Of Dragonflies and Thunder

by Stu Simpson

A swarm of tiny shadows danced in unison as they raced northward across the sun-charred fields east of Calgary. The airplanes were ultralights, six of them in all, no two the same. The pilots called themselves Dragonflies, the unofficial call sign of the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club. Their destination was the Red Deer International Airshow.

We had just rendezvoused in the air near Chestermere Lake. And what a terrific array of planes we were. Todd led the formation in his float equipped 2-seat Beaver. Rounding out the Indus contingent was Ron in his Crusader, Larry in his Merlin and Don in his Chinook. Bob Kirkby in his pristine Renegade, and me in my single Beaver completed the formation after launching from Kirkby’s strip.

Our only worry was a pair of thunderstorms ahead of us. The larger storm, to the northwest, was a huge bugger. To the northeast was another, smaller cell that was growing quickly. There was a slot between them that looked just right for our flight to sneak through.

As we passed abeam Airdrie, I suggested to Todd that we divert to the west and see if we could sneak around the west side of the larger cell. So the formation swung to a westerly heading for about five minutes. It took that long for me to realize that I had goofed. The storm was much larger than it appeared and there was no way we were going to get around behind it.

We all swung north again. As we tried to out-run the western cell’s trajectory, we also had to stay clear of the other storm’s growing intensity. We were seeing lightning at regular intervals and the air was getting rougher. A massive swath of hail pounded the earth below the big storm. Frankly, it just didn’t look like much fun.

We took about five minutes of rain as we finally threaded the needle and dodged Thor’s hammer.

The air on the other side of the cells was cool and calm. We droned on, chatting back & forth on the radio, and just enjoying flying together on a beautiful evening.

Soon, Todd made the call for the Dragonflies to switch to Red Deer’s frequency and we got back to business.

He arranged a straight-in approach for us on runway 34. A few of us had to make 360’s to properly space ourselves in line for landing. But one after the other we touched down and cleared the active. I imagine that for about ten minutes, Red Deer, with six planes on final, and more lining up, was one of the most congested airports in the province. We taxied to our designated hangar and shut down for the night.

Walking toward the terminal, we couldn’t help but notice a pair of rather unique jets sitting on the ramp. They were twin-engined, twin-tailed, and pained blue and gold. They were MiG-29‘s of the Ukrainian Air Force.

We had a golden opportunity before us. Since there were no cordons around the airplanes, it seemed only natural that we examine them close up – which we did.

As I peered into the wheel wells and exhaust nozzles, as I examined the wing roots and tail surfaces, I marvelled at the incredibly sturdy structure of the MiG-29. And I couldn’t help but think how five years ago it would have been impossible for MiGs and Dragonflies to be standing there on the ramp beside each other. As I said, it was a golden opportunity.

We spent the rest of the evening getting settled in at the hotel and chowing down.

We were beginning to worry about another ultralight jock who was supposed to be joining us, but hadn’t shown up yet. Gord had planned to fly his two-seat Beaver up the west side of Calgary, re-fuel at Olds/Didsbury, and fly on to Red Deer. We eventually learned that he had landed in the middle of a vicious hail storm at Olds/Didsbury. If it was the same storm we had narrowly avoided, he was lucky to have landed at all. Gord had to spend the night on the couch at the O/D clubhouse. But he arrived in Red Deer in time for breakfast the next morning.

The next two days were a mix of frenzied activity in the mornings, and pleasant sun-soaking in the afternoons. We had practiced a routine for this year’s show, based on a takeoff from the taxi-way, as we’d done in past years. But the airshow officials wouldn’t allow a taxi-way takeoff and we had to move our takeoff to the main runway. This meant our planes would be further from the crowd and harder to see. It was no big deal, just a little disappointing.

Our routine, basically a large “S”-shaped pattern with a pitch-out to downwind, then landing, went off quite well both days. Many thanks go to Bob in his Renegade for an excellent job of leading the flight.

We spent the remaining time on the ground exploring the airshow, hangar flying with other pilots, and answering questions about our airplanes.

I was amazed this year at the large amount of interest generated by the flock of ultralights. We spoke with a lot of conventional pilots who were disgruntled at the high cost of flying Spam-cans. Most figured our machines were definitely the way to fly. Todd’s airplane was especially popular and he was kept busy all weekend with inquiries about it. It was the same for Bob.

Ultralights made an awesome showing at Red Deer, with a total of 10 different types on display. Paul Hemingson, president of the C.U.F.C. deserves much of the credit for this tour de force, as does Gord Tebutt. Hemingson arranged everything so the guys were able to participate in the show. Tebutt was really busy hawking club hats and brochures. Both he and Paul did a beautiful P.R. job for our club and for U.L. flying.

After we’d flown our show on Sunday, I noticed a large amount of gear oil dripping from my gear box. Before I could say “Holy Rotax, Batman!”, Bob and Don had ripped the gear box off, located the problem, and found a way to fix it. Things were back to normal in less than an hour. Thanks guys.

Sunday also turned out to be a day of frustrating indecision. Gord had come up with the idea of leaving at noon. It looked like there were going to be major thunderstorms developing by late afternoon. Gord, understandably gun-shy, wanted to bug out before the weather closed us in. Some guys thought it was a good idea, and some guys didn’t mind the idea of another night in Red Deer.

In the end, Gord was the only one who did leave at noon. He had a safe flight home, and as later events would show, he guessed right.

The rest of us stayed another night. The forecast called for T-storms all night and clear skies in the morning.

The forecast was wrong.

The next morning dawned cold and grey. The ceiling was about 1200′ overcast and the temperature had dropped to about 15 degrees. Reports in Calgary indicated a higher ceiling, with a more broken cloud layer. In other words, it appeared the weather was better as you went south.

We’d decided to depart in two groups; guys who wanted to go earlier, and guys who didn’t. Todd, Larry, and I would be the early group. Tony would join us in an S-10, which he’d flown up on Friday for static display. Bob, Don, Paul and Ron would follow a bit later. It looked like it’d be pretty routine.

The first group blasted off at about 7:00 a.m. and headed for home. As soon as we were in the air, we saw an entirely different weather picture from what we’d been told.

All we could see was a low, broken cloud deck. It appeared to bottom out around 500′ AGL, so we thought we could ace it. After all, we could fly low and slow enough to easily avoid any tall obstacles with plenty of time to spare.

We began following the power lines that would lead us straight to home. We stayed over the lines as much as we could. But the cloud was getting lower and thicker with every mile.

We dropped our altitude a bit to keep the ground in sight. Soon it became rather obvious that we couldn’t follow this path much longer. The ceiling ahead was lower still. We had to make a deviation and soon.

We’d lost sight of Tony by this time. His faster S-10 just couldn’t fly slowly enough to stay with us. His plane was NORDO and he was out there somewhere in the soup. But we could do nothing for him.

We heard a familiar voice on the radio. It was Paul, who had apparently left Red Deer on his own.

Now, he sounded worried and a bit confused. He’d run into the same low cloud layer we were in and he’d decided to find a place to set down. But he was several miles west of us and also on his own.

Then I saw a hole, a way to slip through and make it home. Off to my 11 o’clock ran a small creek. It coursed through a valley in a southeasterly direction. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, the ceiling was better above this valley and to the east of it.

I called Todd and suggested we follow the valley. I figured it would put us somewhere near Beiseker. From there, it’s an easy jaunt to home. Our little formation turned southeast.

We’d only gone a couple of miles when Todd called Paul on the radio. Paul sounded even more worried this time and his transmissions were getting weaker. It felt like we were listening to the last, desperate calls of someone lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Paul’s last transmission left me with chills.

“I’m very low now. I’m circling around, looking for some place to land. I just hope I don’t run into a tower or something.”

That was the last we heard of him. We tried for a few minutes more to contact him, but height and distance were against us. We simply flew on, hoping for his safety.

The valley that looked so promising had turned ugly. We were down to 300′ off the deck and still dodging thick cloud. A few miles west of Torrington, the valley turned south again and we thought that was a good sign. Trouble was, the valley quickly disappeared into flat prairie again.

We discussed the option of trying for the Three Hills airport. But a quick look at the eastern sky quelled that notion.

We were totally winging it at this point, flying strictly by the seat of our pants. We had maybe 150′ of altitude, half a mile visibility, and only dirt roads for land marks.

Then it started to rain. Just a light sprinkle at first. But it quickly graduated into a steady down pour, during which my radio died. That’s when I saw the lightning. We had flown into the middle of an embedded thunderstorm.

Again and again the lightning flashed, just barely bright enough to see. It seemed to smirk at us, to gloat as if we were prey unwittingly drawn into the storm’s hidden tentacles.

There was nothing we could do but fight it out and hope to win. The wind was throwing us around so badly that it would have been disastrous to even attempt an emergency landing. I had lowered my RPM’s to try and save my wooden prop from rain damage. I found out later that Todd nearly stalled as he tried to slow also.

We were lower than 100′ and I could hardly see. My windscreen was a kaleidoscope of water, my helmet visor little better. This was definitely high adventure.

We scraped through the storm only to find the same bleak horizon ahead of us. I had a rough idea we were north of the town of Linden, but no way of knowing for sure. I figured we would simply continue south and eventually cross the Trans-Canada highway.

I checked my wingmen and was delighted to find they were still welded in a tight echelon off my right wing. We had to fly that way to keep each other in sight in such dismal visibility.

A few tense moments later I spotted something that looked familiar. I motioned to Todd and Larry to follow and I started a gentle turn to the east.

Just barely visible, was the town of Acme. I knew then we were only a few miles from Beiseker. We followed the highway between those towns like it was the last trail out of hell.

We finally landed at Beiseker at about 9:30 a.m. and spent the next three hours there. We were able to phone my wife, Tina, and learn that the other group was trying to get to Olds/Didsbury. Tina was doing an excellent job of coordinating information on the ground. She had received disjointed information that two planes had landed at O/D and the pilots were out looking for another one. Exactly what that meant, we weren’t sure. We also learned that Paul had landed safely at an Air Cadets glider strip north of Olds.

Two more thunderstorms passed over Beiseker during our stay there. We decided to get out before a third one arrived.

We blasted off at about 12:30 p.m. and headed southwest for a hole in the overcast. About five miles from Beiseker we popped out into good weather. The ceiling was back up to 2000′ and the visibility was 15 miles or better.

As we droned toward home, Todd called my attention to the ground. A spam-can, it looked like a Cherokee or similar, had made a forced landing in a grain field directly below us. The crash was obviously recent as the RCMP was still there, along with a few other vehicles. We had to wonder what the Piper driver though as he watched three ultralights buzz by.

Thirty minutes later I peeled away from the formation to land at Kirkby’s, where I hangar my plane. Todd and Larry went on to safe landings at Indus.

We learned later that Tony had landed at Springbank and the other Dragonflies had made it safely to ground in the Olds area, though at two separate airports, and not without their own hair raising story. (See Bob Kirkby’s article elsewhere in this issue).

I think I know how barnstormers in the 20’s and 30’s felt. It’s a great feeling to have conquered such overwhelming odds in an airplane and to have true tales of adventure to recount.

The Dragonflies will go on to other flights, other destinations and other adventures. But that weekend, with it’s MiGs, it’s thunderstorms, it’s danger, and it’s friendship will always be remembered.