Flying High Over Boundary Waters

USFS Beaver Pagami Creek wildfire 2011

 A USFS Beaver flies near a large smoke plume in support of the Pagami Creek wildfire in 2011. Credit: Ken Hupila, Snotty Moose Studios. See more photos from this story on Flickr.

The USDA Forest Service has more than its share of “cool” and interesting jobs. From forest ranger to climate scientist, and firefighter to urban forester and wildlife biologist, there are possibly hundreds of interesting occupations to pick from. One of them is the seaplane pilot.

Imagine getting paid to fly all day in a seaplane, taking off and landing from the water, and flying over some of the most scenic, pristine and remote locations.

Seaplane pilots fly year-round, even in the winter. When there’s not water, ice instead, they use wheel skis all winter. They don’t do as much flying then, but they’re still flying.

Forest Service seaplane pilots support a variety of important mission areas, including fire detection and suppression, search and rescue, wildlife tracking, fish restocking, interagency logistics support, and more. To examine this profession further we interviewed one seaplane pilot, Joel “Henny” Jungemann of northern Minnesota.

The Chicago native, 54, has been flying planes for a long time. You can say it’s in his blood; he comes from a family of pilots.

“My dad was a private pilot, and my oldest brother flew jets in the Air Force,” he said. “So, my other brother and I got into flying. It’s a disease in the family.”

Jungemann began flying professionally back in 1989 in the Navy. He retired in 2014 after 26 years of service and began flying commercially later that year. He has worked for the Forest Service since January 2017. To date, he has logged about 8,500 hours total flight time.

His Forest Service place of operations is the Superior National Forest Seaplane Base in Ely (pronounced “E-Lee”), Minnesota. The Forest Service first started contracting seaplanes in 1929, and they’ve been working out of the hanger facility there since 1941.

“We live in a really isolated place, a town of about 3,500 people. In the summertime it grows to about 15,000-20,000 people. We’re two hours from Duluth, the next major city,” he said.

Seaplanes are often used in remote, roadless areas, such as Canada and Alaska, as well as in the Lower 48 in Washington, Minnesota, Maine and Florida.

“In Florida, seaplanes fly there year-round,” added Jungemann. “There, pilots fly people to the Caribbean Islands and other locations. Seaplanes are used in getting people and supplies into roadless areas. You either have to helicopter them in or do something else without roads. With seaplanes, you have speed and load hauling ability. You can’t get there otherwise,” Jungemann said.

“At work in Minnesota we have three de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver model seaplanes,” he added. “They were designed in the 1940s and built in the 1950s and 1960s. Ours are all 1957, 1959 and 1967 models. The latest plane we got from the Army.”

These planes are tried and tested machines. Their oldest has about 20,500 hours on the clock, and the other two are in the 18,000 range. The Beaver is probably one of the most successful seaplanes ever built, he said. In 1987, Canada named it as one of its top 10 engineering achievements for its country.

“Two of those airplanes the Forest Service bought from de Havilland directly. That’s very rare to have one go to one customer and spend its life in one place,” Jungemann said.

The remote location where they operate is a good place to fly that type of aircraft, as roads are few and far between, and runways are even rarer.

“For us, we’re right outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), a wilderness area. It’s completely contained within the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. The BWCA is about 1 million acres and the Superior is about 3 million acres.”

Jungemann and another pilot assigned there fly the seaplanes throughout the year. He said their full complement is three pilots in total. The Forest Service hired this other pilot in June of this year, and they have a vacancy for a third pilot. Jungemann previously piloted for the base for about two years by himself.

He said their staffing is in a period of change. They are supposed to have three pilots and a full-time mechanic, altogether, plus a seasonal employee, called a “ramper.” During the past two summers the ramper helped out in the ramp area to fuel the plane, load and unload supplies, and other duties.

It’s a busy job. Last year they flew about 369 hours for a total of 147 flights.

Mission Areas

The seaplane pilots there support nine or 10 different Forest Service missions. Supporting fire is their primary focus, though their duties are varied.

“Fire-related ones are our main missions,” Jungemann said. “We moved from being a Superior National Forest asset to being a Regional one, but supporting fire is our main mission. We’re flying the Superior and doing some support for the Chippewa. We might eventually do support for the surrounding states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and potentially Missouri on the Mark Twain.”

“During the spring, summer and fall months we do fire patrols. We do a standard route over the forest and we’re looking for smoke. These are also called detection flights. We’re trying to detect fires at an early stage when they’re small and manageable. The next portion of fire, anytime the plane is on floats, we carry a pickup tube in the airplane and hang a water bombing tank under the fuselage in between the floats. We use that to drop water on fires. Once we pick water up, we slap a handle, and 1,000 lbs. of water drops on the fire. We keep doing that.”

He discussed two other fire missions. “If we get a fire, we’re not going to be effective dropping water on, we’ll do a mission hauling firefighters and their equipment, including a canoe to a spot near the fire, and we keep doing that.”

“The last fire mission we support is prescribed burns to introduce fire back into the eco system and reduce fuels. We provide aerial support for people on the ground conducting prescribed burns.”

Other missions include search and rescue, including medical evacuations. These typically support those recreators who visit the Boundary Waters and find themselves in trouble.

The pilots and aircraft also provide assistance for fish and wildlife work. That may be wildlife surveys, which include aerial telemetry. They use aerial telemetry to track animals with locators throughout the wilderness area in support of the Forest Service, such as the bald eagle. They also use this technique on behalf of other agencies for wolf, deer and beaver surveys.

Supporting fish and wildlife also means delivering fish hatchlings for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR). “We air drop and also land and gently release fish fry into the water to restock lakes. We also help with their fish surveys. We’ll take two DNR biologists with their gear and a canoe and transport them to remote locations,” he said.

They also do tree seeding for the Forest Service with a hopper that they load and drop out of the bottom of the plane. “We also do Forest health surveys. The person with us is searching for wind damage, disease and things like that,” he added.

General aerial surveys are also conducted as needed. “We’ll take Forest Service realty people out for land exchanges, and transport Customs and Border Patrol agents to look for people trying to enter the US illegally, and anything else someone needs to look at from the air. Anyone who needs to see something from the air we’ll take them up on that.”

Jungemann said he has some fond memories of his time as a Forest Service seaplane pilot. The first time he dropped water on a fire was something he will never forget, he said. The multiple times they’ve rescued someone is also very memorable for him.

“I’ll do this work as long as I can stay healthy and keep flying. This is a firefighter type job. You either have to retire at 57, or if you’re a veteran, you can go 20 years potentially.”

What does he like best about flying seaplanes? “You’re not doing runways, you’re constantly monitoring the obstacles, wind, weather, etc. On the water you’re always looking for a stump or rock below the water when you go to land. It’s the freedom of it.”