Jump in a Lake

At the Moosehead Lake seaplane fly-in, the dress is casual, the rules are bent, the competition is crazy, and the scenery is Maine.

WHEN I AWAKE IN MY ROOM IN CHALET MOOSEHEAD IN GREENVILLE, MAINE, I find a Piper PA-12 floatplane tied to the beach beneath my window. I’m daffy about Cub-type airplanes, and one of the perks of attending the 32nd International Seaplane Fly-in is to look out every morning upon Three Yankee Foxtrot, a tube-and-fabric design introduced by William Piper in 1947. The owner evidently wants no part of the bomb drop, takeoff, landing, and canoe competitions that provide the fly-in’s adrenaline rush, because 3YF never leaves its tie-down the entire weekend.

Indeed, you’d want the nerve of Sky King himself to join the Greenville traffic pattern this Saturday morning in September, as the fly-in moves into high gear. There are about a hundred floatplanes at the state Fish and Game Department seaplane base, on the east side of 32-mile-long Moosehead Lake, in the heart of Maine’s Northwoods. A Cessna 180 takes off to the north, engine screaming, floats spraying water. An ultralight drones overhead on a bombing run (the bomb is a grapefruit: Each contestant gets two, with the one splashing closest to the red buoys scoring). A Husky pilot announces on the radio that he’s entering the pattern from the west—“At your discretion,” replies the traffic coordinator—and, as a flourish, 14 Canada geese plop down in the cove with a flurry of wings.

An amphibian floatplane is powering toward the Fish and Game ramp, where 30 youngsters in Civil Air Patrol uniforms are moving aircraft around and keeping spectators away from spinning propellers. “November Lima,” says the radio to the trespasser, “better turn right. There’s a plane about to come down that ramp.”

Three ultralights have flown the 200 miles from New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, refueling once at a marina along the way. “We could have made it with half a gallon to spare,” boasts Kit Clews of Portsmouth, here for his seventh Moosehead fly-in. The ultralights have proved formidable competitors in the takeoff category. “They got tired of us taking off in 27 feet,” Clews says. “So now they’ve given us a class of our own.”

His craft is an Air Creation, a homebuilt with a pusher propeller and floats that seem bigger than its parasol wing. Another Air Creation casts off from shore with its engine silent, to be caught by the wind and driven onto a Cessna tied at the float; the pilot jumps out, dances on the float to a smatter of applause, and tilts the wing so it neatly clears the Cessna’s. The Rotax engine is a pull-start, like a lawnmower. It doesn’t start, and eventually the Air Creation vanishes around the corner, heading for town at a good two or three knots on wind power alone.

The International Seaplane Fly-In dates to 1973. Greenville also has a landplane base, which started as an 1,800-foot grass strip on the high ground east of town, where the Walden family raised potatoes and swapped them for necessities. “My sister Deborah had radar for ears,” 83-year-old Ed Walden recalls. “She’d shout ‘Airplane!’ before any of the rest of us heard the engine, and we’d run outside and spread sheets on the grass as a sign to the barnstormer that he could come down.” In addition to the excitement his visit generated, a barnstormer might pay a dollar or two for dinner and a bunk for the night.

Also toward the end of the Depression, Maine’s Senator Owen Brewster decided that “if airplanes are going to go anywhere in the future, they’ve got to have someplace to set down,” says Walden. That led to the Civil Aeronautics Act and a big federal hand in building airports, including $83,000 to acquire and expand the Greenville airstrip. “Son,” wrote Harold Walden to Ed, then a student at the University of Maine, “they’re going through with the airport. If you want the farm, you’d better come home.” The Waldens cut the house in half with a handsaw, dismantled the barn to use the timbers for skids, borrowed a tractor from the airport construction crew, and dragged the house a few miles down the road. (Ed’s grandson lives there now.)

In the realm of general aviation, airplanes with wheels outnumber those with floats, a statistic reflected at the fly-in. There are twice as many landplanes and amphibians parked at the airport—233—as there are floatplanes in the cove. Walking the flightline on Saturday evening, I find airplanes parked wingtip to wingtip along both sides of the approach end of Runway 21. Some pilots sleep in tents beneath the wings; others have set up more elaborate accommodations in the grass behind their aircraft. The air is rich with the smell of barbecued beef, and the yelps of children and dogs.

Roger Currier owns Currier’s Flying Service, which offers air tours in vintage floatplanes; he came to Greenville in 1982 on the offer of a job from Dick Folsom, whose name for half a century was synonymous with bush flying in the wilds of Maine. By that time, the paper companies that own most of the wilderness had learned that it was cheaper to build roads than float the logs downriver to the mill. The roads are open to the public, and they quickly found favor with hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers, and folks who live in the backcountry, causing a drop in business for the bush pilots.

When Currier arrived, he found that Dick Folsom no longer needed another pilot. Currier instead worked for Jack Hofbauer, a Delta Air Lines pilot who ran a seaplane service on the side. “He was in and out,” Currier recalls in a soft voice, “and the rest of his family ran the business. One of my bosses was a 13-year-old girl. So I decided to do my own thing.”

The state of Maine sold him a beat-up Cessna 180 with 3,000 hours on the airframe. Over the next 23 years, he added another 7,000. “It’s been a good plane,” he says with considerable understatement. Meanwhile, he added two burly Cessna 195s, another 180, and a de Havilland Beaver. (The Curriers also own a 1952 Jeep and a pair of Volkswagen Beetles.)

At the same time, a new generation of bureaucrats was replacing the old-timers at the Federal Aviation Administration regional office, and they took notice of the fact that what the bush pilots were doing was, well, not according to regulations. Most floatplanes are certified to carry canoes only when flying “restricted”—and as the pilot of a restricted aircraft, you can’t take passengers for a fee. Strictly speaking, what a bush pilot must do is fly the canoe without charge, then make another flight in the “general” category with the paying passengers.

“Pretty darned expensive,” Roger Currier points out, “and not cost-effective when we could be doing back-to-back sightseeing tours all day.” (That the FAA got exercised about a little thing like carrying a canoe on a float is amusing, considering that Greenville’s archetypal bush pilot, Charlie Coe, was forever inventing uses for his airplane: In the summer he towed water skiers with it, and in the winter he moved logs across the ice.)

Seaplanes had their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, when U.S. designers created the Republic Seabee and Grumman Goose. There were five Seabees on the Fish and Game ramp Saturday morning. There are a few modern airplanes here too, notably a twin-engine, low-wing, six-place Russian amphibian, a Beriev Be-103 that catches everyone’s eye—especially when it takes off, spewing water halfway out to the wingtips. And there are a smattering of foreign pilots, enough to justify the “international” in the event’s name. Andre Durocher flew down from Ottawa in a 600-horsepower de Havilland Beaver floatplane that he bought a few years ago, supposedly as an investment; he and his passenger wear T-shirts with a portrait of the Beaver front and back, and the legend: “For Sale.” But he’s in no hurry to close a deal. He showed off the airplane at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin mega-fly-in last July, and now he’s geared up for the Moosehead Lake bomb drop.

The fly-in also attracts pilots who have left their wings at home—like me. “You gotta fly to these things,” protests Don LaCouture Jr. of Marlboro, Massachusetts, when I admit that my transportation is a Honda Accord. Against a headwind, he needed three and a half hours to fly up in his father’s PA-18 Super Cub. On reflection, he amends his view: “Well, at least you know you’re gonna get home!”

Jack Sellett has a better excuse for driving. He came from Florida with his wife and dog in a motor home, using the fly-in as the far point of a grand tour of aeronautical landmarks. They visited Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York on the way north, and they’ll visit the National Air and Space Museum in Washington when southbound. Sellett carries photos of his former seaplanes in his wallet and displays them at every opportunity. He also tells war stories nonstop: “I landed in Everglades National Park and the ranger said to me, ‘You know you’re not supposed to land here, but you were having spark plug problems, weren’t you?’ ”

On the flightline, there’s instant camaraderie, with people comparing stories, dogs, and airplanes. “I had a 205 like that,” Sellett muses about a green Cessna tied down nearby. “It had a control cable failure, and I had to put it down in a hurry. The dog and the three of us walked away.” Turns out that the owner of the green Cessna had a like experience, except that he was fortunate enough to be over an airport when it happened.

There’s also a bunch of pilots from Spencer, Massachusetts, who turn up in Greenville every year without taking part in the fly-in, except as spectators. After work on Friday, Steve Foley loaded his 14-year-old son and a quarter-keg of beer into his Cessna 150 and flew north, reaching Greenville just as the sun was setting. “You can see the lights in Greenville from a good ways off,” Foley says. This was a relief to one of his friends, who set out one year in a Piper J-3 with no electrical equipment (and who therefore remains nameless): “He was going too slow and ended up flying at night with no lights. He would light a match every 15 minutes or so and check his heading on the compass.”

Gregg Andrews, who owns the Spencer airport, bought a small vacation house in Greenville, mostly for the sake of the fly-in. “It’s a pretty neat thing to see them all together, all the old Grummans and such,” he says. So now the Spencer airport gang, 30-strong, camp at Andrews’ place. On Saturday night, they put on their own communal barbeque: “Twenty pounds of roast beast cooked over an open fire,” as Steve Foley describes it, “with a spit made from a hangar door gear drive transmission and an electric motor.”

The 33rd International Seaplane Fly-In is scheduled for September 7 through 10, 2006. If you too leave your wings at home, Currier’s Flying Service will take you flightseeing for as little as $70 for two. And remember, as the Black Frog restaurant menu warns, “When dining in Maine, never assume it’s a raisin.”