The Tattooed Man

Witherspoon's Parking
Trees everywhere…but one holds a special book.

Oh that August heat is stifling even in this cockpit high over the Atlantic.  I can feel the airs oppressiveness on the ground when I’m taking off and landing with the windows and doors closed, and I can still feel it at 3,000 feet although it’s tempered substantially making the cockpit quite comfortable.  I have all the air vents wide open and aimed directly at me—this is as cool as I’ll be until this day is over.  This day has been brutal, trip after trip after trip to the islands moving freight, mail and people.  The temperature is quite high for the Maine coast and the relief from a breeze is nowhere in sight…yet I still love this job no matter the discomforts nor the lack of downtime.  Today has been a strange day in a way, nothing big really but it has been a bit different compared to most.  Although it is relatively late in the day, I have yet to fly into North Haven.  You readers certainly have heard of that notorious airfield Witherspoons…that demanding airstrip on the island of North Haven that on days like this can be a true bear to fly out of with any sort of load in the plane.  This has been a strange day in that at this point I usually have been into Witherspoons at least a half a dozen times or more, but it’s late in the afternoon, or more like early evening, and I have yet to land in there at all today—highly unusual.  You might ask, “What difference does it really make?”  I even might ask myself, “Why would I care if I had gone into Witherspoons with the current brutal conditions and being as busy as I have been?”  Shouldn’t I just be happy I got a break from the stress of its challenges?  Well normally yes, it would be a much appreciated break.  However, as I stated earlier, this day is different.  This day I need to get into that little airstrip and I need to get there quickly.  Time is running out—I’m only going to get one more shot.  Our last flight into this strip is usually removing a half dozen construction workers that my company typically fly’s in and out Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays.

Today getting into this airstrip is important because I have a package waiting for me there.  It’s not just a package, it’s a book!  It’s not just any book either; it’s a one of a kind special book!  So what’s the big deal about some book sitting at a gravel airstrip on an island off the coast of Maine?  Why must I be so concerned about getting this particular book tonight when I could just fly in tomorrow morning and pick it up?  Surely I will be delivering the construction crews tomorrow… if not, then undoubtedly I will at least fly the mail or freight into Witherspoons tomorrow?  I can just pick up the book then right?  No, tomorrow is not an option.  Tomorrow will not cut it.  I have to get in there now and get this book, no matter what it takes.

I’m currently flying along at 3,000 feet enjoying the pleasantness of the warm summer day, heading straight for the home airport as I ponder the possible ways I could manage to fly over there and get the book.  The other pilots have been dispatched to Witherspoons already for the last run so it is appearing as though I will not make it there this evening.  As my mind wanders and the engine hums along rhythmically I get a call on the radio from our dispatcher directing me to fly into Vinalhaven, a small airstrip named after the island it sits on very near the island of North Haven—where my desired destination of Witherspoons sits.  My mission at Vinalhaven is to pick up two passengers and fly them back to our home base in Owls Head.  I bank the aircraft lazily in the direction of the rather large island and within minutes I turn southwest onto the final approach at Vinalhaven’s short dirt strip…but keep looking northwest where I can see North Haven and its airstrip of interest.  Well I tell myself, I came close but it’s looking like I just won’t be getting into Witherspoons tonight.  It’s a shame really, I have been so pumped all day long to get into that place and pick up my book that I still can’t believe I won’t be doing it today.  I honestly cannot remember the last day that I did not fly into Witherspoons—but such is my luck today.  No worries, let’s see just what kind of fun I can find on my last flight of the evening here in Vinahaven.

After an uneventful landing on the hilly, dirt airstrip, I taxi the plane over to the parking area, which is just more dirt and grass off one end of the runway near a payphone.  I pull the mixture knob fully out, shutting down the engine.  As the propeller comes to its  expected stop, I make sure the magnetos and the master switch are turned off then slide out my door while glancing at the rotating beacon high on the tail of the plane.  I made it a habit early on in my flying career to leave the beacon light switch on at all times so if…ok…when, I leave the master switch on inadvertently, sending electrical power throughout the airplane, I will know because the beacon will still be illuminated as I exit the plane.  This serves to keep us boneheaded pilots from in leaving the master switch on and draining the battery—an embarrassing situation we all have been in at one point or another.  Well this day I am on a roll and the beacon is dark indicating my superior piloting skills have once again kept me from making a fool of myself.  I was told my passengers were going to be here to meet me but there is no one around.  This is not uncommon and I’m fully prepared to wait until they arrive.  It is usually only five minutes or so but I have waited over an hour.  Sometimes messages get fouled up but we just bite the blame bullet most days and ensure the customer is taken care of as they should be.  Well after fifteen minutes or so I walk over to the one connection I have to the mainland—an old pay phone bolted to a wooden wall or sorts.  I call dispatch and check to see if maybe there are any updates as to my passenger’s status but find that they are no longer the priority.  I’m tasked to fly over to Witherspoons and pick up a few pieces of freight that couldn’t fit on the last flight out.  Can you believe the luck?  I have just been given the go ahead to fly some last minute pieces of freight out of Witherspoons…I will make it into there after all!

No, I did not ask the dispatcher for this.  No, I did not beg the owner of the company for this.  In all honesty this is like a gift from who knows where…it’s like someone up above was looking out for me knowing I’d be brooding over this all night long, whining to whoever would listen back at the pilot crash pad where us pilots all sleep…affectionately known as “The Boy’s Club.”  Regardless of the reason, the missions is clear—fly your plane straight to Witherspoons and pick up these packages, where I’m told Lena, our ground delivery woman, is waiting to pass them on to me.  I feel like a bomber pilot in World War II being given an assignment of the highest order, an assignment that will save humanity—yet this particular assignment may be much more mundane but it I am still totally pumped at the turn of events!  No matter how busy I am, no matter how much I’d love a break at this point, I am all over this flight like there’s no tomorrow.

I am light on gas and the plan is to come out of Witherspoons with no passengers, this means the plane will perform marvelously in the hazardous airstrip, so the stress levels are quite low.  I quickly takeoff out of Vinalhaven’s airstrip and fly over the beautiful blue water of Penobscot Bay where I can see the light of the slowly setting sun reflecting off the water and the many lobster boats and buoys scattered across the bay.  The setting sun gives these hard, solid objects the appearance of fuzziness.  The boats and buoys appear slightly blurred and softened by the ever changing light, it’s surreal really.  An artist’s dream view.  This evening is going to be spectacular regardless of my mission, the job I’m undertaking is only going to be the capstone to an already gorgeous evening.  I don’t have much time; I am descending and powering back the Cessna as I fly low over the town of North Haven and its sprawling summer homes.  The plane is fairly quiet now, it’s not like it usually is coming in a bit higher and with the propeller in fine pitch.  This time I’m lower and the propeller is still set for cruise flight ensuring I come in fast, low and as quiet as possible.  This is quite fitting since I’m on a very important task.  A very secret mission…well secret for me anyway…Lena knows I’m coming because she is waiting with the packages.  It is a relatively easy approach given the lightly loaded plane and calm winds.  The air may be thin due to the density altitude, and the lack of wind certainly makes flying it easier, it also makes for a very stabilized approach down close to the tree tops to ensure I land on the very beginning of the runway.  This strip doesn’t suffer fools, we pilots have to pay attention and fly with the utmost skill to get the plane safely into and out of this particular airfield.  Slightly less than one thousand feet and with obstructions on each end and a road crossing the southwest portion of the runway, this place demands precision and my utmost attention.

This day Witherspoons poses no problem to me as I touch down on the gravel right at the beginning of the strip as I had planned, and with minimal braking the plane slows on the runway to the point where I’m able to cautiously taxi it off the gravel onto the grass parking area near the grange hall.  I barely get the engine shut down and the prop stopped as I see Lena walking towards the plane.  She smiles as I open the door and slide down from the cockpit saying hello.  Usually at this point I’ve seen Lena at least one or more times during the day but this is my first greeting to her even though it’s nearly seven in the evening.  We converse with small talk concerning her upcoming flying lessons while I open the cargo door and quickly load my three packages.  Lena is concerned about getting the time away from work needed to commence with her flight training and we discuss the possible ways she may be able to make this happen—but my mind is distracted today.  My mind is drawn to the trees in my immediate view as I think about exactly where my book is.

Trees, what do trees have to do with a package…a book that is waiting to be picked up?  Well you see this isn’t just any book, this book has been left for me by a dear friend.  She knows I love books and she knows I am a romantic at heart so she left this book in a tree near where we park the planes.  Now I have no idea which tree it is in but I have a sneaking suspicion it is in the very large apple tree that is right next to the plane.  My dilemma comes from the fact that my friend and I are the only ones that know this book is here and now I have to go searching for it while trying to act as though nothing unusual is happening.  You know, nothing unusual about a pilot climbing through the low branches of a tree at the grange hall looking for something while the cars pass by with occupants that are wondering just what the hell is happening.  Yeah, fat chance of me pulling this one off nonchalantly.  Lena is yapping away about her flight training and I’m slowly walking towards the apple tree to look for my booty—she follows me probably wondering exactly where it is I’m going.

Did I mention this apple tree is fully grown and is enormous for an apple tree?  Well it is, and that leaves me with many branches and hiding places to search.  It becomes painfully obvious early on in my treasure hunt that I’m not going to get away with this without having to come at least partially clean.  So as Lena stares at me digging through the branches (I did notice she’d stopped talking quite awhile ago) I quickly try to explain to her that “someone” had left me a package in this tree.  She is still staring at me as if to say, “What in the hell kind of disturbed person would leave a package in a tree?  And furthermore, what kind of crazed pilot would be climbing around in a tree looking for it?”  You see, packages are Lena’s thing.  She delivers them all day long and she knows they go from the plane, to the van, to the home of the owner of the package…a tree doesn’t fit into that scenario at all.  Well thankfully Lena has the good sense to not ask questions she may not want the answer too and decides to just help me rather than watch me flail around haphazardly embarrassing myself, and more importantly, the company.  We search through the tree’s bottom branches but to no avail.  Lena asks me what this package looks like…so once again I have to come up with a bit more information on my “Top Secret” mission.  I tell her it is a book and she shrugs her shoulders and says, “Oh, a book.  Ok.”  She acts as though I’m an imbecile for not telling her sooner…like it’s every day a person looks for a book in a tree.  Unfortunately, now that I have Lena’s full cooperation and attention, we decide that maybe this isn’t the tree after all; maybe it’s one of the other hundred or so trees near the plane.  Lord help me…I’m smiling to myself in excitement but I know my face is crimson as I watch the increasing number of cars driving by and slowing down to see what all the commotion is about.

We slowly walk by some five foot tall trees running away from the apple tree; it couldn’t be in one of these could it?  It doesn’t take long to look into these little trees, one quick glance tells us all there is to know about that particular tree.  Kind of boring when compared to that monster of an apple tree.  It can’t be in one of these, I mean who would put a book in one of these shrubs…ahem…I mean baby trees when it could be in the century old, towering, majestic apple tree?  Wouldn’t that be more symbolic…more grandeur?  Note to self; don’t be too full of myself and my knowledge of books in trees.  Apparently any tree works for this sort of stuff (I am obviously a novice when it comes to books in trees) and there it is right there in the branches of that five foot tall beautiful tree!  I’m so psyched my heart skips a beat and I lunge for the book pushing Lena to the ground to get at it before she can touch it!  Ok…that may not have been how it really happened, but I do see the book and my heart does skip a beat…I’m really happy to be here and finding a book…left in a tree…for me.  I’m beyond words.  I hold the small blue book in my hands like it’s the Holy Grail.  Lena looks at me expectantly, as if to say “Now what?”  But I just slide it under my arm and thank her for her help as I pick up the pace towards the plane.

I run off kind of quickly for two reasons.  First, I don’t need her asking anymore questions…this is of course still Top Secret and she is not on the “need to know” list.  Second, I am super excited about opening the book for closer examination but cannot do that with an audience.  Not only Lena, but there are still cars driving by looking over to see what a crazy pilot does next after climbing through trees looking for books.  I quickly look over the plane as I get closer to ensure all the doors are closed, the propeller area is clear, the wings are attached, it’s right side up and I have no stowaways.  After determining that all is well I climb into the cockpit and close the door quickly before anyone can come to slow me down (and to keep the horseflies out!).  I hold the book in my hands; it is approximately eight inches long by five inches wide and maybe a bit over an inch thick.  It’s blue and pretty nondescript really.  The title, which is only written on the binding, reads; “The Tattooed Man” and below that is the name of the author, “Pease” along with “Doubleday.”  What really catches my eye is the green ribbon tied quite beautifully around the book with a bough on it for good measure.  Underneath the ribbon is a sliver of paper with some very neat hand writing which reads “Jake the pilot.”  This was done with style and a thoughtfulness that goes beyond words and is light years sharper than my usual packaging in which I take the object and shove it into a bag, presenting it like I just stole it from a homeless person.  I’m impressed and truly honored.  Anyone would be honored to receive a gift such as this, doubly so with how it is wrapped and passed on via a tree.  There are even more reasons to be honored—this book was published in 1926 and is ninety years old!  Not only that, it is from my dear friend’s private collection passed down by her recently deceased grandfather, and she feels I will be a good home for it.  I’m beyond honored, I’m touched beyond words and to me this book has just become priceless.  I handle it like it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls and set it gently down in the seat next to me.  I need time to really look over this gift and right here, right now is neither the time nor the place.  I need to fire this airplane up and point her towards the sunset!

After looking quickly around the airplane, especially the propeller, I fire up the engine and ensure the oil pressure is “in the green” and the oil temperature is reading correctly.  Then I glance down to ensure I’ve selected the fuel tank with the most fuel in it while setting the flaps to twenty degrees and visibly checking they lowered to the desired setting.  After doing this I reach down to the elevator trim wheel and give her three good doses of nose down trim and begin my taxi to the far end of the airstrip.  In between each of these steps of my checklist I glance over and see the book patiently awaiting my prying hands.

The part I really enjoy about takeoffs out of Witherspoons is the look on my passenger’s faces when you turn the plane around at the “far” end of the 960 foot strip and they see the trees on the opposite end of the runway looking like they are right in front of the airplane!  It truly is disconcerting, and I felt the same way the first time I saw it and I had been flying for nearly thirty years!  Maybe their ignorance is actually bliss—they don’t know just how tight it is getting out of this airstrip on some days.  Nonetheless, today shouldn’t be much of an issue providing the engine continues running.  Even with the negative effects of the high density altitude making the plane think it is already at 2,000 feet where the air is thinner, and the lack of headwind assisting my takeoff—I am light and the plane is an amazing performing machine so this takeoff is thrilling but not a problem at all.  The airplane accelerates down the runway and comes off the ground at about the midpoint of the runway.  I let the nose of the plane lower slightly as the machine accelerates to a safer climb speed and easily top the trees at the far end while having plenty of excess airspeed should it be needed in an emergency.

As the plane climbs out to a safe altitude to cross the bay I “dial” the prop back to a more reasonable rpm which greatly reduces the noise and affects my performance very little.  After doing this I call dispatch letting them know I’m safely airborne and should be home shortly.  Soon I reach 2,000 feet and let the plane accelerate to a good cruise speed. Seconds later I pull the throttle back to 23 inches of manifold pressure then decrease the rpm of the propeller even more to a sedate 2300 rpm.  The airplane asks for a bit more nose down trim which I wisely oblige.  She is now content and we scoot along at a leisurely 125 nautical miles per hour—more commonly known as knots.

I glance over at the book…my book.  My heart races.  How many times have I looked over at it in the short two or three minutes it has taken me to level off in cruise flight?  Easily a half dozen or more times.  I look back out the windscreen towards Owls Head and can make out the airport even with the setting sun sliding gracefully below the horizon right behind it.  The bright red is giving way to a warm yellow hue that lulls me into a sort of euphoric state.  My mind wanders to the tree.  Then the book.  Then the girl who entrusted me with it.  I feel as though I could never have another day as good as this one.  Right or not, this feels like the perfect end to the perfect day.

 

My Mind Now Sees What My Heart Saw All Along

Winthrop.  It’s an airport alright.  I can see it slipping rather quickly beneath my wing as I look it over.  Technically it’s an airstrip of dirt, gravel and grass less than a thousand feet long (960 feet—but who’s counting) with towering, plane grabbing trees on each end and a road with traffic crossing on one of those ends with drivers who pay no attention to planes on their roads.  Most would never call this an airstrip—let alone an airport.  But the locals know it is their quickest connection to the mainland, so therefore it is not only an airport—it’s their airport and they are right proud of the fact it’s a notorious dragon waiting to swallow any plane it does not approve of.  Passengers fortunate enough to fly over it to its big brother a few miles away never even notice it as it slides slowly underneath them.  If their pilot is bored enough to point it out to them they still rarely see it, and if one of them does happen to pick that short strip of dirt and gravel out of the trees…they think it’s a dirt road and we are telling stories as we pilots are wont to do.  I can assure you it is in fact an airport though; it has the windsock to prove it!  Ahhh the windsock.  Winthrop’s windsock could have stories of its own written about it since it often just points in any direction that pleases it.  Those stories will be saved for another day, today we need to land this plane and deliver the ever important U.S. Mail.  And land we surely will, but first I must paint a quick picture for you.  I must attempt to describe to you a place that seems set back to a quieter, more peaceful place in time.  This medium sized island is relatively flat and lies twelve miles off the coast of Maine, it is named Stone Island after the beautiful smooth brown stones found on its beaches.  During the summer months there are many people living on the island, but the year round residents mostly work in some way with the fishing industry and a handful work for taking care of the many tourists.  Although the island is not heavily populated, with approximately eight-hundred year round residents; at the peak of the tourist season it can easily rise to nearly 3,000 people when including its wealthy summer residents.  These wealthy additions to the island add a unique flavor and sometimes…some very interesting stories in their own right.  Well enough of my babbling, let’s land this bird shall we?

Winthrop is one of the hardest strips we operate out of on the best of days, but it can be a real bugger in the wind.  The wind you say?  Wind is relative right?  I mean, it could be minor nuisance to a mariner and at the same time a gale to those at an outdoor wedding.  But what is it that makes the wind an issue to a steely eyed, chiseled chin aviator that can fly over the highest mountains, or through the darkest of nights?  Well as pilots we all have wind stories, but when it comes down to it—wind is just something we deal with.  The wind is something that we have to work with because we cannot change it.  The wind can be the ultimate equalizer.  Never mind that it can scare the living hell out of pilots and make them want to sell shoes for a living…let’s just say it can wear you down trying to fly through it all day long and totally bust your bubble when you feel you’ve finally mastered the pilot’s domain of the sky.  For example, I cannot say “Boss, it’s rather windy today.  I’d prefer to not fly until it’s a little more forgiving.  You know, maybe say…tomorrow?”  Nope, suck it up Daedalus.  Get the mail and drop it off at the post office tout suite!  As pilots we do tend to exaggerate the winds ferocity and tenacity, certainly its ability to end a flight with visions reserved only for Hollywood.  But truthfully it’s just the wind…it’s just air…air flowing like a river of water around all the obstructions that get in its way and it can make for some really interesting flying.

But I digress—why go on and on about the wind when I cannot do a single thing about it and all I need to do is land my craft as I have been doing all summer long.  Day in, day out, multiple times a day.  Pull that throttle back!  Trim that nose up!  Slow her down…hold it off a bit longer!  Land already!  Pretty simple when viewed this way.  Mr. Pilot just do everything as you’ve learned from the books and your instructors and all will be well and good.  However, on days like this, when the winds are gusting out of the northwest it’s anything but simple.  As a matter of fact it can be downright dangerous and very intolerant of a ham-fisted pilot neglecting to listen to his plane.  My company alone has had accidents and incidents at most of our island airstrips; certainly Winthrop would be no different.  Hardly, Winthrop has had numerous incidents and is the main reason for our sky high insurance rates!  Well I can’t sit around here whining about the dangers involved, I have to try and avoid those dangers, use my skill and judgment to accomplish the task of landing this airplane.  So I do what I do best, I take a deep breath, say a quick prayer and ask for the forgiveness of any young maiden I may have wronged in the past—then I start my turn onto final approach.  Final approach, no truer words are spoken.

The airplane is a machine.  I mean it’s hundreds, possibly thousands of moving parts working together to serve one purpose—to fly.  That in itself is absolutely amazing.  I mean who in their right mind could have envisioned man jumping into a contraption (pardon me Mr. Airplane, I use these words loosely) meant to “break the surly bonds”?  Airplanes are amazing!  My particular steed is an exceptional example, it has personality…it has style.  Our company is rather unique in that it really likes us pilots and hopes we make it back to our original point of departure.  After writing this I think I may not be entirely correct, maybe they really are just hoping their airplane comes back and it’s reusable?  Maybe they don’t even think of us pilots much?  Well I’m not entirely sure what their motive is but truth be known, they take really good care of their pilots and their planes and for that alone I’m grateful.  All of our planes have numerous modifications allowing us to do things Clyde Cessna never approved nor dreamed of.  However, as mentioned earlier, my craft has style—and that is important.  Now an engineer or an analyst would say “Style?  What are you talking about Mr. Pilot?  This plane is the leading edge of technology…able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, fly through the nastiest of weather, land precisely on the runway even in fog…and you talk of style???”  Well yes Mr. Engineer…Mr. Analyst—this plane has style and any pilot worth his salt will say he’s flying the best machine ever made, bar none, no questions asked—the sexiest, fastest, most beautiful mistress in the world, which is how any pilot worth his big fancy wrist watch views his plane.  Style may not make the plane operate better, but it sure makes the pilot think the plane is flying better, and that is half the battle.

As I roll the airplane to the left aligning myself with the short dirt strip I notice a bird circling slowly in front of me.  I’m not worried about hitting this bird, they are around us all of the time and I can see I will pass well below this one just prior to landing.  However, I do think back to other pilots mentioning things like; “Those birds will dive straight down at you like they’re on a one-way mission” or, “You remember that bird that dived down and hit old Stan?  Well he damn near died that day and would’ve if not for his quick thinking and dashing good looks.”  Quick note…aren’t all pilots dashingly good looking and have the quick responses of the greats like Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager?  Well I know I certainly am and do so I figured this bird was no problem to me, I would be able to avoid him with ease.  As it grew closer I could see it was not a bird.  A bird is a sparrow, a pigeon, a crow or maybe even a hawk.  But this “bird” was not a bird at all, it was enormous!  This thing was as big as my plane, it had to be one of those plane killing birds known commonly as Cathartes aura…aka the turkey buzzard!  And even he was having a hard time in this gusting wind!  Good Lord, maybe I should just admit defeat, call upon all my godly piloting abilities and go home to tell the boss that “Winthrop no longer exists—it just isn’t where it normally is today boss.  Maybe I should try again later—when the winds have died down.”  I mean that would be the proper thing to do right?  I’m supposed to be the professional that constantly evaluates my surroundings and determine if my cargo or passengers can safely be delivered to their destination.  But this time I had to land.  This time I really didn’t have the option of powering up and going home.  This time I had to complete my mission.  I mean, I had the U.S. Mail in the back and isn’t their mantra “Neither rain, sleet, snow nor ice”?  So there it is written all over the bags behind me—I was landing this plane and delivering this mail.  How else could I justify wearing my leather jacket, scarf and goggles (and big watch) if I couldn’t even get this plane on the ground.  Anyone can do this stuff.  I mean when is the last time you heard of one being left up there in the air?  They always come down!

I ease the power back to idle and the engine purrs like a hundred angels on Sunday even as the noise of the engine slowly diminishes to a slow rumble and occasional pop.  I push the propeller control fully forward and the plane slows slightly as I press the flap lever forcing the flaps to lower like the sun on a warm summer day.  The plane starts to rumble and feel sluggish as planes do when you add flaps and drag, and this is exactly what I want it to do.  You see, as mentioned earlier…this strip is only 960 feet long.  I have A LOT of weight onboard; there is no headwind component to speak of because it is nearly all gusting, plane crushing crosswind.  Therefore I have to slow this plane down well below the recommended approach speed to keep from running off the other end of the runway and into those motorists who aren’t looking for airplanes on their road!  But if I slow it too much the plane will plummet into the ground leaving my bags of mail scattered about the crash site haphazardly—not really good to have on ones resume.  The plane protests my slow approach speed by rolling dramatically to the left as a gust slams into the right side of the plane, I counter with abrupt control movements to the right to ward off the impending roll…possibly a stall and subsequent spin only to find I’ve added too much control movement because the gust unexpectedly went away faster than it came on!  This fast, jerky dance between me and my airplane looks hideous when viewed by a non-pilot, but it’s the only way to even remotely stand a chance of getting the craft safely down and stopped at this airstrip.  This erratic dance continues and results in abrupt control movements all the way down final approach, leaving me not a second to account for the vulture and how he makes out in these blustery conditions.

What normally takes 10 to 15 seconds on final feels like eternity but I find myself doing what I am supposed to be doing and listening to those who’ve gone before me…making a respectable landing—smooth even.  As pilots we know our smoothest landings will come when no one is there to witness our aeronautical prowess.  Whenever we have observers, on the ground or in the air, we never seem to get the landings we desire but we sure do make for some interesting conversations with our abilities to bounce airplanes down the runway.  This time I not only make a presentable landing, but I also manage to stop the plane prior to the cars that are ignoring the flashing lights and speeding across the road ahead of me.  My bags of mail are nonplussed; they offer no sign of thanks for my otherworldly piloting skills and sit silently in the back waiting for me to carry them to their next destination oblivious to the skill it took to just get them here.

As I ease the plane into its grassy parking area I pull the red mixture knob fully out and wait for the engine to quit running, in turn allowing the propeller to stop its endless quest to ingest anything in its path.  As all of these parts come to a quick stop and silence ensues, the only thing I notice is the ticking of the hot engine and the oppressive heat of a warm summer’s day slowly working its way into my cockpit.  I sit there for a few moments thinking of the last 60 seconds of work it took to get me to this point knowing I was going to do this numerous times today whether the wind blew or not, whether it was raining or not, whether it was foggy or not.  No complaints here, I love this work.  Fact is, most of us pilots know it’s the most enjoyable thing we could do and we can hardly describe it as work so we pretend we are working when in fact we are playing and collecting a paycheck to do so—as minuscule as it may be.  Dear reader please don’t tell my boss these last few thoughts as I’m sure he feels we make far too much already!

On this morning I notice out of the corner of my eye a woman with three small children.  She is an attractive blonde haired woman and standing perhaps a hundred feet from my plane with a large smile on her face pushing a stroller and with two small children standing at her side.  I could tell right away they were here to see me, well more accurately the plane anyway.  I was supposed to be delivering the mail to the post office and I didn’t have any passengers heading back to the mainland that I was aware of so I wasn’t quite sure what she may need.  One thing was for sure, she was smiling happily just as her children were so I knew I was not dealing with an unhappy customer or neighbor, and for that I was thankful.

Oftentimes people will complain about the noise around airports, and given the types of planes we fly—ours are noisier than most.  Some of the noise just goes along with the type of plane we fly and its noisy propeller, but some of it is due to the performance enhancements done because of our unique flying requirements.  Anyway, the airport could have existed for seventy-five years and the unhappy neighbor that is upset with the noise may have moved in just a few short years ago—you’d think they would have not moved so near to an airport if they’re sensitive to this sort of thing.  Well as stated earlier, this woman appeared happy so as I opened the door and said “Good morning!” she immediately said “Hello” in return and moved cautiously towards the plane.  Her children were dead silent.  They stood quietly looking at the plane with awe in their eyes and smiles on their little faces but not uttering a sound.  They didn’t come too close to the plane.  It was evident they were skeptical of the scene before them—or more accurately, they were skeptical of the unshaven, wild-eyed pilot before them.  This is probably the exact scenario their mom was always warning them about, “Watch out for strangers but especially watch out for those pilots!”

It was my turn to offer a welcome and see if there was something I could do for them so I asked her if she was flying with us today.  Normally I ask this question for a couple of reasons.  First, the dispatcher typically tells me the name of the people in the party that I should be picking up, but like the typical pilot I’m usually not paying attention and I show up willing to grab whomever and fly them to wherever, whenever.  Not too professional I know, but accurate nonetheless.  There is just so much going on in my mind concerning airspeeds, winds, obstructions, breakfast, my date that evening, that I’m really prioritizing my thoughts—and apparently picking up the right passengers is not high on my priority list.  Please keep in mind I’m a work in progress, I’m just happy to have landed the plane and it’s still capable of being reused.  Another reason for asking this question is because it’s generally just a good icebreaker.  Even if they are not our customers, they will respond accordingly and conversation ensues.  The young woman slowly moves towards me with her children and tells me she is not one of our passengers today but she and her kids were nearby and they loved airplanes.

Well, this is my script to a tee!  Please allow me to indulge you a bit and explain where I came into flying.  I have been around airplanes since my first memories and they have grasped my deepest, most heartfelt desires for nearly my entire life.  I have never wanted to be anything but a pilot.  Ever.  Oh sure there were the typical fireman, policeman, astronaut thoughts for short periods of time, but I never entertained them and always returned to flying.  I owe this to some fantastic mentors over the years and their love of aviation was passed on to a young mind ripe for knowledge and with a thirst for aviation like none other.  I have never wavered in my love for flying, and the fulfillment that it brings to me, so I found years ago I really enjoyed getting children involved with aviation to open their minds and pique their curiosity.  I suppose it was an innate desire to pass my excitement along and as time has progressed; my joy of opening the eyes of children to my world of aviation has grown significantly.  It has now grown far beyond what I envisioned.  This passion to pay forward what was done for me is probably as strong as my desire to fly if not stronger.  I realized at some point that I wasn’t just giving back as I had originally intended, but I was “gaining” so much more from it than I ever was really giving back!  Now I’m sure those of you reading this have heard this sort of mantra before about gaining more from the student than the student is gaining from the teacher—but until you actually feel it, until you actually see the results of it, you cannot realize the power of this emotion because it is truly a force to not be taken lightly.

Here I am face to face with three small children that love airplanes.  Well, forget about the ever important U.S. Mail for a bit, the post office won’t mind me taking a few moments because it’s time to put on my community relations hat and entertain these kids!  I had to give these kids a tour of the plane as I like to do whenever possible and time permits.  So I walked over to the woman and introduced myself, she told me her name was Karen and her children’s names were Zach, Evan and Katelyn—aged six, five and three respectively.  I looked down at these children whose faces were filled with wide-eyed anticipation and awe and asked them if they’d like to look at the airplane.  Having asked this question countless times to hordes of kids, I’ve always been amazed at how shy the loudest kids can get when faced with the option of looking at the airplane up close.  Well, these little ones were no different and they remained very quiet and a bit hesitant as they slowly inched towards the plane.  These young children were extremely well behaved and ever so slowly loosened up to the point where they would touch the plane but that seemed to be the limit of their comfort zone and they had no visible interest in getting any closer.  Even my gentle coaxing could not persuade them to get closer, or heaven forbid, climb into the cockpit.  Now what caught my attention was Mother Karen.  She was noticeably excited about the kids getting “the full experience” since the unknowing and overly trusting pilot was opening the plane up completely for them.  She was getting more and more animated and devious in her attempts to get them into the pilot and copilot seats for pictures—but the kids were having no part of it!  So after a few minutes of trying to entice them into the plane she finally gave up and the true reason behind their being at the airfield to watch planes became apparent—Karen was the one with the interest and wanted desperately to get into the plane!

Well…I didn’t see that coming!  She was so quiet during the last five minutes or so with regards to her fascination with the plane that I did not pick up on the true reason for their visit, and she now continued to amaze me with her interest in the plane and aviation!  Karen wasted no time climbing into the pilot’s seat, even stating “Well I suppose if you kids are not going to get in then I must not waste this opportunity!”  Did I see a slight spring in her step not there previously?  Did I not notice her arm quickly moving her kids aside so she could climb into the cockpit?  Well, I may or may not have noticed such things but what was readily apparent was her smile inside that airplane…she was totally beaming inside that cockpit.  You’d think she just conquered the Atlantic and was Charles Lindberg landing in France!  She had questions, she had ideas, and she had the wild-eyed look I had when I first sat in an airplane thirty years earlier.  Her children just stood there next to me probably with the same look I had on my face, astonishment and bewilderment.  Was mom going to start this baby up and leave us all behind?

Karen had to be in her mid 30s, and I’d found out during her short visit she had never even touched a small airplane like this but had wanted to fly since childhood.  Here she was sitting in the pilot’s seat with the controls in her hands (not making airplane sounds as I would have been doing) and with a look on her face like she was in heaven!  Why hadn’t she done this somewhere in her past?  Why would she give up something she apparently had such a strong desire to do for over fifteen years?  Well the answers are long and varied whenever you ask someone like this that particular question, some have valid reasons while many others have excuses disguised as valid reasons.  Thankfully Karen’s children started to see the fun she was having and their uneasiness started to wane and curiosity blossomed as they cautiously started touching the plane and even climbing up into the cockpit to see just what it was that so captivated their mother.

Of course Karen would have to climb back out of the plane to allow her now eager children access and I could see the disappointment on her face.  She did disembark, although grudgingly.  Evan was the first to climb on up the landing gear and slide on into the cockpit but Zach, not to be outdone by his younger brother, was hot on his heels forcing Evan further over into the copilot’s seat.  Now watching these two climb into the plane was a treat on many levels but what I noticed right away was how quickly they changed from the quiet, timid boys I’d been observing to the rambunctious but respectful young boys most would expect to see.  They obviously had gotten over any fear of the plane or pilot and jumped right into the role of “Pilot” and “Copilot”.  But hold on for one second.

Had we overlooked someone?  How about the little curly-blonde haired, big blue eyed Katelyn that was sitting in the stroller staring at me?  This young girl was not looking at the plane at all.  As a matter of fact I couldn’t help but notice she had been staring at me the whole time.  I’m not talking about looking at me most of the time; she had been watching me every single time I’d looked at her.  I was beginning to become a bit self conscious.  What was it about me that made this little girl stare at me so intently?  Did I look so amusing that she felt pity for me?  Did I have grease or oil smeared across my forehead?  Thankfully I didn’t have to wait for an answer, at this point Karen has slipped back into “mom mode” and took that cute little girl out of the stroller and put her in the back seat of the Cessna.  Throughout this I was staring intently back at Katelyn and noticed the entire time, and during every bit of maneuvering required to get her into the back seat, she was still watching me.  I was starting to wonder if she was part owl and her head would rotate nearly 360 degrees in order to keep a watchful eye on me.  Should this happen I was fully prepared to turn-tail and run!  But something interesting happened when she was sitting there in the back seat of my airplane; viewed through the window the expression on her tiny face was changing.  I saw her face change from one of intentness to one of happiness and joy.  This little girl starting smiling at me with the innocence of youth and accentuated with the cutest little dimples—and it was melting my heart.  And as it turns out, it was contagious…I couldn’t help but smile back.  Of course I probably was doing so with some awkward adult look on my face, or maybe even with that grease or oil on my forehead for good measure, but I was grinning ear to ear nonetheless!

In my short four decades of life I have found that I am slowly becoming more and more attuned to the important things in life and the simplicity of it.  How is that you say?  Hmmm…for instance, what difference does it make if a three year old girl stares at you with pure happiness in her eyes, isn’t that just a fleeting moment that holds no significant consequence?  Well my friend, it makes all the difference in the world.  You see, just fifteen or twenty minutes ago I was fully engaged with figuring out how to land the plane in a pretty hefty crosswind in the smallest airstrip my company fly’s into.  That sort of thought takes most of my consciousness, but now just moments later, that is all history and I’m fully enthralled in how to make this day the best possible day for four people—specifically three of them.  These kids don’t know anything except for what is happening here and now.  What more attentive audience can you get?  I learned from those who gave me their undivided love and attention when I was young that when you have the attention of a child—their full attention—you have a point in their life that is worth your complete focus and purpose.  I intended to make the most of this short time we would spend together.

So with this in mind, I made the best of the next five minutes and enjoyed every single second.  I made sure those three children (especially that little blue-eyed cutie with curly blonde hair) had memories that would last a lifetime.  You’d think, “Why would five minutes in a small airplane make such an impression on children?”  Simple, they were happy and they were completely and totally immersed in something they had dreamed of yet knew very little about—flying! Not necessarily flying in a plane…but flying still!  They were essentially living a dream but for the first time and they were doing it with me.  How could I be so lucky?

As I drove that old dilapidated Ford van back to the airplane from the post office on Stone Island I could not help but think of my early years around airplanes and aviation, the joy it brought me.  Truth be known, those memories still bring me much joy to this day.  All I did today was give that same opportunity to three young children.  The opportunity to dream.  The opportunity to believe that flight is not only possible but mystical and wondrous at the same time.

I walked towards the airplane with a strong feeling that what I was doing was what I was meant to do all my life.  At no other time had I felt this strongly that I had finally found what it was that I was supposed to do.  With this new found direction I felt very relaxed—totally at peace with my life and the direction before me.  As my hands and eyes swept through the start sequence and the engine came to life I couldn’t help but imagine what my life would be without flying.  I mean what would I do with all the aching in my soul to find what ails me?  To put it succinctly, I would be a lost soul without flying.  There would be a hole in my inner being that could never be fulfilled with anything but flying.

So, I just learned all this about myself in less than an hour?  Impossible!  This life altering moment just came out of nowhere and now I know what it is I have to do in life?  No not impossible.  Not impossible at all.   See these things are completely possible when your eyes are opened by the innocence of a child and your mind finally sees what your heart has seen all along…your most vulnerable wishes, desires and secrets.  I will never in my lifetime forget the smile of that little girl and the wonder in her eyes.  She made me a better person than I would ever know and I didn’t question it for a second—I just continued to spread the word.  You know, that flying is…

Shadows

Jerry Pond Camps in north-central Maine

From time to time a gentle breeze could be felt brushing against my face as I walked quietly away from the plane floating serenely on the calm water.  The air was warm and relatively still other than the occasional light wind—this only accentuated the quietness of the surrounding forest.  When the breeze did make its way down from the blue, late summer sky, I was able to hear its passage through the tall pines and spruce that lined the shoreline; it sounded soothing, a rhythm only Mother Nature could produce.  Although the intense sensations I’d been accustomed to just minutes earlier; the sights, sounds and smells of powered flight were very recent in my mind—they were slowly fading, being replaced instead by the calmness of the sporting camps and the stillness of the surrounding forest.

It still felt as though I was an uninvited guest, trespassing at a location reserved only for family or close friends, the shadows and stillness only making the feeling that much stronger.  Of course I wasn’t really.  A granddaughter of the master carpenter that built these cabins decades ago had given me permission to tie my seaplane to the boat dock and explore the property.  The builder’s handiness with wood and woodworking tools was becoming more and more apparent as I walked quietly towards the sturdy, rugged cabins.  His granddaughter—Rae, very generously allowed me the opportunity to explore the cabins and her family’s land along the shore of Jerry Pond in the woods of northern Maine.  My intent was to not only look over the property and get a feel of its character, I would also hopefully be snapping a few photos which would then be shared with Rae—several hundred miles away in an environment much different than the one I was standing in.  You gotta understand, this young lady hadn’t been to this remote location for quite some time and really wanted to “see” the camps she and her siblings grew up in, the beautiful location they all remembered so fondly.  Rae had thousands of memories of her childhood, growing up at her grandparents sporting camps, but she was really yearning to see them in their present state for nostalgia reasons of course…but also purely out of curiosity, wondering what had changed and what had remained the same.  Knowing she wouldn’t be able to visit them anytime soon, Rae enlisted my help to see them again; anything she could do to help ease the longing she felt when thinking of her grandfather and their mutual love of these cabins and the surrounding woods.

What appeared to be the main lodge was directly ahead of me and everything looked in good repair and well taken care of.  There currently was no one at these camps, Rae had told me her dad was in the area hunting black bear the previous day but would be leaving after the days hunt.  On this particular day there was no one within sight, nor was there any sounds associated with man—no chainsaws, no motors, no voices…nothing but that breeze caressing the branches high above me, the sounds of fluttering sparrows and the ever present low chirp and buzz of crickets and grasshoppers.  These were sounds that could easily be lost to the subconscious by calling them “background noise,” but I prefer to hear every bit of the background noise I can and made it a point to try and identify each sound individually as my ears captured them.

As I softly crept up to the front entrance of the main cabin I noticed a small book hanging from a string near the door.  It was obviously a visitor’s log of sorts and I immediately felt a desire to open it, read and it, and make my own entry in it.  It was as though the log was drawing me to it, so strange but true.  I could only imagine the secrets held within the binding of this small, hardcover book.  Now with this recent discovery and feeling like a modern day Indiana Jones, I moved across the small porch to grasp the logbook hanging in the warm mid-day sun, the deck’s boards creaking slightly.  As I reached out and touched the metal clip holding the small book I immediately felt a static shock—hearing the snap emanating from my finger tips.  Suddenly I felt different and the relative quietness of my surroundings slowly started fading away and subtlety being replaced with the sounds of children laughing and playing innocently as children often do.  Even more strangely, I could smell the morning’s breakfast wafting through open windows, almost tasting the savory bacon that seemed to be melting on my tongue.  This was all very strange and unexpected but it did not feel alarming like I would have expected it to.  Instead, these sensations seem very natural and very, very real.  Behind me I could hear a canoe being slid into the cool waters, perhaps by an enthusiastic guide and his “sport” heading out for some late morning fishing at a secret “honeyhole” hidden somewhere on Jerry Pond.  These sounds were slowly being replaced by a far away A.M. radio playing a very familiar song from my own childhood in the mid 70s, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy!” came belting out of the tiny speaker and the easily recognizable voice of John Denver was added to the “background noise.”

But how could I feel all these things, how could I taste and hear these things when I was the only human within twenty miles?  The sensations were very strong and I could swear I “saw” Rae’s grandfather working in his shop, hunched over a pressing camp project, and humming along quietly to the radio.  As I quickly spun around however, on the front porch of that cabin I could see once again that it was just me, the crickets and a few song birds here on this warm August day.  Even with this obvious realization that I could not possibly be seeing things from over forty years ago, I still knew I was not totally alone.  Although an unusual event such as this would normally be disconcerting to a more rational person, this was not the case today and I felt safe and incredibly happy as these emotions washed over me.  It was almost as if I was being put at ease by an unseen but totally friendly force, one that was present but not seen.

I replaced the ink pen into the pages of the logbook and released the book to once again hang in the soft breeze until touched by the next set of hands to come along somewhere down the line.  As I turned to walk away I never had the slightest inkling that I was being guided off the porch and down its few stairs by a gentle soul no longer walking this world’s pathways.  And of course there was no way to know I had signed the book with my name—but dating it 9/25/76.  That would be impossible given I would have only been six years old…

Thank you Rae, this was a wonderful day.

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.