The Last Explorers

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by Stu Simpson

I think ultralight pilots are among the last true explorers. I say this because every time an ultralight jock wanders off into the blue, looking for some place he’s never been, he is off on a small scale version of a grand adventure. He’s left the earth and left behind the places and things familiar to him in order to find something beyond. Something new and different, and maybe a little strange.

Here’s what I mean. Random House says exploring means “to traverse a region for the purpose of discovery”. I don’t know any ultralight flyers who’ve gone exploring and come back empty handed. Sure, a guy may not have found what he was looking for, but at the very least he came back with a tale of true adventure. One he can tell at the next hangar flying bull-session and build on every time he repeats it, until it turns out he really did discover Mars one morning in his ultralight.

I have to admit I really enjoy exploring from the air. Its so much more fun than just hopping in the car, reading the road map and setting the cruise control for Wonkatonkwa. And up there I can’t just stop and ask directions. Its not like exploring from a spam-can either. I don’t have VOR/DME, Omega, LORAN, or G.P.S. (To be honest, I don’t even have a compass – I only know two guys who do.) No, we poor ultralight pilots are left with only our wits, our charts, and our eyeballs to use on these voyages. And let’s not forget plain ole’ dumb luck.

I was flipping through my log book the other day when I realized that some of my fondest flying memories arise from flights I made to find places I’d never been to. One flight in particular stands out.

I was hangaring my airplane near Black Diamond when I decided I wanted to fly to the High River airport. Since I’d never been to that area before, I dug out my trusty, battle scarred, bug smeared sectional chart and pored over the route. It looked like it would be a comfortable enjoyable flight. And it was. The wind was light from the south and the air was pretty smooth. High River quickly appeared on the horizon.

I entered the circuit and wheeled my Beaver around to line up for runway 14. On final I noticed the runway surface was an odd shade of black. No matter, just concentrate on the approach. I crossed the threshold and looked down at the runway as my plane settled for landing.

I suddenly realized what the odd black stuff was – oil. In fact, it looked like the Exxon Valdez had come aground on runway 14. I had a vision of my unfaired wheels throwing black goop all over the wings and me until we looked like an oil soaked seagull. Just before touchdown I firewalled the throttle and made a missed approach. I guess I discovered more than I’d bargained for on that trip.

Navigating, and thus exploring, on the prairies is much more difficult than in regions with more trees or hills. The landmarks all tend to look alike, and at the low altitudes UL’s occupy, airports can be particularly hard to spot. It makes it even more satisfying to meet that challenge and find your destination. Such was the case on the morning I set out to find the Airdrie airport.

The trip to Airdrie airport was quite exciting. The route from Kirby Field, east of Chestermere, skirts right along the Calgary control zone. I was constantly eyeballing spam-cans and heavy metal through the a.m. haze, some of them passing only 500′ over me. Added to that was a wicked and unpredictable wind-shear that would sneak up and clobber me when ever it thought I wasn’t paying attention.

And I couldn’t seem to spot the airport. The closer I got to the area where it was supposed to be, the more things I found that didn’t look like an airport at all. I was only a mile and a half out before I finally zeroed in on the runway. It was right where the chart said it was, but I couldn’t see it until I nearly tripped on it. We explorers have to learn to trust our maps.

Here’s my favourite exploring story.

I was at work one day when I overheard two guys talking about a Clint Eastwood western, called “UNFORGIVEN“, being filmed somewhere south of Longview. Apparently the film set‘s location was a very closely guarded secret. The producers, so the conversation went, had built an entire western town out there.

I thought this was all pretty interesting and it’d make a great hanger flying story if I could fly out and find this little movie set on the prairie. I estimated that by the time I’d repeated the story ten times, it would have grown to the proportions of Clint asking me to co-star in the movie but me having to decline because I had to get home for dinner. (They asked me to be in “TOP GUN”, ya know.)

Anyway, I blasted off the next day to discover the secret location of the movie set. My first guess was that the set would be located in the scenic Eden Valley, which runs west and south from Longview. I flew the length of the valley at about 1000’ AGL, sometimes burning tight 360’s, and examining every little building I found. But it was clear the movie set wasn’t there. I then crossed the eastern ridge of the valley and meandered back out over the flats. I still couldn’t see anything that looked like a movie set; only ranches, grain bins and cows.

Flipping a coin in my head, I banked away to the south.

Several minutes later I spotted something on the prairie about 10 miles away. I adjusted my course a few degrees and was rewarded a few minutes later as a small group of buildings began to take shape in front of me. It was the town of “Big Whiskey”. I’d found it.

I approached the set from the north and hoped that my buzzing around wouldn’t interrupt the shoot. I figured on a quick pass overhead; if they were filming I’d bug out to be polite. But I couldn’t see anything like a camera down there, and no one was shooing me away. So I just circled overhead, memorizing the layout to compare it with the final movie. The people on the ground even waved at me as I circled. A few minutes later I peeled off and headed back north to home, feeling very pleased at having found the secret set. What a great flight that was.

I’m not naive enough to think ultralight explorers have opened up any new frontiers or trade routes, or made the world a phenomenally better place to be. (But on the other hand, we haven’t displaced entire cultures of people either.) It’s mostly done in the name of fun. So I encourage any UL jock to get up there and fly to a place you’ve never been. Become one of the last explorers.

What you discover when you get there is entirely up to you. But what ever you find, it’ll be something worth remembering.

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