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Jump in a Lake

At the Moosehead Lake seaplane fly-in, the dress is casual, the rules are bent, the competition is crazy, and the scenery is Maine.

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WHEN I AWAKE IN MY ROOM IN CHALET MOOSEHEAD IN GREENVILLE, MAINE, I find a Piper PA-12 floatplane tied to the beach beneath my window. I’m daffy about Cub-type airplanes, and one of the perks of attending the 32nd International Seaplane Fly-in is to look out every morning upon Three Yankee Foxtrot, a tube-and-fabric design introduced by William Piper in 1947. The owner evidently wants no part of the bomb drop, takeoff, landing, and canoe competitions that provide the fly-in’s adrenaline rush, because 3YF never leaves its tie-down the entire weekend.

Indeed, you’d want the nerve of Sky King himself to join the Greenville traffic pattern this Saturday morning in September, as the fly-in moves into high gear. There are about a hundred floatplanes at the state Fish and Game Department seaplane base, on the east side of 32-mile-long Moosehead Lake, in the heart of Maine’s Northwoods. A Cessna 180 takes off to the north, engine screaming, floats spraying water. An ultralight drones overhead on a bombing run (the bomb is a grapefruit: Each contestant gets two, with the one splashing closest to the red buoys scoring). A Husky pilot announces on the radio that he’s entering the pattern from the west—“At your discretion,” replies the traffic coordinator—and, as a flourish, 14 Canada geese plop down in the cove with a flurry of wings.

An amphibian floatplane is powering toward the Fish and Game ramp, where 30 youngsters in Civil Air Patrol uniforms are moving aircraft around and keeping spectators away from spinning propellers. “November Lima,” says the radio to the trespasser, “better turn right. There’s a plane about to come down that ramp.”

Three ultralights have flown the 200 miles from New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, refueling once at a marina along the way. “We could have made it with half a gallon to spare,” boasts Kit Clews of Portsmouth, here for his seventh Moosehead fly-in. The ultralights have proved formidable competitors in the takeoff category. “They got tired of us taking off in 27 feet,” Clews says. “So now they’ve given us a class of our own.”

His craft is an Air Creation, a homebuilt with a pusher propeller and floats that seem bigger than its parasol wing. Another Air Creation casts off from shore with its engine silent, to be caught by the wind and driven onto a Cessna tied at the float; the pilot jumps out, dances on the float to a smatter of applause, and tilts the wing so it neatly clears the Cessna’s. The Rotax engine is a pull-start, like a lawnmower. It doesn’t start, and eventually the Air Creation vanishes around the corner, heading for town at a good two or three knots on wind power alone.

The International Seaplane Fly-In dates to 1973. Greenville also has a landplane base, which started as an 1,800-foot grass strip on the high ground east of town, where the Walden family raised potatoes and swapped them for necessities. “My sister Deborah had radar for ears,” 83-year-old Ed Walden recalls. “She’d shout ‘Airplane!’ before any of the rest of us heard the engine, and we’d run outside and spread sheets on the grass as a sign to the barnstormer that he could come down.” In addition to the excitement his visit generated, a barnstormer might pay a dollar or two for dinner and a bunk for the night.

Also toward the end of the Depression, Maine’s Senator Owen Brewster decided that “if airplanes are going to go anywhere in the future, they’ve got to have someplace to set down,” says Walden. That led to the Civil Aeronautics Act and a big federal hand in building airports, including $83,000 to acquire and expand the Greenville airstrip. “Son,” wrote Harold Walden to Ed, then a student at the University of Maine, “they’re going through with the airport. If you want the farm, you’d better come home.” The Waldens cut the house in half with a handsaw, dismantled the barn to use the timbers for skids, borrowed a tractor from the airport construction crew, and dragged the house a few miles down the road. (Ed’s grandson lives there now.)

In the realm of general aviation, airplanes with wheels outnumber those with floats, a statistic reflected at the fly-in. There are twice as many landplanes and amphibians parked at the airport—233—as there are floatplanes in the cove. Walking the flightline on Saturday evening, I find airplanes parked wingtip to wingtip along both sides of the approach end of Runway 21. Some pilots sleep in tents beneath the wings; others have set up more elaborate accommodations in the grass behind their aircraft. The air is rich with the smell of barbecued beef, and the yelps of children and dogs.

Roger Currier owns Currier’s Flying Service, which offers air tours in vintage floatplanes; he came to Greenville in 1982 on the offer of a job from Dick Folsom, whose name for half a century was synonymous with bush flying in the wilds of Maine. By that time, the paper companies that own most of the wilderness had learned that it was cheaper to build roads than float the logs downriver to the mill. The roads are open to the public, and they quickly found favor with hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers, and folks who live in the backcountry, causing a drop in business for the bush pilots.

When Currier arrived, he found that Dick Folsom no longer needed another pilot. Currier instead worked for Jack Hofbauer, a Delta Air Lines pilot who ran a seaplane service on the side. “He was in and out,” Currier recalls in a soft voice, “and the rest of his family ran the business. One of my bosses was a 13-year-old girl. So I decided to do my own thing.”

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