Things To Do In The Sky When You’re All Alone

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by Stu Simpson

Now don’t take this the wrong way, but I was really disappointed to see Wilf Stark drive up to my hangar at Kirkby Field. Disappointed, you see, because he was supposed to have flown in. But the field where Stark hangars his Rans S-12 was snowed under.

Wilf wasn’t coming flying today, I realized somberly. His Super Koala was in pieces undergoing minor repairs and his FP-303 wasn’t quite ready yet for its first flight. I guess our jaunt to Okotoks would have to wait for another day. How ironic that Wilf owns, or co-owns, three airplanes but would still be grounded. I knew I’d miss him up there.

Stark watched by the runway as me and the Himax lifted into a perfect winter sky. We left runway 34 behind after what seemed an awfully long run. Climb-out was sluggish, too – only about half the normal rate. But the revs were good, so was acceleration. Pondering the problem, I figured I’d best get what altitude I could, stay close to the strip, and sort things out.

I perched the ‘Max at 700 feet on the airfield perimeter and made a couple of north-south runs. With an incredible grasp of the obvious, I realized that my runs northward were much quicker than those going the other way. Yup, I’d taken off downwind.

A downwind take-off, imagine that. Oh, the shame and embarrassment. I won’t waste your time with excuses (though they’re certainly quality ones – some of my best, in fact).

Instead of dwelling on my fate at the next CUFC meeting, I concentrated on flying. There’d been a month of bad weather since me and the ‘Max had the sky beneath us, so our reunion was a joyous one. I flung us gleefully through the air in tight turns; first one way, then the other, each entry and roll-out tight and precise. The airplane was solid and pure. Together we were masters of the air, invincible.

I spotted a train as it coursed along the tracks south of Kirkby’s. Suddenly, it was 1920. I was an air-mail pilot flying my Jenny to prove that airplanes could move the mail faster than the rails. I nosed over into a shallow dive, fiercely racing the train, and soon came up beside the locomotive. The engineer sat with his back to me, probably didn’t even know I was there. I pulled ahead a few seconds later though, and banked arrogantly in front him.

Would that engineer think me a fool and a daredevil for flying such a crate? Or would he look at me as a beggar looks at a rich man? Either way, he was stuck down there, a slave to the clock, while I was up here chasing sunbeams through the wind.

Finished with the train, I made Indus my next destination. Maybe something was going on down there. Too bad, I reflected again, that Wilf wasn’t up. I’d really been looking forward to honing my formation flying skills with him.

A woman’s voice was in my ears suddenly, telling the world she was landing at Three Hills. Was she a student? An instructor, maybe? Or was she just someone else out for fun?

Indus was a bust. The only activity there was Winters finishing up a flight with a student. I did a touch and go, just for the practice, and headed back north.

Over Kirkby’s again, I saw Wilf meandering around his hangar and the taxi-way. I decided to head to Stefanivic’s (where the Rans hangars) just on the off-chance that Ben had gotten the runway cleared. If so, maybe Stark could still make it into the air. But it was not to be. Ben had his Bobcat were working away as I flew over, but the runway remained untouched.

So what should I do now? Some nap-of-the-earth stuff, I decided. I made for the large field a half-mile away where I usually do my low flying. There are no wires or buildings or fences there, and it’s nice and flat – a perfect spot.

I crossed the road at the north end of the field at about 75′. A movement ahead caught my eye – a coyote that had seen and heard me a long time ago. He took off running at full speed, but he was no match for me and my airplane.

Suddenly, it was 1944. I was a Typhoon pilot strafing the enemy. I drew closer with each passing second, his image flickering through the spinning prop as he snatched quick glances back at me. There could be no escape. All I had to do was line him up with my front spark plug cap and press the firing button. Just a couple more seconds…. NOW! I mashed a non-existent trigger and imagined tracers tearing up the snow around him, blowing him to little bits. The coyote flashed beneath my left wing. Safe and sound, he was more than a little pissed off as he suddenly reared up and clawed the air in my direction. I guess I’d be mad too, if I’d just been strafed.

Some truck tracks made their way through the field, so I decided to follow them. From ten feet up I curved the ‘Max around each bend and turn, staying directly above the trail until it disappeared into a small stand of trees near the irrigation canal. Next, I buzzed some grain bins and then found a snow-bound tractor, frozen and desolate, abandoned for the season. Then I decided some touch-and-goes at Kirkby’s were in order.

I turned the ‘Max southward and began a gentle climb to circuit height. The home ‘drome came into view as I made for the downwind (I was absolutely certain of the wind direction this time). I figured it’d be a good plan to practice my short-field technique because I’ve yet to see a runway that’s too long.

Turning final a bit higher than usual, I throttled back and let the ‘Max settle into its descent. The plane rocked gently as we slipped through the inversion layer and its inherent light turbulence. How would this landing turn out? Would I nail the ‘Max to the button in a sterling three-pointer? Or would I be too fast and float along in ground-effect before dropping in with a thud? I smiled at the challenge ahead.

Every landing, I think, is a moment of truth for a pilot. Because on each landing gravity and a hundred other laws of physics will act without mercy or favour. And the airplane will ask of its pilot, “Can you bring me back to earth correctly? Can you put us down gently, under control? Or are you going to turn us both into a pile of rubbish in the middle of the runway? Well, what’s your answer?” Anyone who’s been there knows what I mean.

I answered correctly seven times straight, which isn’t to say all my landings were great. A couple of them were too fast and resulted in thuds. One was too slow, one was absolute crap, and three were pretty good. But my last landing, number seven, was exquisite; a soothing three-point greaser that was so slick I questioned for a second if I was really down. In my little tail-dragger, that’s something to cherish.

Wilf and I did get up flying together later that week, and we got to Okotoks, too. But on this flight, from out of the blue, fate did me a favour. It reminded me, in the very best way, that there are plenty of things to do in the sky when you’re all alone.

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