by: Greta Mart, KCAW – Sitka
A 48-second YouTube video catching the swift reactions of a Sitka floatplane pilot went viral this past week. KCAW’s Greta Mart tracked down the pilot and the man who took the video to bring us the full story of how a routine flight in Southeast Alaska made waves on news programs and websites around the world.
“…And a close call for the pilot of a pontoon plane in Alaska who just narrowly missed landing right on a humpback whale near Angoon…take a look here you’ll see just before the plane hits the water, the pilot then pulls up and then lands safely a few feet later…”
“My name is Rob Murray. I’m chief pilot at Harris Air in Sitka.”
On the morning of July tenth, Murray was flying four passengers into the small Southeast community of Angoon, coming down for a landing in Mitchell Bay.
“I didn’t see the whale…I was definitely looking right at the spot where the whale turned out to be…the first thing that I saw was just before touchdown was the spray, so thank god the whale decided to exhale because that is what I saw.”
San Diego resident Thomas Hamm was waiting for a flight back to Juneau when he decided to whip out his smart phone to record Murray coming in for a landing. A pilot himself, Hamm said he started recording because
“I love airplanes and I’ve never really seen a floatplane land…”
While he was focused on the landing plane…
Hamm: “Everybody else was looking at the whale, which had been in that area all morning, for at least for the hour we had been down there awaiting the plane to come in. ”
Murray: “With the salmon returning there have been a lot of whales around so they’ve been on everyone’s mind all over the region…flying floatplanes for sure…and it was obvious when the whale spouted that that is what it was….so it was just a basic go-around technique just full power and get the nose up so you can climb and keep from touching down..”
In the video, the plane nearly lands on the surfacing whale, but the pilot yanks up the nose, hovering above the surface just long enough to pass the whale before lightly touching down.
Hamm: “The only thing he said was that it drenched the windscreen.”
Murray: “It’s a fairly routine thing, most pilots practice it…and even the wheel planes that go into places like Kake and Hoonah where there are bear and deer crossing the runway… it’s a fairly routine thing in southeast Alaska to have wildlife in the way where you want to land…it just happened to be a whale this time.”
After the plane landed, Hamm promised to send around a copy of the video, but his emails didn’t go through.
“And I thought, the only thing I can do is put it on YouTube, which I’ve never done before …I’ve never uploaded a video…ever. So I think that works great. So I send a link and as soon as that happened I started getting views on it. I thought that’s interesting, I don’t even know these people who are viewing it.”
By Tuesday morning, NBC anchors Matt Lauer and Al Roker showed the video and cracked jokes about the near-miss on the Today Show. News outlets from CNN to to the Chicago Tribune to the United Kingdom’s Mirror and Telegraph online sites featured the story. As of July 17, the video had just under half a million views on YouTube — and climbing.
But for Murray, it was just part of the job.
Murray: “I’ve been flying for ten years in southeast alaska and most of it been float flying I know there are old timers out there that have probably done this scores of times… a lot of other pilots out there that are highly skilled that this kind of thing has happened to and it just happened to be a day where someone was filming…this time…yea, flying Southeast Alaska…it’s pretty fun. ”
Hamm “The Alaska bush pilots are some of the most phenomenal pilots I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s probably the most important thing. The flights we took both to Hoonah and later to Angoon on these small planes… just the conditions, low ceilings, low visibilities, I don’t know, I was just beyond impressed by their skill.”
Hamm says he’s grateful for that skill — and so, most likely, is the whale.
A link to the video can be found on the KCAW website.