Memories Are All We Really Have

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness Falls

Snowy Katahdin
Katahdin glowing in the setting sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Morning Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Landing Worthy of Attention

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

It was a gray, overcast day with not a breath of wind.  I’d been flying around the lakes and forests surrounding my hometown of Millinocket for well over two hours exploring as many lakes and ponds as possible in my green floatplane in an attempt to enjoy every second of my final flight of the season in my magic carpet.  True I was getting low on fuel, but the sight tubes were still indicating I had more than an hour of fuel left in the wings, and with a thirty minute reserve I could still cover some country if I wanted to.  However, I had to land soon due more to time constraints on activities after the flight than to any fuel issues.  So there I was trying to prolong the final flight and not wanting it to end–while also trying to land and move on to the laundry list of chores awaiting me afterwards when earthbound.  Well enough procrastinating old man, land the plane and get to work on the drudgery of your chores.

I was only a few miles south of the airport and gently guided the Super Cub in a general direction that would take me to the middle of the airfield, allowing me to look over my intended landing area and determine if it was safe for landing.  As I drew closer to the airfield I could make out my landing zone in the grass off the side of runway two-nine.  The area was marked off simply with two orange cones at the threshold, or beginning, of the ‘runway’ which were barely visible from my vantage point–abeam and one thousand feet above them.  My friends and I had walked over this area previously to ensure there were no hidden rocks or holes in the grass that would damage my floats on touchdown.  For those of you that have been paying attention, I’ve been talking about my airplane that lands on water, hence the term floatplane.  But now we talk of touching down…in the grass?  Landing on the land in a floatplane only equipped to land on the water because it has no wheels?  You heard right, this is how it’s done here at the end of the float flying season…land the plane in the grass just like you would land it on the water on a flat calm day.  It may seem strange to some, it certainly does to most of us pilots that land seaplanes in the water, but it can be done safely if one pays attention and lands as smoothly as possibly.

As I pull on the carburetor heat and slowly retard the throttle to idle, the engine noise diminishes to a very quiet purring sound and the plane slowly loses speed.  Now I pull on two notches of flaps, slowing the plane further allowing me to descend more steeply.  I tighten my lap belt and ensure my water rudders are up to keep from damaging them should I forget them and they contact the ground during the landing.  As a pilot accustomed to landing on a lake or pond in the middle of nowhere, I can’t help but notice the oddness of my two friends, spectators mind you, standing very near the cones where I will be landing.  They thankfully offered to help me secure the plane back in the hangar after my landing in the grass.  I know Jeff and Tony are there to help me with the plane after I land, but I cannot shake the thought they are also there to see how well I pull this off–how well I land this Cub with an audience.  They’ve both done this same thing just as have I, but we all know it’s not a “normal” procedure and something could always go wrong.  Being good friends for so many years we certainly look out for one another, and I know they have my back in anything I do, but it’s just human nature to “critique” one’s peers, even if only in your head.  So I now feel just a bit more pressure to make this landing a good one.

It’s the perfect day for this really, no wind and no sun in the face like we often get on runway two-nine later in the day.  On the flip-side, having said this I can’t blame a lousy landing on anything other than my own inept piloting…so I focus on making this landing count.  It isn’t every day you get to land a seaplane in the grass so I’m pretty alert and I know I will be committed after she touches down–at that point you’re just along for the ride!

I’m lined up on final approach now with full flaps and the proper pitch attitude to land flat, not on the bows of the floats but also not on the tails of them either.  I notice that the plane is very subtlety slowing too much though…almost imperceptibly, but she is slowing and I need to stop it quickly or risk descending too soon and touching down short of the cones delineating my landing area that is free of rocks and other hazards.  So I increase power ever so slightly, doing so only by sound and feel rather than by looking at an instrument in the cockpit–there’s not time for that.  I try to not increase my speed too much, but just enough to put me on a trajectory to land where I’m supposed to.

Just as I think I’m going to touch down slightly before the cones I feel the keels of the floats as they drag through the grass and dirt, so I close the throttle and pull the stick full back out of habit for water landings.  The deceleration is very noticeable yet nothing like an arrested landing; just the feeling one would get if they pushed the brake pedal in their car to stop quickly, but carefully enough to not lock the breaks up.  Before I realize it I’m stopped and I reach forward with my throttle hand and pull out the mixture knob to shut down the motor while reaching up with my stick hand and shutting off the magnetos and master switch–the last item removing all electrical power from the plane.

I sit there for a few moments in the sudden stillness and silence.  I just let my mind relax and take in the enormity of what I’d done.  Not just this landing–but the entire summer float flying season.  All the lakes, rivers and ponds I landed on.  All the wildlife I flew over and fish I’d caught.  All the people waving as I passed by them from the lowest river to the highest mountain.  It was a safe and successful flying season and now it was all over and slowly sinking in that I was done until next year.  For many reasons I felt an emptiness building in me that wouldn’t be filled for many months to come.  Some of those reasons would never be filled…but that is another story for another day.

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!

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!

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.