He was flying high with Dad, until they landed on the Chester and promptly ran aground--with a crowd of picnickers watching.

by Robert Whitehill
illustrations by James Yang

Memories of my youth are mostly a blur, but when they do come into focus, I can only regard them as strange. Dad and I never put on baseball gloves and tossed the pill around, though we did play a lot of Frisbee, mostly on highway median strips during those epic traffic jams back when there was only one Bay Bridge. And while we never went fishing on the Bay, we did run aground in the Chester River in an airplane.

My father, a private pilot as well as a boater, decided one year to combine his love of sky and water with the acquisition and mastery of a Lake Amphibian LA-4 Buccaneer. Though this vessel has two wings, bear with me when I describe it as a single-engine, four-seater seaplane. Instead of skimming the water on a pair of pontoons the way many amphibians do, the Buccaneer's whole fuselage is actually a hydro-dynamic planing hull for taxiing, landings and takeoffs. It has a retractable landing gear--for land operations. Power comes from a single Lycoming engine on a stout pylon in the middle of the wing aft of the cockpit, ending with a two-bladed pusher prop that translates the fuel into altitude--and in my father's case, into attitude as well.

I was home from school on this particular weekend, and Dad had a newly printed certificate saying he was seaplane rated. He wanted to show me what this odd duck could do, and like any adolescent on screaming terms with his adrenal glands, I signed on for a flight. The weather that Saturday was perfect. A warm spring afternoon, with a cloudless sky and a slight breeze. After Dad's typically scrupulous preflight inspection, we climbed in and fired her up. The Buccaneer took off like an albatross chick, with thoughts of nest and mother's downy breast tugging against the irresistible call of independence, of flight, and of a meal that had not been first barfed up by a relative.

We climbed into the afternoon sky, and Dad was very proud. I was happy for him. He had a new plane. This was large-scale retail therapy. We made a few circuits around the water tower near Washington College. For a brief moment I took the controls and found the plane docile. 

Then we made for the Chester River. We took a few passes up and down the channel to assess wind direction, wave chop and water traffic. There were some boaters tied up for a picnic on a sandbar downstream from the bridge, and if Dad had his way, they were going to get an eyeful. They did.

According to his training, on final approach Dad said out loud, "This is a water landing, the landing gear is up!" He explained to me that these particular planes, and their occupants, were often lost when inattentive pilots landed on water with the wheels down. That's because the nose wheel descends out of a rather large well. The column of water that jets up into it on a gear-down water landing tends to blow open the fuselage like the clamshell of a cluster bomb unit, with similar, catastrophic results. 

As always, Dad's landing was textbook perfect. But then, eager to demonstrate the plane's adroitness, he beelined her toward a clear spot on the sandbar, where the disbelieving picnickers sat frozen, sandwiches fixed in space halfway to their wide open mouths. I understood Dad's agenda when, right near the sandbar, going only a knot or two, he lowered the landing gear into the water. He was going to taxi that plane right up onto the beach. 

Or not.

The nose wheel touched bottom first, and that is where we were reminded that the "sand" at this depth, unlike the hard-packed stuff along the shore, has the consistency of overcooked Wheatina. Instead of rolling us onto the beach, the nose wheel buried itself in the muck. To this problem, like many others my father had overcome in the past, the apparent solution was more horsepower, not less. He pushed the throttle forward, and the Buccaneer surged and shuddered at the edge of the river, like some angry beast caught in quicksand. Soon it was clear that the main wheels were also mired in the sand. 

And here, in the thick of our embarrassment at actually having gone aground in an airplane, we met the real heart of the Chester River. With no explanation made or asked for, the picnickers cheerfully put their sandwiches aside, returned Cokes and Sprites to coolers, and came to our aid. Bemused neighbors we never knew we had, people whose quiet afternoon had just been marred by a snarling 200-hp engine splashing spray and blasting sand over their slaw and hot dogs, wordlessly stepped forward to give us a hand. Small children latched onto the landing gear. Grandmothers gripped the leading edges of the wings. Rippling teens got a purchase on the rubber clad bow, and at the signal, all gave a mighty shove. The Chester was slow to release the plane, having never eaten even part of one before. But soon, to everyone's satisfaction and relief, we were floating free. 

Now that the heavy lifting was done, we got a surprise. Our new friends were fascinated by the plane, and more than a few were cadging for rides. We were minor celebrities on this bend in the river, and I was disappointed that Dad turned down several invitations to join the picnics we had interrupted. I was hungry and wished we might have stayed on a bit to bask in the glow of our foolishness, and eat a MoonPie. What's the point of a flying boat if between a landing and the next take-off, life is only half-lived?

But Dad had had enough. Shame in the cockpit was profound as we taxied back out into the channel. His carefully contrived and much anticipated main event had, in his view, become a commedia dell'aviazione. He had made a different sort of splash from the one he intended. This was the only error I saw him make in hundreds of hours of flying--and it had been a lark, not a disaster. But clearly Dad didn't see it that way. We rose into the air and soon touched down at the airport just a mile or two away. This was my only flight in the Buccaneer, and my only landing on the river. Dad sold the plane within a year.

What I remember most about that day is looking back toward the beach as we taxied away and seeing everyone waving to us. Not laughing, not scoffing at my father's misreading of the river bottom--but waving and smiling, as if to say we had actually added something more than grit and prop wash to their picnic. That's the way I like to remember it, anyway. I think Dad saw it that way too, eventually. 

[12.05 issue]