If Petersburg pilot Rod Judy had taken off from Keku Islands seconds later than he did on a recent trip, he might have collided in mid-air with a humpback whale.
But time was on his side that day and gave him a good story instead one his passenger will never forget.
Judy, a commercial pilot, flew to the islands near Kake last weekend to pick up two U.S. Forest Service employees bound for Petersburg. The floatplane was moving on the water about 50 miles an hour and just about to lift off when a humpback whale suddenly breached in front of the aircraft.
"We were just clearing the water, and right dead ahead of us this thing came clear out of the water. We were staring right into the whale's stomach," said passenger Burl Weller. "It had to be at least 15 feet above the airplane ... you could see under his tail he had air under his tail."
The pilot "just banked the plane to the left, and the whale fell off to the right," added Weller, who estimated the whale missed the wing by 10 feet. "If the whale fell to the left, we would have caught him on the floats."
The pilot's version of the story was less harrowing. Judy estimated the whale breached about 100 feet away from the nose of the aircraft and said it did not pose a threat to the plane. But it was close enough to render Weller speechless, he said.
"The fellow in the front couldn't even talk. He was just sputtering," Judy said. "It was impressive. You could see the whale's eye. I've seen them breach a lot, it's common. But I've never seen one straight in front of the airplane that close."
Judy said it never occurred to him a whale could breach in that area because the islands are close together and the water appears shallow.
"You wouldn't think it would be deep enough for a whale to get momentum to breach," he said.
Breaching whales now will officially go on record as a potential hazard to aircraft. The Forest Service is distributing a notice to its employees nationwide to be on alert for whales when landing or taking off in floatplanes, Weller said.
"This is something that could happen again. Hopefully not. Once in a lifetime is enough," said Weller, laughing.
Although Weller chuckles about the incident now, he sometimes wonders 'What if?'
"If the whale would have breached one second later than what he did, we would have been his necklace."
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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