Another “Better” day when the weather gave me time to reach for the camera.
I try to allow others to see through my eyes with my words, but it is not nearly enough really. So, through these words I try to allow others to feel what my hands feel, feel what my heart feels, and feel what my body feels, but that too is not enough. So again, I plug away with my pen…my tablet…my computer… in order to allow the reader to smell what I am smelling, taste what I am tasting, hear what I am hearing—in the hopes that they may have some idea of what it is like to be standing in my shoes at that moment. With a bit of skill and a touch of luck I may be somewhat successful if I am able to put the right words together in just the right sequence.
Yet still, describing the five primary senses cannot possibly convey the complete feeling of being there with me, even when standing or sitting mere inches away from my passenger they may not be able to fully immerse themselves in my world. To completely capture the full experience the reader would have to be in my mind and in my heart, knowing the emotions that lie within this old body. Of course I know that is not possible given the level of science we are working with today, nor may it ever be possible—but I’m going to give it my best shot with words, phrases, metaphors and such. Oh yeah, and that touch of luck. Ok, lots of luck. I’ve wanted to do this for some time, and I am going to pick a recent memory and try to bring you along with me. Pull up a seat, sit back and relax your mind. You are feeling very, very sleepy…
Darkness has quickly fallen upon the islands of the Penobscot Bay, and it is only late afternoon, the sun sets early on these short winter days at this latitude. The Cessna Stationair’s cockpit is warm but not uncomfortably so, and I have the defrost cranking out as much warm air as it possibly can muster-which isn’t much, but it is succeeding in keeping the forward view relatively clear. Clear, not the best choice of words given the weather. See, the windscreen may be mostly clear of condensation thanks to the struggling defroster, but I’m barely seeing out the front of it with the mile or so of visibility in the fog and low clouds. Making my work even more interesting, what little visibility I have is lowered even more by the light rain and mist that seems to defy the laws of physics by clinging to the Plexiglas even with the hundred plus mile per hour wind trying to move it rearward. You know the good news about this rain and mist? Well, that means it’s warm enough that it isn’t snow and ice…yet. I can’t let any of this distract me of course; I must focus intently on the job at hand—which at this point is mainly not running into anything! The craft shudders slightly as it passes through a small patch of turbulent air and I continue to whisk along at five hundred feet or so trying to keep sight of the ground, intently peering out the front of the plane trying to pick up the lights on the shoreline of Vinalhaven off the left side of the Cessna. Having done that, I can ease over to the North Haven side of the Fox Island Thoroughfare and continue westward back home to Owls Head where the reported weather is supposedly better. I prefer flying on the North Haven side of the thoroughfare given the greatly reduced visibility and the two hundred and fifty foot windmills looming out there in the grayness of the late afternoon fog and mist. The three of them sit proudly on top of a Vinalhaven hill to fully take advantage of the persistent winds putting them squarely in the path of a low flying intruder such as myself. Safely passing the town of North Haven on my right and following Southern Harbor I know there are no obstructions above three hundred feet between my position and the airport back on the mainland. Nonetheless, I continue flying with a reduced power setting which keeps my airspeed at a more manageable level giving me a much appreciated extra few seconds of reaction time should I see anything come quickly out of the mist in my direction.
Why am I out here in this dreary, wet, December day you ask? I’m just trying to complete the second part of a medical evacuation flight, also known as a medevac. The initial flight was flying out to the island and picking up the EMT and the patient, bringing them safely back to the mainland to a waiting ambulance. The second half of the mission entails returning the EMT back to the original pick-up point…they most certainly would rather be back on the island with their families than “stuck” on the mainland on a blustery winter’s night. Although the weather is not making this the prettiest of evenings, truth be told I love flying in this weather. Manage the risks correctly and it is a hugely satisfying day of flying, mismanage them and fail to mitigate the multitude of changes being thrown at you and during these flights and you just may not make it home at all. How does one not enjoy the challenge in that?
The destination airport is a mere seven miles away as Crabtree point recedes beneath me. I glance to my left and notice the lights of a returning lobster boat entering the thoroughfare as he passes quickly beneath my wing. I wonder if he even knew I was whisking noisily through the air less than a thousand feet away off his port beam? Probably not, a smart mariner would be concentrating on not colliding with another vessel in this weather—not worrying about some weary pilot leaning over the controls of a forty-year-old Cessna, peering intently into the gloom trying to get home. In any case, it’s just me and four and a half miles of open ocean before I pass over Owls Head Lighthouse and the relative safety of the airport traffic pattern. Although there are no obstructions to hit out here, the thoughts of my smooth-running engine and the icy-cold waters below me run through my head as I listen for any break in the pleasant hum of the Continental engine’s purr. It is times like this I prefer to see lots of boats in the water along my course, should I run into any engine trouble I could ditch the aircraft next to one and be assured of a quick pluck from the frigid waters. Not tonight, it’s just me and the gray loneliness of an empty sea and the coming darkness…which makes me listen even more acutely to the engine.
Fortunately, the six cylinders continue running smoothly as I speed quickly through the murky skies towards my home base mere minutes away. The risk obviously has increased exponentially during this low evening flight over very cold waters and the fact I see no boats only solidifies the fact I’m completely on my own for the next few minutes. I search intently into the endless gloom for any sign of land. There! Up ahead I catch sight of a lone light slowly revealing itself from the mist and low clouds, it’s a light house known as Owls Head Light that has been guiding ships safely into port for well over one hundred years. I wonder if the builders of this beautiful light ever envisioned their hard work would eventually be also guiding flying machines safely back to the mainland. Although I’m quite sure they had no concept of that ever being possible, it is exactly what was happening nearly one hundred and seventy years later as I homed in on the slowly spinning white beam which appeared to reach out to me like a ghostly finger. A finger that appeared to fade then reappear in the ever darkening, cloud-laden sky.
In my cozy, aluminum and plexiglass encased world, with the engine humming along effortlessly, I am suddenly joined by another familiar sound as it echoes through my headset. ”Sierra Gulf, where are you?” I know this voice well, it’s an unmistakable feeling of comfort knowing a familiar voice is out there reaching for you, patiently awaiting your return—watching for your arrival. That calm voice belongs to Sally, our dispatcher of many years and a good person to have looking out for you on a night such as this. I respond after noting my position from the airfield, “Five miles East and looking good…Owls Head Light is in sight, and I should be on the ground in a few minutes.” “Ok, just checking on you.” She knows how quickly things can go awry and how critical every second can be if a plane goes in the water without warning. I’ve personally witnessed the loss of one of our planes and saw how quickly she coordinated the search and rescue aspect of our company’s lost aircraft protocol—she’s very capable and lends much comfort when conducting these over water flights even on the good weather days.
There’s a tower out here with me somewhere ahead. I’m fortunate it should be a hundred or more feet below me because the ceiling is not too bad here on the mainland, probably up to around 600 hundred feet or more—unfortunately it’s painted grey and tends to blend in with everything else until you’re right up on it. No worries this evening, I see it slightly left of my course right where it should be so I ease the throttle back slowly watching as the manifold pressure drops smoothly to 20 inches and the sound of the engine drops significantly. I know a slight left turn up ahead will line me up with runway 21 and it’s prudent to start configuring the airplane early, lest I look like an amateur that is well behind his craft. Ever since leaving the airstrip on Vinalhaven I’ve been listening to the local approach controller’s frequency for our little airport, this gives me several minutes heads up on any inbound traffic coming in on instruments that may not be on our local airport frequency for several more minutes. This practice is something we teach all our pilots to do in order to make these low weather transitions as safe as possible for everyone involved. We also know that coming in from this direction and onto this particular runway keeps us completely away from all the approaching and departing traffic on these cloudy, rainy days. As a matter of fact, if I plan my flight profile correctly and stay well ahead of the aircraft, I will easily be down on runway 21 with no braking needed to make the first taxiway and never come close to the intersection of the two runways. My time spent on the active runway can be cut down safely to less than a minute. Thirty seconds later the plane will be shutdown in its parking spot on the ramp and safely out of any inbound airplanes way. This sort of efficiency is exactly what is needed to not only keep costs down but to keep the airport environment working as efficiently and expeditiously as possible. This is my company’s normal modus operandi; we all strive to make this look as smooth and effortless as possible and it’s a rare day that it is not done smoothly.
Out of the murkiness ahead I can see the runway lights slowly coming into view and I bank further left and retard the throttle even more as the plane slows to a leisurely sixty-five knots and the flaps finish their six second push against the slipstream lowering to their full deployment of forty degrees and giving me a very mild vibration felt in the yoke. A final adjustment of full nose-up trim and pure ecstasy—the plane feels like I’ve worn it my entire life, gliding smoothly towards the wet pavement a quarter mile ahead. The air is smooth tonight so there is not much to do other than add the slightest bit of backpressure on the yoke with my left hand and ease the throttle fully back to idle with my right. The craft responds immediately and with just a constant rearward movement of the yoke as I close in on the runway’s surface rewards me with a smooth, soundless touchdown. Those familiar with the “squeak!” each tire makes as they spin up to speed upon touchdown, are gently reminded that the wet runway removes that indication and most times it’s a silent arrival to the pavement with braking being the most “felt” part of the landing, and that too can be done smoothly and without much notice. This day is no different and even the braking is not needed to easily turn off towards the ramp on the first taxiway.
I roll smoothly into my parking spot and shut the engine down, removing my headset and leaning back slightly against my seatback. I sit listening to the rain falling quietly onto the wings and fuselage of my trusty Cessna, as I take in the wonder of what I’ve accomplished in the preceding seventeen minutes or so. The preceding days. Weeks. Months. Years even. What have I accomplished? Another successful flight in adverse weather? Sure. Another successful medevac completed prior to this last leg? Of course. But there is so much more to it. Most importantly, I’ve managed to live. I mean really live. My last six years of doing this beautiful, challenging flying here with this wonderful company—which I consider my other family—has come to an end. And although I’m terribly saddened by this inevitable end, I know I’m a better person because of it. This of course is due mainly to all the past years’ experiences and the amazing folks that have helped me through it without bending any metal or worse. I’m honored to have worked and lived amongst these fine people, that is without question. The fact I worked, flew, and loved the owner like a brother…well that is another story, one that’ll be hard to write.
Remember, as Robin Sharma wisely said… “Don’t just live one year 75 times and call that a life.”
Perfectly said sir…I vow to do nothing of the sort.