Postcards: Wings for Hire
The greatest flying job on earth?
Taxiing the Skyhawk back to the sightseeing ramp after my third outing of the morning, a glance beyond the chicken-wire fence tells me that it is going to be a non-stop shift. And why not—it's a brisk, clear day in late August, a hint of fall is in the tangy Maine air, and a now-or-never mood has taken hold of the tourists contemplating the sign at the edge of the road, advertising airplane rides, or quietly debating whether to risk all on a small airplane flight around Acadia National Park.
Tamara, the ramp attendant, cheerfully works the waiting crowd, tracing routes of the available rides, putting preflight jitters to rest, guiding the next group of passengers out toward a waiting aircraft, or deplaning newly returned sightseers and ushering them back to groundling territory outside the fence. I stretch out in my seat for a moment but do not bother to get out and walk around—my next passengers are already making their way toward the Cessna. I must be one of the luckiest human beings on earth. As a general aviation pilot in Maine, with the economy soft and winter coming, I could sit here and wonder why I gave up a well- paid newspaper career and how I am going to pay the latest batch of bills. But on dazzling days like today, people actually pay me to fly them around one of the most beautiful spots on God's green earth.
Flying up the Atlantic coast beyond Boston, one reaches a certain point—slightly north of Portland, Maine—where a significant, noticeable, topographical change occurs. Flat coastal plain and sand beaches give way to jagged peninsulas, island- studded bays, and seaside ridges looming above rocky shores, all the product of a monumental scraping performed by the glaciers of long ago.
Nearly a hundred miles along this spectacular, chaotic geologic expanse of coast, roughly half way from its beginning at Casco Bay to its "down east" terminus at Eastport, Maine, on the border with Canada, one encounters an island with granite-capped mountains rising abruptly from the sea; forest becomes ocean, and eagles ride the thermals sent aloft by the sun-warmed rocks. So extraordinary is this collision of nature's realms that, while it offers neither the tallest mountains, the densest forests, nor the most imposing seascapes, it possesses a unique beauty unforgettable to those who come here.
And come they do—by the millions, every year. The most splendid portions of this landscape lie within the confines of Acadia National Park, whose boundaries encompass much of Mount Desert Island, just outside Bar Harbor, Maine, as well as numerous smaller offshore islands. Preserved by its wealthy summer inhabitants as a national treasure many decades ago, its roads carved out by Work Projects Administration laborers struggling to survive the Depression, Acadia is a vacation destination famous worldwide.
For those arriving by automobile, there is essentially one route onto the island—a modest state highway that passes through the town of Trenton, on the mainland, before crossing over to Mount Desert Island by bridge. In the final few miles before reaching the bridge, one encounters the usual assortment of roadside gift shops, amusement parks, and restaurants that can always be found on the periphery of popular vacation spots; the small percentage of visitors snagged by each during the tourist season tides over the owners through the long Maine winters. (An old joke has it that Maine really has only two seasons: winter and July. A more cynical version gives the two seasons as winter and the Fourth of July.)
An observant visitor motoring toward the island, having passed by the miniature golf courses, lobster pounds, and "Mainely-" this- and-that gift shops, may gaze toward the shore and observe an orange windsock bobbing in the breeze. Possibly a single-engine Cessna will be rising from a runway just beyond the chicken-wire fence. Perhaps there is a glider in tow. A Citation or Westwind may be on the approach, delivering the rich and famous to their seaside estates. A Beech 1900 commuter may be taxiing down little Runway 35 to the intersection of 22 for departure to Boston (we have yet to acquire parallel taxiways).
Around the next bend in the road, the visitor is greeted by a gaily painted sign with an invitation to embark on a glider ride over this spectacular landscape; and just a little farther down, a hand- painted sign on the edge of a small dirt parking area declares "Airplane rides." Here, a little wooden booth punctuates the fence line; and just behind it, two or three Cessna 172s await their next fares, their pilots lounging in their seats or taking in sunshine on one of the white plastic deck chairs in a row outside. Of all the people who come and go along this well-trodden path all spring and summer, these pilots are the luckiest people of all, for it is their lot—day in and day out—to behold the scenery of Acadia National Park from the air and to share the astonishing vista with their wonder-struck passengers. The men and women piloting these flights are general aviation's liaisons to the world; if they had a nickel for every photograph snapped, smile generated, first flight given, or new pilot recruited, they would be wealthy indeed.
I suppose I no longer qualify as a young pilot, unlike most of those flying the scenic beat; and having no ambitions in the direction of the airlines (again, unlike most of my peers out here), I have never enlisted with the local operator for scenic-flight duty on a regular basis. But as a local pilot who instructs in the company's airplanes and gets to keep one for virtually exclusive use during the slow months of winter, I consider it a matter of congenial diplomacy to make myself available to fly scenics on an as-needed basis.
Most years, "as-needed" may be defined as once or twice a summer; and when the call comes, it is usually the perfect break from my routine. But today, on the second straight day of flying the tour in the perfect weather that is Maine's summertime gift—and having volunteered to go on the schedule again three days hence—my good fortune embarrasses me, as W.C. Fields once quipped during a poker game. Like that devious comedian of Depression-era movies, I too feel that I have cheated a hapless victim, a no-good rat named Tedium. And equally rewarding is knowing that of all the people I have flown with today, only one has had any experience in lightplane aviation. As for the others, their remarks while aloft and their smiles and waves at flight's end let me know that I have done my ambassadorial duty well. I am a scenic pilot, and I am well proud of it.
You could fly this coastline for a lifetime and never grow tired of the view, because it is never the same view twice. Up ahead, sun and clouds mold the landscape minute by minute, as an artisan works his clay. Down there, sailboats, schooners, whale-watching boats, and luxury liners cluster in the inlets and stretch to the horizon. In the distance the perpetual fog banks drift, obscuring, then revealing, then obscuring, the outer islands. On many a day these dense blankets of moisture finally compose themselves for an advance upon the coastline as the sun sets, not to relinquish their grip upon the shore until late the next morning.
One magic summer, just off the Egg Rock Lighthouse where Frenchman Bay meets the open ocean, whales breached and blew; we circled above them in our Cessnas. The logbook of one of my students now bears the notation, "turns about a whale," entered after we combined airborne whale-watching with the practice of ground- reference maneuvers. Why the whales came so far inshore in that particular year I don't know.
The air is smooth over the bays and inlets on days such as this. Here, thunderstorms that grew to maturity above the mountains a hundred miles inland are charmed into submission by the cooling breezes off the water. Here, also, hurricanes will migrate to die in September, smashing themselves to pieces on the jagged rocks and spinning on toward the Canadian Maritimes as dissipating lows, dragging an untidy burden of fog, rain, and wind in their wake.
We fly our passengers around Somes Sound, a true fjord with the great cliffs of Acadia towering directly above the water. Or we fly the lighthouse run or a wilderness route inland toward Tunk Mountain and the vast blueberry barrens of eastern Maine, returning over Frenchman Bay and Schoodic Point, where people gather on the shore to watch great waves from the dying storms crash upon the beaches.
In the fall, the humblest trip around the airport traffic pattern reveals a brilliant patchwork of color as scarlet and gold clusters of maple and beech blaze forth, bordered by the dark green of their conifer neighbors. This spectacle, usually at its peak in early October, declines gradually into a gray time in which the anticipation of winter occupies those of us who remain here year- round. Sometimes—about every third year or so—a great windstorm strips all of the leaves from the trees in the course of one long night. When this happens, we light a fire in our woodstoves and don't let it go out until May.
Winter. Crystal days of a hundred miles' visibility—literally 100, if you can see Mount Katahdin from the coast—followed by nights so cold you feel that the air itself should shatter. And still we sing for our supper in the frozen sky. Pilots flying early in the day learn to leave their airplanes hangared until the very last minute; if the sun is not high enough after they have dragged their craft outside, it will cover itself with thick frost before their eyes. After the snows come—sometimes in December, other years as late as March—nights with bright moons are almost as good as daylight for cross-country flying, with features on the ground standing out clearly in the milky, dusky glow.
The lovedance of beauty in the arms of menace draws us like sailors swimming toward the Sirens, because nothing else will do; the trial of a forced landing in such inaccessible, inhospitable winter terrain as the deep wilderness of Maine is the price of admission to the skies above that wilderness. Flying in such a place, we hedge our bets, dressing for the long hike out of the woods we hope never to make, filling flight bags with such oddsmakers as knit caps, extra gloves, and food. And matches, for signaling and for warmth. Airplanes have been known to be swallowed up by the Maine woods, where it will cool down to minus 30 some winter nights. There are many stout souls we can depend on to look for us should we ever go missing, but it is a big country, and we cannot ask the impossible, although they would try to provide it.
A small hand appears before my eyes. It is little Ryan from somewhere in Connecticut. He grins and chortles, "Goodbye, Dave," a deliberate miscalling I have earned by my having called him "Brian" when he first got on board. Ryan runs outside the fence and announces proudly to Tamara that he "drove the plane" for a while. Ryan's parents slide out from the rear seats, shake my hand, and thank me for giving their son—an aspiring pilot, at least at this age—his first taste of flight, which they pronounce a huge success.
Cameras in hand, a young couple (from Charlotte, North Carolina, as I will soon discover) is waiting for their turn. Like the young Japanese vacationers who were my first fares of the day—and the father, daughter, and son from Waterbury, Connecticut, who were my second—they will gasp at the beauty, point out to each other their motel, or campsite, or a favorite scenic overlook, the great hills and tiny sailboats, and share the wonder. How fortune ever chose me as the guide for their journey I will never know, and I care not to question.