Lucky People

Lucky People

Over the past several months, the COVID-19 problem dramatically reduced the number of executives flying business jets around the country to meet with customers. But, that doesn’t mean all flying has come to a standstill. Much of the piston and propeller fleet has been flying just fine, and quite fortunately, so have I – though in slightly different equipment.

One of the first trips over the past month was in our R44 helicopter. The cherry drying season had arrived and the helicopter needed to be flown to the east side of the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington State for staging near the orchards. I had not flown through the Cascades at low altitude for years, but at one time, used to instruct students in how to do it in single-engine piston aircraft. I still somewhat remembered the routes and procedures we used to teach pilots new to the area.  

Relocating an R44 to the cherry orchards.
Retired Delta captain, Mark Zahrt joins me in the Cessna 340.

I recalled three ways to transit through the Cascades eastbound out of the Seattle area at non-turbocharged altitudes: Stevens Pass, Snoqualmie Pass and Columbia River Gorge. The topography and weather systems have not changed over the years, so my memory was still valid and I could easily recall the advantages and disadvantages of each route. Stevens Pass is closer to where we are based on the west side, but narrower with only a two-lane highway to follow. It also has no aviation weather reporting station. Snoqualmie Pass is the route both the railroad track and the interstate highway use, which tells you something about gradient. It also has a dedicated weather reporting station at Stampede Pass just to the south and near the only one truly narrow point near the summit. The Columbia River Gorge (or just the “gorge” as it is known to local pilots) is basically near sea level the entire way and wide open by comparison to the others. It almost always has better weather than the other two, and an interstate highway runs all along the south side. However, the entrance is 100 miles south by Portland, which is nearly an hour out of the way in a slow airplane or helicopter. 

With those memories fresh in my mind, I look over the weather for the helicopter trip and decide that Stevens Pass might be a bit of a push and opt for Snoqualmie. Once airborne it was somewhat of a déjà vu experience as years ago when doing instruction out of Boeing Field (KBFI), Snoqualmie was the pass we most often used for training. Back in the 1960s, West Coast Airlines was also based out of BFI and used to fly DC3’s through that route. The State of Washington also installed several “emergency airstrips” along the way just in case the weather unexpectedly closed in. The first of these airstrips is called Bandera. When eastbound, it is about 20 miles inside the pass with mountains sloping up on either side to about 5,000 feet. It has a couple thousand feet of usually wet grass and is quite near the highway, which was handy in the event you had to land there and hitchhike out. I pass over Bandera at around 400 feet above the runway in the helicopter and start having flashbacks about teaching students how to get in there with a 500-foot ceiling in a Cessna 206. From Bandera, the valley east follows the highway, which shortly thereafter makes a nearly 90-degree turn to the north as it passes through a narrow canyon just before reaching the 3,500-foot summit. 

Because the weather in Western Washington generally comes in from the Pacific Ocean, it carries a lot of moisture that tends to get stuck at the highest point on its way eastbound. This phenomenon is what made Snoqualmie somewhat tricky and a particularly good place for student training. The problem is you cannot see the summit until you are nearly on top of it because it lies around another 90-degree bend in the pass. The drill for students was figuring out how to turn the airplane around in a narrow pass when at the last minute, you discover it is completely blocked by clouds and precipitation. The required maneuver called for starting very near the right side of the pass, slowing down to 80 knots, lowering flaps about 10 degrees, and rolling into a 30-degree banked turn toward the rapidly approaching opposite mountainside. The turn itself was quite a safe maneuver once you had been taught how to do it, and most students were amazed the airplane could make a 180-degree turn in such tight quarters. 

Now decades later, flying through in the R44, I tried it again and was surprised how tight it seemed to be, even in a helicopter. No wonder the company I was working for required a “mountain checkout” for new pilots. A couple of days later, I am back at KBVS looking into some airport business when there is a need to do a test flight in an amphibious Carbon Cub. I have about 1,500 hours of seaplane time in all kinds of equipment, from a Grumman Goose to a Beaver to a Cessna 185 and a Lake, but it had been several years since I had flown one. So, when my fellow corporate pilot doing the test flight invited me along, I gladly accepted. The first thing that came back to mind as I approached the airplane was how high these amphibious single-engine airplanes sit above the ground. Even a Cub is sitting way up there and requires conveniently placed ladder rungs to reach the bi-fold door. Climbing in the narrow cockpit was somewhat challenging, all the while pushing the control stick out of the way. Funny, but I don’t remember it being that difficult when doing floatplane instruction in similar Cubs all those years ago.

The Cub’s 180 HP Lycoming lit up without a problem, and we taxied out using differential braking for steering as float-based amphibious airplanes
do not have steerable nose wheels. I was a little jerky with it but not enough to make the line guy run for safety at the hangar. A runway takeoff in a float-based amphib usually requires a fair amount of back pressure once flying speed is reached because the main gear is aft compared to its ground-based brethren. But even knowing that from distant memory, the amount of backpressure on the stick in the Cub caught me by surprise. Turning out of the pattern, I noticed the ball way out on one side, simply because I had forgotten how much extra rudder is required when turning the airplane with those long floats under it. Once in cruise, we did the required maintenance testing, then flew up to one of the local lakes to refresh those memories. 

Landing a floatplane on the water is a completely different experience than on land. For one thing, you have the entire lake before you on which to put the thing down. Another is you absolutely must make sure the gear is up (if amphibious) or it will cause the airplane to flip inverted right at touch down. As this puts the cabin underwater, a number of floatplane pilots and passengers have drowned as a result of the gear down oversight. Another thing you have to figure out once you are sure the gear is up is which way the wind is blowing as float operations are very wind sensitive. The best way to do that is to look at the wave patterns down below and which shoreline is in the lee with no waves at all. 

Having worked my way through that little exercise in memory retention, I get the thing lined up to the northwest. I stay way out in the middle of the lake not wanting to bother the residents along the shoreline. But then it becomes apparent that out there, you really have no ground references like trees or houses by which to judge your altitude. Remembering this, and not knowing exactly how high above the lake the floats were, I pitched the airplane for about 65 knots and carried enough power to produce a very gradual descent, then just waited for the touchdown to occur. You can cover a lot of water doing this, but luckily the lake had plenty of room. We touched down rather nicely way out at the north end. 

Then came the memory phase of what to do after touchdown. There is a huge amount of drag when all that float surface contacts the water, making a floatplane want to pitch forward. If allowed to happen this can be a very bad thing because the tip of the floats can dig in (we called it “stubbing their toes” during my instruction days) and given enough momentum can pitch the airplane up on its nose. The required pilot maneuver is to gently reduce power while applying just enough backpressure on the stick to keep the pitch positive. 

I taxi heading downwind on the lake, carefully go around some fishermen in a small aluminum skiff, then start a takeoff run with the stick full aft and a gradual application of power to prevent the propeller from getting too much splash back from the tips of the floats. In this little airplane with all that power, it gets up on the step right away. I lift off, just in time to wave at some curious bikini-clad boaters. I had almost forgotten just how much fun float flying is.

A couple of days go by and it turns out I need to take some helicopter parts out to the R44. It has been flying every day, blasting air down on a phenomenal crop of cherries in order to shake off the water deposited there by recent local thunderstorms. For this trip I use the Cessna 340 and ask a neighbor, a retired airline captain, if he would like to ride along. The 340 is pressurized and turbocharged so it could easily cross the Cascades in the flight levels well above the terrain. But it is an absolutely clear and calm day, so we decide to take the scenic route and make the crossing at about 9,500 feet. 

The Cascades are a series of mostly sharp rocky 7,000 to 8,000 foot elevations in the terrain caused by tectonic shift of the earth’s crust. But spaced up and down the range at about every 50 to 100-mile intervals are tall peaks that go up to 14,000 feet, which were created by volcanic action. If you fly in the area much you learn the names of these peaks by heart, starting with Mount Baker near the Canadian border, the Glacier Peak a bit further south, then Mount Rainier and so forth all the way down to Mount Shasta which is near the California/Oregon border. At 9,500 feet, our route passes over Glacier Peak, which is at 10,500 feet, and we needed to make a dogleg to fly around it if staying at that altitude. My neighbor, with more than 20,000 hours of high flight level airline time, mentions this is the first time he can remember seeing the Cascades from that perspective – and it was a beautiful sight indeed.

Flights such as these are a reminder that we pilots are lucky people. Viral pandemics notwithstanding, we still get to see and do things most other people can only dream of. 

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