By Michael Virtanen
It took Bob Keller a few tries to start the single engine of his Cessna that was still warm from his flight to the Lake Placid Airport from his home in Boonville. It has fuel injection, the pilot explained, making it tricky to start warm.
A flier for decades, Keller did his instrument and safety checks out loud, making sure the photographer and the writer he was taking over the High Peaks were shoulder-strapped in their seats and had headsets on with the switches set to cancel out the engine’s roar.
Carl Heilman II and I were riding free courtesy of Lighthawk, a nonprofit based in Fort Collins, Colorado, that provides “aviation and the aerial perspective” intended to advance conservation.
Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown, in one of his last assignments before retiring this summer, wanted a slew of new aerial photographs of mountains.
On the list were the 2011 landslide on Mount Colden, the former NL Industries titanium pit mines at Tahawus (now under new ownership), the sometimes overcrowded parking turnouts along Route 73, and the rail line running 30 miles south of the mine.
We checked to see whether the Saratoga and North Creek Railway had actually removed as promised all the empty tanker cars it stored on the tracks last winter. The tracks run alongside or parallel to the Boreas and Hudson rivers, which from the sky appear as dark lines in a carpet of green forests.
“Looks to me like they’re all gone,” Heilman said, his long camera lens pointed out the open window of the front passenger seat.
Keller warned that even on a clear sunny day with winds only about five knots that it’s always a little bumpy flying in the mountains and that the computers in his 2011 plane could call out warnings, which he would cut back if they became too annoying. They did, calling, “Caution, terrain” and “Terrain ahead” as we approached the pale white slide on the upper flank of Colden, much whiter than the rock on older slides that have erased patches of forest on nearly every mountainside in the range.
Then Marcy loomed above us.
So did Mount Dix on the loop back. “I’d better turn away here. I don’t want to hit anything,” Keller said, deadpan, as we approached.
He circled Dix and tipped the plane so Heilman could get better shots. He explained that it was “a lot safer” to fly toward mountains with the wind, which can come in waves, than flying into the wind and perhaps hitting a downdraft.
“Got to keep enough air speed or the plane stops flying,” he said.
Sometimes the computer announced our altitude was 500 feet. At other moments, as Keller flew lower for a better photographic angle, it warned: “Don’t sink. Don’t sink.”
Keller and Heilman, like cagey veterans, were unperturbed, even when Keller noted some pretty strong winds of 20 knots near the end of the 2.4-hour flight. He aborted the first landing attempt, saying we were coming in too fast, then circled the Lake Placid ski jumps, came in again over the trees, lowered and landed.
Look for photos and a story about the old mine in the July/August issue of the Explorer.
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