Kiss the Sky
If you want to see Penobscot Bay, try a 1941 biplane.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
Photograph by David A. Rodgers
DATELINE: the Allied Aerodrome, somewhere on the coast of France. Here’s the World War I flying ace, traversing the runway, her silk scarf fluttering gently behind her, as she prepares to climb into the cockpit of her Sopwith Camel. She raises a fist to the rosy dawn sky and mutters, “Curse you, Red Baron” under her breath. Perhaps, she thinks, this will be the dogfight to end all dogfights.
Okay, so it’s not dawn, it’s 9 a.m. And I’m not on the coast of France. I’m on the coast of Maine. And the “runway” I just traversed? It’s a parking lot. And I’m certainly not preparing to engage in any aerial combat, cartoon or otherwise. I’m not even wearing a silk scarf.
Yet, who can blame me for getting a little carried away at the prospect of the mission before me? I’m here, by special arrangement with the Owls Head Transportation Museum, in Owls Head, for a ride in an antique biplane. During the days leading up to this moment, my head has been swimming with images of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, of Lucky Lindy and Amelia Earhart, and of wing walks and loop-the-loops and spins and hammerheads. But then, ever since Icarus first strapped on those waxy wings, the sky has been an endless source of flights of fancy, has it not?
If there’s any doubt, just ask anyone affiliated with Owls Head. For more than thirty years, this museum has been a mecca for “wings and wheels” enthusiasts (as they call themselves), whose numbers are not few. The museum, which is open year-round, attracts more than fifty thousand visitors annually and boasts more than two hundred volunteers, counting among them some of the finest flying professionals and volunteers the Northeast (and beyond) has to offer. Collections feature antique automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, engines, and, of course, aircraft — twenty of them at last count, fourteen in working order. The sprawling facility, which also includes numerous displays, mementos, and ephemera from a gentler and more genteel time in transportation, lies adjacent to the Knox County Regional Airport, just two miles from downtown Rockland. The founding philosophy that drives the museum’s thriving success is that these machines are fun and should be played with rather than viewed from behind a velvet cord.
And that’s what has brought me here today.
I am escorted out through a hangar to the airstrip from which we will take off. There I meet Owls Head aircraft conservator Karl Erickson, who oversees the flying and aviation department of the museum. He has the looks of what you’d like a pilot to be — wiry, agile, alert — although I quickly find out he is not my pilot. My pilot, Brad Carter, is the sandy-haired fella trailing behind me in a leather bomber jacket, carting a fire extinguisher. Carter is a Rockland resident and Realtor who has been volunteering at the museum for the better part of twenty years and who is one of only two of the museum’s volunteer pilots based in Maine. Extinguisher aside, he looks equally airworthy.
We quickly begin the preparations. I’m given a helmet, which, from the moment I slip it on, makes it difficult to hear much of what is being said. Carter next eyes my very un-aviatrix-looking Gore-Tex anorak slung over my arm and chivalrously offers me his bomber jacket. Because of my glasses, I’m told I am not going to need goggles. I must confess I am a little disappointed, until the pièce de résistance to my ensemble comes out — the white silk scarf. Erickson comes over and adjusts my knot, which I have tied like a winter scarf. “That’s for fashion,” I think I hear. (My helmet creates the effect of listening under water.) “This” — one quick square knot and the silk is tossed over my shoulder — “is for flying.”
Next, I meet my plane: not a Sopwith Camel, but a bright blue-and-yellow 1941 Stearman A75N/1 Biplane, which earned the nickname the “Yellow Peril” during World War II, since it was the primary trainer for pilots. (The blue-and-yellow motif represents the United States Army Air Corps, a forerunner of today’s U.S. Air Force.) While “Stearman” sounds like another name for the person who gets to sit in the cockpit, it, in fact, refers to Lloyd Stearman, the designer of these and other agricultural aircraft, who, in the early 1930s, became the president of then-Lockheed Aircraft Company. Erickson explains how the box structure makes these planes good workhorses — they’re often used for crop dusting — but, he adds, they’re slow.
I behold the aircraft before me. Its bright colors and rounded wings make it look oddly like a toy, like something you would crash in a bathtub. I guess in a way, it is something of a plaything. There is no indication that going up in these planes is anything but sheer pleasure for the volunteers and staff. And, actually, a ride like mine today is used as a reward for volunteer service at the museum.
Toy or not, however, it’s all serious business when it’s time to fly. Carter climbs up on the wing and then gestures for to me to follow him up the black strip bordering the cockpit. He points to the two handles molded into the overhead wing and motions for me to use them to lower myself down into the forward cockpit. As I get settled, he gives me the rundown on all the dials and controls facing me. Just above my left leg is the throttle, which resembles a throttle on a motorboat. “Lodge your knee there,” he says, pointing behind the control, “and our next stop will be Kansas.”
Between my legs is a long metal stick with a grip on the end of it. Toward the front of the cockpit are two foot pedals — one on either side — that glide back and forth to the touch. This is the steering equipment. I nod and “yup, yup” as Carter explains the function of each — regarding the wing flaps and rudder — but I am more fascinated by the straps and belts he is clamping around me (like securing a child in a car seat) than his instruction. The last and most critical piece of equipment is a rearview mirror, mounted just above my head. That is how we will communicate, I’m told. If he wants my attention, he will waggle the stick between my legs and I will look at him. If for some reason I am not having fun, I’m to tap my helmet, and that will signal for him to turn back.
Turn back? Not a chance.
After the initial “Contact!” (yes, they really do say that when they start the prop), followed by a period of sputtering and revving the engine, we finally jounce down the grass runway and delicately lift into the sky. The day is a corker, as my dad used to say, and there is nothing but endless blue sky above us. Below are the rapidly diminishing strips and hangars, the toy houses and barns, and the gray bands of roadway. Soon we cross the ragged fringe of shoreline as we begin our pass over Penobscot Bay, where green islands stretch out into the Atlantic. The water sparkles and is speckled with confetti-like lobster pots and drifting gulls. At times it almost feels as though we are standing still, so smooth are the air currents. When we do get an occasional gentle bump of turbulence, it’s almost welcomed, to remind me that we are, indeed, airborne.
Carter is a graceful flyer. Even when he takes a bit of a dive or turn, it’s not thrilling like, say, a flying carnival ride. It’s more balletic.
Suddenly, I notice the stick waggling between my legs. ”Is Carter Okay?” I wonder. I look in the mirror, and he’s pointing at me. Oh, right. My turn to fly.
To quote Jimi Hendrix: “ ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”
I grab the stick and give it a yank. The plane lurches a little bit. “Ooh,” I decide, “I better correct myself,” so I push the thing forward. The nose drops. My mind continues to whirr. “Maybe it would work better if I were turning.” I push on the right foot pedal and we veer. I know this isn’t right, and, sure enough, when I glance in the mirror, Carter is indicating I need to straighten us out. But I’m not sure I remember how. Should I use the stick and the pedals, or just one or the other? No need to decide. I feel the stick waggling in my grip. In the mirror, Carter is gesturing he’ll take the controls back. I’m surprised he’s not tapping his helmet.
Soon we are back in our high-flying elegance. We gently swoop and soar. As we do, I think how taking wing seems to me a perfectly normal human activity. I get what the early pioneers of flight saw. Who wouldn’t want to forge into horizon after horizon? I’m a bit chagrined that I was such a flop at flying (I do no better when Carter gives me a second chance), but it doesn’t much matter. I am happy to lean back and enjoy the ride, silk scarf unfurled behind me.
After all, it’s not every day one’s given the chance to “slip the surly bonds of Earth.” Now, if we could just get a little closer to the sun . . .
More Fun Family Adventures
Looking to get a little more daring this summer? Maine is just the place to find the right adrenaline rush to suit the entire family. Here are a half-dozen of our favorite adventures.
Take a Leap
For the past twenty-five years, the daredevils at Skydive New England have been carrying people to 14,000 feet and then pushing them out the door of an airplane. The rush of plummeting toward the southern Maine landscape at 120 miles per hour for a full minute and the relief of your chute opening is an experience you will not soon forget. Just don’t let the adrenaline rush stop you from taking in the stunning views of the ocean and the mountains during the glide back down to Earth, which can last for nearly ten minutes. First-time jumpers will opt for the tandem system, where a guide is strapped to your back and takes care of important details like when to pull the ripcord. This is one adventure reserved for the bigger kids in the family, as jumpers must be at least eighteen years old. $179-$219. 40 Skydive Lane, Lebanon. 207-339-1520. www.skydivenewengland.com
If you’ve got a thing for mud, motors, and monster trucks, you’ll adore the Rocky Mountain Terrain Park, just off Route 2 east of Rumford. Opened in 2001, the members-only park welcomes ATVs, Jeeps, dirt bikes, and mountain bikes and features seven hundred acres of trails, two mud pits, and a rock crawling area. There’s even a motocross track where kids under twelve can enjoy their four-wheelers and small bikes. Where you might get a hairy eyeball or two if you take your ATV on some backwoods trails in Maine, at this private facility you can rev your engine as much as you like without anyone batting an eye. Camping is available, but to keep the area family friendly, the owners ask you not to bring alcohol onto the property and to observe quiet time during the nights. $35. Winter Hill Road, South Carthage. 207-272-8012. www.rmtp.us
The Pine Tree State has more than a few granite faces tucked in among its arbors, places where rock jocks can practice their hand-jams and smears until their muscles ache, but without a doubt one of the most stunning rocks anywhere in America is Otter Cliffs in Acadia National Park. Guides from Atlantic Climbing School in nearby Bar Harbor will equip the whole family with helmets, harnesses, and instruction and lead even the most vertigo-prone dad up cracks and overhangs where the whitecaps are literally lapping at your climbing shoes. If you’ve ever thought rock climbing seemed like a neat adventure, this is the place to try it. Where else can you pull yourself up routes with names like “Rock Lobster” and “A Dare by the Sea?” $70-$450. 67 Main St., Bar Harbor. 207-288-2521. www.climbacadia.com
Paddle, Paddle, Paddle
More and more it seems that a rafting trip is becoming an almost obligatory part of a Maine vacation, right up there with a lobster roll and a trip to Bean’s. There’s good reason for the new interest in the frothy sport, as guiding companies like Penobscot Adventures have learned how to lead families down thrill rides like the Kennebec without scaring them out of their wits. (If you’re a true adrenaline junkie, make sure to hit one of the eight thousand cubic feet per second days when Florida Power & Light tests its turbines. But consider yourself warned: these high-release days are not for the faint of heart.) The names of some of the rapids in the upper section of the river give you an idea of the type of paddling you’ll do — Big Mama, White Washer, and Magic Falls are a few of the highlights, with standing waves averaging four to six feet high — while the lower section of the Kennebec is much more tranquil, even allowing for a dip in the water if you choose (whether or not you dip in the upper section may not be up to you). $59-$109. Baxter State Park Rd., Millinocket. 877-356-9386. www.penobscotadventures.com
The granddaddy of extreme Maine adventures is without a doubt paddling the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a ninety-two-mile ribbon of lakes and streams in remote northwestern Maine. The whole trip from Chamberlain Thoroughfare Bridge to Twin Brook takes about ten days, but you can make an unforgettable three-or-four-day expedition by paddling smaller sections. (When scouting for a trip, remember that the waterway flows south to north, unlike most other Maine rivers.) A great adventure is the thirty-two miles from Round Pond to Allagash Village, a stretch where you’re likely to see more moose than other people. If you’ve got your own canoe and expertise, you can hire someone to drop you into the river and take your car to wherever you elect to pull out; otherwise, outfits like Allagash Canoe Trips have the experienced guides and right gear (a.k.a. gallons of bug spray) to keep the whole family’s paddles J-stroking in the right direction. $500-$850. Lily Bay Rd., Greenville. 207-237-3077. www.allagashcanoetrips.com
Float on High
If leaping out of a plane is a bit more extreme than mom plans to be this summer, a trip in a hot-air balloon is the next best thing. Since 1979 pilot Eric Olsen has been lifting people into the air above the Kennebec Valley near Augusta, offering up views of everything from the rocky coastline to the State House and western mountains. His departure site and route varies depending on wind conditions, but the hour his four passengers spend airborne is sure to be a high point of their year. And forget about feeling dizzy — Olsen says the motion is gentle. “It’s not like being on a ladder or the edge of a roof, you don’t get that vertigo feeling,” he declares. “Something about the motion just clicks in your brain, and I’ve only had two or three people be nervous in thirty years of flying.” Each flight, which is offered near sunrise and a couple of hours before sunset, ends with a champagne toast, a delightful conclusion to an often-overlooked mid-Maine adventure. $195. 1037 Western Ave., Manchester. 207-623-1136.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey