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.

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!