Every year in autumn comes “changeover.” Floatplanes are only useful in this part of the world for four months, give or take, for the simple reason that they land on liquid water, not frozen water. The season is up. June fifteenth to September twenty-fifth, this year — a pretty short run. For me, and our little mom- and-pop flying biz, changeover means a 550-mile flight south and mostly west, to Fort Nelson, British Columbia. That is our contracted Maintenance shop, with engineers, tools, spares, and a big hangar, which is a requirement for commercial air operators.
At Fort Nelson there is no convenient lake or slough adjacent to the airport, so when it comes time to end the water-flying season we perform the rather bizarre maneuver of landing floatplanes on the grass (preferably but not always the frosty or slightly snowy grass) of the infield alongside the runway. This sounds dramatic, and for the first few times it is one of those moments known in aviation as sphincter-crunchers. It is surprisingly uneventful, though, so long as certain rules of thumb are kept in mind: have the touchdown area walked and marked by trusted people; don’t mess with big crosswinds; keep the load light; and have a backup exit strategy such as going to a lake or river to await better conditions. Most of the time we adhere to all those rules. Most of the time.
Touch down at minimum speed, in a flat attitude, yard the stick back and – after a half-dozen times of doing it – remain confident that the whole kit and kaboodle is not going to go right over on its nose. The rapid deceleration is about as close as us mere mortals will come to what must be the astounding deceleration after landing a jet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier and snagging a big cable with a tail hook.
There follows the odd sensation of stepping down from the deck of the float to solid ground, high and dry, as the cart and truck and smiling engineer pull up to tow the plane to the hangar. Another float season done.
The next two or three days are a steady blur of hanging the plane from a hangar rafter, unbolting the floats, bolting on the landing gear, and then the myriad small steps of dismantling, examining, cleaning, troubleshooting, minor repair, discussion, and re-assembly that together constitute a routine airframe and engine inspection.
Days go by, no show-stoppers are encountered in the inspection, and all the checks are done. These are the days, I would point out, that the paying customers of a little air service, and a big airline, don’t see, and probably don’t think about, so maybe I’m reminding some of you that these days are there, month after month, year after year, expensive repair after expensive repair – and you should be damned glad that these inspections are done and happy that the cost of these days gets folded into the challenge of staying on the black side of the accountant’s ledger. Ahem. I shall desist.
There follows the flip side, the former floatplane is now a wheel-plane on fat tires, ready to fly north and east, all signed out in the logbook. But at home, alas, there is no ice yet. No one expects there to be. In fact, in this strange autumn we are having so far, there has barely even been any frost. The little “airstrip” we use in the shoulder seasons of autumn and spring is just a 550-foot swath of grassy sand, punctuated by a couple of “gotcha!” boulders. It lies on a bearing of 062 and 242 degrees, and it slopes pretty steeply up to the northeast. It is thus what pilots call a one-way-in, one-way-out strip – its use or non-use dictated on any day by windspeed and direction. The wind has to be right, or it has to be calm, when you arrive overhead for a landing, or you simply must fly away and wait for a change. Sometimes for many days. A good exercise in patience, and in living that old adage about accepting things that are beyond our control.
The entire landing, from touchdown of the fat tires on the sand or sand-and-snow mulch, to end of rollout a few hundred feet later, takes about four seconds, or less. From 58 knots to zero in the Bush Hawk, that’s another attention-grabbing deceleration. And so on these autumn days, heading to the strip, there are mornings like yesterday, when I jotted this:
The Day is Four Seconds
Wake in the Super Eight, (singing with Jason Isbell.)
First thought, the four seconds just north of home, late this afternoon.
Instant coffee in a paper cup, chair by the window.
Familiar back-side of Northern Metallic and beyond it the sleepy –
some would say moribund –
industrial district of Fort Nelson.
In the far distance, some rosy alpenglow on the snowy peaks southwest.
Pull out the damned Ipad, to compare about four different forecasts for wind at home.
Thinking of the four seconds.
Conclusion: it may work today, if I can get up there, eight hours from now,
but tomorrow’s a no-go,
and the next day,
and the next.
We shall see.
Anyone who likes guarantees would not like this line of work.