Friday, July 9, 2010

Bush planespotting

Last year I had a heart attack and a triple bypass, sold my little Cessna 150, and said good-bye to 15 years and more than 1,300 hours of flying. Still, "once a pilot, always a pilot," they say, and every time I see a Piper or Cessna rise from a grassroots airfield, the old obsession -- the irrepressible impulse to aviate -- nearly overwhelms me.

But not for long. During the last decade four of my friends, three of them first met during my coast-to-coast adventure for Flight of the Gin Fizz, have died in air crashes. I've had some narrow escapes, two of them involving engine failures while in flight.

The last year or so I flew, it was nervously, constantly looking for a field for an emergency landing, always swiveling my head searching for potentially hostile traffic. As, of course, every good pilot should.

But this time flying wasn't fun anymore.

It seemed a good idea to quit while I was ahead, and that little cardiac episode forced me into it.

Still, the sight of an airplane always perks me up, and has since World War II, when I was a junior planespotter, able to tell a Zero from a Messerschmitt. On my trip to Alaska last month I was constantly cheered, often with camera in hand, by the sight of small planes of all kinds. Alaska wouldn't be Alaska without single-engine bush aircraft that can take off on a dime and land on a postage stamp, often a watery one. Here are some of them:

Piper Super Cub on floats demonstrating landings and takeoffs for tourist-boat passengers on the Chena River at Fairbanks, Alaska.

Another Super Cub by the Chena River, this one on oversized "tundra tires" enabling it to land on soft ground without digging in.

Just down the riverbank sat this Bellanca Scout, whose tundra tires are so large they make the airplane look like Bigfoot.

A Cessna 185 at its private dock on the Chena River.

This Cessna 185 is taking off by the waterfront at Ketchikan, Alaska. I shot the photo from the cruise ship Statendam coming in to dock.

A de Havilland Beaver touching down for landing, one wing and float low against the crosswind, on Misty Fjord near Ketchikan. Later I looked up the history of N4787C and discovered she had been involved in a fatal crash off Ketchikan in 1997 and the wreck rebuilt. It's safe to say that the sightseers aboard knew nothing about that.

Just ahead of the Beaver came its big brother, a de Havilland Turbo Otter.

The two de Havillands at the seaplane dock at the end of Misty Fjord. Passengers debarked the planes and embarked on our sightseeing boat, and new passengers from the boat boarded the planes for the flight back to Ketchikan.

Another Turbo Otter and Beaver combination just outside Ketchikan.

Did I regret not booking a flightseeing trip up Misty Fjord? Not at all. Of course those Alaskan flightseeing outfits have stellar safety records. But it just wouldn't have been fun. Maybe, with time . . .

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