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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.