Luc’s Ride

Jerry Pond with Luc

Taxiing to take off from Jerry Pond on a cold autumn evening (Photo by Tony Cesare)

The temperature is not extremely cold this first day of November, at least not like it will be in the coming months, but after our bodies acclimated to the nice Maine summers thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit seems quite cool and with the sun setting it’s not going to get any warmer.

Float plane operations are pretty much done or winding down by this time of year but I have been trying to accomplish as much flying as possible all season and I’m just now catching up on all my prior commitments.  With this setting sun I’m running out of daylight, and as mentioned earlier, it’s pretty cold this evening but I promised the young fella sitting behind me that he’d get a ride in my floatplane–and today he will, although it will be a relatively quick flight.

Although young for formal lessons, my passenger Luc was not too young to learn to fly and did an excellent job as student/passenger previously in my Super Cub when it was on wheels, and I wanted him to experience water flying–the pinnacle of flying in my opinion.  There is something special about the combination of water and flight that just cannot be described, it has to be experienced.  It brings out a sense of adventure and freedom that is even more powerful than other types of flight which already highlight these feelings to a great extent–water flying just magnifies it significantly.

This evening, as the plane floats slowly away from the shore atop the mirror-like surface, I can look back and see his parents standing on the shoreline with two of their younger children watching us expectantly, and probably a bit nervously wondering why we aren’t done and safely home yet!  I can’t blame them really, it would take some serious thought on my part to let my young son or daughter fly with anyone other than myself.  I say ‘myself’ not because I’m anything special…I just know how I fly and for me to let them go with a pilot of unknown talent probably would not happen.  In this case I’m not an unknown, Luc’s parents are my cousins and they know I’ve been flying for over thirty years and will do everything I possibly can to make this a safe and enjoyable flight.  Nonetheless, any apprehension felt by any parents at this point would be well deserved.

My airplane is capable of taking off in extremely short distances and I would normally taxi to the other end of the pond but not all the way down to the other end as I’m doing now.  However, due to my precious cargo sitting two feet behind me I play it safe and use every foot available in this small pond on the edge of town and given the slow speed at which we are taxiing it takes a bit of time.  Luc and I are not really concerned with how long it takes other than I have to be back home before the approaching darkness, but I’m confident that as slowly as the time passes the shoreline anxiety is growing.

I feel at home in this cockpit, like I’ve been wearing it for decades.  I grew up in this very same airplane as a child and can’t help think of the irony of looking back over my shoulder and seeing this young, eager face peering out the window with anticipation just as I was doing over nearly forty years ago.  Same plane, same area, same circumstances–just a new young soul intertwined in the history of my green Super Cub.  The ability to do this gives me such a warm feeling inside and I have to remind myself that I’m not doing this totally for altruistic reasons.  Truth be known, I get more out of this than anyone can possibly know…it’s humbling really.

 

*Luc enjoyed his sunset ride and we both agreed his orientation flights in the Cub will not be complete until he fly’s with me on skis–so you haven’t heard the last of Luc!

Silence

Silence on Soliven Pond

Floats tailed-up on the “beach” where the ice-cold spring brook empties into the pond

Not a sound.

If I was sitting in front of someone, say I was sitting in front of you, and I showed you this picture and said it was completely silent you would probably be thinking to yourself, “Aw come on, there must be some birds making noises.”  Not a peep…no black-capped chickadee’s chirping in the branches around my head, no loon melodies floating across the water, no eagle’s screeching along the ridge behind me…nothing.  You might then go on to say, “But what about the wind in the tall pines and spruce?”  Nope–can’t hear any movement in the trees.  Just look at the accompanying photo and you will see that the water is nearly a mirror–scratch the wind making any noise.  At this point you might have a puzzled look on your face and you would be skeptical still.  “No noise?  Not even a far away truck, or plane, or chainsaw…something???”  Nothing at all.  Well to be totally forthcoming, I can hear my heart beating and I can hear the pine needles and moss gently giving way to my feet when I move–but that is it.

Have you ever stood somewhere and heard nothing?  It’s wonderful really, eerily strange and refreshing all at the same time.  I mean we always have some sort of background noise.  Right now for instance, you must hear something?  One would think the woods are quite active and there is always something to hear, most of the time they’d be right, but every so often you get complete silence.  It’s as if you’re being watched.  It can be quite disconcerting–especially in the woods at night.

This particular day I flew into my secret pond, a pond we shall forever deceivingly call ‘Soliven’ Pond in order to keep any competition away from the pond’s sizable brook trout!  I stepped off the float and into the cool ankle-deep water then pulled the plane up securely on the shore and walked a short distance into the woods to do a little exploring.  I am typically very quiet in the woods out of habit and find myself really taking my time in order to be as quiet as possible and also to slow down and look at all the interesting things most people would walk right by.  Within one hundred feet of the plane I spy an old wooden canoe being absorbed back into the ground along with its iron chain and paddle lock, a feather lost by a passing grouse, and a bobcat track in the stream-bed by the plane–possibly looking for that wayward grouse.

So it was not surprising that it had taken me nearly five minutes to walk the short distance into the surrounding trees.  I hadn’t gone far at all when I felt a strong urge to turn around, as if something was behind me.  Succumbing to the urge I slowly turned around to see what was so alluring, so tempting.  The photo you see with this story cannot, and does not, do any justice to what I was witnessing–a beautiful sunrise that silhouetted my airplane with a gorgeous frame of trees and moss all glistening with the sun’s rays highlighting the morning dew.  Absolutely stunning–and only made better by the complete and utter silence that surrounded me this cool autumn day.

As I stood there bathing in the sun’s morning warmth and soaking it all in, I was presented with one notable sense that could not be overlooked…I was consumed by a very “earthy” smell, the smell of freshly fallen leaves along with leaves of years past slowly melting in their unavoidable journey towards decay and return to the golden forest floor.  I didn’t want to lose this picture in my mind so I took this photo in order to attempt to relive the experience later, or better yet, try to share it with others.  After a minute–two max, I took a deep breath of this fresh mountain air, turned around and slipped quietly into the silent woods around me…

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.

Exploring My Backyard

Late September iPhone 705

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live Each Day

Late September iPhone 966

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maintain Course

Sunset in the Gut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childhood Dreams

Ready for Start
Seconds Before Firing the Green Cub Up.

Summer 1982, Fourth Debsconeag Lake—Indian Camp.

I had just turned twelve years old and was staying at some sporting camps in the woods of northern Maine with my Grandfather and a close friend of his named Randy.  The owner of the camps had asked Randy to watch over them for awhile so he could take care of some personal business, business that would take two to three weeks.  Randy had asked my Grandfather if he’d like to spend a couple of weeks in the camps with him and that he should bring me along—this was the custom, I’d been tagging along with these two in this same airplane since my earliest childhood memories.  Well needless to say we had an enjoyable stay in those camps that summer.  Having spent time in a camp President Theodore Roosevelt had stayed in and another fascinating cabin called the Indian Camp, it was more than I ever could have asked for and it was truly a great experience for my young soul.  I could write a good, long chapter in a book based on my twelve year old memories that summer of ’82, but one stands out and has never been told—until now.

I had left the camp one rainy day to go wander in the woods around the area leaving Randy and Gramp in the cabin.  This day however, I didn’t go very far like I typically did, this day I headed across the property and the passed the other camps to where the plane lay tied up to the dock.  To me Randy’s airplane was mystical.  Sure I knew it was a Piper Super Cub, but at twelve years of age I really didn’t know much.  I stood and looked at it for quite some time floating gently on the surface of the rain-splattered lake.   I’m sure it was quite a few minutes before I worked up the courage to climb up into the pilot’s seat.  I vividly remember sitting there looking out over the instrument panel and dreaming this plane was mine…that one day I would have a plane just like this of my own.  I remember the feel of the cold metal of the control stick; I remember the sweet smell of the mixing of metal, wood, fabric, oil and fuel.  These are the same smells I still associate with old airplanes.  I needed to cut this journey of mine short though.  You see, I didn’t ask for permission to climb into that plane.  Although I’m sure Randy wouldn’t have minded, I still knew enough to know I was supposed to ask and what I was doing was wrong.  So with this in mind, I was sitting there no more than five minutes, probably much less, when I hurriedly jumped back down onto the dock…looked back at the green Super Cub and walked away.  I had a feeling in that seat.  A feeling I couldn’t put words to if I wanted to, but it left an impression on me that has NEVER left.

I fondly think of this memory from time to time but mostly when I’m on some pond in the woods, right as I settle down into the seat and peer over that very same panel, and out that very same windscreen.  I knew I would have a Super Cub one day…I just never dreamed it would be the exact one from my childhood.  Now when I push that starter button I can hear my Grandfather and Randy’s voices in that cockpit as clearly as I did those thirty-five years ago.  I’m sure they are looking down on me and smiling.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they even knew back in 1982 that I’d climbed into that seat.  One thing is for sure though, I know that I owe them both so much…and I’m still trying to repay them.