When a pilot files a Flight Plan with Air Traffic Control, there is a rapid-fire exchange of numbers and codes, times and altitudes. In among those numbers is, of course, “total number of persons on board.” Old-school Flight Service briefers often use a vernacular for this and ask for “souls on board,” as if to say, just give me the total number of human beings inside the machine at liftoff, regardless of whether they are pilots, passengers, flight attendants, mechanics or skydivers. It is a concise way of pegging the number. And at times thought-provoking.
A week ago today, on one of the only sunny days that this entire September 2018 has offered up, my daughters and I organized a fly-in surprise party to mark Kristen’s passage to an age where she can swim for half-price at some community swimming pools. Her birthday is in October, but by October there is little chance of a pleasant floatplane fly-in here on the taiga.
The day depended completely on the weather for the flight, and the wind and water for landing here. As Sunday approached I was watching the forecasts. There was some optimism in the public weather forecast, some pessimism in the marine forecast issued for boaters, and not much definitive to be gleaned from the aviation weather maps. My fingers were crossed. The incoming plane was a Twin Otter from Air Tindi, and the Twin Otter on floats can handle some big waves and swells, but I knew there was a good chance that even if the day was warm and sunny, a southerly wind here could make us cancel the flight and the party.
It is a little-known fact of wind and wave physics that in autumn, when both the air and the water are colder than in summer, a given strength of wind, say 10 knots, will generate a bigger and more powerful set of waves and swells. The reason is that both the air and the water become denser as they cool. The cold wind pushes with more force and the cold waves formed by the dense water have more mass and momentum – the water weighs more and so does the air. I am a little out of my depth here, but that is how I understand it. It is a concept I believe, because I see it borne out every fall when colder air pushes on cold water and creates bigger, more powerful waves than at any other time of the year.
The mild sunny weather that made last Sunday so nice came at the price of a breeze from the south. A south wind, and especially a southwest wind, is the most troublesome wind direction here at our place, because of our exposure and the “fetch” that the waves have as they march down more than 60 miles of open water. Big waves and swells are the bane of floatplane pilots. As I have written before, a floatplane is a marvelous and useful contraption, but in truth it makes a very poor boat. If a boatbuilder set out to break most of the rules of boat design, the result might be something like a floatplane: huge wind-catching area above the water, with absolutely no ballast down deep under the surface to stabilize all that sail area. It is only a small exaggeration to liken a Twin Otter on floats to a small schooner, complete with topsails, perched on a pair of oversized canoes.
On the morning of the big day I snuck out from the house with the portable satellite phone, to pass the weather along to my old friend Mike Murphy, who was to fly the plane in from Yellowknife. He was concerned by the southerly breeze and the waves it would generate here. “Do you think we can do this?” he asked in the blunt style which is his trademark. “Yes,” I said, “but Mike, just know that if you get out here, and you don’t like the look of it and you head back to town without landing, I understand and I’m good for the cost of the flight, no questions asked.”
When the plane appeared overhead Kristen was out picking berries, taking advantage of the only warm sunny morning we had seen for weeks. The Twin circled several times, as Mike and Joe looked over the options. Between the two of them, and with another life-long pilot, Kim Zenko, sitting back among the passengers, there were something like 60,000 hours of bush-flying experience looking down and assessing the wind and water situation at that moment. Mike set up for an approach into the sheltered bay east of the river, and after touching down he rounded the point and began taxiing toward the river. I was out in our skiff, to show Mike the channel into the river mouth, and I could see the plane’s wings rocking wildly as the jumbled swells rolled beneath the floats. I could well imagine the scowl on Murphy’s face, having sat beside it in the cockpit many times in my co-pilot days 25 years ago. After a few tense moments he turned back north into Gyrfalcon Bay, where he had landed, and nosed the tips of the floats onto a rock slab there. With the plane secured to shore, I shuttled the 18 “souls on board” across by boat to the homestead in three trips back and forth. Once we were all assembled at our place the day turned sunny, mellow, and happy.
Golden September warmth, laughter, good food, sober strong coffee for the pilots and the boat driver, beer and wine and some other concoctions for the rest, music and birthday cake for everyone. Kristen was astounded and surprised. A rare and unforgettable event, to have such a big group of long-familiar faces assembled at once, here in the far reaches of the hinterland.
In early afternoon Mike asked if we could go across by boat again and check on the plane, before the music got started inside the workshop. We motored over and saw that the plane was sitting fine and steady, lines all taut to shore. But as we came back across in the boat, Mike and Joe and I could tell that the pesky southerly wind was shifting ever so slightly, probably imperceptibly to almost everyone else at the party. The breeze, which that day never got above 10 or 11 knots, had veered 30 degrees or so, from south-southeast to south-southwest. This new direction, if it sustained itself, would expose the calm refuge of Gyrfalcon Bay to mounting swells. Not good. Some frowning and murmuring and squinting amongst the pilots. We stood together out on the sand and looked at the big pennant up on its tall pole, and out onto the water. We struck a deal. Instead of starting to shuttle everyone back to the plane at 5, we would start at 4. The planned music would have to be cut pretty short.
We went inside the warm workshop and Ryan and Claire started into their repertoire. Angel from Montgomery, a Hoarfrost River favorite by John Prine, had been among my few specific requests for this day, and Ryan started us off with a fine rendition of it. I was sitting on a bench next to Joe Reid, the second pilot that day, and I could tell he was watching the wind and the waves intently. At one point he leaned over and whispered to me, “Look at the wind — I think it’s calming down.” Captain Mike was inscrutable, eyes closed, either listening to the music or just trying not to rush out the door and insist that we all get going.
At 3:53, between songs, Mike asked what time it was. I smiled and said, “Let’s get going. We’ll take one boat load and all the gear from here, and everyone else can walk to the river and we’ll shuttle two trips from there.”
We had everyone to the plane within 45 minutes or so, and when the door was closed I backed away in the boat. I motored over to the north island and climbed onto its rocky top. The wind had settled by then; the protected bay was smooth, and I listened to the roar of the Twin’s turbines as the plane taxied up to the head of the shallows and turned south for the takeoff run. I thought of the day, of the connections and friendships of all those people, and of the wind and the waves and the decision to cut the music short and get going while the going was good. No regrets. The sound of the engines rolled off the cliffs and the spray flew up. Airborne. Climbing and banking, water streaming and sparkling off the tails of the floats.
Two hours later the wind had dropped almost to calm, and we chuckled as we looked out on the lake. Decisions are made on what is happening — not on what might happen. Souls on board, safe and sound.