My pal Dana was promoted to become a department pilot shortly after I began my career with the organization. Prior to his promotion Dana was a district warden. His patrol area bordered mine, so we had a few opportunities of working in the field together. Without any doubt, Dana was a wild cowboy. Every move he made was done hurriedly and in a complete hyped up rush including his driving and flying habits. He often bragged about how he could land in a real tight spot with the departments small piper cub aircraft. “It’s like landing on a dime and I can give you nine cents change!” he boasted.
Dana certainly was well qualified for the position he held, especially having served as a fixed-winged and helicopter pilot during his tour in the military. His piloting abilities while serving the country in Vietnam actually earned him the respect and the honor of flying Vice President Spiro Agnew over the war-ravaged country. After his discharge from the military, Dana re-joined the Maine Warden Service, where his appointment as the department’s newest pilot came as no surprise to anyone.
On January 25, 1972, I met up with the cowboy for a flight of my own. Dana wanted to fly over a place where he’d witnessed several dogs roaming around the deer yards a few days before. He thought I should be aware of the situation, as where the dog / deer problem was at its peak, as the deer huddled in their yards, sheltered from the brutal winter weather.
We connected with each other at Unity Pond in the early afternoon. I watched with pride as the small Piper Cub came sailing low over the trees in that usual low level, full-speed ahead mode that Dana always flew. Quickly he dipped down onto the frozen surface of the pond. In a cloud of blowing snow, Dana maneuvered the airplane over to where I was anxiously waiting to climb aboard.
Charlie Reed, a local photographer for the Bangor Daily News happened to be living nearby. He quickly scampered our way, requesting to take a picture of us in the aircraft for the newspaper. After the photo-op, I quickly fastened my seat belt and away we went. We shot out across the snow-covered pond in the usual Dana tradition, that of being at full throttle – wide-open and roaring. The white cloud of thick, blowing snow behind us quickly disappeared as we shot straight up into the air leaving the solid ground far below.
“Let’s check the deer yards out on the Plantation.” Dana shouted. “I’ve seen a pile of deer out there lately and last week there were a couple of dogs roaming close by.” “Sounds good to me,” I gulped, swallowing in a futile attempt to recover from the steep climb we’d just made. One that took us straight up into the heavens. The afternoon shadows and lighting conditions were preventing us from viewing any of the creatures we were searching for.
Suddenly Dana had another bright idea. “Let’s fly up over Lyndon Abbott’s house,” Dana said. Lyndon was a local Maine State Police Trooper and a real good friend to the both of us. He lived nearby, in the little town of Clinton. Together, we all had shared many memorable moments.
“If he’s home we’ll just buzz his house, letting him know we’re around,” Dana deviously snickered. “OK,” I agreed, as if I really thought I had any say in the matter. After all, I was only a passenger in the plane and was strictly placing my trust in the partner who was at the controls.
The steady drone of the small aircraft’s engine was purring away as we charted our course toward Clinton and toward the trooper’s home. I observed Lyndon’s house off in the distance, as we began our descent… heading straight for it. Lower and lower we glided as the house got bigger and bigger.
Finally I yelled, “Jaysus Dana, are you gonna’ buzz it or fly right to hell through it?” By now, our forward speed had slowed considerably and we were heading on a course much lower than what I figured we should have been.
“I think we can land in that little field behind his house,” Dana said, with a notable amount of hesitancy. “If he’s home we can go inside for a visit and maybe even a quick cup of coffee!”
Dana’s comment of: “I think we can….” was still echoing loudly in my mind. I wish he’d said, “We can” rather than, “I think we can!”
The quickly approaching field looked extremely small to me, but damn it, he was the pilot, and I trusted his judgment. Once again, like I really had any choice in doing otherwise! At one end of this small field stood a cluster of large White Pine trees. Trees that seemingly stood out like huge skyscrapers in a small city. On the other end of the small clearing were the power lines and poles running adjacent to the Bellsqueeze Rd, directly past the troopers house. There was very little room to spare in between.
I hope to hell he knows what he’s doing, I thought to myself.
We came extremely close to striking those pines as we slowly floated down to earth, eventually touching down in the field, while quickly heading for the nearby road and power lines.
“Not a problem, John Boy,” Dana loudly boasted, “This baby could land on a dime and give you nine cents change every time,” he bragged, as we taxied up to Lyndon’s garage.
I had heard that old saying a few times before, but never did I expect to be living it.
Standing outside the building, with a bewildered look on his face, was Lyndon. He was shaking his head in total disbelief as to what he was witnessing. I knew exactly what he was thinking and I didn’t blame him!
We spent the next few minutes seated comfortably inside the trooper’s home drinking several cups of hot coffee and shooting the breeze. All the while I wondered, “How to hell are we going to get out of here?” but I didn’t dare ask.
I seriously thought about begging Lyndon for a ride back to my cruiser in Unity but I’d be damned if I’d show Dana I was a coward. It was an old stubborn streak I seemingly possessed. That of not giving-in to what appeared to be insurmountable odds.
Obviously I neglected good common sense and succumbed in favor of sheer stupidity – but I’d be damned if I was going to show any signs of fear! Even though I was shivering inside from it!
Finally, Lyndon couldn’t stand it. “Dana, do you really think you can safely fly out of here?” he rather seriously inquired. “I think so,” Dana confidently sputtered. “I think I can rev the engine, hold the brakes, and once we round that corner, we should have plenty of room to lift off,” he proudly theorized.
Just listening to him describe his elaborate plan for escape was good enough reason for me to make yet another bathroom run. I was again seriously reconsidering my thoughts of begging Lyndon for that ride home after all.
The moment of truth finally arrived as we both climbed back into the plane. Dana readied the beast for our flight out of the small airfield. The airfield we had dubbed as“Abbott’s International.” as we sat around the table sucking coffee. I managed to secure the lap belt so tightly around my waste that I could barely breathe.
The engine roared, followed by a huge cloud of snow blowing out behind the plane, as we quickly shot down the narrow strip and up into the air. Those trees were getting closer and closer but at this point it really didn’t matter. By now we were at a point of no return.
Suddenly, the little bird quickly shot high into the air, clearing those pine branches by mere inches. I swear I heard the branches hitting the bottom of the plane’s skis as we shot on by them.
The cheeks of my, you-know-what were Super-glued into the seat of that little aircraft! Nothing short of dynamite would have removed me, except of course a violent collision with a non-movable object… something such as a huge pine tree!
Finally I could breathe again. Of course, Dana had to make yet one more low-level pass over the trooper’s house signaling our success before moving on.
Dana said, “Now I’ll to show you where I saw those dogs the other day.”
Soon we were banking and circling over Unity Plantation at approximately 1,500 feet, with nothing but thick woods and a frozen bog located directly beneath us.
With little warning, the engine started sputtering and it seemed to be shutting down.
I yelled, “What the hell’s going on now, Dana?”
“We’re about out of gas on the right tank, but the left one should be picking up any second,” he said, as he seemed to be counting the seconds away.
Meanwhile, we were rapidly descending, as the engine by now was all but completely silent.
I watched the ground coming up to meet us at an alarming rate. It was obvious there was no place to land beneath us. Nothing but remote wilderness, trees and bog!
Cough-cough, putt-putt, the engine shook and sputtered, and suddenly it started purring once again.
We were climbing back up into the air. I sensed Dana was somewhat relieved, not to mention the fact I was reasonably quite sure I’d just soiled my britches.
One close call for the day was enough – but two was pushing the limit!
Rather defiantly I said, “Dana, I think I’m ready to go back to my cruiser. I’ve enjoyed just about all of this excitement I can stand for one day!”
Landing safely back onto the frozen ice of Unity Pond, I exited the plane in what could be described as a religious and somewhat papal move.
I quickly fell to my knees, kissing and blessing the ground beneath me, glad to be back on solid footing.
No Pope John was I, but for the moment I felt I had truly been blessed and saved.
A few weeks later Dana attempted yet another landing at Abbott’s International. This time the conditions were quite different and he was alone.
A heavy crust had covered the field rather than the powdery snow that existed when we landed there a few days earlier.
This time the icy crust caused the plane to travel much faster as it touched down onto solid ground.
Lyndon was in his bathroom shaving as suddenly he witnessed the plane go by his bathroom window at a high rate of speed.
He knew it wasn’t about to stop at the roadway, as he looked outside his living room window just in time to see the wings sheer off the body of the little Piper Cub, right after it smacked a telephone pole in front of his house.
A stunned Dana was sitting in the fuselage in the middle of the road, looking at the carnage around him.
Fortunately, Dana wasn’t injured.
The plane, however, left the area on a flatbed trailer and the ego of our newest pilot was slightly damaged.
Abbott’s International had endured its last flight. Two flights had flown in and only one ever flew out!
The air strip was officially closed – due to a lack of airplanes a real lack of landing space!
Living right on the edge was the manner in which Dana seemingly always operated in. For whatever the reasons might have been, other than premeditated insanity, I often found myself seated right alongside of him.
Dana certainly was one-of-a-kind, but even though he experienced a minor mishap or two at his own misgivings, he still was a damn good pilot.
Well, most of the time anyways!
Several members of the Maine Warden Service were able to survive their own hair-raising experiences while riding with the Red Baron of the Maine Warden Service.
Each of them lived to tell their stories and share their own exciting memories.
Pleasant memories I’m sure.