Musings of an Island Bush Pilot

text by Ted Westlake
photograph by Eva Murray
originally posted by The Working Waterfront

The day begins at 0600. The chief pilot makes aircraft assignments. We check oil, gas, controls, instruments, anything that could affect the safety of flight, and tiedowns are removed. In the meantime, Penobscot Island Air’s vans are on the way to the Rockland Post Office. Engine checks are finished and the airplanes are prepared for loading. Off-season, all of this is completed anticipating dawn. In June, all is accomplished in pleasant daylight and calm winds.

The first customers of the morning are regulars and a flight departs for North Haven at 0630. The vans return choked with mail. A flurry of activity readies two more planes for departure to Vinalhaven and North Haven where, in the case of North Haven, the pilot will load an island van and deliver. Chances are the phone has been ringing in the dispatch office, filling the schedule for the day. Back at Knox County Regional Airport, a sternman awaits his ride to Matinicus. Twelve minutes later, we touch down there and I immediately return. Radio position reporting is standard procedure and upon checking in—off Matinicus—dispatch acknowledges.

As fast as flights are assigned, others pop up. Customers arrive, filling carts with provisions for an island stay, pot warp, groceries, spare tires, cat food, building supplies or anything else. Items are left at the desk for delivery at the next opportunity. Bright orange stickers are placed on them with cryptic abbreviations of names and destinations. Another mail flight departs with room for a passenger and some orange stickered parcels. Dispatch calls ahead to inform one recipient of impending arrival, but he had already heard the plane overhead and meets us at the airstrip. The package includes a boat part he couldn’t haul without. Mail goes into the dusty van for a short ride to the Matinicus Post Office. There we chat about weather and news of the day. On the drive back, a local resident waves at me to stop. He would like to go to the mainland, but his car won’t start. We load the van and strike off. I phone dispatch to confirm there will be one coming off island.

A medevac call has come in requesting a flight from Vinalhaven within the half hour. Assignments are juggled. With the Cessna 206 reconfigured and emergency medical kit onboard, I launch. The paramedics expertly load our patient and, knowledgeable about weight constraints, inform a loved one that the air service might have to return for her. Back and forth we go.

Daily freight has arrived and the boss puts on his loadmaster hat. It will take three airplanes and an extra van on Islesboro to accomplish timely deliveries. I make two round trips as part of the convoy, positioning cargo and van drivers. Diligence is required to keep the others in sight and coordinate arrivals. On the way back, dispatch requests a reroute to pick up a passenger on North Haven. The breeze has increased a bit. Time to rock and roll over the treetops and stick it on the short runway.

Outbound after a few minutes, Knox County Regional beckons. Somehow it is noon already. The pilot and the plane need fuel. The next mission is to Criehaven with two big guys and their tools, followed by a round-trip to Big Green, where my passenger will have the island to herself for a day. The turboprop Cessna Caravan amphibious floatplane has already been to Boston and back for a water landing dockside. The Cessna 207 has been to Portland and back. The other Cessna 206 has been island hopping, just like me, nonstop.

The flipside of the day has begun. Some who came stateside this morning to do errands, or see the dentist, or accomplish any manner of chores not possible on the islands, are prepared to return with full coolers and sundry bags. The afternoon mail is ready to be picked up on North Haven, Vinalhaven and Matinicus. Familiar faces appear with familiar dogs, all veterans of this kind of flying. New faces appear with excited children, hoping for a scenic flight on such a beautiful day. They are not disappointed.

It is not always like this. Some days we never spin a prop. Some days the marine layer confounds the choice between flying or boating the mail, or accommodating a late-day flight not knowing if the fog will roll in before you get back. Some days it is severely clear but too windy. Some days the wind is workable when aligned with one island runway but too much crosswind for another. Some days the ceilings are marginal and judgments must be made.

One thing is for sure: every day here makes you feel totally alive. There is no cockpit door to close between the flight crew and the cabin. Passengers become friends. Appreciation for a job well done is subtle but heartfelt—and it makes all the difference.

Late afternoon often means the groceries are ready to go and we don’t want the ice cream to melt. After that flight, and as the day winds down, a call comes in. Someone missed the last boat and hopes to make it out before dark. Home again, things are put to bed. A mirror image of the morning wake-up chores are accomplished and the birds are tied down for the night. Paperwork remains, documenting pilot and aircraft flight time. The boss will be here for several hours still, running the business. And then he is on call all night for medevacs.

Driving home, I am struck by the magic of such a day. It was the kind of beauty on the Maine coast that transforms and inspires even the most jaded or preoccupied soul, no matter how successful or poor, to remark upon it. It was the kind of situation that makes the same souls query the pilot who lives and breathes this panorama as a matter of course. It was the kind of specialness that makes even the pilot, intent upon his mission, recognize the gift upon which nature and man alike have collaborated. Vistas, windjammers, seabirds, lighthouses, harbors, lobster boats, the reverse constellations of pot bouys dotting the ocean, ledges, islands, on and on. Beyond the splendor, it is a deeper experience when some of these landmarks become the tools of your trade. Beyond all, it is the people of the islands that complete this joy.

Ted Westlake is a retired airline pilot with 30 years of flying experience in Maine. He notes: If folks are interested in knowing more about what we do they could visit www.penobscotislandair.net. There is a link to the company Facebook page that has the most current news with bios of the crew and other local stuff.