Caught up in something of a busman's holiday, I'm shooting so many images that I rip through one 8 GB CompactFlash memory card after another. The wild-and-wooly action and ever-shifting colors against a background of pristine New England beauty make for an aviation-photographer's dream vacation.
This is Maine in all its September glory: a gorgeous, clear, breezy, '60s-cool day. Locals warn: "Don't go out at night without a jacket," and even during the day, without the strong sun, it would be a tad nippy. A glorious head of popcorn-puffy clouds crowns the sky: perfect meet weather.
Every couple of minutes, another two-plane heat roars off the water, throwing up huge gouts of prop-churned, float-pounded spray. This is the takeoff contest, nothing less than drag racing on water. The first plane to break free and clear of the chop advances to the trophy round.
Other planes taxi south just a stone's throw from the rocky tree-and-people-lined shoreline to queue up. Announcers call out the action on an ample PA system that charges the atmosphere with energy: If there were major mountains close by, the echoes pounded out by those big speakers would be ridiculous. But then, reaching the ears of 5,000 spectators in colorful late-summer clothes is no small order.
Call it Disneyland for float pilots, families and fans who love to watch webfooted birds do their thing over one of the more stellar bodies of water anywhere in America—Moosehead Lake.
The International Seaplane Fly-In is held annually the weekend after Labor Day. This is year 39. Number 40 takes place from September 9 to 12, 2012, placing Greenville, once a sleepy Down East village (population—1840; median age—53), firmly on the "must do in New England" map.
The first floatplane fly-in kicked off here in 1973, thanks to efforts from local seaplane pilots Telford Allen, Dave Quinn, Duane Lander, Dick Folsom, Chip Taylor and Charlie Coe. Its mission is "to promote fellowship, personal contact and unification among seaplane pilots, and to hold recreational and competitive events."
Float flyers are a gregarious bunch. They gather at the event for the same general reasons birds of a feather always flock together—camaraderie, flying in or watching the fun events, hardware eyeballing, which of course includes checking out the latest floats from vendors, along with enjoying various ancillary activities the region is noted for, like boating, biking, motorcycle tours, hiking and scenic flights over the magnificent, wild Maine countryside.
The "International" in the fly-in's name is no wannabe boast: Folks drive and fly in from all over the world. The event brings big bucks to the local economy. For many establishments in sleepy little Greenville, it's the make/break income week of the year.
Vendors set up their booths all along the walkway on the east side of the Cove, hawking everything from lobster rolls (a local favorite), fried dough and onion rings, to craft fairs, t-shirts, souvenirs and tons more. After an invigorating day around the lake, the fans jam into the many local watering holes and restaurants that ring the cove to kick back and revel in the day's fun activities.
This year, in spite of a broad band of nasty weather to the south—which is most of the rest of the country when you think of it—the event still receives hearty participation: roughly 170 seaplanes. In good-weather years, locals in the know expect more than 200 planes on the lake and another 300 at the nearby airfield.
Lovely, expansive Greenville Municipal Airport (3B1) lies just a couple miles or so up the road on the plateau east of town. The field plays an important role in the festivities, thanks to shuttles that run continuously up and down the hill, and not just for pilots who land there. The fans find themselves rewarded with a tantalizing mix of land and seaplanes, enough to get any winghead's juices flowing.
|Get That Seaplane Rating!|
|I've had the good fortune over the years to fly in many water-worthy airplanes. I've manned the controls of everything from a Lake amphibian to Cessna 182s and Caravans on floats, to a quick-launching Searey amphib, to float-equipped LSA, like the Legend AmphibCub and Flight Design CTLS, not to mention soloing in the '80s in an ultralight on (inflatable!) Full Lotus floats.
The freedom you feel landing into the wind—no matter where it's coming from—or carving racy arcs across a sunlight-shimmering smooth body of water is not to be missed.
So how to get the Single Engine Seaplane (SES) rating? Assuming you've already got your private, just add water, a few hours' training, money of course, stir, take a checkride with an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, and you're good to go.
Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Jon Brown, son of the late legendary pilot who founded the now-famous Brown's Seaplane Base near Lakeland, Fla. He told me the operation he inherited from his father Jack has trained 17,000 seaplane pilots since 1963. That's a lot of webfoot flyers!
Here's what Brown's prescribes for those afflicted with the desire to land a perfectly sound airplane on water:
One recommendation from the school: "It's a good idea to be current with your flying when you arrive to train." 'Nuff said.
Contact www.brownsseaplane.com for more information.
On my walkaround, I find classics like an immaculately restored SeaBee in Canadian livery, a DC-3 (which often flies on floats), and aviation historical and art exhibits.
And parked right in front of the Greenville FBO is the only Piper Apache on floats in the world. Something wonderful happens to the overall visual appeal of most airplanes when they strap on pontoons. The Apache is a stellar example. This particular early-model twin, dressed to the nines with a gorgeous paint job, draws admiring spectators every time I glance its way—which is often.
Another certified attention grabber is the Fire Boss, a modified Air Tractor AT-802A, single-cockpit AG (agricultural) plane rigged for water drop on fires. A turbine-powered behemoth, it stands fully 12'9" above ground on amphibious wheels—it looks like 20'— and is a wonder to behold.
And that's sitting still. When the jet-hearted powerplant whines the prop up to speed, it's awe-inspiring. As it taxis for takeoff, I act on a hunch and hop a shuttle in time to make lakeside just before the big bird whistles by at 50 feet AGW to drop a full load of lake water (and is that a fish I see falling with the cloud of white spray?) right in front of the cheering thousands. By "right in front," I mean maybe 150 feet away, right over the center of East Cove.
It's time to sing the praises of what I consider the singular brilliance of the Greenville meet: the East Cove venue itself. This north-south elongated rectangle of water lies at the south end of Moosehead Lake, right in the center of the picturesque town of Greenville.
Sitting out on a dock at one of the packed eateries on the south edge of the cove bestows a ringside seat in more ways than one. It's also right under the approach end for landings.
Why is that worth mentioning? One reason: excitement. The Cove is less than 400 feet wide for the first 800 feet of its length as it runs northward. That's just a bit wider than a football field and less then three times as long. All the takeoffs and taxiing take place right in that space. Naturally, spectators gather all around this peninsula of water to catch the flight ops.
And the action never lets up for long. The contest planes fly a pattern that puts short-short final right over the main street of downtown. They dive steeply down at the end of the approach, no more than 50 to 100 feet up, then round out to touch down on the water. The first time I see that stunt-worthy approach, I think for a split second I'm witnessing an emergency landing.
The competition includes takeoffs, spot landings, accuracy bomb drops...and the two-person bush-pilot canoe races. Meant to showcase both paddling and piloting skills, a lone canoeist paddles like mad out to a mid-lake dock even as the floatplane pilot taxis out behind him, gunning the engine at just the right moment to time the bird's arrival with the canoe's at the dock.
|2012 International Seaplane Fly-in
|Forum For Seaplane Pilots
|Seaplane Pilots Association
|The Birches Resort
The pilot shuts down and leaps out to help the paddler tie the canoe to the floats at breakneck speed, then both jump into the plane to high-speed taxi the short distance back to the shoreline dock as the crowd cheers them on. The plane swings around fast in the tight space—wind gusts make things more challenging—dock the plane, shut down and untie the canoe.
The winner is the team with the fastest overall time. It may not sound all that exciting, but the frenzied paddling, choppy wavelets and tight maneuvering space ashore make for a real crowd-pleasing drama.
At day's end I drive back north to my rustic digs at The Birches, a quaint old-fashioned log lodge 20 minutes up the west side of the lake that draws return pilots and families for its quiet charms far from the madding crowd.
To the east, a rusty full moon glides just above the jagged pine-tree ridgeline. In the gathering plum-hued twilight, I remember to keep my eyes peeled. Moosehead Lake is well named for its dense population of ungulates, and they like to wander across roads.
Next morning before the final day of the event, The Birches owner John Willard takes me for a ride in his Super Cub, on floats, of course. We lift off the mist-blanketed lake to chase our rainbow-broken shadow across the tops of the gossamer thin cloud layer. Pure magic.
If you plan on taking in this jewel of a flying treat, don't delay. In-town lodging books out well in advance of the fly-in.