I loved last month’s issue as always.
The mention in TIL about that plane crash was interesting and it was all true, except for the part about it "crashing", as the plane was actually landing and was 6 inches off the water. Oh! and the part about the pilot being injured, because he didn't have a scratch on him. Of course, the cause being "wind gusts" was all wet (pun intended) because there was no wind at all and the cause of the incident was that the plane’s floats de-laminated. (a rare separation between the top and bottom half's) The plane being recovered was absolutely true. 1 out of 4 is not bad, I guess.
I know you do your darndest to get the stories right and have to rely on others for the facts but as is often the case, dramatic events take on a life of their own and get juicier with each recounting. Some folks were even saying that the plane ran out of gas or that a wing fell off. (!) I hope you can appreciate that at the risk of spoiling a good yarn, I must take exception to the facts stated.
I was the pilot.
In 2000 when we bought Honey Bee Island, I had a secret fantasy to be able to have a float plane here. Needing to renovate the place first meant putting that crazy idea way back on the back burner.
Sometime in 2008, friends were over for a BBQ when they asked why we had a broom stick handle sticking out of the mud by the shore of the island. Janice nonchalantly replied "Oh, that's where Michael wants to put a dock for a float plane he is going to build and learn to fly". They didn't know if they should laugh or cry but they nearly choked. I am far more prone to let the cat out of the bag after he is in it, but she prefers to spill the beans before we get a cat or the bag.
In the summer of 2009, the 3000 parts that comprised the aircraft were delivered with my goal to have it all assembled that summer. Life got in the way but in 2012, I finally took to the air. In 2010, I bought an aircraft carrier (also known by some as a pontoon boat lift) and had a half dozen friends help me position it in the river, in anticipation of building the dock around it for my plane. (In 2015, it was a done deal... but still no floats on the plane .)
Finally this year, after getting my float pilot rating I got to bring it home, making a dream come true.
Landing at the island
The TIAF (Thousand Island Air Force) sea base located at Honey Bee Island was now open for business. The first time I landed at the island, I was so excited I thought I would wet myself. There was testosterone flying all over the place and I was as pumped up as Henry the VIII double fisting cans of Red Bull, eating a turkey leg and demanding another wife to behead!
And now, the rest of the story...
24 hours after I brought the plane home, I took it out for a flight to practice my new landing skills since I was now on water. Flying hundreds of feet over the islands at relatively slow speeds is simply magical and on that day was magnificent. It was all I had ever hoped for and then some. Returning home I came in for a superb landing on Lake of the Isles at the mouth of the International Rift and had, well, an 'incident'.
I won't belabor the situation, but when I touched down on the water the floats delaminated (split in two) and the plane instantly went up on its nose. I didn't fall out of the sky or 'crash', I was 6 inches off the water and landing. Nevertheless, the cockpit filled with muddy water and I went through my emergency egress mental checklist (non-dramatic way of describing crawling out of a cockpit full of muddy water while under water). I didn't have a scratch on me.
Funny how while still under water gargling the St Lawrence, knowing that I was not hurt and would be fine if I just got out of there, my very first though was... "I wonder how much damage there is to the plane and how long it will be before I can fly my baby again?” Having spent 30 years in prison (administration) and 20 of those years with the avocation of a stage illusionist (magician) creating drama, I had just unintentionally created a scene and needed to perform an unrehearsed escape. (See TIL, March 13, 2009) So, I got myself out and didn't bother to inflate my life jacket. Within seconds I was surrounded by boats, but I elected to stay in the water for some time inspecting the plane as it looked perfect, except for the floats and the nose first in 7 feet of water part. A salvage company pulled it out and it went into the shop for repairs.
Naturally, I called my wife the moment it happened and told her I was fine. She was waiting at our dock when the coast guard brought me home later and I sheepishly stepped off their boat. The first words out of her mouth were "fix the plane and get back in the air".
For all those who are yelling "I knew it!" or "I told you so", well, you have the satisfaction of saying you were right. While untrue, ‘Private pilots and small airplanes are inherently dangerous’ goes the popular narrative and unfortunately, this will help reinforce it. Since the incident, I have received both encouragement to "get back on that horse" and admonitions to "learn from this and quit while you are ahead, stupid!". That said, I will never stop flying. I guess this means that other than wanting to prevent this from happening again, I have learned nothing. I had a car accident once too and I didn't give up driving. How about you?
From the first moment, I took total, complete and absolute responsibility for this event. I am not good at blaming other people or things for my mistakes or shortcomings. I may have had over 500 flawless landings on wheels but I only had 6 landings on water so my lack of experience on this medium loomed large. There was this incident; I was the pilot so I was at fault, period. Right? I certainly thought so.
Not so fast.
Over the following weeks, a chorus of dissenting voices began to make themselves heard. Flight instructors, the aviation accident investigator, the manufacturer of the floats, my flight mechanic as well as a slew of other pilots all concluded what became obvious when the floats were inspected post incident: that the floats suffered a rare, catastrophic de-lamination, like a banana being peeled, probably due to issues with age or previous ownership. Ongoing maintenance was not an issue as the floats had undergone a careful inspection days before. There were no breaks, cracks, tears or shredding in the fiberglass anywhere, only a clean smooth separation between the top and bottom half of both floats.
The flight examiner said that there did not appear to be anything I had done - or that he would have done- that would have prevented the accident. The irony did not escape me that the only part on the airplane built by 'professionals' (the floats) failed but that the plane itself that was meticulously hand crafted by a so called 'amateur' (me), operated flawlessly.
I am perfectly aware that if I had a car accident, no one would give a second thought to getting in my car with me afterward and driving off. But in a plane... few will likely want to line up for a ride now. The shame is that I so wanted to share the spectacular beauty of this area from this unique perspective with those interested. It is what it is.
Speaking of which, you can total your car and no one will give a rip. Me, I get my plane wet and I immediately made the 6 o'clock news and the newspaper. I was never contacted by anyone, but people boating by asked "Is it true you ran out of gas?" or "Did the wings really fall off?" Even our beloved Thousand Island Life magazine reported that I had been injured and the cause was "wind gusts". No point letting the truth get in the way of a good story, I guess.
Then again, there was You Tube. Someone sent a drone up to film it all, put it on the two You Tube videos and to date have had just under 7,000 views combined. Meanwhile, the repair progressed at breakneck speed and the plane is expected to be back in the air by the end of September, albeit without floats. My new floats will not be manufactured until October, after we have left for California. June 1 will see my next attempt to re-activate this wing of the Thousand Island Air force. If you spend any time in the islands you will surely see me often, taking in what my friend Ian Coristine has accurately called “The Privileged View”.
By Michael Laprade
Michael Laprade and his wife Janice are retired Californians who spend the summer at their “Honey Bee Island” property. It is located in the International Rift, between Blacksnake Passage at the mouth of Lake of the Isles and the stone span of the US / Canadian customs bridge. Michael, a former prison administrator, and also a professional magician. In October 2013 Michael and Janice wrote Honey Bee Island’s Little Free Library article for TI Life.
Editor’s Note: You can imagine how badly I felt when, the day after publishing my article TI Life Happenings in August 2016, I received the pilot’s letter. Not sure if my reaction was crying first or laughing… but suffice to say I apologized profusely. I certainly did very little homework on that item as the “incident” was covered by several media… and what you read in the paper is always right, Eh! I wrote back… “Michael, you have to tell this story!” and I thank him most profusely for doing so!
P.S. We look forward to looking up and seeing you fly over Sagastaweka Island next summer, please stop by for a coffee.