Flying the Friendly Skies
It’s a match made in heaven, or at least in the skies over Puget Sound.
For many years, the Kenmore Air deHavilland Beaver has been an integral part of the Puget Sound Marine Water Quality Monitoring project, a Federal program run under the auspices of the Washington State Department of Ecology (WDOE). With the ability to fly low and slow over the Sound and with experienced pilots, the program provides important and timely information to the Department about the health of Puget Sound.
With 39 core stations, which are visited once a month (weather permitting), understanding and respecting sea and weather conditions are paramount, as these stations are, to the uneducated eye, random points at random spots around the Sound. These are actually historical points of reference used by a number of agencies, including the University of Washington, to collect data. They are all marked as waypoints in the onboard GPS, with no actual buoys or X to mark the spot. The testing stations extend from the North Sound and the San Juan Islands, to the Central Sound and Whidbey Basin, Hood Canal, South Sound and all the way out the coast at Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.
A Unique Partnership
What makes this partnership so unique is not only that it is the only marine water monitoring project in the world that uses floatplanes as the testing platform, but more importantly, the relationships that have grown within the program; friendships that continue long after leaving either employer and even the Puget Sound area. The friendships and collaboration between government employees and those in the private sector is gratifying and an uncommon occurrence.
Chuck Perry, Kenmore Air’s Chief Pilot flew the Ecology trips for many years, but seven years ago handed the responsibility to Joe Leatherman, who Chuck says is the consummate pilot for the job. For Joe, this has added a whole new dimension to his flying. He said, “From day one, we started working together as a team.” He has come to understand and appreciate what the technicians do and in his on-the-job training, has become experienced in water sampling and other aspects of the tech’s jobs, which help facilitate completion of the tasks required on each flight.
And the understanding and appreciation go both ways. Laura Friedenberg, one of the Ecology Marine Water Technicians who flies with Kenmore Air said how important it is to have pilots who understand what the techs are doing and are willing to work around some of the obstacles. Mya Keysers, also a technician said, “Joe is amazing. I don’t know if I could do this without his help.”
Although the pilot’s primary function is to fly the plane safely, they understand how important it is to everyone involved, to get the job done. It takes a different mind-set and a thorough understanding of weather and water conditions to accomplish the type of flying required. Chuck, a former Alaska bush pilot, has an uncanny knack of flying. He plays the plane as he would a fine instrument, finessing it to perform and cooperate, a necessity for the type of flying required for these flights.
For these water-monitoring trips, the usual passenger seats are removed to make space for the equipment necessary for the testing. For each flight, all the testing equipment has to be loaded and installed securely on board. This is not small, lab-style test tubes and gauges. First, an ungainly modular gantry for the electric winch is erected over the floor hatch; then two large and heavy-duty 12v batteries to power the winch are battened down; and the very expensive and complex CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) profiling package, the core testing unit in the program, is carefully suspended from the gantry. Next comes all the actual testing equipment, sample bottles and vials to transport the samples back to the lab and the Toughbook laptop used to record the data, plus all the cords and cables associated with the equipment. In the end, Mya and Laura are left with a tiny space to squeeze in to and work.
Well-oiled teamwork kicks in as the floatplane comes in low over the water and the pilot calls distance to mark. Sometimes with a little help from a headwind or tailwind and the ever present current, but always with great skill, he brings the plane to a standstill within feet of the waypoint. For Chuck, it’s a matter of pride. “Every time I do this, I try to do better,” he claims. Once the plane is on site, Mya and Laura get to work, lowering the CTD to the exact depth – with the pilot assisting with timing the drop and helping to record results of the water tests. With so much equipment on board, there are inevitably breakdowns and glitches. Joe and Chuck are always ready to assist, repairing or jury-rigging anything they can, in the interest of keeping the project on track.
The Kenmore pilots and the DOE technicians not only consider each other colleagues and team mates, but friends as well. They talk about their families – Mya recently had a baby and Chuck and Joe follow Louella’s progress as concerned friends. The onboard discussions switch easily between the state of the current algae bloom being collected, the DO (dissolved oxygen) content in a sample, the up-coming weekend weather, vacation days coming up and the fun they all had at a recent party attended by both Kenmore Air and DOE people.
“It’s a different vibe,” Joe asserts, “when you spend 11 to 12 hours in a small plane with people. We’ve ended up with a working family.”
From an outsider’s perspective, there is no division of loyalties within this group. This is a cohesive team forged through years of cooperation and understanding that is providing results that ultimately benefit the waters of Puget Sound and all who live here.