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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The state of Maine sold him a beat-up Cessna 180 with 3,000 hours on the airframe. Over the next 23 years, he added another 7,000. “It’s been a good plane,” he says with considerable understatement. Meanwhile, he added two burly Cessna 195s, another 180, and a de Havilland Beaver. (The Curriers also own a 1952 Jeep and a pair of Volkswagen Beetles.)

At the same time, a new generation of bureaucrats was replacing the old-timers at the Federal Aviation Administration regional office, and they took notice of the fact that what the bush pilots were doing was, well, not according to regulations. Most floatplanes are certified to carry canoes only when flying “restricted”—and as the pilot of a restricted aircraft, you can’t take passengers for a fee. Strictly speaking, what a bush pilot must do is fly the canoe without charge, then make another flight in the “general” category with the paying passengers.

“Pretty darned expensive,” Roger Currier points out, “and not cost-effective when we could be doing back-to-back sightseeing tours all day.” (That the FAA got exercised about a little thing like carrying a canoe on a float is amusing, considering that Greenville’s archetypal bush pilot, Charlie Coe, was forever inventing uses for his airplane: In the summer he towed water skiers with it, and in the winter he moved logs across the ice.)

Seaplanes had their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, when U.S. designers created the Republic Seabee and Grumman Goose. There were five Seabees on the Fish and Game ramp Saturday morning. There are a few modern airplanes here too, notably a twin-engine, low-wing, six-place Russian amphibian, a Beriev Be-103 that catches everyone’s eye—especially when it takes off, spewing water halfway out to the wingtips. And there are a smattering of foreign pilots, enough to justify the “international” in the event’s name. Andre Durocher flew down from Ottawa in a 600-horsepower de Havilland Beaver floatplane that he bought a few years ago, supposedly as an investment; he and his passenger wear T-shirts with a portrait of the Beaver front and back, and the legend: “For Sale.” But he’s in no hurry to close a deal. He showed off the airplane at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin mega-fly-in last July, and now he’s geared up for the Moosehead Lake bomb drop.

The fly-in also attracts pilots who have left their wings at home—like me. “You gotta fly to these things,” protests Don LaCouture Jr. of Marlboro, Massachusetts, when I admit that my transportation is a Honda Accord. Against a headwind, he needed three and a half hours to fly up in his father’s PA-18 Super Cub. On reflection, he amends his view: “Well, at least you know you’re gonna get home!”

Jack Sellett has a better excuse for driving. He came from Florida with his wife and dog in a motor home, using the fly-in as the far point of a grand tour of aeronautical landmarks. They visited Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York on the way north, and they’ll visit the National Air and Space Museum in Washington when southbound. Sellett carries photos of his former seaplanes in his wallet and displays them at every opportunity. He also tells war stories nonstop: “I landed in Everglades National Park and the ranger said to me, ‘You know you’re not supposed to land here, but you were having spark plug problems, weren’t you?’ ”

On the flightline, there’s instant camaraderie, with people comparing stories, dogs, and airplanes. “I had a 205 like that,” Sellett muses about a green Cessna tied down nearby. “It had a control cable failure, and I had to put it down in a hurry. The dog and the three of us walked away.” Turns out that the owner of the green Cessna had a like experience, except that he was fortunate enough to be over an airport when it happened.

There’s also a bunch of pilots from Spencer, Massachusetts, who turn up in Greenville every year without taking part in the fly-in, except as spectators. After work on Friday, Steve Foley loaded his 14-year-old son and a quarter-keg of beer into his Cessna 150 and flew north, reaching Greenville just as the sun was setting. “You can see the lights in Greenville from a good ways off,” Foley says. This was a relief to one of his friends, who set out one year in a Piper J-3 with no electrical equipment (and who therefore remains nameless): “He was going too slow and ended up flying at night with no lights. He would light a match every 15 minutes or so and check his heading on the compass.”

Gregg Andrews, who owns the Spencer airport, bought a small vacation house in Greenville, mostly for the sake of the fly-in. “It’s a pretty neat thing to see them all together, all the old Grummans and such,” he says. So now the Spencer airport gang, 30-strong, camp at Andrews’ place. On Saturday night, they put on their own communal barbeque: “Twenty pounds of roast beast cooked over an open fire,” as Steve Foley describes it, “with a spit made from a hangar door gear drive transmission and an electric motor.”

The 33rd International Seaplane Fly-In is scheduled for September 7 through 10, 2006. If you too leave your wings at home, Currier’s Flying Service will take you flightseeing for as little as $70 for two. And remember, as the Black Frog restaurant menu warns, “When dining in Maine, never assume it’s a raisin.”

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