Low and Slow in New Jersey

ANDOVER, N.J.--As a beginning pilot, I was drilled in the perils of flying low and slow. So it's a guilty pleasure to be following a nameless river at 55 mph, below the level of the treetops, turning with its meander. This is what bush pilots do when the only place to land is a sandbar with every other approach blocked by trees.

Bush planes are more commonly associated with Alaska and Maine. But here on New Jersey's northern edge, tucked between interstate highways 80 and 84, there's a countryside as bucolic as any you'll find in the northeastern U.S. Here are working farms, pretty lakes, two ski resorts, and a quantity of tiny airstrips, many of them involved in crop-dusting. And here Damian DelGaizo wears a gray sweatshirt boasting: "Andover Flight, College of Taildragger Knowledge."

A taildragger has two main wheels in front and a small one in back: on the ground, it suggests a dog sitting on its haunches. This nose-high attitude enables its wings to carry much of the weight when the plane is moving, for shorter takeoffs and landings. The big tires in front help to soak up the bumps, especially in the case of Damian's Aviat Husky, which is equipped with 31-inch tundra tires inflated to a mere eight pounds of pressure.

Damian acquired his bush-flying skills in the Moosehead Lake region of Maine, flying supplies and customers to remote hunting and fishing camps in a float-equipped de Havilland Beaver. Now he's passing those skills along to other pilots who want to negotiate the backcountry out of necessity, for sport, or just to hone their flying skills. I fall into the third category. As a friend of mine explains the process of becoming a pilot, the neophyte brings two buckets to this task, a full one containing luck and an empty one containing experience. I'm anxious to fill the second bucket before I empty the first.

Andover's most notable graduate is was the movie actor Harrison Ford, who came here to prep for Six Days Seven Nights, co-starring Anne Heche and a Beaver like the one Damian used to own.

Whatever the motive, the student undertakes a course that typically involves six hours of flying, plus homework and whiteboard instruction, over the course of three days. Damian likes to diagram landings in advance, like a coach with a new football play. If my setup is good, he explains, my landing has a better chance of happening the way I want it.

In this fashion, I learn the J takeoff, in which I make the most of a short runway by starting off in the wrong direction, then reversing, so that the plane is moving at a good clip by the time it actually begins the takeoff roll. I learn how to negotiate a canyon that rises faster than my plane can climb, and how to flee if the walls close in regardless. New Jersey has no actual canyons, of course, but the cliffs of the Delaware Water Gap make a convincing substitute.

And of course I land the Husky--on short fields and on soft fields, over trees, uphill, and on the diagonal--on three wheels, two wheels, and once on a single fat tundra tire--over and over, while the wind blows and the sun steams the cockpit and Damian in the back seat talks me through the motions. (And keeps two fingers on the control stick, as he later admits.) "Give me 18 inches of manifold pressure," he will say. "Now two notches of flaps." It's easy to fly well when someone else makes the decisions.

My graduation ceremony--or student recital if you prefer--is the riverine approach. I feel like a Great Blue heron going home at dusk, navigating the waterway with grace and the occasional croak, banking from side to side as the terrain requires. The flaps are down, adding lift and thereby allowing the Husky to fly slower than it otherwise could: flaps down and power on, the stall speed is about 50 mph at a 45-degree bank, which we round up to 55 mph to be on the safe side. Like spin training and aerobatics, this sort of flying has built-in hazards, but they are mitigated by a plane in good mechanical condition, a conservative approach, and an instructor in the back seat. I won't try this at home!

Swoop first to the left, then to the right, and now the river makes a 90-degree turn, threatening to end our flight against a wall of trees. However, we have rehearsed this moment on the chalkboard: I put the stick over to the left, swing into a cul de sac, and jump the trees at its far end. No need to add power; the Husky's momentum carries us over, and now we are in another clearing with a rambling building on our left. I turn toward the building, then right over a pile of stones, and touch down on a flat green field, 500 feet long. Brisk work on the brakes enables me to stop the airplane in half that distance--a B+ at the very least.

(Full disclosure: there's an asphalt runway beyond the patch of green grass, so even if I overshot the landing, I'd injure nothing but my pride. By way of comparison, a World War II aircraft carrier had a flight deck 800 feet long.)

"That was fun," I say, immensely proud of myself.

"It's all in the setup," Damian says.

--Daniel Ford

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