep looking northwest where I can see North Haven and its airstrip of interest.  Well I tell myself, I came close but it’s looking like I just won’t be getting into Witherspoons tonight.  It’s a shame really, I have been so pumped all day long to get into that place and pick up my book that I still can’t believe I won’t be doing it today.  I honestly cannot remember the last day that I did not fly into Witherspoons—but such is my luck today.  No worries, let’s see just what kind of fun I can find on my last flight of the evening here in Vinahaven.

After an uneventful landing on the hilly, dirt airstrip, I taxi the plane over to the parking area, which is just more dirt and grass off one end of the runway near a payphone.  I pull the mixture knob fully out, shutting down the engine.  As the propeller comes to its  expected stop, I make sure the magnetos and the master switch are turned off then slide out my door while glancing at the rotating beacon high on the tail of the plane.  I made it a habit early on in my flying career to leave the beacon light switch on at all times so if…ok…when, I leave the master switch on inadvertently, sending electrical power throughout the airplane, I will know because the beacon will still be illuminated as I exit the plane.  This serves to keep us boneheaded pilots from in leaving the master switch on and draining the battery—an embarrassing situation we all have been in at one point or another.  Well this day I am on a roll and the beacon is dark indicating my superior piloting skills have once again kept me from making a fool of myself.  I was told my passengers were going to be here to meet me but there is no one around.  This is not uncommon and I’m fully prepared to wait until they arrive.  It is usually only five minutes or so but I have waited over an hour.  Sometimes messages get fouled up but we just bite the blame bullet most days and ensure the customer is taken care of as they should be.  Well after fifteen minutes or so I walk over to the one connection I have to the mainland—an old pay phone bolted to a wooden wall or sorts.  I call dispatch and check to see if maybe there are any updates as to my passenger’s status but find that they are no longer the priority.  I’m tasked to fly over to Witherspoons and pick up a few pieces of freight that couldn’t fit on the last flight out.  Can you believe the luck?  I have just been given the go ahead to fly some last minute pieces of freight out of Witherspoons…I will make it into there after all!

No, I did not ask the dispatcher for this.  No, I did not beg the owner of the company for this.  In all honesty this is like a gift from who knows where…it’s like someone up above was looking out for me knowing I’d be brooding over this all night long, whining to whoever would listen back at the pilot crash pad where us pilots all sleep…affectionately known as “The Boy’s Club.”  Regardless of the reason, the missions is clear—fly your plane straight to Witherspoons and pick up these packages, where I’m told Lena, our ground delivery woman, is waiting to pass them on to me.  I feel like a bomber pilot in World War II being given an assignment of the highest order, an assignment that will save humanity—yet this particular assignment may be much more mundane but it I am still totally pumped at the turn of events!  No matter how busy I am, no matter how much I’d love a break at this point, I am all over this flight like there’s no tomorrow.

I am light on gas and the plan is to come out of Witherspoons with no passengers, this means the plane will perform marvelously in the hazardous airstrip, so the stress levels are quite low.  I quickly takeoff out of Vinalhaven’s airstrip and fly over the beautiful blue water of Penobscot Bay where I can see the light of the slowly setting sun reflecting off the water and the many lobster boats and buoys scattered across the bay.  The setting sun gives these hard, solid objects the appearance of fuzziness.  The boats and buoys appear slightly blurred and softened by the ever changing light, it’s surreal really.  An artist’s dream view.  This evening is going to be spectacular regardless of my mission, the job I’m undertaking is only going to be the capstone to an already gorgeous evening.  I don’t have much time; I am descending and powering back the Cessna as I fly low over the town of North Haven and its sprawling summer homes.  The plane is fairly quiet now, it’s not like it usually is coming in a bit higher and with the propeller in fine pitch.  This time I’m lower and the propeller is still set for cruise flight ensuring I come in fast, low and as quiet as possible.  This is quite fitting since I’m on a very important task.  A very secret mission…well secret for me anyway…Lena knows I’m coming because she is waiting with the packages.  It is a relatively easy approach given the lightly loaded plane and calm winds.  The air may be thin due to the density altitude, and the lack of wind certainly makes flying it easier, it also makes for a very stabilized approach down close to the tree tops to ensure I land on the very beginning of the runway.  This strip doesn’t suffer fools, we pilots have to pay attention and fly with the utmost skill to get the plane safely into and out of this particular airfield.  Slightly less than one thousand feet and with obstructions on each end and a road crossing the southwest portion of the runway, this place demands precision and my utmost attention.

This day Witherspoons poses no problem to me as I touch down on the gravel right at the beginning of the strip as I had planned, and with minimal braking the plane slows on the runway to the point where I’m able to cautiously taxi it off the gravel onto the grass parking area near the grange hall.  I barely get the engine shut down and the prop stopped as I see Lena walking towards the plane.  She smiles as I open the door and slide down from the cockpit saying hello.  Usually at this point I’ve seen Lena at least one or more times during the day but this is my first greeting to her even though it’s nearly seven in the evening.  We converse with small talk concerning her upcoming flying lessons while I open the cargo door and quickly load my three packages.  Lena is concerned about getting the time away from work needed to commence with her flight training and we discuss the possible ways she may be able to make this happen—but my mind is distracted today.  My mind is drawn to the trees in my immediate view as I think about exactly where my book is.

Trees, what do trees have to do with a package…a book that is waiting to be picked up?  Well you see this isn’t just any book, this book has been left for me by a dear friend.  She knows I love books and she knows I am a romantic at heart so she left this book in a tree near where we park the planes.  Now I have no idea which tree it is in but I have a sneaking suspicion it is in the very large apple tree that is right next to the plane.  My dilemma comes from the fact that my friend and I are the only ones that know this book is here and now I have to go searching for it while trying to act as though nothing unusual is happening.  You know, nothing unusual about a pilot climbing through the low branches of a tree at the grange hall looking for something while the cars pass by with occupants that are wondering just what the hell is happening.  Yeah, fat chance of me pulling this one off nonchalantly.  Lena is yapping away about her flight training and I’m slowly walking towards the apple tree to look for my booty—she follows me probably wondering exactly where it is I’m going.

Did I mention this apple tree is fully grown and is enormous for an apple tree?  Well it is, and that leaves me with many branches and hiding places to search.  It becomes painfully obvious early on in my treasure hunt that I’m not going to get away with this without having to come at least partially clean.  So as Lena stares at me digging through the branches (I did notice she’d stopped talking quite awhile ago) I quickly try to explain to her that “someone” had left me a package in this tree.  She is still staring at me as if to say, “What in the hell kind of disturbed person would leave a package in a tree?  And furthermore, what kind of crazed pilot would be climbing around in a tree looking for it?”  You see, packages are Lena’s thing.  She delivers them all day long and she knows they go from the plane, to the van, to the home of the owner of the package…a tree doesn’t fit into that scenario at all.  Well thankfully Lena has the good sense to not ask questions she may not want the answer too and decides to just help me rather than watch me flail around haphazardly embarrassing myself, and more importantly, the company.  We search through the tree’s bottom branches but to no avail.  Lena asks me what this package looks like…so once again I have to come up with a bit more information on my “Top Secret” mission.  I tell her it is a book and she shrugs her shoulders and says, “Oh, a book.  Ok.”  She acts as though I’m an imbecile for not telling her sooner…like it’s every day a person looks for a book in a tree.  Unfortunately, now that I have Lena’s full cooperation and attention, we decide that maybe this isn’t the tree after all; maybe it’s one of the other hundred or so trees near the plane.  Lord help me…I’m smiling to myself in excitement but I know my face is crimson as I watch the increasing number of cars driving by and slowing down to see what all the commotion is about.

We slowly walk by some five foot tall trees running away from the apple tree; it couldn’t be in one of these could it?  It doesn’t take long to look into these little trees, one quick glance tells us all there is to know about that particular tree.  Kind of boring when compared to that monster of an apple tree.  It can’t be in one of these, I mean who would put a book in one of these shrubs…ahem…I mean baby trees when it could be in the century old, towering, majestic apple tree?  Wouldn’t that be more symbolic…more grandeur?  Note to self; don’t be too full of myself and my knowledge of books in trees.  Apparently any tree works for this sort of stuff (I am obviously a novice when it comes to books in trees) and there it is right there in the branches of that five foot tall beautiful tree!  I’m so psyched my heart skips a beat and I lunge for the book pushing Lena to the ground to get at it before she can touch it!  Ok…that may not have been how it really happened, but I do see the book and my heart does skip a beat…I’m really happy to be here and finding a book…left in a tree…for me.  I’m beyond words.  I hold the small blue book in my hands like it’s the Holy Grail.  Lena looks at me expectantly, as if to say “Now what?”  But I just slide it under my arm and thank her for her help as I pick up the pace towards the plane.

I run off kind of quickly for two reasons.  First, I don’t need her asking anymore questions…this is of course still Top Secret and she is not on the “need to know” list.  Second, I am super excited about opening the book for closer examination but cannot do that with an audience.  Not only Lena, but there are still cars driving by looking over to see what a crazy pilot does next after climbing through trees looking for books.  I quickly look over the plane as I get closer to ensure all the doors are closed, the propeller area is clear, the wings are attached, it’s right side up and I have no stowaways.  After determining that all is well I climb into the cockpit and close the door quickly before anyone can come to slow me down (and to keep the horseflies out!).  I hold the book in my hands; it is approximately eight inches long by five inches wide and maybe a bit over an inch thick.  It’s blue and pretty nondescript really.  The title, which is only written on the binding, reads; “The Tattooed Man” and below that is the name of the author, “Pease” along with “Doubleday.”  What really catches my eye is the green ribbon tied quite beautifully around the book with a bough on it for good measure.  Underneath the ribbon is a sliver of paper with some very neat hand writing which reads “Jake the pilot.”  This was done with style and a thoughtfulness that goes beyond words and is light years sharper than my usual packaging in which I take the object and shove it into a bag, presenting it like I just stole it from a homeless person.  I’m impressed and truly honored.  Anyone would be honored to receive a gift such as this, doubly so with how it is wrapped and passed on via a tree.  There are even more reasons to be honored—this book was published in 1926 and is ninety years old!  Not only that, it is from my dear friend’s private collection passed down by her recently deceased grandfather, and she feels I will be a good home for it.  I’m beyond honored, I’m touched beyond words and to me this book has just become priceless.  I handle it like it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls and set it gently down in the seat next to me.  I need time to really look over this gift and right here, right now is neither the time nor the place.  I need to fire this airplane up and point her towards the sunset!

After looking quickly around the airplane, especially the propeller, I fire up the engine and ensure the oil pressure is “in the green” and the oil temperature is reading correctly.  Then I glance down to ensure I’ve selected the fuel tank with the most fuel in it while setting the flaps to twenty degrees and visibly checking they lowered to the desired setting.  After doing this I reach down to the elevator trim wheel and give her three good doses of nose down trim and begin my taxi to the far end of the airstrip.  In between each of these steps of my checklist I glance over and see the book patiently awaiting my prying hands.

The part I really enjoy about takeoffs out of Witherspoons is the look on my passenger’s faces when you turn the plane around at the “far” end of the 960 foot strip and they see the trees on the opposite end of the runway looking like they are right in front of the airplane!  It truly is disconcerting, and I felt the same way the first time I saw it and I had been flying for nearly thirty years!  Maybe their ignorance is actually bliss—they don’t know just how tight it is getting out of this airstrip on some days.  Nonetheless, today shouldn’t be much of an issue providing the engine continues running.  Even with the negative effects of the high density altitude making the plane think it is already at 2,000 feet where the air is thinner, and the lack of headwind assisting my takeoff—I am light and the plane is an amazing performing machine so this takeoff is thrilling but not a problem at all.  The airplane accelerates down the runway and comes off the ground at about the midpoint of the runway.  I let the nose of the plane lower slightly as the machine accelerates to a safer climb speed and easily top the trees at the far end while having plenty of excess airspeed should it be needed in an emergency.

As the plane climbs out to a safe altitude to cross the bay I “dial” the prop back to a more reasonable rpm which greatly reduces the noise and affects my performance very little.  After doing this I call dispatch letting them know I’m safely airborne and should be home shortly.  Soon I reach 2,000 feet and let the plane accelerate to a good cruise speed. Seconds later I pull the throttle back to 23 inches of manifold pressure then decrease the rpm of the propeller even more to a sedate 2300 rpm.  The airplane asks for a bit more nose down trim which I wisely oblige.  She is now content and we scoot along at a leisurely 125 nautical miles per hour—more commonly known as knots.

I glance over at the book…my book.  My heart races.  How many times have I looked over at it in the short two or three minutes it has taken me to level off in cruise flight?  Easily a half dozen or more times.  I look back out the windscreen towards Owls Head and can make out the airport even with the setting sun sliding gracefully below the horizon right behind it.  The bright red is giving way to a warm yellow hue that lulls me into a sort of euphoric state.  My mind wanders to the tree.  Then the book.  Then the girl who entrusted me with it.  I feel as though I could never have another day as good as this one.  Right or not, this feels like the perfect end to the perfect day.

 

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!

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.

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.

Jonathan

June iPhone Download 007

Jonathan’s hometown–North Haven, Maine

The Cessna Stationair motors along effortlessly as Jonathan, a frequent young passenger of mine, and I fly smoothly at just over a thousand feet above his neighborhood.  I look over at the young boy sitting next to me, his face uncharacteristically shows no emotion.  He’s unable to see out the window without the “booster” cushion he currently sits on, this cushion allows him to look down at the island where he lives much more easily.  I remember the first few times he flew with me he didn’t have the cushion, but he’s been using it the last half dozen times or so and I can tell he enjoys seeing the buildings, cars and whatnot.  What is odd this flight is his quietness, his lack of  emotion.  This puzzles me, I’ve noticed kids typically are unable to hide their excitement or apprehension when they are flying and Jonathan is always one of the children that enjoy it.  Not today, this little fella is apparently the master of the poker face–even at the tender age of six.

Perplexed, I ask him what he thought of flying with me in the airplane.  “So Jonathan, how do you like flying, isn’t this better than taking the ferry?”  He doesn’t say much for a few moments then I hear him through my headsets, “It’s fun, the houses look so small.”  He continues staring out the side window never looking over at me and acknowledging my presence in the seat next to him.  This is a response that sounds familiar, a common answer among children his age but he’s quiet again and now staring at the instruments on the panel in front of him as we pass over the school he attends.  Something must be bothering him I surmise, he would usually be looking out the window.

The needles dance in their cases and have the effect of hypnotizing their young prey–Jonathan seems captivated by the rhythmic movement and not interested in looking out the window anymore.  I continue flying the Stationair knowing that oftentimes children will suddenly grow quiet in the plane when they are hiding the first symptoms of airsickness.  Although today is not that bumpy I know kids are more susceptible to motion sickness, the medical reason escapes me but it’s not important, just knowing the signs is what’s most important.

I certainly have to address the possibility of him not feeling well so I ask, “Jonathan, are you feeling OK?  You’re awfully quiet.”  This time he peers up at me, “I’m not feeling bad, I’m just thinking.”  Thinking?  What could he possibly be thinking about besides flying when he is usually an excited young boy full of questions?  Intrigued by the thoughts of this six year old I ask him,  “What are you thinking about?”  Once again he is looking out the window and he doesn’t respond right away, continuing to stare intently at his schoolyard moving swiftly by below–then he looks at me and asks, “What would happen if I dropped bubble gum out of the window?  At school, Bobby said it will stick to a car or house, but I think it will just fly into the woods and be lost.”  I couldn’t help but break out with a smile and feel the relief of knowing I wasn’t going to be cleaning up any mess from Jonathan’s stomach.

Of course he caught me completely by surprise with this question and for a brief second I actually thought about telling him of Federal Aviation Regulation 91.15 which plainly states we cannot drop anything from the plane that might endanger ‘persons or property’ on the ground…but of course I didn’t.  Like any responsible adult I immediately removed the gum from my mouth and showed it to him.  He smiled knowing instantly what I was going to do as I rolled the gooey, sticky mess into a ball.  Thankfully he and I were the only ones on-board that sunny day so I gently banked the airplane back towards his school, specifically the playground.  I quickly reached over with my non-flying hand and opened the window on my side of the plane allowing the wind to whip into the cabin as it passed by the plane at nearly 140 mph.  The noise increased dramatically but our headsets allowed us to speak and hear easily as he watched me toss the gum out the window into the fast moving air.

Now for you naysayers reading this thinking I had lost my mind and should never have done something so silly…so dangerous…it was on a Sunday and there were no people anywhere near that schoolyard, but I still managed to throw it into the woods well short of the school–you know–to meet the all important regulation number 91.15.  Most importantly however, Jonathan knows in his six year old mind that I not only aimed for the slide where he and Bobby play during recess…I hit it.  In his mind let there be no doubt, it was a direct hit!  I mean I am an adult, I am the pilot-in-command of the plane and I told him I could do it, so therefore he knows it was done as advertised.

I reached over and closed the window returning the noise level in our ears to the steady hum we were accustomed to.  Jonathan was grinning ear to ear and not a word was spoken as we turned back towards the airstrip.  I’m sure he was still grinning on Monday morning when he and Bobby found that gum sticking to the side of the slide exactly where I told him it hit as we flew by at 140 mph.

Those two boys have a memory that will undoubtedly entertain them for quite some time and surely any adult they tell will think they are just telling stories as children do.  But this story is true right?  I mean the gum really was stuck firmly to the side of slide.  You don’t think anyone saw me did you?  You know, the next day when I stopped at the playground while delivering the mail and placed a wad of bubble gum on the side of that slide.  You don’t suppose someone saw that and is wondering to this day why some pilot in his mid-forties would take the time to pull into the school yard in the company van and place a piece of gum on the children’s play equipment?  Who in their right mind would do such an uncouth, unsanitary thing?

The gum wasn’t there on Tuesday morning.