Fear the reader – my first charter seaplane flight

The day was June 8, 2018. After a long and laborious process to get my FAA Part 135 Air Taxi Certificate, I had finally scheduled my first revenue-generating charter flight in my 1959 de Havilland Beaver on amphibious floats. It took nearly a year to be issued this prestigious flying certificate, two if you count the waiting period for my first FAA interview.

Roche Harbor
Roche Harbor is a beautiful airport, but mostly when the weather is good.

This 200-mile round trip flight was planned from Gig Harbor’s Tacoma Narrows Airport to Roche Harbor Airport in the San Juan Islands. Three businessmen who serviced and sold boat motors needed to meet with their clients before the big regatta the following weekend. Days before the ride, I began, as I usually do with potentially eventful tasks such as this one, by deducing my unknowns and developing alternatives for all that could go wrong. The weather had been flyable for the preceding couple of weeks leading up to this especially important flight, but on this day in early June, the forecast was deteriorating with rain, wind and lowering ceilings.

My concern wasn’t whether this flight would end in disaster and I would make the evening news. My concern was that I would need to set the aircraft down somewhere between the departure and the destination points to wait the weather out with my first load of paying customers. My second concern was the greater of the two.

I was concerned that I hadn’t tested my new-fangled wireless credit card reader. It somehow magically talks to my cell phone and with a couple of clicks, asks the customer to sign my phone with their finger and ba-da-bing! Money gets deposited into my account! What could go wrong with that, right? What would I do if it didn’t work? Would there be a potential risk of my being exposed as a first-timer, causing serious angst with my paying passengers who have never flown in an airplane smaller than the typical Alaska or Southwest ride and who already seemed a little nervous?

With several bail-out options in my back pocket, I took a deep breath, fueled up the airplane and met my passengers at my makeshift terminal. Although typically you prepay for these types of flights, I decided not to attempt to run the credit card before the flight so that in the event that the credit card reader failed, it wouldn’t add to the risk of my being exposed. I was taking every opportunity to posture myself as a seasoned air taxi driver like the ones who are so common around these parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Before taxiing for takeoff, I checked the weather once again to find that winds were picking up, visibility was slowly declining and ceilings were slowly coming down – but what about that credit card reader!

As we climbed out to the north for our first hundred-mile leg to the island, I could see that the first half of the trip was going to be somewhat uneventful, although it was a bit bumpier than I would have preferred for my customers. As we approached the inevitable water crossing between the San Juan Islands and the rest of Washington State, I couldn’t help but notice the white capped seas below that appeared to be four to five feet as viewed from our comfy cockpit, but in reality they were probably closer to ten or fifteen feet had we needed to ditch the airplane and bob around down there until the Coast Guard showed up.

My midway landmark for this crossing is Smith Island, nothing more than a couple of acres of wind-swept sand and rock that serves not only as a navigational landmark for me but also as a psychological life raft that maybe my engine is aware of and that would so graciously quit only within gliding distance of this sea-locked barren oasis.

Averting the swim, we soon approached the shoreline of San Juan Island from the south. Although no precipitation had fallen yet, the air was laden with moisture and the shoreline was becoming slightly opaque between us and our destination.

De Havilland Beaver on floats
The Beaver is a fun airplane, but in the Pacific Northwest it’s a serious means of transportation.

It had been more than ten years since my last visit to this side of the island, but as I recall the airstrip was narrow, sloping, uneven and laid from east to west with a large stand of trees on the south side to make a stiff southerly crosswind roll like the raging eddies of spring thaw on a Cascade river. The winds were picking up out of the south, calling for my ritual of mental calisthenics before negotiating this flying truck onto the tarmac in this type of direct swirling crosswind.

As we came to a stop on the airstrip and reversed our direction for a back-taxi to the elevated grass parking area, I reassured my three passengers that in tricky wind conditions such as that, I may not always pull off the textbook smooth landing that commands the A+ applause from the cabin but I will surely get them on the ground in one piece. They appreciated the comforting comment.

As the three businessmen scurried off to their appointment, I spent the day checking the forecast, scoping the adjacent islands across the strait for visibility and occasionally making sure that the airplane didn’t liberate from its chocks and roll down the grassy sloped tie-down area into the drainage ditch that laid between it and the airstrip.

I also had my eye on the large flock of Canada geese that seemed to find the center of the airstrip a warmer place to hang out almost to say, “We didn’t get Sully but we’re waiting for you.” I had a hunch that the mission of my customers wasn’t purely business, but partly had to do with getting out of the office and enjoying the food and drink of this beautiful and scenic resort island village for as long as they could before returning to their cubicles with some cool photos and envy-instigating stories all at the expense of the boss’s credit card.

The rain began falling and my only security that the ceilings weren’t descending below tolerable levels were the airliners that I could see popping out of the clouds inbound for Victoria International just across the water. Just as I felt that it was time to kill the buzz and summon my three passengers for departure, they arrived at the airplane and we boarded.

Throughout our stay, the winds had died, making it an easy decision to back-taxi up the length of the runway, flush the geese out and use the slope of the strip to our advantage for the takeoff roll. After I made my announcement of my back-taxi intensions, a much larger and faster turbine-powered Kodiak on amphibs announced the same intentions and was apparently directly behind me taxiing on my tail.

I was relieved to find a turn-around at the end and let the Kodiak settle in behind me on the turn-around so that the strip was clear for my departure. Rain was falling and visibility was less than ideal but after completing my takeoff checklist, what had my attention the most was that this was the beginning of our journey back to where we started which was where I had to eventually charge for this flight and to charge for this flight I had to use my dreaded and unfamiliar credit card reader.

Climbing out through 500’ AGL and obscured visibility, I heard the fire-breathing Kodiak calling positions behind me faster than I could recognize positions in front of me. I had hoped that he had an eyeball on my position and that I would only have to ponder my unrealistic anticipation of a rear-ender in the sky.

Pilot on float of Beaver
Being a charter pilot often means waiting, and watching the weather.

As we headed south over open water, leaving the navigational security of the San Juan Island shoreline, I caught my first glimpse of Smith Island far off in the distant obscurity. As Smith Island eventually slipped beneath us, the sky opened up and I could see that the next 50 miles was going to be uneventful. Somehow those favorable conditions seemed to make the airplane fly faster toward that unfavorable moment of the credit card transaction.

After dicing around a few dangling clouds on our approach into Gig Harbor, we received our clearance to land and soon taxied to a stop at our point of departure. While shutting down, I reflected momentarily on my first revenue flight. Although not ideal flying conditions, I was in control while always maintaining at least two additional options had the one that I was currently exercising gone wrong. Alaskan-esque, really. This kind of flying was familiar to me from my times flying in the 49th state. Conservatively assessing risk, maintaining options and not pushing to the point of no return. I treated each phase of this flight with respect and never let complacency make its own decisions.

In nearby shelter from the rain, the moment had come. My strategy of waiting to charge until the end of the flight had so far seemed effective. If this credit card reader thing didn’t work out, at least I could rest on my bush flying laurels and blame my electronic incompetence on modern technology. I felt more relaxed now about the threat of first-timer exposure. After computing the final cost of the journey on my phone’s calculator, I followed the prompts on my phone’s credit card app as it seemed to be having some sort of cryptic conversation with the reader and my customer’s credit card.

After just a few seconds of electronic contemplation, my phone emitted some sounds that I hadn’t heard it make until then and up popped a screen with an “X” trailed by a line! I calmly asked my customer to please sign my phone just as I have been asked by the hundreds of pros who have joyfully taken my money in similar fashion. I shook hands with my passengers, humbly accepted their compliments of my service and bid them farewell on their drive home.

I turned back to the ramp to see my faithful airplane, seven years my senior, with a hundred-fold my experience, waiting for me. A new business partner with its broad wheeled floats, that cooling ping of its hard-worked round engine and those long high wings all to say, “See, fear lies within the unfamiliar and the things that you fear the most will transform into the familiar with due time and experience.”

6 Comments

  • That article is real to me. It is funny how we sweat the small stuff maybe far more than the major things.

    In flying people like that, I always have the consideration that I will do something to make me look “amateurish” etc.

    Those are times when I may break checklist discipline etc and make a stupid mistake.

    Congrats on the charter cert. They are hard to achieve!

  • Thanks John. Passengers expect the pilot to be “seasoned” at everything that the pilot is providing and especially when they’re paying passengers. What they don’t typically think about is that there is a first time for every pilot in every situation.

    Have you ever thought that at least on one of the many major airline flights that we’ve taken, most likely we’ve had a pilot that had never been in the left seat as Captain with hundreds of people on board?

    The goal is to fly humbly and use every bit of the hundreds (in some cases thousands) of hours of training you’ve had to deliver your customer to their destination with as much comfort as possible. Any passenger (that has no experience on our side of aviation) would be uncomfortable to know that it was our “first time”.

    In some cases, like sipping your coffee at 30,000 feet, it’s just best not to know. Imagine if when the airliner leveled off at cruise altitude with a little light turbulence for good measure and the first officer came on the PA to say, “Good morning passengers. Hey, we’ve got Jack in the left seat today commanding the ship for his first time! Now sit back, relax and thank you for flying with us.

    Take care and fly safe.

  • Hello Jay P., I am so glad to see a young “Buck” do what you want to do. The raveshes of age and responsibilities usually foreshadow “one’s” true calling of service to God, yourself and your family and your fellow man. As a doctor, I did not pursue the myriad of adventures (jobs) I always wanted to. My complacency lasted too many years and now I am now too old to change course. I can not regret my years of big money and taking care of my patients and family. I can not live a life of regret. I just want to encourage all the “Walter Mitty’s” to do what they want and enjoy what they do. The necessary money will follow. Peace with God, yourself and family is paramount. Regards from a “Wannabe” Bush Pilot to and from from places rarely traveled….Be Safe

  • Doctor “Don” captured reality for most of us “wannabe’s”. How true! My experiences as passenger on countless Beaver, Otter, Twin Otter, Gooses, Mallards and helicopters Bell 206’s, 204, 205, 407 and a Hughes 500 or two led to pursuit of a private pilot license.

  • Bob and Don,
    I was a “wannabe” when I was a kid watching my Great Uncle roll his Beaver down the pebble bank on surplus pierced steel planks into crystal clear Lake Tahoe. At that moment, I felt that not only being a pilot was way above me but certainly owning one of these airplanes was out of the question. 40 years later, impressed with that vision and after a lot of hard work, I still have to pinch myself occasionally to make sure this flying thing is real.

    Doctor Don,
    “The Secret Life of Walter Middy” is one of my and my wife’s favorite movies.

    “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” Walter Middy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *