by Stu Simpson
I guess it all started a few weeks ago when I got this notion that I’d like to fly to Wetaskiwin. Of course I didn’t want to go alone, so I invited a bunch of other guys. We had everything lined up, departutre points and times were all set, and everyone knew what the game plan was. Everyone but the weatherman, that is.
The day we were all set to go the wind was straight out of the west at 30 knots. So much for Wetaskiwin.
When I phoned Gerry Moore to let him know we’d scrubbed the flight he suggested another destination. One that was much closer and maybe even more interesting.
He told me about a strip he’d found in the Highwood Pass southwest of Longview, which immediately intrigued me. I love exploring with my airplane and finding airstrips that aren’t on the map.
So I called everyone again and said we’d try for the Highwood. And again we set departure points and times. And again the weather was awful. I’ve got hand it to Jim Corner, though. He flew into Kirkby’s that morning riding a 25 knot tail wind, only to learn we weren’t going.
I was determined to find this place. So I arranged another try for the next evening. We agreed on the departure point and time (starting to sound familiar, isn’t it?), and this time we even got airborne.
Wilf Stark, Don Rogers and Ron Axelson accompanied me as we made our way southwest that evening. The wind was stronger than forecast (big surprise, that) but we were still making reasonable progress. Right up to when Rogers radioed that he was having trouble transferring fuel from his Norseman’s rear tank to the main feeder tank. Then Stark chimed in, saying he thought he didn’t have enough gas. Our nearest alternate was Black Diamond’s Thompson’s Ranch. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we’d best divert to Black Diamond, fix the problems and go home.
Our time grounded at BD was fun. We examined some of the aircraft there and, of course, we took every opportunity to kid Rogers about his personal plumbing problems. Stark determined that he had enough fuel to get him and his Super Koala home safely, but then it was Axelson’s turn to sweat. The battery on his Ercoupe had bought the farm, so he spent several minutes hand-propping his baby until it finally caught.
The flight home was uneventful, if you can call a summer evening’s flight above stunning green hills, valleys and fields uneventful.
Four days later Stark, Bob Kirkby and I were in the air again, and this time I knew we’d make it. The wind ambled calmly from the south at a leisurely six or seven knots, and a layer of high cirrus spread above us to dampen the unsettling effects of daytime heating.
“Dragonflies, this is Three,” called Kirkby when we were a little south of Okotoks, “watch this.”
He nosed over for a second or two and then launched his Renegade into a short series of chandelles and stall-turns. Wilf and I watched him maneuver gracefully around the sky before plying him with admiring “Oooo’s” and “Aah’s”.
Soon, Black Diamond drifted by off my right wing and I remembered the many flights I’d made in the area years before with my Beaver. I have to admit, I’ve missed the hills and mountains near there.
Longview ought to be just over the next hill, I thought, checking the map. Then an unfamiliar voice rattled in my earphones.
“Dragonflies, this is Lima Kilo Papa. What’s you’re position please?”
“Lima Kilo Papa, this is Dragonfly One,” I replied. “We’re approximately seven miles northeast of Longview at fifty-seven hundred feet, southwest bound.”
Kilo Papa asked for a few more details to better clarify where we were. The he radioed that he had us in sight and would shortly be passing a few hundred feet beneath us. He added that he was headed for Black Diamond this morning and heard us on the radio. He wanted to check us out because we “sounded like fun.”
“Kilo Papa, Dragonfly One has you visual,” I called as he sailed underneath us.
“Is that a Supecub?” queried Wilf.
“Roger,” came the answer.
“That’s a gorgeous airplane,” said Stark. I could practically hear the smile on his face.
The Cub driver asked what type of airplanes we were flying and I provided him with a brief description of each. He asked where we were heading and I told him that, too. He got quite interested in this and said he’d flown the Highwood pass before, looking for the same strip, but hadn’t found it yet. Then he asked if he could tag along with us. Of course, we gladly welcomed him.
So the four of us droned on into the Highwood valley looking for an airstrip in the woods.
Kirkby was the first to spot it. At the very south end of the valley, where it turns west again, it lay directly in our path about a mile-an-a-half ahead. Since I was flight lead it fell to me to make the first approach and landing.
As I crossed over the strip I thought it looked pretty good, albeit a little narrow. Forty-foot tall pine trees jutted up not fifty feet from the button, and a pond was located at the side of the runway at about mid-field. It would have to be avoided at all costs. A thrill ran through me and I found myself smiling involuntarily at the challenge of the coming landing.
I turned final about a third of a mile back and kept a wary eye on the distant wind sock. It was still parallel with the runway and indicating about 7 knots. I eased the ‘Max through a small gap in the pines, pulled the throttle back, and nosed over gently for the ground. The plane settled smoothly on the mains, with the tail-wheel alighting almost immediately afterward.
I lengthened my rollout to give Stark plenty of room for his landing, which he accomplished beautifully. Then I back-tracked and followed him off the runway just as Kirkby was clearing the trees on final.
Wilf and I climbed out and the first thing we heard from the crowd that had gathered was, “Thanks for the great airshow!” We swelled with pride.
The Supercub taxied in as we introduced ourselves and chatted with the rancher who owned the land, and his friends. John, the Cub driver introduced himself, too. We spent about thirty minutes chatting and letting these warm-hearted folks examine our airplanes.
Then it was time to go. You see, on these adventures getting there is most of the fun, and getting back is the rest of it.
Since I was first to land, it seemed only natural that I be first to takeoff. I noticed the slightly longer takeoff run since our field elevation was 4800 feet, about 1500 feet higher than the home ‘drome. Naturally, climb out took a bit longer, too.
John and his Supercub were headed to High River. On the radio he bid us farewell, thanking us for the good time and promising Bob he’d drop in to Kirkby Field in the future.
Quick and smooth describes our return flight, at least unitl we crossed the Bow River. There, the thermals kicked themselves loose from the prairie and rumbled right by us on their way up.
A garbled radio call, “… traffic…. eleven…” It sounded like Bob. I reflexively checked north, which was my eleven o’clock position, and my heart nearly stopped.
A Mooney was headed straight for me! I nosed over and yanked the throttle back, telling Wilf to drop down a few hundred feet. Seconds later I watched through the top of my cockpit as the Mooney zoomed by less than a hundred feet away. He hadn’t changed course by so much as a degree. Maybe he figured he had the right of way. Or maybe he didn’t even see me.
The odd thing is this: I’ve flown many, many hours with Kirkby and he has never, ever had a radio problem. Not until he tried to warn me I was about to be killed. Even after the near miss his radio functioned perfectly.
Fortunately, Wilf was never in any danger, and a few minutes later we all touched down safely at Kirkby Field.
Another adventure would now be written into our log books, and hopefully etched for ages in our memories. It sure took us enough tries to get there, to that airstrip in the woods, but I’m sure glad we kept trying. This flight was definitely something worth waiting for.