It’s not even noon yet but the alpacas are already seeking shelter from a blistering sun and cloudless sky beneath a spreading shade tree in the pasture at John Morrow’s 60-acre spread on the Esopus Creek in Lake Katrine. Bumping along the rolling farmland in a Jeep Wrangler, Morrow a farmer, retired state police investigator and Town of Ulster councilman notes that the natives of the cool Andean heights known for producing toasty wool sweaters don’t care for the summer heat. It’s a bad day to be an alpaca, but a pretty good one for Morrow’s other pursuit — soaring above Ulster County’s picturesque landscape in a single-engine amphibious aircraft.
“Can you swim?” the fit-looking 60-something asks his guest while reaching into the Jeep for an inflatable life vest. “Are you afraid of heights?”
Both questions are relevant. Morrow and his passenger are about to use a stretch of creek hemmed in by tall trees as a runway for a flight around the Kingston metropolitan area. Morrow’s plane, a Citabria GCBC, rests on a pair of floats and is roped to a dock. The 1977 model aircraft is small, seating just two, and decidedly analog. In the cockpit, worn-looking wood paneling encases dials, gauges, switches and levers — not an LED display or USB port in sight. The aircraft runs on a 150-horsepower engine, has a top speed of about 100 mph and has a ceiling of 15,000 feet.
“That’s just the manufacturer’s numbers,” Morrow says about the craft’s climbing ability. “You might get to 15,000 feet, but it would take you all day to get there.”
What the Citabria lacks in horsepower, it makes up for in maneuverability. In the fall, he’ll remove the floats, attach landing gear and use the plane to teach aerobatics. In the world of private pilots, where enthusiasts collect “ratings” the way academics reach for degrees, Morrow holds a faculty’s worth of certifications. In addition to aerobatics, he’s earned a certificate as a master flight instructor and clearance to teach seaplane flight, spin recovery, tail-wheel aircraft and FAA safety courses.
Morrow’s father was a pilot and IBM engineer. He took his first flying lesson in 1969 at the height of the post-World War II boom in private aviation. But it wasn’t until 1986 — after he retired from the state police — that Morrow got serious about obtaining certifications and spending time aloft. Since then, he’s flown across the eastern U.S. and Canada while teaching weekend aviators and would-be professional flyers alike the finer points of handling a small aircraft.
Today’s mission is a bit simpler than teaching a rookie how to pull out of a spin or a weekend jaunt to some Midwestern airstrip. Just a low-level flight above Kingston with a not-too-nervous passenger seeking a new perspective on the city.
“That strap’s for aerobatics, to hold you in when you’re flying upside down” said Morrow, pointing to one of the canvas belts that will keep his passenger securely fastened in the cramped rear seat of the Citabria. “We’re not going to do that today though.
After a pre-flight safety check for potential problems ranging from animals nesting in the engine housing to sediment in the fuel, Morrow manhandles the aircraft through the water with a guide rope before jumping aboard and beginning a low-speed cruise down the “runway” while keeping an eye out for swimmers, logs and floating debris. Years ago, when he bought the farm and began using the creek for takeoffs and landing, neighbors expressed concern about the swooping aircraft potentially wreaking havoc on unsuspecting bathers and boaters. But Morrow said, once he explained the safety protocols (thorough visual inspection of takeoff and landing areas) and the regulations (seaplanes can takeoff and land more or less anyplace powerboats are permitted to operate) the furor died down.
“I explained that the first thing is always safety,” said Morrow. “And I’ve never had a problem.”
On takeoff, brown water glides below while the sun glints off the silver pontoons and the wind — we’re flying with the side door removed — pushes back in one’s face. But the eyes, at least the eyes of the uninitiated, are drawn straight ahead and a little above to the corridor of greenery which seems to make for an uncomfortably narrow flight path. Once the plane clears the trees, though, the ride is comfortable and the view stunning. From a few hundred feet up you can make out details — the baselines on a little league field, odd patterns of discoloration on the roofs of TechCity’s industrial sprawl, the bull’s-eye above a Target store at the mall.
Slideshow image: Old Dutch still stands out as the tallest thing in Uptown. (Photo by Jesse J. Smith)