Flight of the Shadow Dancers

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by Stu Simpson

It was as close to perfection as I’d ever seen. Our two ultralight planes floated along in a rare harmony that could have been a beautiful dream. Except this reality was much better.

It was an early September evening as Don in his Chinook, and me in my Beaver, made our way gently southward toward the Bow River. The air was warm and velvety, offering a faint breeze to any and all creatures of the sky. Below us, the summer was making a final, gallant stand against the inevitable autumn and the landscape seemed caught in the middle. Acre after acre of harvested grain fields were quilted together, glowing in the golden sunlight.

Don led the way. I placed my ship off his right wing in an easy echelon formation. Both our planes are yellow with blue trim and the early evening sun seemed to give each plane its own halo.

Neither of us carried a radio, meaning there was nothing to distract us from the pure, simple magic of flying.

I looked down to my left and watched our shadows dart and flit over the earth. They too kept perfect formation with one another as they raced along, occasionally assuming some distorted shape while passing over a ditch or a building.

Every now and then I would see the Chinook’s control surfaces move just a little and the plane would go exactly to where Don wanted it to be.

I was overwhelmed with delight. No one who has been there, in a faultless sky, with a trusted wingman, comes away untouched by the moment.

A few minutes later we had reached the Bow. The Chinook dropped its nose and began a steady descent toward another, adjoining river valley, the Highwood. My Beaver followed obediently.

We felt a few bumps in the air as the wind wiggled it’s way over and around and through the valley. We passed over a campground with trailers and tents. Campers and fishermen stopped what they were doing and gazed up at those glowing airplanes. The people exclaimed to each other that it sure looked like fun and that they sure wouldn’t mind trying it. Only a few announced, “You’d never get me up in one of those crates!” And for a few seconds, for better or worse (mostly better), we had an audience of a few dozen fascinated souls.

While the flatlands above the river were starting to look like fall, the Highwood Valley was still firmly entrenched in summer. The trees still held their deep green shades. The grassy meadows looked luxurious, calling out to any person who wanted to run through them, inviting any airplane to land in them. Though tempted, we politely declined and flew on.

Once away from the campground, we flew even lower, the Chinook still out front and me right behind. We continued to explore the valley, finding surprises like a twin Cessna, an old railway bed and a herd of cows that simply ignored us.

I pushed my throttle lever and moved the stick to the left. A second or two later I pulled along Don’s left wing. I waved to him “Follow me”. I pulled the nose up and banked away from him, heading for the flats above the valley.

We left the valley behind and crossed the top of the cliffs with twenty feet to spare. I pushed over and headed earthward again. What I had in mind was some nap-of-the-earth flying. That’s where an airplane buzzes along only a few feet above the terrain following the exact contours of the ground.

The whole world zipped along just inches below us, our shadows now near and large. My adrenaline surged. It’s such a paradox flying that close to the earth, because it magnifies the separation from it and gives a pilot the purest sensation of flight. A slight tug on the control stick, and the airplane is bound for the heavens. A tiny push to the left or right, and you go there too. It is simply the ultimate freedom.

I looked over my right shoulder and watched Don a few feet away. I could see a huge grin on his face. I turned forward and noticed a grove of trees a few hundred metres ahead. I dropped even lower. 75 mph of airspeed ate up the distance quickly and I pulled the nose up, missing the tallest tree with just enough daylight between us. I looked back and watched Don do the same.

We nosed back over together and continued on, making shallow turns here and there and climbing slightly to clear any barbed-wire fences.

Then I spotted some familiar shapes on the ground ahead. It was a small herd of deer. I looked over to Don and pointed. He gave me a thumbs up indicated he’d spotted the deer also.

The leader of the herd was a huge five-point buck. He wasn’t even afraid of us. He just looked up, kind of curious I suppose, but he didn’t move. We wheeled around and made another pass just to see watch him a bit longer. This time the animals seemed a little nervous and jogged a few meters as we neared. We decided to let them get back to their dinner and continued on back toward the Bow.

That’s when it happened. Don had just finished buzzing a row of small trees and bushes. He banked left, well in front of me. I turned left also to stay with him. I watched in utter amazement as our two shadows lined up and overlapped. They stayed that way for several seconds, moving with each other in a way that looked like they were dancing. It was a beautiful, unforgettable, image as the sun and two airplanes – our airplanes – aligned in a manner so rare.

We passed by some farmers next. They were in a field with a truck and a tractor. We waved happily as we whistled by and they waved back.

We crossed the river again and just continued to make the most of the evening’s unusual magic. We started chasing each other around, getting on one another’s ‘six’ until something else distracted us. Then we’d zoom down to see what it was. We saw some more deer and even a coyote. We followed the shape of the earth from five feet up and we hopped over fences and trees and power lines. We watched as the sun sank lower too, telling the world to get ready for bed. Life just doesn’t get much better.

But we were quickly losing our daylight. I followed Don as he reluctantly turned for Indus airport, his home-drome.

We pulled up and entered the circuit and made a pair of greaser landings. Nothing was going to spoil this flight.

We taxied over to Don’s hangar and shut down. We talked excitedly for a few minutes about the things we’d seen and how much fun it all was. I happened to notice that Don had a permanent smile tacked onto his face. I noticed I did too.

We soon ran out of things to discuss about the flight, so I saddled up again and took off for home.

I felt like Don and I had been granted the keys to a magic kingdom that day. A place where only the lucky and the skilful get to go. And even though we were only allowed a short visit, I knew we had certainly made the most of it. I wonder what our next visit will be like.

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