The Boss comes along . . .
By Dave Hirschman
Of all the places the AOPA 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than A Tornado” Husky was scheduled to travel, I anticipated that our planned autumn flight to Maine would be the highlight.
The natural splendor of fall in New England, and the rugged Maine coast, would make dramatic backdrops for aerial photography. And backcountry airstrips, camping, eating lobster, and visiting an aviation mentor—Steve Collins of Biplanes Over Acadia—had me looking forward to these four days in October months in advance.
But as the time approached, two complications made the trip uncertain.
First, high winds and rain blew into the East Coast with a low pressure system centered on New England. That was a regrettable but straightforward fact of life for any pilot of a VFR airplane. I consulted with the other members of our AOPA team—photographer Chris Rose, videographer Bob Knill, and pilot Mark Evans—and we thought it wise to postpone our departure by one day. The forecast showed sunny skies for several days after the fast-moving front went by, so we took the delay in stride.
The second complication was more nerve wracking. AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller, owner of a recently acquired 1998 Husky A-1A, also planned to come along on the trip in his own airplane. None of us other than Evans had ever traveled with The Boss before.
I’d coached him through his tailwheel endorsement, and I knew he was looking forward to taking his airplane on their first long road trip together. But was this the right one?
AOPA photo missions require getting up before dawn to be airborne at first light; going to remote locations; being in close proximity to other airplanes in flight; and sometimes staying airborne well after sunset for optimum light angles. On this trip, it would also mean camping at a grass strip and sleeping under the wings of our airplanes on nights when the temperatures were forecast to be at or below freezing.
All these aspects are part of the attraction for those of us who absolutely live for such assignments. But not everyone would regard what we do as the best way to spend a three-day weekend. And for Fuller, a former high-level White House staffer and corporate executive, such a trip would be a total departure from his normal routine.
The Boss assured us he was game, however, and asked for no special treatment. He wanted to get to know his airplane in the conditions for which it was built, and he genuinely looked forward to the flying challenges that awaited us.
We left our home base in Frederick, Maryland, as a flight of three airplanes. I led with Rose in the Tornado Husky, Evans and Knill followed in a PA-28 Archer that also carried extra photo and video gear, and Fuller flew solo in his Husky. We stayed in a loose, cross-country formation a few hundred feet apart all the way to New York City. There, we spread out about one mile in trail, descended to 1,100 feet, and slid through the Hudson River Corridor northbound by the Statue of Liberty, USS Intrepid, George Washington Bridge and other Big Apple landmarks. The skies were clear but bumpy as a west wind was blowing about 15 knots on the surface.
Once clear of the corridor, we made a right turn and landed at Hartford-Brainard Airport (KHFD), site of last month’s AOPA Summit. METARs showed light winds aligned with the runway all morning, but shortly before we arrived they were gusting to 16 knots and variable in direction: a real challenge for Huskies with a maximum demonstrated crosswind capability of 15 knots.
Once on the ground at Hartford, we refueled and resumed our trip north as a flight of three. There was no weather reporting at our destination, Old Acton Airfield (02ME) in southern Maine, but nearby airports, and smokestacks and lakes along the route, showed a gusty west wind and the turbulence at 3,500 feet was light but continuous.
I had never been to Old Acton, a private strip owned by John and Ann Marie Nadeau of the Recreational Aviation Foundation, but I knew it was plenty long enough for our airplanes. What I didn’t realize until seeing it, however, is that that the approach requires descending through a notch in tall trees, and the turf strip is quite narrow with a hangar on one side and a rock quarry on the other.
There were strong downdrafts approaching the field, but the wind was mostly calm below the tops of the 60-foot trees. We all made it in safely, and I breathed a sigh of relief that the first transportation portion of the trip had gone well. Now, it was time to get to work.
We set up camp, and I dove into my sleeping bag early that night in preparation for a big day of flying along the Maine coast beginning the next morning. The stars were out in vast numbers, and that—plus a favorable weather forecast—convinced me that we’d have great photo light at dawn.
I felt cheated when I crawled out of the tent at dawn to see solid overcast and slate gray clouds blanketing the sky. The ceiling was high and the visibility excellent, but the conditions were atrocious for aerial photography.
Rose and Knill made lots of ground photos of frosty airplanes and coffee brewing over the campfire. But there was no point in launching early. We finally took off just after 8 a.m. and flew to Wiscasset (KIWI), a jewel of a GA airport on the Maine Coast. There, we met Lisa Reece, president of the Maine Aeronautical Association, and went out with a group of local pilots to a hearty breakfast. Afterward, we flew north along Maine’s incomparable coastline to Bar Harbor Airport (KBHB). There, we met Collins, owner of a wildly successful rides business, and a man who had provided me with the best weekend job in Atlanta, Georgia, during the years I was there, flying a North American A/T-6, Stearman PT-17, and Waco YMF-5. Collins and local Maine pilot Mike Allen showed us their fleet of Wacos, a glider, and a Cessna 182 that they use to introduce hundreds of people each year to GA in a classy, exciting, and positive way.
On the flight back to southern Maine, we saw a few breaks in the clouds producing shafts of golden light off the coast. We chased some, but the mirages seemed to close just prior to our arrival each time. Aerial photography is awfully fickle, and so many variables have to align for everything to work right. All the ingredients were there for us, except good light.
We built a roaring campfire that night, and shared hamburgers and stories with the Nadeaus and fellow aviators Bob Burley and Andy Rowe. But although the forecast for the next day was favorable, no stars were visible when I zipped up my sleeping bag and shut my eyes for the night.
We awoke to a pastel red sunrise and still air, and it was obvious that this was our big chance for the kinds of aerial photos we had hoped for.
We scraped the frost off aircraft windshields, wings, and control surfaces, and Rose and Evans bundled up in their warmest clothes. They would be flying in the doorless photo airplane with a biting wind swirling through it.
Fuller and I cranked the Huskies and allowed plenty of idling time for the oil to warm up. But I was desperate to get in the air so as not to miss the perfect but fleeting conditions. Fuller took off first, and his airplane leapt skyward in the cold, dry, dense morning air. I followed and could hardly believe our good fortune.
A golden carpet of autumn leaves seemed to stretch for miles in all directions, and white sinews of fog spread out in the river valleys. As soon as the photo airplane was airborne, I tucked in next to it and we headed for the nearby lakes. The hardest part was picking out where to go because the photo possibilities in all directions looked terrific.
Fuller and I took turns flying next to the photo bird, and at times we flew the two Huskies together for Rose’s camera.
Conditions couldn’t have been any better, the airplanes performed flawlessly. Each participant applied himself with energy and purpose.
In less than an hour of flying, we were done.
Fuller, with an engagement in the Washington, D.C., area that afternoon, flew straight home by himself with a stop at Dutchess County Airport (KPOU) in New York. The rest of us returned to Old Acton Airfield to break camp, load our gear, and say goodbye to our hosts.
It had been a shorter trip than we had anticipated, but a thoroughly successful one.
We made new friends, collected some spectacular aerial images that are likely to pop up in AOPA publications for many months to come, and safeguarded the Tornado Husky for its eventual winner.
Along the way, Fuller logged some quality tailwheel time in quite demanding conditions. And unlike the rest of us, he never complained about the early launches, bad coffee, or brisk temperatures.
Hopefully, we’ll all be seeing him on more Husky trips in the future …