Aviation Safety Letter 3/2003

What wires?

by Garth Wallace

Wires, wires, wires.what the floatplane pilot's nightmares are made of.

My first passenger, that drizzly morning, owned a cottage on a remote lake. He and I were sitting in a four-seat floatplane, which was tied to the dock. The weather had started to lift but we were waiting for more ceiling and visibility before taking off. He talked. I listened.

This was his first time using the air service. "I live in the city, but I come north to my cottage every chance I can get," he said. "I always drive my car to the marina at the other end of my lake and then go the last five kilometers by motorboat. When I come to town for supplies, I often stop here to watch the airplanes. I decided to charter an airplane some day as a little adventure for myself, so here I am."

He said he didn't mind waiting for the weather. He had never flown before and was enjoying being part of the goings-on at the air service. He considered the delay a bonus.

Normally we flew customers to their fishing camps or cottages and returned empty. At the end of their stay we'd fly back empty and pick them up. This did not seem cost-effective at all to this customer, so he had arranged just one flight. I was to fly him to his cottage, drop off his gear and then he was going to fly back to town with me to pick up his car, and finish the trip his normal way. This gave him two airplane rides for the price of one and avoided the cost of another roundtrip flight to bring him out.

The weather soon picked up enough to depart. I signalled the dock boy to cast us off. When we were clear, I fired up the engine and taxied out. My passenger showed an interest in the airplane's controls and instruments so I explained the basics while circling to warm up the engine. Our load was light. We departed easily.

The customer stayed glued to the window, looking down on the lakes and forest rolling by, throughout most of the trip. He had shown me on the map that his cottage was on the long arm of a large lake. I had never been there before. When we arrived I flew a slow pass over his section of the water before landing. His face lit up when he saw his place from the air. I inspected the long bay for rocks, logs and wire crossings, while my passenger checked out what his neighbours were doing to their properties. The dark water looked deep and clear on that grey morning. I did not see any obstructions. There was no wind so I set up an approach toward the open end of the bay, touched down smoothly and stopped close to my man's dock.

We unloaded his things and re-boarded for the return flight. It was an easy takeoff. There was no boat traffic, the airplane was light and I had the entire length of the bay and four kilometres of lake beyond. Conversation in flight was difficult over the noise, but I pointed out some of the local landmarks as we flew back to the base.

After landing, the passenger thanked me while we taxied to the dock. He was visibly excited by the flight. "I always wondered if the pilot would fly over or under the wires crossing the bay when I took a plane into my place," he said.

I didn't reply. I felt the colour drain from my face. There were no wires crossing the bay; at least I hadn't seen any.

I contemplated how close we might have come to snagging hydro lines. We must have passed them on the landing and the takeoff. Shivering at the thought, I was late cutting the power on my approach to the dock. The dock boy knew what was going to happen next. The left float whacked the tires along the side and mounted the planks. The airplane stopped at a crazy angle, with the left float almost clean out of the water.

I opened my door and hopped down. The dock boy helped me horse the airplane back into the water. My passenger said nothing but smiled nervously as he climbed out and scurried off to his car. He is the only one who knows how close we came to the wires, but he may never fly again. He thinks that docking a floatplane is dangerous.

The chief pilot talked to me later. "I heard you were rearranging the docks this morning."

I told him the whole story. "I did everything you taught me about approaching a new destination. I could not see any wires. What else could I do?"

"You could have asked."

"Asked who?"

"Who knew there were wires?"

Garth Wallace is an aviator, public speaker and freelance writer who lives near Ottawa, Ontario. He has written seven aviation books published by Happy Landings (http://www.happylanding.com/). He can be contacted via e-mail: garth@happylanding.com.

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