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Original Issue


It's aerial war when tuna spotters fly

When a man tells you, on the phone from Cape Cod, that spotting tuna fish from airplanes is "the closest thing to flying in combat," you are not without skepticism—especially since the fellow sounds like a "country boy" with a slow, aw shucks kind of drawl. You think: a cowboy pilot telling a fish story. The three biggest liars rolled into one.

But Freeman (Trip) Wheeler's wild tales have a way of checking out. Take, for example, the Wheeler Window at Oscar's Grub Stake bar in Crested Butte, Colo., supposedly named in Wheeler's honor because he was thrown through it so often. By coincidence, you are visiting Crested Butte, and you pick up a squat and toothless old bar fighter who is hitchhiking out of town. "Know Trip Wheeler?" you ask.

"Of course," he says. "Trip's got a window named after him at Oscar's." Hmmm.

I am on the eastern shore of Cape Cod—specifically, on the runway at the Chatham (Mass.) Municipal Airport, crammed into the backseat of Wheeler's plane, a single-engine, fabric-covered aircraft called a Citabria. The plane is rated for five-g inside loops in aerobatics competition, but it is currently weighed down with extended-range fuel tanks. "A gas tank with radios" is how Wheeler describes his plane. It would feel claustrophobic, but Wheeler has removed its only door for better spotting.

If tuna spotting is akin to aerial warfare, this is a guerilla exercise. What we will do is scout the big blue-fins for harpooners. The long-liners and seiners have filled their quotas and can no longer legally take the "giants," fat-laden fish that are avidly sought by Japanese buyers for the sushi market.

The Cape is shrouded in fog. Most of the area's 40 or so spotter pilots are grounded by near zero-visibility weather, and have been for almost a week. The seven spotters based at Chatham have been hanging out on the balcony of the Cross-wind Landing Restaurant, fixated on the red warning light flashing between them and the single 3,000-foot runway. The only things getting off the ground are sea gulls; thousands of them either are making low-level bombing runs on the runway to break open clam shells or else are clustering on airplane wings and poking their beaks through the fabric. Wheeler cannot stand the waiting anymore. The two "stick" boats he flies for, the Merilyn J and the Sandra C, are already at sea. Besides, Wheeler has to fly.

A window finally opens in the fog, the red light stops flashing, and Perry (Rampdawg) Rhodes ambles out of the hangar with his 12-gauge shotgun and lets loose a couple of times to scare the gulls. Briefly. Wheeler and one other pilot, Norman St. Pierre, decide to go. I climb into the Citabria behind Wheeler.

In a few minutes, we are headed out to sea, punching through patches of fog underneath the cloud ceiling of 500 feet. Our speed is just above the rate at which the wings flutter. "Low and slow" is the way spotter pilots fly. The traditional pilot's epitaph is "He ran out of airspeed, altitude and ideas."

Wheeler's life has always been the stuff of local legend. He was born in 1944 in Los Angeles, the son of an Army Air Force fighter pilot who "augered in" when Trip was eight. Wheeler's mother then married another fighter pilot, and the family moved to Tripoli, Libya. There Wheeler and his buddies sometimes spent afternoons playing with live mortar shells they found in World War II minefields and fortified caves.

At Western State College in Gunnison, Colo., Wheeler discovered the great love of his life in the form of a small battered airplane called a Taylorcraft, which had to be started by hand-cranking the propeller. The owner of the plane, Bill Rule, encouraged Wheeler to teach himself to fly. Wheeler borrowed some books, did some selective reading and took off. "I continually dinged up the plane," Wheeler admits, but both the old plane and the new pilot survived with no more than a few bumps and dents.

Wheeler's dream was to follow family tradition and become a fighter pilot, so when Navy recruiters came to Western State, he took the test for Officers Candidate School. He passed and, along with 300 other young men from various colleges, was invited to take a weekend-long battery of tests for flight school. At frequent intervals during the testing, lists were posted of those who had been cut. On the last cut, on Sunday afternoon at three o'clock, Wheeler read his name. He persuaded one of the officers to explain why he had been failed. Wheeler had the makings of a fighter pilot, the officer said, except for one thing: The tests had shown him to be "un-trainable." Wheeler ended up in the Army.

Now what entitles Wheeler to talk about flying in combat? Well, nothing. Not officially. But if you press him he'll tell you about Nicaragua and El Salvador. Thanks to men like Oliver North, Wheeler was hired by a "private company" to fly "cargo" missions in Central America. "It was all fun and games until guys started getting shot," he says. "Every one of the pilots I went down there with is dead or has disappeared."

Over the past decade, at least four spotters from the Cape have died in accidents. In September a plane with a two-man crew crashed in the bay. It can happen. Gone. One of the other fatalities was a pilot flying an unfamiliar aircraft, heavily loaded with fuel. He spotted a swordfish, banked the plane too hard and tumbled out of the sky. The fourth, a pilot who worked for a seine boat, was killed after the floats supporting one side of the giant net came loose. The pilot saw the tuna escaping and attempted to drive them back in by buzzing them. He was already famous for an emergency landing on an iceberg, but herding fish was "outside the envelope." One wingtip brushed the water, and the plane broke up.

Nowadays, things are different for spotters. They're worse. Dave Cidale, a longtime spotter who is currently flying F-16 fighters, explains: "When I started spotting fish from airplanes, in 1978, it was man against nature. There were only about 16 pilots. We worked along Georges Bank, 200 miles offshore, looking for swordfish. Just to get into the business you needed a plane with an extra fuel tank, and you expected to fly as much as 14 hours each day. On the other hand, the job was so obviously dangerous that pilots were protected as much as possible. One crewman on each boat was assigned to keep an eye on the spotter plane—watching for other air traffic, fast-moving weather fronts and the like—and the pilots were paid an hourly wage, which about covered expenses, as well as a commission. There were also gentlemen's agreements among the pilots: The first pilot out would pick a territory and the next would spread out; no pilot would fly over another's boat; and at the end of the day, the pilots would often fly back as a squadron."

Cidale recalls that he once led his boat to 30 swordfish in one day. By the early '80s, however, swordfish were becoming scarce, and then the fishing rights to the richest part of the Georges Bank grounds were given by treaty to the Canadians. The Cape spotters began to switch to tuna.

At first, spotting tuna seemed safer than swordfish because tuna swim closer to shore. But proximity tempted more pilots to try their luck. Tuna tend to concentrate in a smaller area, which meant more air congestion. Tuna boats are small, with a crew of two, so there is no one to look after the plane. The only pay is a commission. Even when the price of tuna was about a dollar a pound, the gentlemen's agreements among pilots began to break down. Then the price of tuna shot up.

On Wheeler's dining table is an auction report from Great Circle Fisheries, a company that ships big bluefin tuna to Japan for sushi. For each fish, Great Circle deducted a 16½% commission for the auction house that handled the fish in Japan, a 9% commission for the Stateside buying agent and more than $1,000 in air freight, trucking and packing. Even so, the return to the fishermen was more than $15,000, or $37.32 per pound, for one particular medium-sized bluefin caught in July. Wheeler's finder's fee was 25%, nearly $4,000, for that fish. Another of Wheeler's fish, which looked pretty much the same to him, brought only 83 cents per pound at auction.

Still, you imagine the conversations along the Cape when the news got out: "Thirty-seven bucks a pound! I'm buying a boat."

"Heck with that. I'm buying a plane!"

The unofficial record for one day of fishing is 15 spotter planes stacked at about 50-foot intervals in an area covering less than three square miles. The pilots talk only to their boats, on radios equipped with military-style scramblers, and everyone's eyes are glued straight down. Cidale, the F-16 pilot, says he's getting out of the business and putting his planes up for sale.

Wheeler, the airborne cowboy, is putting down roots. He's building his dream house just outside the airport fence—a one bedroom loft atop a hangar, all disguised as a typical Cape Cod barn. "This is like living a summer-long James Bond movie," he says.

"Hey Norman," Wheeler says into the radio on an unscrambled frequency, to call the only other pilot who went up this day. "If you hear me coming in a cloud, let me know."

We've been flying now for a couple of hours, winding through a maze of heavy, low clouds. We've seen perhaps a hundred humpback whales, several hundred porpoises and thousands of blue-fish, but no sign of a tuna. Wheeler is optimistic, as always. This is a wonderful opportunity because there's no one else around.

Wham! I thought we had found Norman, but it is the sound of the portside window slamming shut as Wheeler banks hard to starboard. The wings are almost perpendicular to the water. Wheeler's left hand works the stick while his right rummages above the control panel for a dye marker—nothing more than a sandwich wrapper filled with three stones and a handful of food coloring. He throws it out the door. The paper bursts on impact, and a green stain grows in the water. Wheeler is now talking on a different radio to Eric Hesse, skipper of the Sandra C.

"On fish!" Wheeler says. "Six or seven giants and they are up on the surface." The next information, the location of the fish in loran C coordinates, is the sort of information for which tuna fisherman have shot at each other. Anyone listening on the frequency, however, will hear something that sounds like gastric distress, thanks to the scrambler.

By definition, a "giant" is a bluefin tuna more than six feet five inches long and weighing more than 300 pounds. On a clear day, from above, they look like purple bowling pins. When they turn on their sides, they flash like mirrors. But on this day, they are just gray blobs, barely visible, swirling around in a tight school. As we circle them, we can see the fish only when the light is right, during a fraction of each turn. The rest of the time, the fish are lost in the glare, and we concentrate on their position in relation to Wheeler's dye marker.

"Each turn is a gift," says Wheeler. At any moment, the fish may choose to dive or a cloud may cut off what's left of the light. The tuna can disappear in the blink of an eye.

We are told that the Sandra C is closing at 20 knots. Three turns later, it is visible coming out of the fog.

"You're at 11 o'clock, 30 boats [boat-lengths away]," says Wheeler. The Sandra C corrects her course, and slows her engine. As she gets closer, any change in the engine noise may cause the fish to spook.

"One o'clock, 10 boats, heading right to left," Wheeler says as the tuna come out of the glare again. The huge fish have strung themselves, one by one, into a silver chain. It looks as if it should be easy to pick one off. On the next turn, however, they've vanished. The Sandra C cuts her engine. The plane levels as our turns get wider.

"Nine o'clock, four boats!" Wheeler shouts. The fish are swirling in a tight circle again, and so are we. On the Sandra C, Hesse climbs down from the crow's nest and makes his way onto the pulpit, a tiny platform with a waist-high railing, 20 feet beyond the tip of the bow. He grasps a harpoon with both hands and leans out over the water. The aluminum shaft of the harpoon is about a dozen feet long. The "dart" at the end is bronze, as in the days of Moby Dick. Hesse cannot yet see the fish, but he hears Wheeler's directions through the loudspeaker on the crow's nest.

"Twelve o'clock, two boats." The fish are still up.

"Ten o'clock, one boat."

Hesse raises his harpoon. Now he sees them. The boat's limit is one fish per day, so he wants the biggest. He also wants the tuna positioned directly beneath him so he can throw straight downward. Otherwise, he must guess their depth and figure the angle of refraction caused by the water. The rule of thumb: If you throw to where you see the fish, you'll throw above it. But there's a second rule: No matter how far away a fish is, if its tail stops moving, throw—the next second, the fish will be gone. If Hesse's harpoon hits, the basket containing 600 feet of line will empty in about 15 seconds as the tuna accelerates to 55 mph.

Hesse is right on top of them. It is his first shot in eight days. This one's for 10 days' worth of boat fuel, Wheeler's airplane fuel and his late payment on his new engine—not to mention rent and several sets of groceries.

Hesse throws. The line runs...and stops.

Wheeler barely winces, and he banks away to find the school once more. About 30 minutes later, the fish come up again and the process starts over. Before nightfall, Hesse will get three shots, but no fish.

The next day, word has spread that this is a good area, and 26 boats gather on the ocean surface, guided by six planes. They behave like schools offish. If one plane banks hard into a turn, as if on a fish, another plane closes in. If one boat sends a man onto the pulpit, 20 other boats change direction. Two boats working together can sometimes outsmart the pack, by sending one boat racing in the wrong direction with a man on the pulpit. But such diversions backfire as often as not. "Getting a shot in the crowd is just a matter of luck," says Hesse.

At one point Wheeler calls to the Merilyn J, asking for the radio frequency of another pilot who must have been concentrating too hard on the water. "He flew right underneath me," says Wheeler. "His rudder went between my wheels. Missed my prop by about two feet."

"You okay?" asks Ron Lien, skipper of the Merilyn J.

"No big deal." Wheeler laughs. "I would have survived."

At 11:30 p.m. Wheeler's home is dark, but the front door is wide open. Down the hall the door to Wheeler's bedroom is also open. He's on his knees, saying his prayers. Wheeler flew 10 hours today—over Cape Cod Bay, around the tip of the Cape to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard—and did not see a single fish. Nothing. Tomorrow, he says, we're going 60 miles out. "Don't let me forget to take the life raft," he says.



Wheeler scans the ocean for giants. When he locates a fish he guides the harpoon boat to within feet of the bluefin (inset).



Wheeler (left) and Hesse flank a buyer. Sushi-grade tuna (inset) is flown to Japan the day it is caught.



[See caption above.]



Harpooning and boating a tuna are only part of the job for the two-man boat crew; keeping it fresh is also essential.

Stephen Kiesling is a free-lance writer who lives in New York City.