The flight was supposed to be pretty much a routine trip, though not really a happy one. I was relocating my turbocharged 1984 Cessna TU206G amphibian from West Palm Beach, Florida, to St. Cloud, Minnesota. Economics had demanded that I sell the marvelous ship, and I was delivering it to the buyer.
Purchased brand new, and mounted on Bill Wiplinger’s Wipline 3750 amphibious floats, the airplane had served me especially well for quite a few hours in the Alaska bush, had occasionally seen the Bahama Islands, and had several times flown IFR across the Gulf of Mexico from West Palm Beach to Belize and back. It had even landed in Belize’s famous Blue Hole, located 40 miles east of Belize City and in the world’s second largest coral reef. Except for a few small bugs that had to be worked out during its first few hours, the plane had performed flawlessly under some pretty sobering conditions, not the least of which was an IFR flight through the leading edge of Hurricane Kate in November of 1985.
A few days before he scheduled trip to St. Cloud, I had made a short flight from Palm Beach County’s South County Airport to a private steel-mat-and-grass runway at Wellington, only a half dozen miles west. It’s here that the international polo set seasonally strolls about, drinks in hand and noses in the air, talking hawses (horses, that is) and playing championship croquet with custom made mallets on world-class courts.
After touchdown at Wellington, I had slowed to taxi speed and was about to make the left turn that would take me to the clubhouse when the amphib’s main gear on the starboard side suddenly collapsed. Flying amphibians quickly teaches the pilot to carry aboard some sort of jack for such bothersome occasions, and I dived into the float locker in the right float to haul out my little airplane lifter and got to work. It was one thing to take advantage of my permission to use this very private strip. It was quite another to park it in the middle of the only runway and then just sit there contemplating my navel.
I had to quickly jack up the airplane and then pump down and lock the gear, allowing me to taxi to the clubhouse and tie down the stricken flying machine. I called my wife and had her bring our car so that I could scoot down to Palm Beach International Airport to pick up a new O-ring and some hydraulic fluid in order to put the gear back in order. After that, my favorite airplane would be ready for the trip north.
On Thursday, September 13th, 1987, I let N9975Z fly herself off the special strip under 20 degrees of the big barn door flaps and turned north on course for Jacksonville, Florida, slightly more than two hours ahead of the nose. At six thousand, my filed altitude, the outside air temperature was a cool relief, so I flew with the driver’s side window open most of the way to JAX.
I stretched my legs there, topped the 92-gallon long range tanks, and then lit out for Dublin, Georgia, three and one-half hours ahead and about halfway between Savannah and Macon. The weather was holding at 3,500 feet scattered, and I was enjoying the easy flight in spite of the heart-breaking reason I was making it. At Dublin, I once again topped the tanks and checked the weather ahead. Whoa! Not very good news.
A heavy squall line of embedded thunderstorms lay not far to the west, and it was moving diagonally northeastward toward my intended route of flight. I had figured one plus fifty for this leg of the trip, and calculated that, at my 120-knot cruising speed, I could just beat that squall line to the Wood County Airport at Williamstown, West Virginia. That airport is immediately across the Ohio River from Marietta, Ohio, the city where I had grown up. I had planned to spend the night there.
I had thought to visit a few of my old high school friends there, have a good dinner, walk around the town I hadn’t seen for more than 40 years, get a good night’s sleep, and slip out early the following morning. I estimated about eight hours for the last legs of the trip.
I was about 20 minutes out of Wood County Airport when the squall line caught up with me. I thought that I had flown in some terrible weather in Alaska during my 35 years of beating around the bush up there, but this storm took the cake. I had no choice but to air-file an IFR flight plan to Wood County, buckle down, and grit my teeth. I slowed to a few knots less than the Cessna’s POH-noted penetration speed, trimmed for the reduced airspeed, and then just held on for dear life.
Turbulence must have been an easy 11 on a scale of one to ten. Though I was still wearing my smoke-brown flying glasses, the lightning seemed incredibly bright. The airplane rocked, rolled, pitched, yawed, and bounced like a Brahma bull riding a football. I was wishing that I had more a load aboard than the extra landing gear elements that were tied down behind me. A heavier load, along with those amphibious floats hanging out down below, would have given me a slightly higher stall speed, and I wished that I had that little bit of cushion with the severe turbulence banging us around.
Wood County had approved my request for the RWY3 ILS, and I wondered whether I would be able to land the pitching piece of machinery that was then threatening to come apart at the seams. When I was less than five miles out, I had descended through the cloud cover and had solid visual contact with the environment. The turbulence had slacked off to about an eight. I cancelled the IFR flight plan and slid over the hills there. I kept the wheels stored inside the big floats for the landing on the Ohio River where the Big Muskingum River enters it. I was relieved to finally taxi up and tie down to some brush behind the Lafayette Hotel for the night. I didn’t bother to tell the hotel clerk that he had a big amphibious airplane tied to his property.
The following morning, a familiar, if long forgotten, Ohio River fog had settled along that stretch of the wide river valley. It was right on the deck, of course. I spent another couple hours strolling through the streets of the city founded by my ancestral family exactly 200 years earlier, and then gave that up. Nothing was going to burn off that thick fog, and I was looking forward to a zero-zero takeoff from the river. Well, that wouldn’t present much of a challenge. It’s a pretty big river after all.
Taxiing for the takeoff, though, was a different bucket of worms. After cranking up the 300-hp Continental, I taxied upstream in the blind, knowing the old Ohio Bridge connecting Ohio with West Virginia was not far ahead. When I taxied beneath that bridge, the world suddenly became much darker. I now knew where I was for sure, and in another few seconds, made the tight, one-magneto, 180 degree turn to take up a compass heading downstream.
I pulled the yoke fully back and went through the pre-fight checks while mushing along in the slow moving river water. When I was satisfied with the pre-flight checks, I advance the throttle, screwed the mixture control out to get 12-gpm fuel flow I needed, and throttled back to avoid over-boosting the turbocharger on its first flight of the day. The river didn’t have any appreciable turns here, so as the plane rolled over onto the step, I trimmed for the takeoff under 20 degrees of flaps and allowed the Cessna to fly itself free of the Ohio River waters. After liftoff, I immediately rolled into a right 90-degree climbing turn to avoid the high ground we called Harmar Hill, named for Fort Harmar – erected there in 1787 – and climbed above the fog layer, heading for Columbus, Ohio.
I air-filed a VFR flight plan. When I later contacted Columbus Approach and was identified, the controller reminded me that I had filed 2,000 ft for a cruising altitude. The turbulence was terrific that morning, and I was all over the sky in trying to hold my altitude to reasonable tolerances. I reminded Columbus that, while I might have filed my flight plan as a Cessna 206 amphibian, I was at that moment riding in an Otis elevator! I promised to hold the 2000 feet as closely as was possible.
The leg from the Ohio River to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, took only two hours and six minutes between liftoff and touchdown. The very comfortable leg from Ft. Wayne to Rochester, Minnesota, burned up another three hours and 36 minutes. By the time I had arrived at Rochester, I had decided to call it a day and turned in for a good night’s sleep.
The following morning, the sky was once more down to the ground. Airline passengers in the terminal building were aligned shoulder to shoulder and with noses pressed to the big glass windows, wondering when the fog would lift so that their delayed flights could at last leave the earth. I had filed another IFR flight plan for the leg from Rochester to St. Cloud, a little more than two hours ahead. When I strolled past the disgruntled passengers and walked out to my amphibian, I’m sure they must have wondered what the hell I thought I was doing. Surely, I wasn’t going to try to fly that little thingy on floats out of there when their professional, blue-uniformed, flight crews couldn’t get off the ground with their all-grown-up, real live jet airliners!
I carefully performed the walk-around preflight and untied the Cessna, climbed aboard, belted down, and then started the engine. When the oil temperature gauge told me that the engine was ready to be looked at, I went through the pre-takeoff checklist. With that behind me, I called the tower for my clearance. It was ready, and they read it to me right away. I read it back, got the okay, checked the gyro setting for the last time, compared that to the King RMI, and told ground that I was ready to taxi to the active.
It was a slow taxi in the fog for sure, I’ll tell you. I finally found the active, did my engine run-up, set the cowl and wing flaps, and, after approval, taxied into position. I aligned the airplane with the runway centerline and held my position for just a moment. When I was satisfied that all was well, I slowly advanced the throttle and, after making sure that the nose wheels were tracking the centerline properly, went to the gauges.
The lightly loaded Cessna held a solid heading, and it was only seconds before the nosewheels lifted free of the earth. I very soon felt the load move from the wheels to the wings and, from there on out, it was just an easy climbing turn on course, a break into bright sunshine at about 800 feet, and two hours and 12 minutes of clear, calm air to the place where I would say goodbye forever to a truly great friend.
I later learned that N9975Z had been sold to someone in Australia. I had bought that amphibian brand new, and had added more than $60,000 to its panel and radio stack. The new owner had flown it for not many hours when he apparently crashed and completely demolished my good friend. It had burned to a cinder, I was told. Its registration had gone west, along with its crew, its passengers, and its freight. It was a most inglorious end to one of the world’s very finest Cessna Stationair II amphibious airplanes. Over 20 years later, I still miss that incredible airplane. I guess I always will.
Read more of Mort Mason’s stories in his latest book, Flying the Alaska Bush: What It’s Really Like.