Your stomach is at your knees when the engine groans and the little plane begins to fall backward out of the sky. The steering wheel vibrates and the instruments spin under dirty glass, unsure what to make of your folly. You wish you’d stayed in bed that morning; a bed that would look like it fit on the head of a needle if you could see it from 700 feet.
And then “Dynamite” Dick Ford, your flying companion, eases the wheel and the old Ercoup rights. The propeller begins chewing air again. You’ve survived your second dead stall of the morning.
“Easy as pie,” says Dick, who’s been tempting fate with his airplane, motorcycle and other toys since before World War II.
His nickname, he’d told you over the lawnmower-like buzz of the engine, came from a botched attempt to dig a canal the “easy” way, nearly 50 years ago. It involved a truck full of TNT, a long wick and probably some beers. Those were the good old days, when a fellow didn’t need permits (he claims) to buy explosives or divert the natural flow of water.
Your sweaty hands have been on the wheel the whole time; each of you has a wheel against your belly in the tiny cockpit where you sit shoulder to shoulder. “You’re flying!” Dick had said, letting go of his wheel with all but one pinky. You wonder what kind of man would relinquish control of his plane to a kid who’d never sat in a cockpit before. Perhaps his zealous undertaking of the stalls is a good indication.
The initial purpose of the flight had been to see from above what you’d experienced on the ground all week, making your hunting trip a bust: the utter absence of migratory ducks on the lower Delmarva Peninsula.
In the plane, it’s obvious. You look down over the serpentine creeks and endless acres of marshland. Nowhere are the telltale rafts of black specks, not out in deep water, not inland on ponds. The winter has just been too damn warm; the vast migrations of diving ducks — blackheads, redheads and canvasbacks — never occurred. They were never flushed far from their breeding grounds in the Canadian north by freezing temperatures. The few marsh ducks that are scattered around have been shot at for months and are wary of your decoys and calling.
Dick knew all that before you even took off. He’s been hunting, and flying this area for more years than you’ve been alive and knows when and where the shooting will be good. He hasn’t bothered to make a go at ducks this year, although the geese are around in droves and he has tasted a few since the season opened.
You make a pass at your own place, dropping out of the sky like it’s Midway. You’re level with the flag fluttering from the pole in front of the porch, about 30 feet off the ground, banking around the peninsula where your duck blind sits. You’d been sitting in that blind an hour before. One of the fellows who’d been sitting there with you is now wading out in the river, throwing the decoys in a boat. He’d called it quits. Smart move, from what you’d seen. He gives a thumbs up as you whir by at 65 miles an hour.
As you head back toward the airstrip and then come in for a landing — actually the first of two landings because Dick wants you to feel a landing in a crosswind and a landing on grass — a raft of Canada geese flutter off at the terrifying sound of your approach.
Feeling confident now, having returned from the brink — maybe even a little bold — one thing becomes quite clear. If there are no ducks this season, you’ll have to put all your energy into geese. There are a hundred goose decoys in the shed donning fresh coats of paint; you know they’ll all look great bobbing out in the river.