Sunday, January 14, 2018
Bush Pilot Herman
Herman is a gruff man. Tells it how it is, straight to the point and no messing around. Every other word out of his mouth is Mother F*%Ker this and C%*K sucker that. But his sailor mouth is controlled when a lady is around, or when he needs something. He knows how to be charming, and really, once you get to know him you find out that he is really a big softy.
Despite his gruff persona, if he likes you, he will look out for you. If you need help, he will be the first person at your side to give you a hand, and he doesn’t expect anything in return.
Herman stands well over six feet, has a long lanky stature with broad shoulders. His Norwegian ancestry gave him eyes that are a bluish/green that cut you if you look into him for too long. He has a grin that makes you question his intentions. Like most blue collar Southeast Alaskans, he dresses in a hickory work shirt and suspenders over an old t-shirt. Carhart double knee dungaree work pants, wool socks with XtraTuf boots. He always had on some kind of a ball cap hat to help deflect the rain from hitting his glasses (in Ketchikan, it’s always raining).
He is a lifetime family friend. He was friends with my grandfather. He knew my father when my father was just a teenager. My father and Herman worked for the same company. Herman was hired to fly the company floatplane, to and from wherever, transport whomever, whenever.
I meet Herman for the first time when I was five years old. I flew up to Ketchikan to spend spring break with my father. This was my first time back to Alaska since my parents’ divorce 2 years prior.
My father introduced me to Herman.
“This is Herman. He’s a pilot. He flies the Cesena 185 floatplane for the company. He is one of the best pilots around, be careful, he’s a mean buggerd, you don’t want to cross him.” The term “Buggerd” is a common adjective that Herman uses for just about anyone or anything.
Herman chuckled and stuck out his hand for me to shake.
I noticed my hand was a third the size of his as it disappeared into his large paw.
“Nick, it’s good to meet you. Your dad has told me a lot about you. And no, I’m not mean. I don’t bite.”
I was in awe of Herman. A real pilot—and not just any pilot, but a real Alaskan bush pilot that flies floatplanes. And he’s shaking my hand and he’s my father’s friend. How cool is this.
From the age of three, all I wanted to be was a pilot.
A few days after I met Herman, I was fishing off the dock in front of the main office of the company that my father worked for. I know my father didn’t know what to do with me. He had enrolled me in a daycare while he was at work, but I didn’t care for the daycare and pulled a few shenanigans my first day. Whatever I did was enough for my father to realize that daycare was not going to work.
So he ended up taking me with him to work. He gave me a fishing pole and a package of herring for bait then pointed me to the company dock and said go, fish. He would stop down at the dock throughout the day to check on me.
I loved it. I was fishing. I was at my father’s work on the water. All those boats and floatplanes were going by all the time. The floatplane that Herman flew was tied to the same dock that I was on and I could go right up to it, study it…touch it. It was great.
I was catching Rock Cod left and right and enjoying every minute.
At one point, Herman came walking down to the dock. He smiled and waved at me. “Hey, Nick, how you doing? Some good looking Rock Cod you got there.”
I waved back, excited to see him.
He walked by, went to the Cesena, opened the door, and climbed up into the pilot seat.
I watched him for a few, before walking up to him and asking, “What are you doing?”
He said, “I have to fly some guy over to Metlakatla and then fly him back, after he’s done doing whatever it is, he’s got to do.” Metlakatla is a Native Indian Village just south of Ketchikan, only accessible by boat or plane. It was an export port for log ships during the logging boom in Southeast Alaska.
I turned and went back to sit next to my fishing pole.
About 10 minutes later some guy with a brief case came walking down to the dock and went straight to Herman and climbed into the co-pilot’s seat. They chatted it up for a few. Herman climbed out of the plane and started untying the plane. After untying the last line he looked at me and very quietly said, “Nick, get in.”
I said, “What?”
Herman, stood rigid and firm, turning his head, looking side to side like he was doing something wrong and again said to me, “Nick, get in!”
This time, I heard him and I saw his index finger point into the Cesena.
I was dumbfounded. I stumbled up to my feet with my fishing rod in hand. I heard myself saying, “What? You want me to go with you? What about the Rock Cod and my fishing pole?”
He said, “Leave them. We will be back later. Come on. Let’s go.”
I dropped my pole like it was on fire and ran towards Herman and the Cesena. I jumped off the dock and onto the pontoon of the plane. Herman guided me up the steps into the plane and helped get my seatbelt on.
He handed me a headset that was hanging just behind my seat. Herman said, “Put these on. You won’t be able to talk to us because this headset has a broke mic, but you will be able to hear us talk.”
I was buzzing inside. So excited, so focused, asking myself, is this happening?
I put the headset on. The guy that was sitting in the co-pilot seat turned to look at me and said through the headset coms, “You’re Jon’s kid?”
I nodded yes.
“Your father is a good man. This will be a quick trip and back, it won’t take long.”
Herman closed my door, shoved the plane away from the dock and climbed into his seat.
He flipped a few switches, the prop started to turn over, and the sound of the engine started to come to life.
We taxied out into the middle of the harbor. I could hear air traffic control talking to other planes landing and taking off around us. Then I heard Herman’s voice come over the headset. “Air traffic control Air traffic control, November Charlie 834 request permission to take off from Ketchikan Harbor, south bound to MET. Three on board.”
Air traffic control replied, “November Charlie 834, take off granted.”
Herman then came back on the coms and said, “Nick you ready?”
I nodded my head, yes.
He said, “Alright, here we go.”
I watched him push the throttle leaver forward. The engine noise increased. I felt myself getting pushed back into my seat. I watched out the side window. The water around the pontoon of the plane quickly turned into white spray. Soon, I felt the plane lift up from the water. The white spray that was all around the pontoon disappeared back to smooth water and the water surface seemed to slowly fall down away from the pontoon as we climbed into the air.
The engine noise smoothed out as Herman dialed the throttle back, and adjusted the flaps.
Just then Herman clicked in on the headset, “Air traffic control, Air traffic control November Charlie 834 air born, south bound to MET. Standing by on this frequency.”
“November Charlie 834, copy, air born on a south bound to MET. Have a good flight.”
We landed in Metlakatla more or less right next to the cargo ship that was in port. We taxied to the dock. The man in the co-pilot seat hopped out onto the dock, turned to us and said he would be back in about an hour. He started walking toward the cargo ship.
Herman looked at me and said, “Well Nick, we have about an hour to kill. What do you say, let’s go fishing?”
I said, “How are we going to go fishing? We don’t have any fishing poles?”
Herman said, “Come on, climb up in the co-pilot seat. I’ll show you how I fish.”
He closed the door and started the engine. We taxied out to the middle of the harbor and off and up we went, climbing to an altitude of about 30 feet and just skimming the surface of the ocean. We landed out in the middle of Nichols pass, a few miles away from Metlakatla.
Heman cut the engine and climbed down onto the pontoon to get to the back seats. He pulled out two casting rods.
He said, “Well, what are you waiting for? Come on out. Let’s see if we can catch anything.”
We stood on the float of the plane in the middle of Nichols passage casting away, hoping something would hit our line.
Nothing but a good time was caught. We chatted and casted until it was time to go back to pick up our guy and fly back to Ketchikan.
This was the first of many adventures Herman took me on.