by Stu Simpson
It’s November. I don’t much care for November because it’s hard to get flying time. November steals more and more sunlight from each day, and the weather’s no fun at all, often being cold and drizzly and generally miserable for days on end. Ya, I know, it happens every year. But I don’t have to like it.
November often reduces me to perusing logbooks and photo albums to get my aviation fix. Instead of actually getting up there doing it, I’m stuck at home in a comfortable chair with a tasty beverage, left to merely reminisce about past adventures aloft. My wife calls it pouting.
But sometimes, if I try really hard, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can smell my leather flight jacket; I can feel the roaring drone of the Rotax; and I can hear the tinny, electronic voices of my wingmen.
Tonight, as I sort gently through some memories, I recall a recent and very exciting aerial adventure, though it was admittedly much more exciting for Freddy than for me.
We were southbound in our Himaxes from that jewel of an airstrip called Kirkby Field. Freddy Wright was supposed to be in echelon off my right wing. To be honest though, I didn’t really know where he was in the formation. We eventually found ourselves a couple of miles south of the Indus Airport.
It was a grand October day; sunny and warm, with virtually no wind. A truly wonderful day to fly. Well, wonderful so long as your airplane keeps all it’s pieces. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Freddy’s radio was pretty scratchy, maybe on account of his antenna installation, and I wasn’t really hearing him that well. Suddenly, his voice filled my earphones:
“Bam, bam, bam. You’re going down, Stu!” he said. Or, rather, that’s what I THOUGHT he said. I pictured Freddy back at my six lining me up like he was the Red Baron, or something. But there was an anxious note in Fred’s voice when there should have been mischief. Somewhat concerned, I asked him to repeat what he’d said, and he did. It sounded just like the first time. I eased into a gentle right bank and asked him where he was.
“I’m right behind you,” he replied, “I’m going down.” It was all instantly clear. Freddy hadn’t said “bam, bam, bam”, he’d said “pan, pan, pan”! He was in the litter box up to his neck, and I thought he was playing Top Gun.
But I’ll tell you, Freddy’s got stones. Not once did I hear even a hint of panic in his voice. He was confident and controlled, and he put that Himax into a damned rough field without so much as a nick in the paint. Even on the ground he was cool as a cucumber.
Turns out his prop came off. Yup, he was just bombing along when the ol’ fan decided to take a left turn for Albuqurque. Freddy made a mistake when he installed the prop and left out a few reinforcing studs on the prop flange.
I beetled back to Indus after Freddy radioed he was alright. There, Don Rogers hitched a flat-deck trailer to his truck. Fred Beck jumped in with us and the Great Himax Rescue was on.
Getting the ‘Max onto the trailer and back to the hangar was a snap. Freddy found the prop the next day, almost perfectly intact, with only one blade cracked. He stuck the two good blades into a two-blade hub and was back in the air a few days later.
Here in my easy chair, I glance out the window and see the November fog has closed in. The house across the street is barely visible. I know with sad certainty that Andy Gustafsson and I won’t be pushing the sky around tomorrow. Hey, that reminds me of the last time Andy and I flew together…
“Dragonfly One to Dragonfly Three,” I radioed Jim, “can you set up off Andy’s right wing so I can get some pictures of you guys?”
Both Andy’s Challenger II and Jim Corner’s float-footed Kitfox were ahead of me and to my left. Andy was just done taking his own inflight snaps of Jim’s plane, and I didn’t want to miss my opportunity.
Jim slipped the ‘Fox expertly into position to the right of, and just behind the Challenger. The Highwood River coursed crazily through the autumn prairie below us, making an excellent background for the pictures.
I spent the next few minutes bopping around the formation taking what pictures I could. Then I heard Fred Beck calling us. But I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself again.
You see, I forgot to mention that we were at Indus a few minutes earlier. Jim, Andy, and I landed there to pick up Freddy Wright for our trip to High River. Jim’s plane was the hit of the day. Gustafsson and I, and our planes, are found at Indus fairly regularly. But Jim’s plane isn’t seen nearly as often and he gets a lot of attention wherever he takes it, especially now the ‘Fox floats.
We chatted with Wright and other members of the Indus Rat Pack for a while, and invited a few Rats along to HR. Fred Beck decided he’d make the jaunt, as did Dave Bolton.
You know, those guys couldn’t own two more diverse airplanes. Beck‘s little yellow Chinook is a single-seat, 28hp, wing-warping, weed-hopper true to the pure form and spirit of ultralight flying. He’s lucky to hit sixty going downhill with a tailwind. Bolton’s plane, on the other hand, is a Quickie. It uses the same engine as Beck’s Chinook, but the tiny Quickie is all fiberglass, and all fast. It screams along faster than a hundred miles an hour.
Everyone agreed that if these two were going to rendezvous with us at High River Beck ought to have taken off yesterday, and Bolton should give the rest of us a couple days head start. In the end, Beck left right after the pre-flight briefing, and Dave promised he’d try to be patient.
Fred Wright, Jim, Andy and I scooted out of Indus. Just after Wright took off he announced his engine was having some minor conniption fit. Freddy was certain he’d make it back to land without any problem. After his grand performance the other day, I didn’t doubt him a bit. He’d try to fix the problem and catch up with us later.
The three of us continued on and soon slid into a an easy ‘V’ formation for the trip south. After we’d all taken each other’s pictures over the Highwood is when we heard Fred Beck calling. And now I’ve got the story back around to where it should be.
Andy and I answered Beck time and again, but he was having radio problems and was only getting part of our transmissions. Suddenly, a white streak flashed by off our right side. It was Bolton showing us the limit of his patience.
Dave, who didn’t have a radio, satisfied himself by making wide 360′s off to the right. Meanwhile, Beck was still receiving us intermittently, but we somehow managed to get a fix on his position. Andy spotted him first, at our 11 o’clock, when we were 9 miles out of HR. He was a bright yellow speck bopping along over the dark, summer-fallowed fields. Our planes steadily overtook the Chinook a couple of miles later.
“Dragonfly Five to Dragonfly One,” called Beck in his cheerful Dutch accent, “where are you guys now?”
“One to Five, we’re just passing high off your left wing,” I replied.
There was silence for a few seconds, then: “Okay, I see you now. You guys really look good up there.” He can be such a charmer.
A few minutes later we switched over to 123.0 and I called High River.
“High River traffic, be advised ultralights Dragonflies 1, 2 and 3 are currently 6 miles north-east of the field at 4300 feet, inbound to cross over mid-field for landing at High River. Over.”
I was surprised to hear someone reply, and equally surprised at what he said.
“Dragonfly 1, the airport is closed. There’s a painting truck on runway 24, and runway 14 is being oiled. It’s your discretion.”
Where does discretion come into it, I wondered? If the airport’s closed, the airport’s closed. Not much need for discretion, just stay away. I could barely make out the trucks working away in the distance like little dinky toys. So much for High River.
I thanked the radio man for his help and called for the Dragonflies to switch back to our enroute frequency. We did try to warn Beck, but just couldn’t reach him with his errant radio. I had no idea where Bolton was.
Fortunately, we had a back-up plan for where to go next. Andy wanted to head west and grab a few aerial snaps of a friend’s acreage about five miles from the airport. Jim and I circled high while Andy immortalized the place on Polaroid. He said later he didn’t want to get too low on account of the buffalo herd in the adjoining pasture. That’s quality planning, if you ask me.
Dave and his Quickie reappeared. He buzzed us a couple more times as we headed north for Okotoks, then he vanished again. Freddy Wright managed to meet up with us in the circuit there and our four planes made an impressive arrival just ahead of a local training flight.
On the ground, we had some munchies and tried to figure out what happened to Bolton and Beck. Andy said he heard Beck call that he was heading back to Indus. We figured Dave likely headed home, too. Then the conversation turned to Bolton’s strip, and it turned out neither Corner nor Wright knew where it was.
“No problem,” said Andy and I, “we’ll show you.” So we saddled up and flew west toward Black Diamond. Once clear of Okotoks, we switched to 123.4. The sun was out again, and it was busy wringing the last few drops of colour out of the foothills before everything turned white.
“Well, fellas,” I radioed happily to my wingmen, “I wonder what the rich folks are doing today.”
“Actually,” said an unfamiliar voice, “the rich folks are wondering why you’re on our frequency.” It was the Black Diamond glider guys, and I think that comment pretty much sums up their whole arrogant attitude.
“Because we’re heading into your area,” I responded. I gave him our position, altitude and intentions. Then we listened and watched as a Cherokee left the airstrip and flew past us on the right.
The gal flying the Piper took a long glance at us and said we “sure look pretty”. Being manly men, of course, each of us would have preferred a more manly adjective, like sexy, or studly, or something. But we sure appreciated her courtesy and class. I hope the glider guy was taking notes.
As I led the flight into the circuit over Dave’s strip, I couldn’t help remembering the time Bernie Kespe got slushed-in there. It was a day last spring, and I landed first. I’ll tell you, hitting the deep, sopping slush on the runway was just like catching a wire on a carrier. Bernie didn’t have his radio so I couldn’t warn him off. Later, on takeoff, I barely made it out, even with the Himax’s tall, skinny wheels. Bernie tried six times to get up to flying speed, but the Renegade’s big, fat tires just wouldn’t let him. He flew it out a few days later.
On the ground at Bolton’s the four of us all enjoyed hearing how Dave had a bit of drama at HR. It was only when he was on short final that he realized the runways were under repair. He goosed it just in time and caught up with us again on our way to Okotoks.
It was time to go home, so we headed back northeast. Once we got north of the Bow, Freddy broke right and made for Indus. Instead of going straight back to Kirkby’s, I decided to stick with my wingmen, at least as far as Andy’s strip, near Delacour. Passing Chestermere, just outside YYC’s control zone, I remarked to Jim how the water must look awfully tempting. Chuckling, he admitted it was so.
We each went our separate ways a few minutes later when we got to Andy’s street. I turned back south, peeling off high and right in a graceful climbing turn. Over my shoulder, I watched Jim follow Andy down; he wanted to see where the Challenger lives. Then, he too headed for home, at Airdrie.
Well, the November fog is even thicker, I’ve run out of stories, and my beverage cup is empty. But even if I don’t have good weather right now, I know I’ve still got things good. Because I know I’ll fly again soon, and I know there’ll be lots more adventure to remember.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go check the forecast one more time.