Duluth by air
The nose of the small plane began to drop. Seconds later, the gauzy horizon had disappeared and the steely waters of Lake Superior filled the windshield. The single-engine aircraft was soon low enough for me to distinguish individual waves.
I peered over my shoulder at my fellow passengers: a pair of young newlyweds and a grandmother and her 12-year-old grandson. Everyone was staring with apprehension at the fast-approaching water. And for good reason. There could be no doubt that we were about to land in the drink.
Turning forward to face my fate, I gawked at the incomprehensible conglomeration of dials and switches and levers that were arrayed before me. On the floor beneath my feet were a set of mysterious pedals; mounted on a pedestal between my knees was some sort of steering wheel thingamajig. What was I supposed to do?
Nothing, it turns out. Our pilot, John Justad, had the situation totally under control. He skillfully flared his de Havilland Beaver just as its twin pontoons touched the water. At 55 MPH, the Beaver’s sliced cleanly through the chop, throwing rooster tails of spray high into the air.
It was my first ride on a seaplane and a wondrous way to get a bird’s-eye view of Duluth. Between the plane ride, our boat excursion and our car, I was able to experience the city via land, sea and air.
I arrived at Duluth’s Sky Harbor Airport well before my scheduled flight time and took the opportunity to chat with John. I asked him the most important question right away, namely, since I was the first one there, could I ride shotgun?
John loves to talk, but is especially loquacious about aviation.
“There’s nothing glamorous or speedy about the Beaver,” said John. “It’s basically a truck with wings.”
This is true. As I later discovered, there was no in-flight service, not even a beverage cart.
John has put 6,000 hours on sturdy little steed. This means he has flown it a distance roughly equivalent of going to the moon and back. That’s a lot of miles in the saddle.
All of the Beaver’s passengers got to don a set of seriously cool, aviation-type headphones. Sitting in the copilot’s seat with those headphones on, I could easily imagine that I was doing the flying. I didn’t even have to make the motor noises with my mouth.
As John taxied us to our takeoff point, somebody asked, “When the airplane is on the water, is it a boat or an aircraft?”
“It’s a boat until it lifts off,” John replied. “Up until that point, I have to follow nautical rules. Technically, I’m supposed to have the right of way since the Beaver doesn’t have reverse. I avoid that by giving other watercraft a wide berth.”
John advanced the throttle and we broke free from the water in mere moments. We were soon making lazy S-turns at 1,800 feet above Duluth and the Twin Harbors.
I gazed across Lake Superior and noticed a stubborn low cloud hanging in the distance and it dawned on me that the lake is so huge that it makes its own weather. From our high vantage point, the infinite expanse of water and the nearby boreal forest made Duluth’s colossal ship-loading structures and sprawling bridges seem like a child’s playthings.
John is an effusive tour guide, plying his captive audience with a plethora of Duluth-related details. I would hate to play against him in a game of Duluth Trivial Pursuit.
Whenever an interesting natural or manmade feature appeared on one side, John would dip the corresponding wing, enabling his passengers to get an unobstructed view. It also gave them a bit of a “whee!” sensation in their stomachs.
At altitude, Duluth appeared to be a town that was built by a detail-obsessed model railroad enthusiast. Grand mansions that sat near the shore were like exquisite little dollhouses. John pointed out a particularly large manor and a smaller mansion that sat nearby. The smaller abode, he said, was larger home’s party mansion. You know that you’ve arrived when your mansion has a mansion.
Our half-hour tour flew (ha!) by and John began to line up for a landing. Although, technically speaking, shouldn’t a water landing be called a “watering”?
During our final approach, John said, “The good thing about a water landing is that you get to choose your runway. The bad part is you have to watch out for boats crossing your runway.”
The landing was as silky as a kitten’s tummy. After clambering out of the Beaver, I thanked John for the adventure. And I didn’t even miss the complimentary packet of bland crackers.
If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.