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Float Plane Stories

Glenn MacGrady

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Here's your chance to tell any stories or experiences you've had with float planes—good, bad, frustrating, annoying, dangerous, rescuing, life-saving, boring, too early, too late . . . whatever.

I've never been a Canadian wilderness tripper, so I have no float plane experiences with that. However, for several years in the 1980's I used to lead whitewater trips on the Rapid River in Maine, which drops fairly precipitously from Middle Dam on Lower Richardson Lake to Umbagog Lake. The most convenient way to get to the Richardson put-in was to take a float plane from Umbagog.

Two small memories.

One year, the retired Eastern Airlines pilot wasn't allowed to takeoff or land on big Umbagog Lake due to construction at the park. So he had to use a nearby pond, ensconced between mountains. On the trip back to the pond, he said he said, "I can't use a gradual landing path into this small pond, so if I really want to be a bush pilot, I'm going to have to use the high-G death dive I learned in flight school 35 years ago." (Or some scary term like that.) So he went sharply upwards over the mountain rim, then zoomed almost straight down, and then abruptly leveled out to land a few yards from shore. I don't like flying at all, much less in small aircraft, and just about fainted from fear.

Another time, when picking us up at the base of the Rapid River, his float plane got blown into too-shallow water as he waited for all the paddlers to show up. Meanwhile, I was practicing open boat rolls in my Whitesell Piranha canoe. The pilot called out that he needed to be towed out of the shallows. One of our kayakers in a Perception Dancer, Tom Radcliffe, hooked his tow line onto the plane's struts, and all by himself towed the plane about 100 yards. I can still picture vividly in my mind Tom doing that tow and recall regretting that I didn't have a camera, for I didn't think it was possible.

Rapid River Topo.jpg
 
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This didn’t happen to me, it did happen to my friend Mike Coonie, a Forester in South East Alaska. He was tasked with flying out to some remote area of the Tongas National Forest to do forest timber cruising. His instructions were to meet a float plane at the float slip #16 at 8:00 am for the flight out to the area to be surveyed. He arrived at the appointed hour, the pilot a grizzled Alaskan in old time standard dress, consisting of grease stained Hickory shirt, black Dickie’s pants, Xtratuff boots and oil skin canvas ball cap did not greet him in a friendly manner. “Load your gear in the back, then buckle up tight, cause this is not going to be a picnic.” The weather was a mixture of low clouds, rain, and gusty winds. The old Cessna 185 had seen better days. Mike got on board with some trepidation, buckled in as requested. The pilot fiddled around for a long time before the engine coughed into some semblance of life. Not another word was spoken by the pilot as they taxied into takeoff position. The pilot poured the power to the to the engine, pulled the yoke back into his amble belly to start the takeoff run in a cloak of black oily smoke. In a moment the the aircraft was on step, then lifted skyward. They leveled off at 200 feet, bounced around headlands of Inland Passage the weather if anything had gotten worse. The wing tips seemed to Mike to just barely miss jutting Sitka spruce trees or cliff faces that appeared as they flew on. The pilot leaned over toward Mike and in a loud voice asked him “How does it feel to be flying with the low bidder!!”
 
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Nothing major but the DeHaviland Beaver in a strong headwind can double as a helicopter. Took a while for my stomach to catch up
 
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Flights in bush planes are generally the highlight of our trips for the kids.
On one occasion, we must of had some pretty stable weather, and a very kid friendly pilot. At one point in the flight he looked over at my guy sitting shotgun and told him to take the controls, which he did, and he held the controls of the turbo otter for the next 10 minutes, while the pilot took pictures, looked around and chatted with him. Pretty cool experience for a 9year old.
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In 2001, Kathleen and I wanted to fly to the same place where we began our 1993 trip east, down the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories. But this time we wanted to travel west, over the height of land, and then down the Snowdrift River. Here is an excerpt from my diary on the day we flew in:

The next morning we felt some anxiety as we stood on the float plane dock. It was a morning of transition. We were about to embark on another adventure of unknown stories. Another adventure out onto the Barren Grounds, our favourite landscape. At the last moment, on a whim, we packed the rest of our highway food (salami, pepperoni, cheese, cookies, apples and oranges) into the plane. We lifted off Four-Mile Lake into a northwest wind of 15 knots. Two hundred and eighty-eight pounds (131 kg) of gear, plus the canoe tied onto the left pontoon of the Cessna 185.


Ninety minutes later, we landed at Manchester Lake to refuel from fuel drums that had been cached there. The wind had increased to 25 knots, and our pilot Gary now looked a bit worried. I didn’t know why, but Gary explained.


“The lake might not be long enough to take off into this wind. If we don’t lift off by the time we come even with that point down there, I’ll have to shut ’er down. Then we can float through the channel to the next lake and see if that lake is long enough to take off into the wind.”


Apparently Gary really was worried. Even so, we lifted off easily just before reaching the point and continued east for 45 minutes to where we looked down on Lynx Lake. The outlet bay to the Thelon River seethed in crashing waves, and breakers rolled across the lake’s surface, running before the wind.


Gary’s voice cracked through the head set: “We gotta get out of here, and look for somewhere else to land. The wind is at 55 knots!”


For those of you who don’t know, a knot is equal to one nautical mile, or 1.151 miles/hour (1.852 km/hour). This puts the wind blowing toward us from the northwest at 63.3 miles/hour (101.9 km/hour). I didn’t know those conversions myself until I looked them up just now, nearly 13 years later. I think Gary knew all along what 55 knots meant, as he now looked very worried. I don’t know how much wind a Cessna 185 can tolerate, but as Gary said, “We gotta get out of here!”


And out of there we got. We banked left, to the port side, and swung back towards the west. We flew in silence, our bodies tense, as the plane tossed and heaved against the wind. We stared downward, looking for safety. You might ask, “Just where do you think you’re actually going to find safety? Isn’t it windy everywhere? Isn’t it windy all the way back to Fort Smith?”


I’m glad you weren’t there to ask those questions. You would have been right, of course. Realizing that, I might have been more worried. As it was, I still wasn’t too worried. Things always seem to work out for me.


Gary announced his plan through the head set. “We have to find calmer water in the lee of an island, any island big enough to break the wind even just a little. Then we just might be able to land.”


Sounded like a good plan to me. I certainly didn’t have any better plan. Only problem was, though, there didn’t seem to be a lot of big islands in sight. Actually, there weren’t any big islands in sight. Just low, small pieces of land surrounded by crashing waves. I now began to worry. I looked at Gary, whose face showed resolve. We flew and searched, and I truly began to appreciate the old phrase, “Any port in a storm.”


“I’m gonna try to take the plane down here,” Gary said. “The waves look a bit smaller by that island.”


We began our slow descent. “Oh my, oh my,” Gary said. “Those swells must be four feet (120 cm).” Kathleen and I didn’t say anything. Gary was in charge. Our fate was in his hands. I trusted him.


Suddenly we pulled out of our descent and rose again, and circled around. Gary said, “I gotta check for rocks. We don’t want to hit any rocks.”


Again, a good plan. We circled around until Gary was satisfied that there were no rocks blocking our intended path to the shore. We began our descent for the second time.


“Oh my, oh my, those swells must be eight feet (240 cm).”


I’m not making this up. That’s what Gary said. I expected that we would now lift up again, like before, and look for somewhere else to land. Eight-foot swells certainly sounded worse than 4-ft. swells. In fact, they sounded twice as bad. Gary might have been exaggerating during the excitement of our predicament, but the breaking waves did look darn big.


But no, we continued slowly downward. Float planes are supposed to land softly on the water. That’s what pontoons are for. On previous canoe trips, we had landed softly every time. This time, though, we hit the water very hard and bounced back up into the air, like a stone skipping across the water. We hit the water again, and bounced a second time. Again, we hit the water, and bounced a third time. The Cessna 185 now veered sharply to port side, and Gary gunned the throttle. This time, when we hit the water, we didn’t bounce but rammed forward onto a beach at the foot of an esker, maybe 3 m high. Gary turned to me, reached across the cockpit, shook my hand, and said, “Boy, am I glad to be on the ground.”


“You know, Gary, I thought the waves were worse the second time we started to descend. I thought you were going to pull up.”


“I wanted to, but we had already lost too much speed. We were committed to whatever was going to happen.” I’m glad Gary didn’t tell me that at the time.

snowdrift004.jpg
We set up camp here, apparently the highest point around.
 
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Luckily all of my bush flights have been uneventful, but of the 4 people I know that were in small plane crashes 3 of them were flying with commercial outfitters. If you are nervous about your flight, maybe there is a good reason.
 
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I have a few, but one trip sticks out...

We were closing the hunting camp for the year and had to pack all of the canned goods as well as load a cow and bull moose into a DHC-2. Two trips would be necessary and it was decided that the lightest person would accompany the 2 carcasses as well as the camp contents in trip #1. I was 17 at the time and won that prize. The seats were removed and the plane was loaded. I rode on the bull moose's neck, holding an antler in each hand. The pilot taxied to the end of the lake, spun it around, and shut the engine down. He hopped out onto a pontoon and paddled the plane backwards into the Labrador tea, jumped on shore, and then pulled it up as far as he could. He got back in and before starting the engine, announced to the airbase that he was taking off "C-FODG base St-Michel, décollage, lac Ha-Ha". And with that, he fired up and pushed the throttle lever forward with much less care than was typical. We were moving along, but it was taking a lot of effort to get on the step. He was working the flaps lever and using the ailerons to try and unstick at least one pontoon. We broke free, but way later than I had hoped or previously experienced. He kept it about 4' off the water, level, trying to build some speed but the end of the lake was getting REAL close. I craned my neck to get a peak at the gauges and noticed a good 75 MPH airspeed and with that he pulled up hard thus unseating me from my trusty steed. We cleared the trees, leveled-off, and continued on a very gradual ascent.

The following pictures are not from that event, but they show the lake and it's challenges: 2 rocks right in the middle, a dog leg, and a hill to the west that causes the wind to play havoc with the plane:

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I have to report on a negative story about float planes in the Adirondacks. it is on an increasingly popular lake in what was to become a designated wilderness canoe route area that most paddlers would know. For many years float planes made use of the lake, along with visiting paddlers and a resident Boy Scout camp. it became clear that float plane use was incompatible with wilderness paddlers and campers, and use by float planes and all motorboats was to be phased out over a 5 year period.

So here is my story of my encounter with a float plane operator. There are two well known float plane operators in the Adirondacks. One Memorial Day weekend, I had paddled in early that day, a 12 mile paddle including a short portage, to near a remote designated campsite on a large flooded bay of the lake. I had actually landed my canoe and set up a legal primitive camp on a hilly slope in the woods with my hammock about a quarter mile away from a usually well used designated site. On my way on to buwhwhack for several hours further inland, I was standing at the unoccupied well used designated campsite. It is slightly elevated above water level, with a clear opening to the sky above and a wide view opening toward the lake. As I was enjoying watching a pair of loons swimming an diving below me, I heard a float plane approaching from the north, behind me. it passed directly overhead very low just above tree tops over me and over the lake on a surface inspection pass before turning around and landing toward me. The pilot had to have seen me standing near the shoreline occupying the campsite by then, if not on the low level overhead pass. The plane then taxied up to a sandy landing about 50 yards from me. The pilot and two "clients" exited, along with unloading many boxes of gear. The plane's name ______ was clearly painted on its side. At that point they would have had no idea that I was not already set up with my camp at this site but should have suspected that it was clearly occupied by me. As the plane taxied away to leave, I witnessed something i have never seen before. One of the loons began crying and literally chasing after the plane, as if it was scaring it away. I guessed there must have been a nest nearby.

I deided I should move on for my bushwhack hike activity to visit a remote pond. I returned a few hours later to discover a roughly erected tarp tent with a large fire in the fire ring and no one in sight. A bottle of Wild Turkey was sitting on a stump, 3/4 empty. I called out "hello" several times to no response. As I was about to extiinguish the unattended fire, finally I heard a noise coming from inside the tent, snoring. I peered inside to see a guy passed out on a cot, with a rifle propped against another cot.

Then I heard a guy down where the plane had landed shouting "I got another one, I got another one". He came running up tho the campsite carrying a stringer of smallmouth bass. Now the opening of bass season was more than a month away in this state. So I told this guy of that fact, he pleaded ignorance, of course. I told him i am very familiar with the local forest ranger (which I am), and that he would be interested to know of their catch. I happened to be dressed in green shirt and pants, similar to what a ranger wears, so maybe that had an impact. The guy then released the bass, still alive, back into the lake. I thanked him and moved on to do another bushwhack hike. Upon returning again I saw the same guy gutting fish in a bucket. He readily showed them to me. They were all legal bullhead. I continued on to my own unseen nearby campsite. Later that early evening I began to hear constant gunfire coming from their direction . I feared for the loon family near the site. I don't know how that plane could have flown with that much lead onboard. Just before dark I noted a DEC forest ranger motor boat (still a legal exception to the now no motors rule) headed to the campsite, then leaving a short time later.

I left for home the next morning. The Assistant Ranger who I know and regularly patrols the lake in her kayak every day has her home next to the lake on the way out. She said that her boss visited the campsite the night before, but did not find any obvious violations at the time. She was familiar with the float plane operator, an said that in her experience, __________. was a __________. She told me that the pilot thiinks he believes he practically owns that particular campsite and doesnt care if anyone else is already there when he lands. He also tend to take in a lower class of client. I suggested that such operators should give at least a brief description of local regulations and laws regarding fishing, hunting, and camping.

So that was my introduction to float planes. Thankfully, this lake was banned from float plane use a short time later and reamains a motorless quiet designated canoe wilderness today.
 
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Glenn MacGrady

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it became clear that float plane use was incompatible with wilderness paddlers and campers
Nothing like paddling alone in the early morning stillness, enjoying the scenic beauty of an Adirondack shoreline . . .

Scenic shore.JPG

. . . and then hearing an ear-splitting roar behind you to shatter your reverie.

Roaring plane overhead.JPG
 
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1999 went to work in Charlevoix, MI an hour north of Traverse City. Found a great little house on the Susan lake, sorta long and narrow. There was a float plane at the other end of the lake I had paddled by and admired numerous times. Me and my lab would go canoeing almost every day after work during the summer. My Old Town Laker 14 was dark green and certainly did not show up well. One Saturday we were paddling along enjoying an early calmness when I heard the sound of a small aircraft (I was a pilot in my earlier years) under full acceleration. As I turned he was maybe 10-15’ off the water and I had almost zero time to react. I’m pretty sure we were both more than a little surprised. I was really rattled. On his approach glide his engine was quite and I never heard him until he was almost on top of me. Well that’s my story, happy trails
 
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While on a Wabakimi Project trip maybe 8 years ago Uncle Phil and I were flown out after a trip by a pilot who had 30-some yrs of experience. He was contracted that season to our usual outfitter who needed the help since one of his planes was out of commission. He arrived for the pickup late in the day and I wondered about getting back to base before sunset when I understood he was not supposed to fly any longer.

He landed on the lake and we paddled up to him and began loading our gear. He was very chatty with our two trip mates who were remaining in the bush. It was a very windy day and the plane was drifting quickly toward shore. I called out to him and he scrambled in and quickly started the engine just missing have the tail crash into the trees on the shoreline. As we taxied out into the lake for takeoff I noticed the sun had set. When we got back to the base we landed in rapidly disappearing twilight. As we unloaded the plane he told us if it was dark when he needed to land he would have his wife stand on the end of the dock waving a flashlight as a reference point and would guide in having turned off the engine hoping none of the neighbors turned him in for flying after dark.

What’s that saying about old pilots and bold pilots…
 
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2018 WCPP. Our 1st and only fly-in. Landed on Irene Lake. We went south to Wrist Lake where there was the most berries I’ve ever seen. I portaged both solo canoes and 40-50 lb packs. Couldn’t do it now.
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Some years back Kate and I were preparing to launch for an overnight on Stillwater Reservoir in NY. The boat was on the beach, and the gear was being carried from the car when a Republic RC-3 Seabee made a low pass, and landed. The pilot brought the plane right up to the boat ramp and lowered some little dolly wheels. He then throttled up in an attempt to roll up the ramp into the car park. The damaged pavement made this difficult/impossible. Several unsuccessful attempts were made. That motor was full power, and just a canoe length away from me and my boat. It was loud and I was pissed. I picked up a rock and mimed throwing it into the prop. He got the picture, powered down and tied up to the pier. The rest of the trip was nice.
 
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Just to say how times have changed, in 1977 a friend and I paddled the Allagash for a week. The two of us, with our canoe strapped onto the floats, flew to the start (Chamberlain Lake??). The pilot then shuttled my car (1963 Falcon!) to the takeout at Allagash. Total cost for the plane trip and shuttle was $150. At the time, it felt like a lot of money. Jeez, my partner even wanted to stay in a motel at the end--cost us $15! It was more comfortable than the back seat of the Falcon, however.
 
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In 2017, Kathleen and I canoed for 17 days in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. I often tell people that I feel safer flying in float planes compared to modern jets. I don’t see any moving parts. I don’t see anyone flying the jet. It seems that the jet is flying by magic, and that the magic could suddenly end, resulting in a horrific crash. But here I am up in the cockpit with Mike. He’s pushing knobs. He’s pulling levers. He’s flying the float plane. I can see the propeller going around. I like float planes.


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It’s a long way to Old Fort Reliance, our destination at the far east end of the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. Mike and I are comparing features below to my topographic map. Suddenly everything is silent. The propeller has stopped going around. Mike starts pushing more knobs and pulling more levers. After a bit I ask Mike, “Is this a problem?”
“No. Just switching over to the reserve tank.”
Soon the propeller starts going around again. I like float planes a helluva lot better when I can see the propeller going around.
“So Mike. Just wondering. Could we have landed safely without power?” “Sure. We practice that.”
 
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One summer fishing trip I decided to bring my 7-month old GSP (Stradivarius Willhelm - Willy) with me to put him on to some inexperienced and slow ruffed grouse. I'm in the back seat with him on a leash and he had a very strong desire to sniff the back of the pilot's head. The thought of the pilot's reaction to a big, wet nose unexpectedly touch his nape had me straining to keep him subdued.
 
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As a kid I'd been warned all about giving way to the floatplanes coming and going from their Lakeland Airways base on Lake Temagami. Most days it was no problem to ease on over with plenty of time despite the lunker of a cedar strip outboard trundling along with an aging Johnson. At full throttle I could barely leave a wake to show where I'd just been. But it was enough to get me/us into and out of town for an afternoon ice cream, a grocery run, or just lazy tooling around when boredom set in. Which happens in the preteen years on a long hot summer. There were a couple frenzied moments when I wasn't so alert at the stern. That rumbling old Johnson was loud enough to cover the distant purr of an approaching Beaver. My young goofiness was no excuse for playing chicken "who can run the narrows first". I was never in danger but I bet I pissed off the pilot just a little bit. Besides, he always lifted off and touched down long before the ranger cabin, right? After the second time I developed a rubber neck and twitchy controls. It's an awesome sight to see a grumbling floatplane soaring 30 feet overhead on a northern lake, but an experience I never wanted to repeat. I did dream of canoe trips with wings way back then and continue to do so.
 
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