When memory takes flight
on the edge, on and off the job (or perhaps when I was just a sucker for punishment).
I actually took two trips on a waterbomber, the first with The Evening Telegram back in the mid ’70s, when the newsroom boss, Bill Kelly, asked at the morning editorial meeting for a volunteer to write a story on the planes and their crews. I jumped at the chance, igniting laughter and relief from my colleagues, none of whom wished to fly in a Second World War vintage aircraft that made its living “scooping” water off Newfoundland lakes and dropping its cargo on forest fires.
There was no fire, and the flight was a training exercise, but that didn’t diminish the near terror I felt while strapped tightly in my seat, just behind the pilot and copilot.
It was like being inside a gigantic skimming stone as the crew brought the bomber down on Paddy’s Pond, allowing it to bounce (for want of a better word) along the surface, sucking up water into its tanks, and making sure the engines were at the precise speed required to do their job; it was akin to being part of a crash landing that was averted at the last second.
When the “scoop” was concluded (and I had reassured myself I had not had a non-scheduled bowel movement), and we headed upwards in what I thought to be a dramatic angle, I climbed closer to the two crewmen and shouted (you could barely hear yourself think above the roar of the engines) that they had put me in panic mode for a few anxious minutes.
“Well, wait till we drop them laughed.
And sure enough, when the monstrous load of water left the plane, the dramatic loss in weight forced the plane to rise straight up, like an elevator, at a gut-churning and sudden rate of speed.
Forever the masochist, I volunteered to do the same sort of piece for CBC “Here and Now” a few years later, this time with cameraman Keith Whalen and soundman Al Crocker it,” one of sharing the flight and the fright.
On another occasion, back in my newspaper days, I volunteered to be a passenger aboard a search and rescue Buffalo aircraft as it flew the coastline looking for a missing longliner, flying for nine hours about 500 feet above the ocean in what the crew labelled a “coast crawl.”
The Buffalo behaved like a kite as the crew fought to keep it under control, and it was nerve-racking. In fact, after spotting the flight engineer and one of the pilots throwing up, I ignored my macho efforts to keep my breakfast down and followed suit, as did the photographer on the trip, Bill Coultas. There was some gallows humour on my part that forced Bill to join the upchuck party, but I’ll spare you the graphic details.
There was also an abundance of hairy helicopter trips during my days as a reporter — flying, for example, through a blizzard, the view obliterated at numerous times by whiteouts from Bishop’s Falls to Corner Brook during an election campaign.
Some of those chopper rides were exhilarating — one in particular I made with cameraman Ty Evans and sound technician Arlene Dillon at Saglek Bay, Labrador, a flight that included a couple of hours along the coastline with one of the doors removed to supply a better vantage point for the shoot. It seemed as if you could just reach out and touch the cliffs and the crashing waves below. The adrenalin flowed.
On that same trip, we landed atop one of Saglek’s magnificent mountains, climbed out and quietly ate our lunch, trying to comprehend the stunning, surreal setting.
The memories abound of such flights, some scary, others thrilling, all of them awaiting an occasion when those Skipper Bob recollection neurons decide to kick in. Lucky you.