This story is from Burke Mees, aviateur extraordinaire. (I use the French because he also happens to be fluent in that language.) He knows Alaska skies like few others, but this was different.
Urban Bush Flying in the Grumman Goose
I am no stranger to the bush; inhospitable environments, landing in fast rivers, anchoring in the current, contending with large waves generated by open water. My last foray into these particular conditions involved leaving my comfortable home in Alaska and venturing from from civilization into the wild bush environment of urban Chicago.
I had received an invitation from Jay Tuthill, owner of the Midway-based Goose, N21A, to join him in a day of flying. The plan was to fly retired Air Force General John Borling to a series of appearances where he would announce his candidacy for U.S. Senate. This included some serious destinations, river flying, semi-open water landings in Lake Michigan; in short, major bush operations in the concrete jungle.
The day started out as an early morning launch under a stratus layer to negotiate our way through a gauntlet of complex airspace and staccato controllers. We had the standard radio exchanges with Chicago Approach as you might expect from an urban bush operation.
" Alpha, Chicago approach, we lost you on radar, are you still with us?"
"Roger. We're down here on the deck over the lake."
"Roger. Maintain present squawk; we'll give you flight following if we see you again."
Soon we turned inland and made our way to our first destination, a stretch of the Rock River flowing through downtown Rockford, Illinois. We selected a straight section that had obstacles at both ends, turned final over a bridge and landed upstream into the wind. After we came off the step, I climbed forward into the bow, opened the door to throw out the anchor, and the airplane came to hang in the current just in front of our first destination. A skiff picked us up and brought us to shore, where John announced his candidacy in front of a handful of TV cameras. The General said that was getting his campaign off to a flying start; that he wanted to make a splash. After an hour of talking with the media, the campaign took off as we departed the river and set a course for downtown Chicago.
This stop would make a political statement in itself considering the recent Meigs Field closure. Mayor Daley shut Meigs in a midnight maneuver that resembled a Haitian coup, all for the purpose of keeping airplanes away from downtown.
The water on Lake Michigan was big, with a 25-knot onshore wind driving a large swell. The area immediately adjacent to the city center is partially protected, but the swell was refracting through gaps in the breakwater, spreading out in concentric half-circles and reflecting off the seawalls of Navy Pier. This disjointed swell on top of a decent sized wind chop resulted in a somewhat confused sea-state inside the breakwater. And that is where the reason for my presence came up; to provide some guidance on the general philosophical issue of how big of water is too big. In a Goose, you can't definitively answer this question until you smash through a few waves to feel them out. We turned a tight base along Oak Street Beach onto a short final parallel to Navy Pier and did just that. After the second prolonged pitching and heaving touch-and-go, failing to find a stretch of water good enough to come off the step, we all concurred that this water met all the criteria for being too big, even by Bering Sea standards. We climbed out and set a course for the next destination.
Enroute to our next stop, I remarked on what a good time I was having and mentioned that this urban adventure might make a good topic for a Water Flying article, proposing yet another source of media exposure for the candidate. Then I turned to him and asked, "General, do you have any kind of statement you'd like to make to the Illinois Water Flying community?"
Without any hesitation he replied, "Yes, I think downtown Chicago has a real need for better seaplane access."
Then as if to elaborate on that point, he continued, "That landing in the harbor was reminiscent of some of my U-2 landings. On a few of those, someone in the airplane was screaming, and that person was me"
The thought occurred to me that if he ever goes on to become President, the Secret Service probably won’t let him travel like this any more.
At our next stop, Jay made a nice crosswind landing on wheels, and we dropped off the general, who went on to tour the rest of the state via wheelplane. We took off to return to Midway.
Word travels fast in bush Alaska. Anything you do in one village is instantaneously known in the next, and it is no different in the big village of Chicago. When we checked in with Midway Tower, the controller asked if we were arriving from the downtown harbor; he’d heard we had been there.
That night in my hotel room, I turned on the TV and noted that urban bush flying is not the solitary, anonymous activity that it is in Alaska. The evening news had footage of the airplane, along with an interview with the General. When described bypassing the downtown stop due to rough water, he got in a jab at the Meigs closure by noting what good access to the city center it used to provide. The TV station gave Mayor Daley a chance to respond to this, and he appeared on the screen saying, "I don’t care where he lands", with an irritation in his voice that seemed to acknowledge defeat. He went on to make some mumbling derogatory comment about how people should find better ways to use their time.
Feeling the satisfaction of a good day of flying, I turned off the television, sat back on my bed, and pondered Mayor Daley’s words. I wondered, what could possibly be a better use of my time on a September day in Chicago than to explore the city in a Grumman? Nothing came to mind.