First published in The Record, Feb. 1, 2018
The Coast Guard’s (aging) eyes in the sky
Frederick G. Simmons was flying 1,800 feet above the frozen Hudson River when he decided to dive.
He pushed the stick forward, sending his plane into a corkscrew turn. The left wing flicked down toward the treetops and the rip-snorting motor sent quivers of strain and power back through the cabin as the front glass filled with a view of white-blue ice.
At the center of all this rattle and shimmy sat Simmons, still and calm. He pulled the stick gradually back into his lap. The plane eased out of the dive, its wings buzzing the river at an altitude of 200 feet.
A quarter-mile ahead was the Penobscot Bay, an icebreaking ship operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, sailing southbound. Simmons sent his plane into another turn, dropping his right wing to give Crosby Kearsley, his co-pilot, an unobstructed view of the boat.
“Talk to me,” Simmons said to Kearsley. “Did you get it?”
“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Kearsley said, aiming his cellphone out the window to take pictures of the boat and the ice. “I think I got it.”
Simmons is 76. Kearsley is 86. Both are volunteers. The plane, which Simmons owns, is a 45-year-old throwback with fabric skin stretched over wings made of mahogany and Sitka spruce.
On first impression, this craft and crew appear outmatched by their mission, which is to help the economies of New Jersey, New York City and the Northeast survive the winter.
“Our job is to be the eyes of the Coast Guard on the river,” said Simmons, of Lake Hiawatha. A former Army paratrooper, he served until recently as commander of the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s First District, Southern Division, which covers New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and western Vermont. “We can cover a lot more ground than one of their ships.”
The work performed by Simmons, Kearsley and their fellow pilots and observers is essential, and mostly invisible. Every day, tugboats push barges filled with natural gas from a pipeline terminal in Albany down the Hudson River to refineries in New Jersey. Other barges go north, supplying natural gas, diesel and gasoline to upstate New York and New England.
More than 90 percent of the heating oil used by homeowners in the Northeast travels by barge on waterways prone to winter ice, according to the Coast Guard. If the ice spreads across the river and locks into place, the barges can’t sail.
Without those deliveries, New Jersey’s refineries close and the trucks, businesses and homes of the Northeast run out of fuel. The auxiliary's work has been especially important during this topsy-turvy winter, as cold snaps and sudden warm spells have caused ice to gather and dissipate quickly.
“This is the iciest winter we’ve had in a few years,” Simmons said. “And we still have February and March to go.”
To prevent a cascading economic disaster, auxiliary members fly up and down the river once a day in the winter when the sky is clear. They report ice conditions to the Coast Guard, which uses the information to plan routes for its icebreaker fleet.
Simmons supplies the plane. He pays $710 a month to park it in a hangar at Essex County Airport in Fairfield. He covers most of his own expenses, including regular engine overhauls, which cost $50,000 each.
He retired a few years ago from running a restaurant and catering service. The only support he receives from the Coast Guard is reimbursement for his fuel, a little money toward maintenance and a pea green flight suit, which he keeps pressed and shiny.
He finds this trade acceptable.
“I could be a couch potato. I could weigh 250 pounds,” Simmons said. With his quick walk and some pepper left in his trimmed white beard, he could pass for 56 instead of 76. “I’m not bragging, but I’m in good shape” he said. “This work gives me purpose to wake up in the morning, and it keeps you sharp.”
Taking to the sky
At 11 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Simmons prepared two visitors for a flight up the Hudson River by announcing his intention not to crash into water.
“I’m not going to bring life preservers with us,” he said. “If there’s a problem, I’ll put us down on the ground or in a bush.”
Believing his passengers’ nerves sufficiently calmed, Simmons performed pre-flight checks on his Bellanca Super Viking. At a few minutes after noon, he taxied to the runway, released the brakes, accelerated to 80 knots, and took off.
Visibility was perfect, with no clouds and an air temperature of 18 degrees. The ground was covered in a thin layer of snow and a light blue mist.
Inside the cockpit it was cold, cramped, loud and bumpy. In crosswinds, the tail skidded side to side.
“We have a lot of drift in this aircraft,” Simmons said.
Simmons flew northeast over Bergen County straight for the Tappan Zee Bridge. He popped over the Palisades and banked, giving Kearsley a long look at the wide river.
It is said the Inuit people of northern Canada have more than 50 words to describe ice and snow. Simmons and Kearsley have three: drift, fixed and track. Drift ice flows freely, taking any shape from little chunks to oblong plates hundreds of yards long. Fixed ice is as it sounds, a solid sheet that’s fixed in place and blocks the river from bank to bank.
Track ice is not as it sounds. When one thinks of a track big enough for commercial ships on the Hudson River, one might imagine a broad riverine highway.
A track is nothing like that. It is carved primarily by the Penobscot Bay, which is just 37.5 feet wide. After the icebreaker passes it leaves not a freeway but rather a slim canal barely wide enough for barges to slip through.
Kearsely had not volunteered with the auxiliary since last summer, he said, when health problems prevented him from flying. On this, his first flight back, he got confused, mistaking a tugboat’s wake through drift ice for a track.
Simmons wrinkled his nose.
“That’s not a track,” Simmons said. “I’ll show you a track.”
Near West Point, New York, the track appeared, a sliver of aquamarine bounded by expanses of white. Every 10 miles or so the track split in two, and a stubby bypass jutted out like a jughandle on a New Jersey highway. These second cuts serve as passing lanes, giving northbound tugs just enough space to leave the main channel, stop, and allow oncoming ships to pass southbound with the river’s current.
From the Tappan Zee north, Simmons kept the track to his left, veering west at Poughkeepsie, Hyde Park, the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and other spots where ice typically bunches up. At each spot he traced a long S-curve, flying perpendicular to the river so Kearsley could document the ice.
This waltz continued at 140 knots all the way to Troy, where the track ended in a wall of ice. Simmons turned for home.
Once he passed the Penobscot Bay, and once a Coast Guard buoy maintenance ship. Each time Simmons sent the Super Viking into a dive, passing within a few hundred feet of the ship. Each time Kearsley turned in his seat and snapped pictures with his iPhone.
Banking, diving, buzzing Coast Guard ships. Short of jumping out with a parachute, it was about the most exciting trip anyone could take in a civilian airplane.
If Simmons was excited, he never showed it.
“It’s not like you go out and fly wherever you want,” he said. “There’s order, there’s a structure, there’s a chain of command. I like that.”