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Bob Wakeham: When memory takes flight

['A water bomber with the Department of Natural Resources drops a load of water on a forest fire near Cochrane Pond Tuesday afternoon. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram']
A water bomber with the Department of Natural Resources drops a load of water on a forest fire near Cochrane Pond in this June 2017 photo. — Telegram file photo

It may be a symptom common to the geriatric set, the 65-plus crowd, but I find of late my memory neurons are in almost constant overdrive, directing me to the highway of nostalgia with even the slightest provocation.

Bob Wakeham
Bob Wakeham

It could be I’m living in the past, the swing down memory lane that used to drive me cracked when forced to fake interest as a young fella and some old-timer was bending my ear.

Anyway, I’m there now (in old-timer mode, I mean), and simply embrace these free seats on the Newfoundland time machine whenever they happen along.

This particular week, for instance, as I watched, with much guilt, parts of the wedding of the bad boy of the Royals and his B-list television actress, I began to recollect when the Queen visited Gander, and we were forced to stand on the road near our school, waving Union Jacks. Liz and Phil whipped by us so quickly it was impossible to tell just who was in that car, the first one most of us had ever seen with the top down. Later we were told, perhaps by a Catholic provocateur trying to stir up some homespun bigotry, that our visitors from across the pond had actually stopped for a few minutes in front of the “Amalgamated School” so the Protestants, the “blacks,” could fawn over their non-Catholic heroes.

But it was the amazing video shown the other evening of a water-bomber flying (or lumbering along) a couple of hundred feet above the ground in New Harbour that really engaged my memory bank, prompting recollections of my own flights on identical aircraft, and of other aerial adventures that seemed to occur with regularity during my active journalistic days, a time when fear was rarely part of my makeup, when I lived constantly on the edge, on and off the job (or perhaps when I was just a sucker for punishment).

I actually took two trips on a water-bomber, the first with The Evening Telegram back in the mid ’70s, when the newsroom boss, Bill Kelly, asked at the morning editorial meeting for a volunteer to write a story on the planes and their crews. I jumped at the chance, igniting laughter and relief from my colleagues, none of whom wished to fly in a Second World War vintage aircraft that made its living “scooping” water off Newfoundland lakes and dropping its cargo on forest fires.

There was no fire, and the flight was a training exercise, but that didn’t diminish the near terror I felt while strapped tightly in my seat, just behind the pilot and copilot.

It was like being inside a gigantic skimming stone as the crew brought the bomber down on Paddy’s Pond, allowing it to bounce (for want of a better word) along the surface, sucking up water into its tanks, and making sure the engines were at the precise speed required to do their job; it was akin to being part of a crash landing that was averted at the last second.

When the “scoop” was concluded (and I had reassured myself I had not had a non-scheduled bowel movement), and we headed upwards in what I thought to be a dramatic angle, I climbed closer to the two crewmen and shouted (you could barely hear yourself think above the roar of the engines) that they had put me in panic mode for a few anxious minutes.

“Well, wait till we drop it,” one of them laughed.

And sure enough, when the monstrous load of water left the plane, the dramatic loss in weight forced the plane to rise straight up, like an elevator, at a gut-churning and sudden rate of speed.

Forever the masochist, I volunteered to do the same sort of piece for CBC “Here and Now” a few years later, this time with cameraman Keith Whalen and soundman Al Crocker sharing the flight and the fright.

On another occasion, back in my newspaper days, I volunteered to be a passenger aboard a search and rescue Buffalo aircraft as it flew the coastline looking for a missing longliner, flying for nine hours about 500 feet above the ocean in what the crew labelled a “coast crawl.”

It was like being inside a gigantic skimming stone as the crew brought the bomber down on Paddy’s Pond, allowing it to bounce (for want of a better word) along the surface, sucking up water into its tanks, and making sure the engines were at the precise speed required to do their job; it was akin to being part of a crash landing that was averted at the last second.

The Buffalo behaved like a kite as the crew fought to keep it under control, and it was nerve-racking. In fact, after spotting the flight engineer and one of the pilots throwing up, I ignored my macho efforts to keep my breakfast down and followed suit, as did the photographer on the trip, Bill Coultas. There was some gallows humour on my part that forced Bill to join the upchuck party, but I’ll spare you the graphic details.

There was also an abundance of hairy helicopter trips during my days as a reporter — flying, for example, through a blizzard, the view obliterated at numerous times by whiteouts from Bishop’s Falls to Corner Brook during an election campaign.

Some of those chopper rides were exhilarating — one in particular I made with cameraman Ty Evans and sound technician Arlene Dillon at Saglek Bay, Labrador, a flight that included a couple of hours along the coastline with one of the doors removed to supply a better vantage point for the shoot. It seemed as if you could just reach out and touch the cliffs and the crashing waves below.

The adrenalin flowed.

On that same trip, we landed atop one of Saglek’s magnificent mountains, climbed out and quietly ate our lunch, trying to comprehend the stunning, surreal setting.

The memories abound of such flights, some scary, others thrilling, all of them awaiting an occasion when those Skipper Bob recollection neurons decide to kick in.

Lucky you.

Or not.

Other columns by this author

Bob Wakeham: Bullying, blood sports and body checks

Bob Wakeham: Bourdain's take on Newfoundland was moreish

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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