Running the Gauntlet

by Stu Simpson

It was 6:20 a.m. when I yanked the starter cord on my RX-45 Beaver. I had been awake more than an hour as the Rotax sprang to life and warmed up. A few feet away, Bob was just strapping in to his Renegade bi-plane. We had to hurry if we were going to keep our appointment with Todd. We were slated to rendezvous with him in the air south of Bob’s strip.

The wind was light, but gusty, from the north-northwest. I silently wondered if it was the same upstairs and if it would cause any problems for the adventure we’d planned.

I blasted off first and made a right turn to the south. As soon as I lifted the wing, I was catapulted downwind. The winds aloft were 15-20 kts. Too bad we weren’t headed for Florida today.

I watched Bob takeoff and form up on me and together we headed south for Indus.

Todd wasn’t quite ready for takeoff as we fired past Indus airport. So Bob and I simply turned our noses into the north wind and just kind of hovered over the field, waiting for Todd.

Soon enough he taxied his float-footed 2-seat Beaver to runway 28 and lifted into the early (God, it was early!) morning air. We all turned westward and began a one-and-a-half hour battle with the breeze.

So, with a whopping ground-speed of 30 mph, and a crab angle of 30 degrees, we watched the Rockies inch steadily closer. For better or worse, our Rocky Mountain adventure had begun.

The Dragonflies were in the air again, headed this time for Radium Hot Springs. It was supposed to be a proof-of-concept flight, to practice for our journey to Abbotsford later in the summer. We hoped this trip would give us a glimpse of what mountain flying is all about. Better to find out now than learn it the hard way en-route to Abbotsford.

Our plan was to fly to Banff, meet our ground crew, and refuel there. Then, we’d follow the highway to Eisenhower Junction, hop over the Vermillion Pass and fly south to Radium. Sounds pretty simple, right?

I was beginning to think it wasn’t quite so simple as we flew past the south-west corner of Calgary. We had been in the air more than 45 minutes and had only traveled about 20 miles. I began to think about canceling the trip and trying another day.

But the weather looked much better in the mountains, so we decided to press on. We would make our go/no-go decision at the mouth of the Bow Valley.

In the meantime, we radioed Springbank Flight Service and told them our plans. The flight service specialist who answered suggested we file a flight plan. I spent the next few minutes giving him the information he required and he opened a plan for us.

We continued on toward Banff feeling a little more secure knowing that someone else was looking out for us.

It took us more than ninety minutes to reach Bear Hill, which is essentially the mouth of the Bow Valley. I radioed Todd and told him I would make a turn into the valley toward Banff and see what the wind was like. Then we’d make our decision about continuing or going home.

As I crested Bear Hill, I banked left to follow the valley. I’m not sure why, but our head-wind was gone and had actually turned into a slight quartering tail-wind. I knew then we’d have good weather to Banff, and probably beyond.

I radioed my wingmen.

“Dragonfly flight, this is Dragonfly 01. The wind here has really dropped off. I recommend we continue on to Banff.”

“Dragonfly 03 copies. Uh, roger that.” Todd replied.

“Dragonfly 02 copies,” said Bob.

The Bow Valley was beautiful that morning. The sun was shining, the sky was clear blue, and the mountains were a jagged mixture of deep green and stone grey. Who could ask for more?

We finally landed at Banff where our ground crew was waiting. Bernie Kespe had graciously volunteered to haul our gas and tools for the weekend in his pick-up truck. His wife Ida, and my wife, Tina, completed the ground crew roster. They had been waiting at the Banff airport for nearly an hour and were beginning to worry.

After 2.5 hours in the air, we were quite relieved to land at Banff. But we knew the toughest part of the trip, the flight from Storm Mountain to Radium, still lay ahead.

We spent the time at Banff snacking on fruit and refuelling the airplanes. Then Bob discovered a broken bracket on his engine. He and Bernie spent about half an hour on field repairs so Bob could go on. Just as Todd and I fired up again, Bob had another problem. A cable on his electric starter had broken. That required another fifteen minutes to repair.

As a result we didn’t leave Banff until 10:15. The weather was still good though. In fact, it was getting better as a layer of high cloud was quickly forming. This would help keep daytime heating down and make our ride a little smoother. When you’re flying the Rocks, every little bit helps.

We were all pretty tense as we lifted off from Banff and turned westward. The flight to Banff, while a little long, had been relatively easy. But we didn’t know what to expect beyond there. The Vermillion Pass is quite high, about 5800′. We had all heard horror stories about gale force winds coming down from Storm Mountain and we were worried.

Still, it was really the only safe route we had to cross the continental divide. We flew on.

About five miles east of Eisenhower Junction, as I flew along the south side of the valley, I looked over to keep an eye on Bob and Todd on the north side. Suddenly, to my amazement, I saw an Armed Forces C-130 Hercules go screaming up the middle of the valley at our altitude. I frantically called Bob.

“Dragonfly 02 you have a C-130 coming up on your left!”

I heard Todd call the same warning. Bob calmly replied he already had the Hercules in sight. I quickly began scanning my tail for any other “Herky-birds” that might be looking to snack on some Dragonflies. Fortunately, there were none, so I turned my attention back to getting past Storm Mountain.

Bob was up at about 7500′ when he shot the pass. He reported the air as quite bumpy, but still manageable.

I went in next, at about 6500′. I’m sure I had a death grip on the stick as I watched the highway go by underneath me. The ride was bumpy, with most of the gusts coming in the form of cross-winds. I’d be warned first by the wind on my face, then feel the tail being kicked around back there. The wind was unpredictable, coming from every direction. A couple of times it wanted to stand me on a wing tip, but I worked the controls, stayed level, and continued on.

I was suddenly awe-struck by our surroundings. I felt like we had strayed into some sacred chamber of the gods. Holding absolute power, they seemed to peer down, grey and unflinching at these three puny Dragonflies who dared to challenge them. I knew they could squash us with just one mighty blow from a stormy fist. I silently hoped we hadn’t pissed them off.

Todd was last into the pass. He was flying a few hundred feet higher than I, about a half mile back. I don’t think he was too busy because he had time to take some great pictures.

Once we got by Storm Mountain the ride really improved. I recall one high valley that was simply incredible. It had an entire gamut of colors. Stunning green meadows, dark green pine trees, white snow, and a baby blue glacier. I could hardly believe the spectacle. This was scenery you just don’t see unless you’re flying.

Then I heard a surprising call on the radio.

“Dragonfly 01, this is Canadian 667 heavy. Do you read?”

What could the big boys possibly want with us, I wondered.

“Canadian 667 heavy, Dragonfly 01, go ahead,” I replied.

The jet crew had been asked by Springbank to contact us and relay our status. I told them we were doing fine and expected to arrive at Radium at 12:30 local time. Canadian 667 confirmed our information and relayed it to Springbank. I thanked the jet crew and signed off. I smiled to myself, thinking how nice it was to have such guardian angels. It was also neat to be able to play with the big boys, even for a short time.

We soon made Kootenay Crossing and I noticed the huge contrast between the Vermillion Valley, that we had just left, and the Kootenay Valley we were now in. This valley was wide and spacious, while the last one had been narrow and seemed to scrape our wing tips.

Bob had been circling at Kootenay Crossing waiting for us. He’d gone on ahead because he needed to run his engine at a healthier RPM and Todd and I just couldn’t keep up.

From there, we cruised the next 20 minutes to the Radium Pass. I spent a fair amount of that time climbing so I could make the pass. I had no idea the next five minutes would be the most exciting of the day.

The pass into Radium is narrow. I mean really narrow. It’s only about half a mile wide and there are simply no emergency landing spots along the highway. (I suppose Todd could have landed in the Hot Springs pool, but it would have been a bit embarrassing.) We were really sweating as we wiggled our way past the tight peaks. But we could see the Columbia Valley on the other side and we knew we had just about made it.

Waves of relief swept over me as we popped out the other side of the pass. I could see Bob spiraling down to land. Then I noticed he wasn’t really circling. I started looking for the airport and knew why he wasn’t circling. He couldn’t find the airport!

I wondered if the thing had been abandoned and nobody told us. Just as I thought about diverting to Windermere, I looked down and spotted the strip. Bob had spotted it also and was now on downwind. Todd must have been laughing at us because he could land on the Columbia River if he had to. But, he landed after Bob and quickly cleared the runway. I landed last, at 12:15 p.m.

All of us were extremely relieved to be there. I think each of us was a little surprised that we had made it at all. We were also pretty pleased with ourselves. We had faced the unknown, had run the gauntlet, and had come out unscathed.

Bernie, Ida, and Tina arrived a few minutes later and helped us tie down. Then we went into town and found a motel for the evening. Next, it was time for some grits.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Radium Hots Springs pool relaxing and talking airplanes. We had a nice dinner together and headed back to the airfield to prep the airplanes for the return trip in the morning.

We turned in early because we had a 5:30 wake up the next day, and planned to be in the air at 6:30.

That’s exactly what happened. We fired up and blasted off right on time. We had to start this leg of the trip with a climb from 2650′ to more than 7000′ to clear the Radium Pass.

As we circled upward, I noticed how perfect the morning was. Cool and clear with hardly a breath of wind. That’s what I thought anyway, until Todd called with some weather news. He reported that the winds aloft were pretty strong from the north. I worried it might really slow us down as we headed home up the Kootenay Valley. We’d just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, we each used the north wind to help our climb.

Finally, we could delay no longer. We turned toward the pass. Todd went in first, with me a quarter of a mile behind, and Bob following with a bit more altitude. The winds in the pass were quite turbulent compared to those in the valley. Fortunately though, the bumps were mild and easy to handle. We eased out the other side and turned north.

Mysteriously, the north wind had disappeared and again had turned into a tail wind for us. Maybe the mountain gods were on our side after all.

I gazed north looking for the pass into the Vermillion Valley. It was then that the unbelievable beauty of the day hit me. In all my life I have never seen a sight so breathtaking. The morning sun made the mountains actually seem alive. It was a view so spectacular that I will never forget it.

The morning air was like glass. It was cool and smooth, as only morning air can be. I was very glad we had dragged our butts out of bed so early and that we could enjoy such utter perfection.

The flight north to Eisenhower Junction was uneventful, except for the amazing scenery. We stayed to the west side of the valleys to exploit any sun-warmed, up slope air. Bob was regularly making 360’s to keep from getting too far ahead of us, and we even had the chance to line up so Todd could take some pictures. Life just doesn’t get any better than that.

As we cleared the Vermillion Pass and turned into the Bow Valley, we could clearly see the last bend before the town of Banff. Todd reminded us all to keep a sharp eye out for C-130’s and even talked to a helicopter pilot flying in the area.

We coasted into Banff at exactly 8:30, after holding a few minutes to allow a Mooney to take off. We even managed to arrive ahead of our ground crew.

The hardest part of the trip was over. The rest would be a piece of cake. We took off again at 9:15 after refueling and thanking our ground crew.

We absolutely could not have made the trip without Bernie, Ida and Tina. It was an added bonus that Bernie is an experienced ultralight jock and really knew how to help. The trip was just as much their adventure as ours.

The air was still rock steady from Banff to Calgary. We felt only the occasional bump, as if the air above the hills were yawning, just coming to life. We simply couldn’t have asked for anything better.

As we passed the southeast corner of Calgary, Bob radioed that he was going on ahead to his strip a few miles away. I would follow in a few minutes, and Todd would fly on to Indus, a couple of miles east.

I looked over at Todd off my right wing and gave him a thumbs up. Since his radio battery had died, he replied the only way he could. He gripped the stick between his knees and gave me two thumbs up. I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I gave him a final salute and peeled off to the northeast.

I landed a few minutes after Bob and thought about the adventure we’d had. We’d done what some said was crazy. We’d flown ultralights in the mountains and done it safely. We’d logged nearly eight hours flight time in two days without so much as a hiccup. And we had a ball!

Still, it sure was good to be back. As I taxied down the runway, Bob called on the radio.

“Dragonfly 02 to Dragonfly 01, welcome home,” he said.

I simply replied, “Roger that.”