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.

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!