by Stu Simpson
I promised myself that last time was really going to be the last time. Of course, I said that the year before, too. This year I stuck to my promise. Right up until early June. I didn’t organize an Air Adventure Tour until then.
But at least this year was going to be different than past Tours. This year we’d do it without a ground crew, a schedule, or even a destination. We’d be completely on our own, gypsies on the wind, going wherever we wanted to go.
I picked a date, sent out an e-mail and waited to see who wanted to fly with me. On such short notice, the usual numbers were way down. But a small cadre of die-hards agreed to go along on one condition – that we go north. There was no set destination, just a general direction they all wanted to head. Then we’d make it up as we’d go.
So, on July 20th, Reid Huzzey and Al Botting took up positions off each of my wings as we set course for the Carstairs-Bishell strip. Waiting there was Mike Sweere in his Aeronca Chief; Glen Bishell in his Bush Caddy, and Barry Wood in a Beech Musketeer. Huzzey was flying his bright red Challenger II and Botting was in his Piper Vagabond. Naturally, I was in the Green Giant; my Sylvaire Bushmaster that I’d recently re-engined with a Continental A-75. Botting could only spend a few hours with us and would have to turn around to return home later in the day.
Our first stop after Carstairs-Bishell was Red Deer, where we indulged in sandwiches and pie at Tipitina’s. We also spent some time with Air Adventure Tour veteran Bert Lougheed. Reid and I gassed up and we all headed out.
We turned northwest for Drayton Valley. The terrain below was a good indicator of what was to come on this trip. There was plenty of bush country with several roads winding through so the oil people could get around. But there weren’t many places to land on short notice if we needed such a spot.
Just short of Drayton Valley, my radio battery cratered. I could receive, but transmitting produced only a garbled static mess. Thus, Huzzey took over and made all the radio calls to get us into the airport.
Looking at the sky to the west we debated a while about going on. The clouds were clearly building and looked like they were getting nasty along our flight path to Edson. Botting was also concerned since he had to go southeast back to Red Deer and Calgary. We decided to takeoff, get above the trees and have a better look before we went on. Once airborne, it was clear that our flight would likely be trouble free. As it turned out, we had only a little rain as we threaded our way through the cells and still stayed above semi-hospitable terrain.
Botting had a bit more of an adventure as he made Red Deer, then had to divert to Three Hills. He waited there for a few hours while one of the most severe storms of the year hammered the area south of there. It even produced tornados.
Edson has a beautiful airport. Its runway is 6000 feet long and the whole place is exceptionally well kept. The only thing missing is light general aviation. We saw one Cherokee tied down, and that’s it. The town of Edson was kind enough to waive the airport’s landing fee for us, which we very much appreciated. Had they not, we’d have simply bypassed the town and kept going. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other aviators had done just that and taken their business elsewhere.
Thunderstorms hammered Edson on the first night of the Tour, but the next morning was beautifully cool, clear and sunny.
We decided at dinner the previous night that we wanted to end the day in Dawson Creek. But we decided to get there a little more circuitously.
Upon firing up, Reid signaled that he was having engine problems. We each shut down and wandered over to give him some of our best advice. Turns out Huzzey didn’t need any help because he knew exactly what the problem was – a wet air filter on his 503. He partook of Emil Dubois’ kindness and used an air compressor to dry out the filter.
Dubois is one of the unsung champions of general aviation. He’s been busy for years battling Edson’s bureaucracy, trying to get the town to drop the idea of landing fees for light general aircraft at the Edson airport. He’s the kind of guy who’s just stubborn enough to pull it off, too.
After drying out Huzzey’s filter we strapped it back on and headed west toward the Rocks. We took the opportunity to take some really good pictures of each other’s airplanes against the stunning blue sky and the endless green forest.
There are two airports at Hinton. One was below us, a nicely groomed grass strip that looked like a lot of fun. The other was off to the southwest, a hardtop runway slashed into the top of a high plateau. With the Rockies in the near background, the setting for each was spectacular.
We turned north at Hinton to follow the highway toward Grande Cache, our first stop for the day. The forest was dotted with small lakes, clear-cuts, and re-forested areas. We stayed over the highway as much as possible to ensure a chance at a safe landing area should the unthinkable happen to one of our engines.
Grande Cache’s airport appeared right on time, and as we drew steadily closer, I found myself smiling at the challenges the strip presented. It was set on another high plateau in a narrow valley running roughly east and west. A heavily forested mountain bordered the south side of the strip by less than half a mile. Another one sat menacingly off to the east, ready to throw unexpected turbulence and a quartering tailwind at us with no notice at all. A deep gorge gnashed its way through the rock a few hundred meters from the button of runway 26.
Sailing over the gorge on final gave me the jitters and I stayed as high as I could, as long as I could, to avoid it. I side-slipped the Giant and landed a little long, as did my wingmen. We called the fuel dealer and gladly spent some money on his aircraft gasoline so that we might continue on our chosen path in the sky.
We departed Grande Cache and continued following the highway west toward town. For a town in the middle of nowhere, it’s a place with a lot going on. The three biggest deals there seem to be a mine, a mill and a prison. But we also saw oil rigs drilling down through the top of 6000’ mountains. That impressed me.
The highway eventually turns back eastward, and then north again toward Grande Prairie. The surrounding terrain is a beautiful mix of mountains, foothills, rivers and jungle. You sure wouldn’t want to go down far from the road. I’d never spent any time in that part of Alberta and I was utterly amazed at the staggering amount of natural resources here: Oil and gas and coal beneath the earth, and lumber atop it. From the air, the entire region looked like a giant checker-board from all the clear-cutting and re-forestation. I’ve never actually seen the scope of it all and I wondered if there’s any turning back from the course of exploitation we’ve taken. Of course, I couldn’t escape the irony that the Giant’s bones are made of aluminum, steel and wood; and that its life blood is fuel and oil that may have come from the very wells beneath us.
The thick bush soon gave way to farm fields and houses south of Grande Prairie. The Dragonflies landed shortly after a Beech 1900 airliner, and just before a Westjet 737 took off. We paid the highest fuel prices of the trip there, at a $1.41 per litre. Then we were off northwestward toward Dawson Creek.
Along the way, we altered course a little to the west to see the area surrounding Hythe, where Barry’s ancestors come from. He was quite pleased to see from the air what’s left of the old homestead.
Our weather was fantastic. We had hardly any wind at altitude and the surface was calm. Reid managed to snap a beautiful picture of a small lake where the afternoon clouds reflected beautifully off its mirror smooth surface.
We spent a wonderful evening in Dawson Creek despite a fuel pump and a taxi driver that each seemed to be possessed. We laughed our way through dinner and Bish won himself a really cheesy cowboy hat from our waitress. But, I’m certain the amount of beer we consumed had little to do with winning the hat. Really.
This would be a very ambitious day of flying if everything came together as we hoped. The night before, we hatched a plan to fly west to Chetwynd, north to Hudson’s Hope, then back east to Ft. St. John. From there, we’d gas up and head east for a lengthy flight to Peace River, and then turn south and east for Slave Lake. The route would cover about 250 miles in total.
Naturally, the weather had other plans. We arrived at the airport to find a low, scuddy horizon surrounding the field. It seemed to be heading at us from the north and west. We decided to scrap the Chetwynd to St. John thing and make for Peace River just as fast as our little wings would carry us.
We taxied past the Dash 8 on the ramp and made our way to the button of runway 24. Once we made the required radio calls, we took off and made an immediate right hand turn. That’s when I knew this flight was going to be really short. The weather to the east was right down to the ground with a thick fog bank rolling in from the north. We reluctantly returned to land.
We spent the next couple of hours snacking in the coffee shop, checking weather in the pilots’ kiosk and crawling around an old TBF Avenger. The Avenger is huge and sat in the same spot where it was when the Air Adventure Tour landed at Dawson in 2003.
The weather finally cleared enough that we could try for a get-away. We took off again and started threading our way through the low, broken cotton balls to the east. Reid watched Barry off to the south as Wood tried to dodge the low scud.
Suddenly, Barry called on the radio “Well, I just flew through a cloud!”
“I thought I saw you disappear,” replied Reid.
“Ya, those few hours of instrument time just paid off,” said Wood.
He’d only been IFR for a few seconds, but it sure got Barry’s attention.
We continued ducking beneath and around the clouds for the next 20 miles and then broke out into clear, dry skies. The only problem now was the headwind. It poked us on the nose at 10 to 15 knots and promised to make a long flight, even longer.
We traversed a mixed landscape of solid, thick bush, spongy muskeg and well- worked farmland. Cut lines criss-crossed the landscape like cast off pieces of spaghetti, while oil buildings and pump shacks sprouted up everywhere.
The next big thing we saw was the Peace River. It’s a major waterway that cuts a deep and spectacular gorge through the northern prairie. It’s really something to see, especially from the air.
We finally made Peace River after more than an hour and a half in the air. The FSS specialist at Peace was less than welcoming and we didn’t really appreciate his attitude toward us. We’re not sure why he was so unfriendly. Since the wind had gotten a bit more squirrelly I chose to land on the grass beside the runway, lest the crosswind, gusting past 15 knots now, foul me up.
We re-fueled and lunched at the airport terminal’s café, then headed out for Slave Lake. We followed the highway south toward Donnelly and spotted small dugouts at regular, one mile intervals. We had no idea what purpose they served until Reid told us the highway crews built them. Apparently, there’s a certain amount of clay required to build the roads, which the crews dig from the local landscape. The road crews get their clay and the farmers get a dugout, useful for watering crops and animals.
Somewhere south of Donnelly, just before our eastbound turn for Slave, we experienced the funniest moment of the Tour. Barry was flying the Musketeer off the right side of the formation and wasn’t being as smooth in the air as he normally is. Finally, he straightened right out and called on the radio. He sounded so proud we could practically hear the buttons popping off his shirt.
“Well, you guys can just call me Barry the Conqueror!” he proclaimed. “I just killed that bee that’s been haunting me ever since we left Peace River!” We all laughed hysterically and congratulated him mercilessly about his monumental conquest.
Once established eastbound toward Slave Lake, Bish and I started complaining about how sore our rear ends were getting on account of the headwind’s efforts. Bish said he was getting some sort of dinosaur disease called Megasoras. Then Mike earned all our envy as he reported cruising along with his elbow out the window and his legs comfortably stretched out to the Chief’s passenger side rudder pedals. I worried he might actually fall asleep in flight. I could see Reid off my right wing trying to shift around to get comfy in his seat, too.
I started worrying a bit about Huzzey’s fuel level. He’d been running the Challenger’s 503 at the top of its comfort range and was burning a bit more fuel than normal because of it. But Reid assured us he’d have enough to reach Slave comfortably.
We drew within 10 miles of the airport, switched to the ATF and endured a lengthy and pointless conversation between a pair of helicopter pilots about their respective plans for the weekend. Once their plans were finally and firmly cemented we Dragonflies coordinated our approach with a Navajo pilot departing to the southeast on runway 10. I wasn’t very pleased with his report of the surface winds blowing nearly straight down runway 10, but I didn’t expect much different, either. It meant our base and final approach legs would be at low altitude over water, since Slave Lake’s runway 10 starts right at Slave Lake’s beach.
I decided to fly the circuit high and tight, and to keep our base leg as close as possible. I was starting to get a bad feeling about this. As I turned very short final the vibes got even worse. Something was wrong, I was certain.
“Slave Lake traffic,” Reid called urgently, “Dragonfly 2 has an engine out and I’m turning for the runway.” I was ahead of him, just seconds from touchdown.
“Dragonfly 1 copies, I’m going around. You’ve got the field, 2.” I jammed on full throttle, snapped off the carb heat and yanked the Giant skyward. Looking hard over my left shoulder, I strained for a glimpse of Huzzey, dreading that I might see him ditching in the lake.
There he was, just past the beach over the water, but high enough that he could easily stretch it to the runway. Huzzey made a graceful curving approach to touchdown well past the button. He soon cleared the runway and a kind soul came to help him coast the Challenger to the pumps.
The rest of us landed safely and congratulated Reid on his superb airmanship. Turns out he did have enough fuel, but the pick-up in the tank wasn’t grabbing it below a certain level. There’s no word yet as to why the pick-up wasn’t working properly.
We spent that night, and the next, in Slave Lake as it rained incessantly from thunderstorms and gray, scuzzy clouds that hovered only a few feet above the ground.
The next morning dawned gray and miserable, too. But it was a bit less miserable than the day before. The ceiling had lifted to between 800 and 1000 feet and the rain showers had become more intermittent. We decided to run before we couldn’t.
We were able to use runway 28 for takeoff, then initiated a hard right turn to head back to the southeast to follow the highway. We stuck very close to the highway because we stood a much better chance of getting lost if we didn’t. The highway’s slash through the thick bush seemed even more pronounced in the bad weather and poor visibility. Everywhere we looked there was nothing but trees, muskeg and scud.
A series of rain squalls dogged us, occasionally forcing us to skim the cloud bottoms as we fought to stay VFR. At some points we were down to just a couple of miles visibility.
South of the eastbound turn-off for Athabasca things turned really sour. I asked the flight to go line-astern, allowing us to stay over the highway, which was the best landmark we had in such dismal visibility. Since Reid had slipped ahead of me in the formation, he took the lead and pulled in to my twelve o’clock. His bright red paint job served as an excellent beacon for all of us in the mid-morning gloom.
The clouds got lower and lower, and visibility dropped to just a couple of miles. But the trees were thinning rapidly as we encountered more farms and their welcoming offers of emergency landing spots off the highway.
Then we broke through. Just like that, the ceiling climbed back up to a couple thousand feet. We scooted past Westlock and were soon chatting to a very friendly controller at Villeneuve Airport. We set down on runway 26 and taxied over to Cardinal Aviation, to buy some gas.
We had to call a guy out from home, but he was there in 20 minutes and happy for our business. I’ll definitely go back there again. While waiting I was surprised to drain several ounces of water from the Giant’s fuel tanks. I tell you, by that time I was well and truly sick of the rain.
We departed for Red Deer next and a final splash of gas to get us home. Because Barry has a transponder in the Musketeer we were able to fly in Edmonton’s Class C airspace as we skirted the east end of both City Centre’s and the International’s airspace. The controllers were very helpful as they cleared us direct to the Edmonton VOR and then en route.
As we drew near Red Deer we had to dodge only one more rain cell a few miles north of the field. Once clear of it, Barry decided to forgo a landing at Red Deer and instead headed straight for his home ‘drome at Airdrie. The rest of us landed at YQF.
We fueled once more at Hillman’s Avtech and I lamented again the fact that Gary’s Super Cub had been wrecked and he’d been unable to join us. Maybe he’ll have it back in the air in time for next year’s Tour.
We left Red Deer and stayed west of Highway 2. As we flew past the Bowden refinery, I remarked to Reid how the large tanks there didn’t seem to have tops on them. Huzzey educated me on how the tanks actually have floating lids that rise and fall with the fuel level. It cuts down on evaporation and potentially explosive fumes in the tanks. I learn so much from the guys I fly with.
A few miles north of Olds-Didsbury we switched frequencies to O-D’s ATF. Then I heard a voice on the radio I’d recognize anywhere. It was Joe Harrington and his crew from Lethbridge approaching to land at Rimbey. They were bravely heading for Whitehorse.
We chatted for a few moments and I warned Joe about the absolutely crappy weather that awaited all of them up north. We wished them well and dropped into the circuit at Bishell’s.
Except for the leg home for Huzzey and I, the 2005 Air Adventure Tour was officially over. It had been a remarkable experience for me in that I’d never really known such gypsy-like freedom in an airplane before. Perhaps I’d always felt restrained and limited in indulging my wanderlust behind a Rotax. I always worried about finding oil, and if avgas would hurt the engine. You’ll notice that Huzzey, much to his credit, certainly entertained no such concerns.
This year’s Tour really gave the Continental a good workout, too. I have nothing but confidence in it, now. Not an absolute blind faith, just a deep-seated satisfaction knowing that the Giant and I are flying behind one of the best engines ever built.
And I’m fortunate, too, that I flew with some of the best men ever built – Huzzey, Sweere, Bishell and Wood. What a gift it was to share the sky with such men; to have tasted challenge and true adventure with them; to be breathless on the wind as they sat beside me, a mere wingspan away; and to have laughed ourselves to tears about it all at the end of the day. Those are moments and memories worth more to me than any treasure.
And that gets me thinking… I wonder who’s organizing next year’s Tour.