Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The fog comes in wearing hobnail boots

A funny article I read about "No Frills" airline travel made me think back to when we lived on the North Coast in the 1970s and I worked for a small local air service (couldn't call it an airline) which provided daily flights in and out of hunting and fishing camps, research camps where biologists studied grizzly scat or mushrooms or salmon runs or the life cycle of mosses. Most of our business was made up of daily runs to each of the Native villages up and down the coast which were inaccessible by road, and flying across to what is now called Haida Gwai but was then called The Queen Charlotte Islands.

de Haviland DHC-2 Beaver Float Plane
Two of us worked dispatch, kept in radio contact with the pilots and answered the phone. I don't remember exactly how many we had but the workhorses of the fleet were a bunch of 30 year old de Haviland DHC-2 Beavers, equipped with floats. Each carried the pilot and three passengers. Riding in a Beaver was like putting a metal bucket over your head and sticking it in a rock tumbler. You could scream bloody murder at your seat companion, but there was no chance of them hearing you.

The only plane we had of any size was a Grumman Goose, an "amphibian" plane which landed on its belly in the water. It had 12 seats, but we often packed it to the gills with 16-18 passengers. We'd had a second Goose, until the bosses' son had misjudged his elevation in a white-out and hit the mountainside behind the office the year before. Killed everyone on board, and though we could clearly see the wreckage from the office, it took three days for a crew to reach the site. That's rugged country.

Our office sat right on the cove, open water to your right, which served as the runway, and sweeping in a wide circle to the left a low jumble of fish sheds, boats pulled out of the water and turned belly-up to have the barnacles scraped off, and at the far edge of the circle, and directly across from us, the Coast Guard Station and docks. Big heavy coast guard cutters, even battleships, came and went daily in and out of those docks.

Our pilots ranged from old-timers who'd flown in WWII to flash young guys who didn't have the sense God gave a goose. Any fool who does acrobatics in a 30-year-old airplane is asking for trouble, and Bill found it. In the middle of a barrel roll he tore a wing off one of our Beavers and died aged 23.     

But a few months earlier than that I climbed into the cockpit with him one day for a run to Massett when there were no passengers, just a package to deliver. We skimmed the crystal Pacific so closely I could have laid on the float and run my hands through it. You could see schooling fish in the transparent water. We flew over and around a rocky outcropping so covered with sea lions you could hear them barking their displeasure over the roar of the engine, and the stench!  Pig farms smell pleasant in comparison! When I started gagging Bill laughed and pulled away.

Skimming along at a couple of hundred feet, Bill saw a Native fishing boat, and sat the Beaver down beside it. He hopped out onto the float, bought a couple of salmon wrapped in brown paper, and we roared off toward Massett again. 

There's a lovely beach at Massett. Bill said he'd flown over it the summer before, when dozens of swimmers were playing in the water, totally unaware that a huge great white shark 15-16 feet long was idling in a small creek outflow just beyond the wading zone. He flew over the beach, waving out the window, shouting "Shark! Shark!" The swimmers waved back happily. When he landed and ran to the post office to alert the Haida elder he knew would be there the old man shrugged, "He won't bother anyone," he said, "they come to our cold water to get rid of the parasites in their gills. They don't even eat this far north." 

Our biggest worry was the weather. Storms can sweep in from the Hecate Strait with winds of over 100 mph, and play havoc with planes lashed to a floating dock. But we could see storms coming. What we couldn't always predict was fog.

One autumn Friday Bill flew out in the Goose to one of the Native villages to pick up the basketball team for a tournament that was to be held over the weekend. It was clear and crisp when he took off.  It was a 20 minute flight up the coast, maybe 30 minutes to load kids, coaches and baggage and 20 minutes back.

About 45 minutes after he took off, the fog rolled in. This was no wispy, romantic fog, it was a solid brick wall. It broke only enough for us to see that the big ship which had been docked at the Coast Guard all day had powered up and was sliding into the cove. Bill was due in 10 minutes, so we warned him he'd have to circle while the ship cleared the cove.

He swore, and then asked where the ship was now. We couldn't tell. The fog had closed in again.  The Goose was equipped with  landing instrumentation, which should have allowed Bill to locate the ship. His voice was a little tense as he revealed that the instrumentation wasn't working, and he was flying blind above the fog. He decided to circle overhead as long as possible to give the ship time to clear the cove.

The other dispatcher went out with a two-way radio and stood on the end of the dock, listening for the thrum of the ship's engines, trying to gauge where it was. He could hear the Goose overhead. But fog muffles sound and makes it impossible to gauge distance. Finally there was no more possibility of delay. Though we could still hear the ship's engine and knew it was somewhere in the cove the Goose was running out of fuel. 

"I'm coming in," Bill radioed, "God help us if we hit that ship. I've got 18 kids and their coaches jammed in here."

By now the entire staff was standing at the big windows that looked out onto the cove, where the view disappeared at the end of our dock. We held our collective breath as we heard the Goose descend. We  tensed as its belly hit the water and cried out with relief as it emerged from the fog riding a bow wave. The dockers pulled it up and made it fast. Bill crawled out of the cockpit, walked up the dock, into the office, stalked silently past all of us, went into the bathroom and threw up.


Grannymar said...

I am sure I would have done the same as the pilot.

I am reminded of an item I heard on the news yesterday about a passenger who landed a small plane when the pilot took ill and died:

Florence said...

OMG! What an ordeal!

Deb said...

Hi Grannymar,

I heard about that on the news too. Glad that wasn't me. I'd have just squeezed my eyes shut and apologized to God for all my naughtiness, just in case my sneaking suspicions that there is no such is wrong (and hoped that he/she is in a good mood and has a sense of humor).

By the way, that one trip to Massett was the *only* time I ever flew with Bill. He did barrel rolls, loop de loops and stuff that just scared the liver out of me in that old banger plane. I just about kissed that salty dock when we finally got home.