By Tom Woodman
“Lake Placid control: experimental craft, eight, four, one Echo Mike preparing to take off…”
Driving to meet Ed McNeil this morning I worried that after thirty-six years in journalism I might be in danger of violating one of my important rules: never whimper.
And as I hear Ed’s voice in the headphones of my cloth helmet I understand that I’m about to find out.
I have a fear of heights that can verge on immobilizing. Yet I’m sitting behind Ed in the open cockpit of a small two-seater AirCam floatplane with Ed showing every intention of beginning this flight.
I decide not to dwell on the term “experimental.” It must be some sort of aeronautical term of art. It’s true Ed built this aircraft himself from a kit. But he’s been flying the twenty-eight-foot, twin-engine plane on scientific missions throughout the Adirondacks for years. And the plane’s lineage is distinguished, the first one having been designed in 1993 for National Geographic to do aerial photography over the Ndoki Rain Forest in northern Congo. Ed designed the floats and their attachments for his version.
We turn from the taxiway at the Lake Placid Airport onto a runway, and with no fuss and surprisingly little speed the plane lifts into the air. The sides of the cockpit come about as high as the base of an open car window. I rest my arms on them, prepared to clench them in a death grip.
No need. The flight is as smooth and fright-free as you can imagine.
The aircraft is perfectly suited for the work Ed has done with scientists and photographers roving the Adirondack Park. It needs very little room for landing or taking off, and so Ed and researcher Charlie Canham of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies flew it to 520 lakes, taking water samples to measure nitrogen levels. Their work helped make the case for more stringent federal regulations on nitrogen-oxide emissions.
“This plane can land and take off in as little as 250 feet,” Ed says. “That can get us into a lot of Adirondack waters. Other planes can land in a short distance, but the key is takeoff. They need more room to get up to speed.”
And the AirCam can fly low and slow, with a stall speed of just thirty-nine miles an hour. On a typical photo flight, with a high-definition video camera mounted on its nose and a still photographer in the second seat, Ed flies at about fifty miles an hour, the speed he calculates is the most stable and vibration free.
He is currently documenting different ecological zones for Wildlife Conservation Society ecologist Jerry Jenkins’s Northern Forest Atlas Project. The project’s goal is to use video, photos, and graphics to create in both print and digital media a natural history of the Northern Forest from the Canadian Maritimes to the American Midwest.
Ed is a retired engineer and commercial developer who now spends his time flying, writing, and making films in the service of environmental protection.
“Lake Placid Control: experimental craft, eight, four, one Echo Mike preparing to make float landing on Lake Oseetah …”
From Lake Placid we’ve flown northwest over the railroad line toward Saranac Lake. It’s colder aloft than on the ground, and of course we’re exposed to the wind created by our air speed. But I’m comfortable in a leather jacket and an inflatable life jacket Ed has provided. (Since a water landing is a certainty on this flight, not the “unlikely event” the airline flight attendants describe, I paid close attention to his instructions for inflating the flotation device.)
After climbing to clear Scarface Mountain, we descend toward Oseetah. I see Ed peering over first one side, then the other. In my headphones I hear him checking off confirmation that the wheels located in the middle and front of the floats have retracted.
“Main. Nose. Nose. And another main.”
They’re all tucked away as we bank right, drop gracefully, and land as lightly as a dragonfly on the smooth surface of the lake. I’m not sure we have actually touched down till I look over the side and see the small wake we create.
Ed says that when he and Canham were taking water samples they would land, Charlie would lower a pole with a jar rigged on the end to a specified depth and pull the sample into the cockpit. They would be on their way in two minutes and could sample twelve or sixteen lakes in a day.
Takeoff from Oseetah feels like a speedboat throttling up, and in a moment we once again climb steeply into the sky.
On the return to Lake Placid we cruise low over the meadows and meandering waters of the Chubb River, a classic Adirondack scene with verdant green open lands framed by thick forest.
“I keep hoping to see a moose here,” Ed says.
And it does seem like very moosey habitat. He points out a path that wildlife has beaten from the corner of the forest to a watering spot.
We continue downstream over the Chubb, turning lazily back and forth with the meanders. Then something catches Ed’s eye.
“What’s that?” he cries as we dart to the left in a banked turn that cants us at a thirty-degree angle.
It’s just the upturned root base of a fallen tree. No moose this time.
Passing the ski jumps and Olympic torch we approach the airfield.
“Lake Placid Control: experimental craft, eight, four, one Echo Mike preparing to land at Lake Placid Airport.”
“Landing gear down. Main. Nose. Nose. And another main.”