Flying Low and Slow Over Puget Sound

Finally, weather and instruments synchronized and my long-awaited flight happened!

I had been watching the weather and it looked like it would be ok but knowing how bad the weather predictions are, and I was looking at two weather sites which showed different results for the day, I wasn’t making any concrete plans.

But I got the text on Sunday night “We’re on for tomorrow.”

Monday morning dawned brilliantly clear and still. Frosty cold but I knew that wouldn’t last. I didn’t drink much coffee that morning – there are no “facilities” on the plane! The plan was for them to fly in to Port Ludlow Marina and pick me up at 8. I thought I was early but as I drove up, I saw the DeHavilland Beaver float plane taxiing in. I grabbed my stuff and ran to the dock and Chuck, who is the head pilot at Kenmore Air, said, “Olympia is fogged in. We may not be able to go.” Damn!

P1040358We were to fly from Port Ludlow to Olympia to pick up Mya, the marine flight technician in Olympia and then make the stops around the mid-Puget Sound area. But if Olympia was fogged in, well then we couldn’t go. So we tucked ourselves into a cozy corner in the Inn and I interviewed both Chuck and another oceanographer, Julia, while we waited…and waited, with Chuck texting back and forth with Mya who sent pix of a very foggy Olympia.

But luck was with us and the fog cleared in time for us to leave, get down there and still have time to puddle jump up the Sound to do the water monitoring.

The inside of the plane was stripped except for three seats. There is a hatch in the floor through which the testing array is lowered. Kenmore uses this plane almost exclusively for these flights which technically, are run four times a month. Of course, being that this is Washington and the weather being what it is, things don’t always go as planned. On the days it’s not going out on these flights, it’s in normal passenger use, flying the normal routes.

“I got to fly right seat!”

Strapped myself in and put on the head set and Chuck pushed us off the dock. Because it was so cold, we motored around the harbor a bit to warm up the engine! Then headed into the very light breeze. The plane felt sluggish as it gained speed, then popped up onto the floats and you could feel a slight slap slap slap of the waves as gathered speed. Then pop – we were flying! Made a nice wide turn to the right and headed south.

IMG_1245And oh, how spectacular it was! I saw the house and our little community in a new light. Nestled on the shore, my estuary clear to see, then the hill behind and then open forest and then the snow covered Olympic Mountains! It was absolutely breathtaking!

The area looks so completely different from the air, and we weren’t very high. At the most just 1,000 feet and often, throughout the day, down at around 200 feet. I was amazed at how much unpopulated area there is; so much forest land and a lot of clear cuts. But also lakes I had no idea existed and islands and estuaries and fingers of water branching off the main waterways.

The flight was about half an hour and we landed in a clear and bright Olympia! Mya was waiting on the dock with all the equipment. They have devised a whole system for this program and as I believe it is the only one in the country, if not the world, that does water monitoring from a float plane, they had to be quiet ingenious. There is a frame that  holds the winch which lifts and lowers the big array of instruments and which is powered by two large – and very heavy 12v batteries.

Because they know what they are doing and I didn’t want to get in the way, I took the opportunity to go to the head as I had no idea if I would get another chance, and I really didn’t fancy stepping out on a pontoon and hanging my butt out – not only was it still very cold, but it could get quite rough and I didn’t fancy getting wet!

With everything stowed and in place, we headed out to our first designated testing zone.

Chuck is an amazing pilot. He learned to fly in Alaska and is a real bush pilot – he can fly anything anywhere and is a natural. He says he plays the plane like a piano and that by finessing it, gets the results he needs.

The test zones are historic points that have been used throughout recent history by Universities and other organizations that are interested in the health of the Puget Sound. And to the uninitiated, it seemed like we just landed randomly. But each spot is marked in the GPS and Chuck prides himself in landing within 100 feet. And he nails it every time.

MyaOnce we landed at the designated monitoring spot, Mya opened the hatch and lowered the array. It has to stay close to the bottom for 90 seconds then is drawn back up. During that time, the different tubes in the array draw in the water which she then takes samples of, with Chuck writing all the relevant details like depth, color of water, and other  specifics in codes for the tests that would be performed in the labs.

The array is actually tied into the Toughbook computer she uses on the flight so I was able to see the charts of what the array records during the ascent and descent. Fascinating stuff! I should have been an oceanographer.

As time went on, the wind started to kick in, and by the time we got to our fourth zone, it was iffy whether we would actually land. We did a fly by at about what felt like 5 feet and Chuck knew it would be ok. So we landed rather bumpily but by this time, I had complete faith in Chuck’s abilities. We rocked and rolled as Mya did her thing.

This point was at the end of the Toandos Peninsula which is my neck of the woods and when Chris was around, we used to take the boat all over the area. Brought back a lot memories – we took the first long trip down here on a day as clear and beautiful as this one.

The take off was really bumpy but it is amazing how quickly the little plane rotates; it seems like barely 30 seconds and we were airborne. That was my last stop as they were heading north and they could drop me off along the way. We cut up and over the Toandos, staying away from the Bangor Station, the navy nuclear sub base. No point in being a moving target!

Port LudlowComing in over the top and into a stiff breeze, Chuck did an almost “dead stick” landing, coming in steep into the harbor. At the what seemed like the last minute, he flattened out and it was a perfect landing.

A perfect end to a perfect day.

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