Nathan

I stand here watching my son play on the beach, enjoying the water and sand…chasing frogs and ducks. I can’t help but flash back 45 years to memories of me playing on this same beach enjoying the water and sand…chasing the great grandparents of those same frogs and ducks. Some of the memories are hazy and come in very short clips lasting only a few seconds but a few of those memories are still quite vivid although still of a very short duration. No matter, I was only five so it’s a wonder I remember much of it at all.

But I do.

I have never forgotten the memories of those seaplanes, mainly Cessna 180’s at the time, coming and going seemingly nonstop all day long. There’s not a doubt in my mind that this was building the foundation for a love affair with the sky—an affair that would span decades and not dwindle in intensity but grow ever stronger as the years pass. I still see those red and white, and blue and white Cessna’s idling slowly away from the dock, then powering up to an ear splitting roar as they struggled to break free of the water’s grasp and climb grudgingly into the warm afternoon air—whisking the plane’s occupants to destinations throughout the north Maine woods and adventures that seemed unfathomable to a child’s mind.

These days I find myself behind the controls of a Cessna 206 idling off that very same dock, looking at those children’s faces on the beach watching my seaplane leave for those same adventures—and they ARE adventures. I can’t help but think of what they must be seeing, what it looks like through their eyes and what they’re thinking as I ease the throttle forward. I always take the time to smile and wave, and they ALWAYS smile and wave back. It warms my heart beyond words.

So as I pull away from the dock minutes after this photo was taken, I look over at my son standing knee deep in the water watching me depart and smile; is his imagination working the magic as mine did all those years ago? I believe so. Whether he flys planes, fights fires, drives heavy equipment, or writes books…it makes no difference. The point is to introduce him to the things during the formative years of his lifetime that help create the positive memories that could ultimately lead to a strong foundation for his hopes and dreams.

I sometimes wonder if those individuals that helped develop and guide me know just how thankful I am for them taking the time? Well I’m sure they do, but I’m going to ensure they do and honor them by paying it forward.

I give Nathan one last glance as I turn the plane towards open water…keep smiling son, rest assured I will devote my life to ensure you have the best chance possible at a long and joy filled life.✈️

Nathan

Witherspoon’s Landings

 

Witherspoon's from Above
Early morning view of Witherspoon’s Airstrip with the long shadows from the rising sun

Witherspoon's Parking
Parking at Witherspoon’s Airstrip next to the grange hall and road

Sometimes cars stop short of the strip for landing planes–sometimes they don’t

 

Silence in my headset, just the steady, comforting drone of the Continental purring in front of me and the normal vibrations felt on my fingertips through the airplane’s yoke and throttle.  The radio had been totally quiet other than my position report when I was initially outbound from the airport at Owls Head, my home base.  With no one else in the air this early in the morning I pretty much had the sky to myself which is the norm–one of the reasons I love the first and last flights of the day.

Having the sky to yourself is a joyful and fulfilling feeling.  It’s as if for a few moments you are the only one alive and all the surroundings; such as the sky and clouds, the ocean and the mountains, are there for you, and you alone.  This sort of feeling is a truly unique feeling that has always been very spiritual for me.  Of course as the minutes tick away and others take flight, you realize there are other people joining you in your magical domain of the sky and it ever so slightly loses a bit of its allure.

So although I felt I was the only one riding on the gentle, coastal air currents this morning there were others.  For example, there were the occasional seagulls down near the dark Atlantic waters floating effortlessly within a few feet of the waves.  We had an agreement those gulls and I–they were to stay low and I had the rest of the sky above them to do whatever I please so long as I didn’t violate our contract.  That was the agreement from last season anyway…when we had all sorts of altercations with them on Big Green Island (aka Large Green).  All I had to do is look out at the end of my left wingtip for a reminder of what happens when a gull plays chicken (and loses) with the plane as one of our pilots found out while landing.  No issues today though, they kept their end of the bargain and I planned on keeping mine at least until it was time to land…then I had to descend into their realm.  When that time comes I will just have to be looking for them even more so than normal.

Right now though all is well and right in the world, I am in my element.  As the power is being slowly pulled back in anticipation of landing at the Witherspoon’s Airstrip on North Haven, I see that I am just coming up on Thayer’s Boatyard, so I consciously slow the Cessna to the proper speed and descended to the correct altitude knowing I am only a couple of minutes at most from feeling the smooth grass and rumbling gravel under my wheels.  I had been looking forward to this flight for months.  Stuck at my home in Florida during the winter months, I was awaiting the day I’d have a load of mail on-board and be slipping across the bay to this island off the coast of Maine.  As a pilot for our company, I get to fly to a number of interesting and challenging locations, but I enjoy this particular flight and destination for many reasons.  It’s always enjoyable to drive the mail down to the post office after unloading the plane and gossip with Mary, the Post Master, on all the local happenings.  It’s also a great way to ease into a busy day and she treats all of us at the company very well.  It’s like visiting family.

Well, it’s time to pay attention and step up my game, this airstrip at Witherspoon’s is known as one of our hardest to land in and takeoff from due to it being extremely short and with significant obstructions on each end.  One of the ends is also bisected by a major road on the island and cars are notorious for not stopping at the flashing lights when planes are landing.  The locals are very good at stopping for us but the summer residents are oftentimes unaware of the airstrip and its low flying planes or they are just too caught up in the freedom of their vacations to care of such minor annoyances as landing airplanes landing over their roads withing feet of their cars.  Either way, the gravel airstrip is in sight and as I line the airplane up for landing I can’t help but notice a big bird out ahead of me.  Not a seagull like we were speaking of earlier mind you, this is a BIG bird I’m seeing and he appears to be circling right where I will be coming down over (through) the trees for landing.  He is enormous…looks like a turkey buzzard if I didn’t know any better.  Obviously he is not aware of the agreement the gulls and I have, or he’s unconcerned with said agreement given his rather large size.

In order to get down and stopped by the far end of the runway we have to fly very close to the trees, nearly brushing them with our wheels, in order to land safely.  In doing this we don’t get much room for error and cannot attempt to avoid birds and other objects nonchalantly–there is no room for such luxuries.  Just as I think he’s given me some room to work with and will be out of my way, he turns sharply and lines up on a path that will surely intersect mine at the worst point in my landing profile.  I have but a second or two to determine if this new flight path of his will miss me sufficiently to be an acceptable option, if not I am triggered to initiate a go-around which will allow me to fly past the field and start the whole landing process over again.

In less time than it took you to read that last sentence I determined there was going to be just enough room for me to safely get by this big pile of feathers providing he didn’t do some erratic maneuver that turned him back towards me, so I continued towards my destiny of meeting the ground–hopefully in a very smooth and controlled fashion.  Thankfully the enormous bird continues on his way and I see him pass easily off my left wing about twenty feet away and opening that distance by the second.  With him no longer a concern I concentrate fully on the landing and get the plane down safely and in a reasonable distance allowing me to pull off into a parking area mid way down the thousand foot long strip.

As I step out of the plane and prepare to unload my cargo of boxes, letters, newspapers and flyers, I can’t help but look back down towards the end of the runway and think of what all of that landing approach looked like from the birds perspective.  Did he even notice me?  I’m sure I will never know about his specific concerns, but I do know of a seagull on another island not far from this one that surely wishes he would have dived towards the ground rather than climb upward into the flight path of this airplanes wing!

Matinicus

Matinicus Runway 36

Looking to the north and back towards the mainland at Matinicus’s airstrip

With the wind aggressively buffeting the plane, I sit here in the pilot’s seat contemplating my choices in life as I taxi the heavy Cessna 206 down the dirt/gravel airstrip on Matinicus.  The end of the runway, where it meets the sea, is just ahead and it is where I will turn around and takeoff uphill towards trees and the barn…but more importantly–into the wind.  To be more precise about my wandering mind, I’m contemplating my immediate decision to take off uphill and over the obstacles in this heavy plane; but with the strong, gusty southwesterly wind this is undoubtedly the better choice in my humble opinion.  As I glance around the full airplane I can see all of my passengers are lost in their thoughts also.  Being year round inhabitants of this tiny island community they are seasoned passengers and this is something they do all the time knowing we pilots will do everything within our power to make their flight as safe as possible.

Matinicus is an island approximately seventeen miles off the coast of Maine in the Atlantic Ocean.  Affectionately known as “Mat” to those of us that work in our small charter outfit, it is not a large island and measures two miles in length by one mile in width.  It is said to be the furthest offshore island on the east coast that is inhabited year round and is served by a thriving fishing community, schoolhouse, post office, airstrip and church; in addition to the homes of its relatively few inhabitants.

At somewhere just shy of 1,700 feet (1,668.5 feet to be exact) the airstrip is quite long compared to some of our strips on other islands, but Mat has its quirks as most of our airstrips do; there is a significant hill to take into consideration when landing and taking off which is very important given that often our planes are heavily loaded when arriving and departing.  More importantly there are the persistent crosswinds to consider, Matinicus is known for some hellacious winds which like to blow directly across the strip–and the passengers know these can make for some interesting landings.  Given that Mat is an island, the wind can really get to blowing out here and with nothing to slow it down a pilot trying to land can really be in for an interesting ride trying to get the craft safely on the ground.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the notorious barn at the south end of the runway.  Taking off uphill (or landing downhill for that matter) there is a barn to contend with…it has a way of looking like it’s going to reach up and snag the planes landing gear as we pass by because often times we barely clear it!  To a pilot unaccustomed to flying into this strip the barn can be an intimidating structure ready to strike the fragile plane from the sky…but after a few times you learn there are more important risks to consider, and the barn becomes a nonissue most days.

With the tough old Cessna heavily loaded I obviously prefer to depart downhill to the north because as you can see in the accompanying photo there are no obstructions at the end of the strip, nor are there any obstructions all the way to the mainland for that matter.  I’ve often said as long as I could clear the foot high berm at the end of the runway I could fly all the way back to our home base at Owls Head in ground effect–within feet of sea level!  One of our pilots jokingly says he prefers to have the tide  out because it buys him another fifteen or more feet of clearance…enough to take another lucky passenger when weight is a factor!

Either way, the time has come to focus on what I’m getting paid to do, and the plane is turned around facing uphill towards the barn.  I smoothly but forcefully push the throttle fully in giving us the maximum power available and the best possible chance of a successful take off.  The plane accelerates nicely but noticeably slower than when she is not weighted down so heavily.  Regardless the plane is at the speed I would like and off the runway by my previously picked go, no-go point marked by light posts on the side of the runway.  I allow the plane to fly down low in ground effect and accelerate even more than normal to account for the large gusts today and we sail comfortably over the barn without issue.  My trusty steed makes me look good by allowing me to appear as conqueror of the turbulent air, when I actually know it’s mother nature that has once again given me a pass and allowed me access to her realm in the sky.  Being the first flight of the day I know I will be doing this dozens of times today at this airstrip and other strips with their own unique challenges.  How much longer my contract with mother nature continues to stand is anyone’s guess, but I’m hoping it’s for many more years, takeoffs and landings.

Weather Flying

Late September iPhone 056

This fog forms in minutes and can disappear as fast–it is quite typical of the Maine coast

I love the challenge of weather flying.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the sunny days as much as the next guy but it can get a bit repetitive on your thirty-second leg of the day; especially during the few minutes of cruise flight we get between islands when you’re up high (relatively speaking) and there is nothing to do but watch the engine gauges and the grey Atlantic from three thousand feet.  Granted it’s important to monitor the health of the engine, but it’s not the same focus I have when I’m down low trying to find a path around the fog or showers while avoiding obstacles and keeping the flight legal–all of that together is what keeps things interesting and challenging.  That intensity is what I thrive on and desire.  If I wanted to cruise along from my high perch and turn on the autopilot to relax, I would have sought a job with Delta.

I grew up flying in Maine and after thirty plus years of aviating here and elsewhere I am quite familiar with the weather patterns of my home state, so oftentimes I know what to expect.  This in no way makes me an expert on the weather nor am I impervious to complacency.  So with this in mind I most definitely have a “plan B” up my sleeve and many times a “plan C” in order to safely conduct a flight.  Weather is always a leading cause of accidents in aviation; for that matter it is a leading cause of fatal accidents–which makes it even more ominous.

In comparison, I found while flying in southeast Alaska that the weather was very similar with what I was used to in Maine only with a significantly different topography.  Thankfully each area allows you to fly over the ocean in many locations, this is important when dealing with low ceilings and/or visibility because one could potentially fly nearly down to the ocean’s surface in an emergency without much fear of hitting an obstacle.

I sometimes get asked why I don’t have pictures of the really bad weather.  Well, I’m sorta busy flying the plane and trying not to scare the devil out of my passengers (this can be an art itself and worthy of a chapter in a book!) so the really bad weather typically gets my undivided attention.  Every so often I do get a picture of some nasty weather I’m flying through but much of the time they are not the best photos anyway.  Think about driving to work in the fog and rain and taking pictures as you motor down the highway.  Not only dangerous, it would also make for some pretty boring or downright ugly pictures.

Fairly often I see before me a scene that truly tugs at my emotions and am able to safely get a picture, the photo above was one of those times.  This particular day the weather wasn’t bad really as long as the airstrip wasn’t in the fog, it just made things interesting and also provided some beautiful photos given the wind made the fog appear to “flow” like a liquid around obstacles on the waters surface.  Another important point I’d like to make is I don’t take photos with passengers on the plane so there are times I just stare at an awe inspiring scene and enjoy it for what it is.  These are the times I wish I could just blink my eyes as though they are a shutter on a camera and have my mind act as the memory card–so I could share the picture, the spirit, the feeling of the beauty I’m seeing with all of you.

The Last Flight

SG Late Afternoon

The plane I usually fly while at work–Sierra Golf–is ready to go on her last flight of the day

The last flight.  Anyone that I work with or takes the time to read my ramblings know I truly enjoy the last flight of the day.

Quite often the last flight is given to a “volunteer” of sorts.  We tend to alternate the days flights as much as possible in order to maintain a level of fairness amongst the pilots but by the last flight that fairness system can change a bit.  For instance, one of the pilots may have a prior commitment outside of work and by seven in the evening we are winding down because we cannot legally fly over fourteen hours and of course we start the duty day by six in the morning at the latest so we are rapidly approaching the end of our duty time (there are exceptions but we rarely use them because they have a duty time cost on the following day which can really throw off scheduling).  Well if that pilot has an engagement that he cannot miss and he would have been next in line for the last flight oftentimes we will assign it to someone else to try and help the affected pilot out.  In this case the dispatcher will ask if someone will take the last flight.  This is where I will usually step in–I love that last flight even when I’m completely exhausted.

To me the completion of the last flight is a symbol of “another successful day of challenging flying” safely completed.  Nearly as important, is the last flight of the day is my chance to reflect and unwind…it’s my opportunity to cap off a rewarding day with the proverbial cherry on top.  It’s totally therapeutic and allows me to soak in some amazing views because the lighting is usually at its best this time of day, the sun is setting and the flight will happen in a time photographers call the “golden hour”.

This day being no different, what I originally thought was to be my “last” flight was completed and before I could tie the plane down I was asked if I could do one more flight for some friends/frequent flyers that just showed up and were dying to get to their small, remote island to spend the weekend in their cabin.

It only took me a nanosecond to jump at the opportunity to fly again even after having completed a long, grueling day.  This flight was all set to be a sunset trip on a beautiful evening and the potential to see a great sunset was there given the atmospheric conditions–so I offered the copilot’s seat to a friend and the four of us made the ten minute flight out to Green Island in silky smooth air while watching a beautifully deep red sun slip below the horizon leaving behind an afterglow that was breathtaking.

The landing among the seagulls was anticlimactic and we were greeted by an entourage of nearly two dozen folks who were already started on their weekend party…it was an amazing site to say the least.  Now understand, this island is extremely small with no trees, three cabins, a flag pole and a grass airstrip.  Seeing that many people out waving and greeting the plane as the engine shudders to a stop made for a great atmosphere…sort of festive as if we were celebrating the last ten minutes when we were enjoying the sunset flight.

Before long I had to say goodbye to all those friends and quickly make the flight back to our home airfield before I timed-out.  By timing out that meant I was coming up on my fourteen hours and I had to have all my work completed; including securing the plane, fueling as needed and the associated paperwork.   I love the final flights of the day…many times they will stick in my memory for years and often top off my day…exactly as this one has done.  In terms of legality I cut this one kind of close though, it was exactly eight in the evening when I finished everything so I was right at my duty time cutoff and I legally satisfied the regulations…

…well that’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it,

Live Each Day

Late September iPhone 966

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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