Daniel Schmiedt came out to the Frying Pan Tower by helicopter and his adventure began. In Dan’s own words:
I decided to drive to Southport on Thursday evening. What if I got a flat tire on the way down in the wee early hours of Friday, I wondered? So, I found a Hampton Inn online and reserved a room. As soon as I got things sort of wrapped up for the day with work, I double-checked everything and pointed the Jetta towards the East.
Interstates led me in the right direction and I passed the time talking on the phone. Sunlight gave way to darkness and soon I was in North Carolina. I turned off of the interstate and followed a small two-lane road through low lands towards the coast. Thunderstorms dramatically lit the sky ahead of me and I felt a bit apprehensive.
After a long while, I emerged in front of the Hampton inn. I put on my mask, grabbed my bags, and checked in. I drank the two beers I brought with me, read for a few minutes, and then went out like a light.
In the morning, I showered, got dressed and headed out the door towards the airport. My compatriots for this trip were already lined up at the gate of the helicopter operation. The pilot pulled up, unlocked the gate, and let us in.
We introduced ourselves, gathered our gear, and stood on the large scale that was built into the deck. We had 620 lbs of payload on each flight. People and packages were divvied up, and soon the first flight was loaded.
Makayla the pilot briefed everyone on safety procedures, and the first three passengers loaded into the Robinson R44.
In an instant, they were hovering into the wind and sliding sideways towards the runway. Then they were gone.
I looked at the radar on my aviation weather app and saw that storms were awfully close to the tower.
After an hour, the helicopter returned and Mikayla landed the chopper and stared at her display for some time. She shut the engine off, stepped out of the bird, and walked towards us.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t look good. Best case, 30 minutes; worst case, tomorrow morning.”
Kevin, Mary, Mary’s daughter, her grandkids, Makayla, and I spent the morning and early afternoon getting to know each other. Kevin was from Raleigh; Mary was a former paratrooper from Fayetteville, and Makayla had learned to fly helicopters a few years ago in Oregon.
I finally admitted to being a fixed wing pilot and she laughed. “I bet you fly a taildragger, don’t you?” She asked.
I told her about the Luscombe and she said, “You need to take a lesson in a helicopter. I bet you’d do great.”
We watched the radar and watched the thunderstorm cells graze by the tower. Maybe in 30 minutes? Mary glanced at my phone and casually said, “I bet it’ll be about 2pm.”
She was exactly right. A window in the storms appeared, and we loaded into the helicopter. Soon, we lifted into a hover and stepped sideways into the wind. The skydive operator asked if we could help find a parachute they’d had to cut loose. We spotted it just south of the airport and sent them the coordinates.
Then we headed East, towards the tower. I wondered when we would start moving in ernest, and found the airspeed indicator; we were already moving at 100 knots.
We passed over Bald Head island and were soon a tiny speck over an enormous blue ocean. Clouds and haze appeared on the horizon. Makayla and I agreed that a turn to the south was a good idea, and after a while the horizon emerged again.
“I see the tower!” Makayla announced. I strained to see ahead and finally saw a tiny stick appear in the haze. It grew larger but still looked impossibly small, and I wondered how in the hell we could land there.
Makayla lined up with the wind and slowly the tower got bigger until she gently set us on its deck. Richard was waiting for us in a lawn chair.
We opened our doors, removed our luggage, and thanked Makayla. Doors closed, and Makayla gave us a wave, lifted off, and took off towards the west.
Richard gave us a tour of the tower. It seemed like a ship that hovered over the ocean. We found our bedrooms, made our beds, and changed into work clothes.
We joined Vance, the welder, and Matt in giant water tank under the tower’s floor. I was given a grinder, a mask, safety glasses, and set to work grinding away rust barnacles.
After some time, Richard tapped us in the shoulder and told us that was enough for today.
He set us up with fishing rods and we caught a number of small bait fish. Kevin snared a Barracuda and fought him for some time, eventually losing him.
I found Matt in the kitchen and we set to work making dinner. He cooked spaghetti and I concocted a stew of some onions, beans, and corn.
Richard called us to the upper deck to watch the sunset and we watched the sun turn the western sky golden, then watched the orange orb slip below the horizon. Back in the kitchen, we served our dinner and sat together in the dining room, telling stories of the day.
Mary, Vance, and Kevin went to work scrubbing the kitchen clean. We all eventually made it to the top deck to watch the stars come out.
As the darkness emerged from the day, we were astonished to see the Milky Way appear so obviously. I was frustrated that my camera could not see what my eyes so clearly saw.
We stared at the stars and pointed out shooting stars.
One by one, we slipped away to bed, clanking down the stairs to the main level.
Dan says it well. Each volunteer work trip is an adventure with unknown challenges and new friends to meet and work together with to help bring the Frying Pan Tower back to life for another 50+ years of service! Watch for part 3 coming soon!
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