The Simple Things

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by Stu Simpson

The shadow was just where he promised it would be – behind and to the right of mine. A few seconds later I saw the airplane that made it. Don Rogers‘ red and white Husky Norseman slid into position off my right wing as we climbed out northbound from Kirkby Field.

It had been 18 months since Don and I had flown together. That last jaunt, with him in his Chinook and me in my Beaver, was in March of ’94 to a farm strip near Vulcan. Back then, our airplanes looked exactly like what they were – ultralights.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those types of planes. Nope, not a darn thing. It’s just that I couldn’t help wanting something a little more, well, conventional looking. I’d spent nearly three hundred hours in open cockpit ultralights, and frankly, I wanted to be warm again. I also wanted something with the engine out front and a wheel way out back. So I built a TEAM Himax, a nice, simple, wooden tail-dragger.

Don was also looking for a change. He too wanted something a bit more conventional. He eventually flogged his trusty Chinook and bought the Norseman, a nice, simple, metal tail-dragger.

You’ll notice that neither of us had any desire to leave the ultralight fold. No, sir. We like it down here in the weeds. In our minds, this is where the real flying is.

And this day, we were flying to where the real pie is. Or so I’m told. The village of Linden is about 40 miles north of Kirkby’s. The airstrip is right in the town limits and just down the street from a coffee shop that serves absolutely scrumptious pie. At least that’s how the legend goes.

Don’s gone to Linden on a few occasions for the pie and often times told me we should go there together. So today, the last day of September, would be the day. And we were doing it in airplanes that look like airplanes. That means something to us.

It was late in the afternoon and the air under us hadn’t quite settled yet, making it tough to keep a close formation. Heck, with all that convective air, it was tough to keep an altitude. But we did our best.

Each of us was also keeping an eye on the sky. There was a squall off to the northwest that was slowly getting bigger, but it didn’t seem to want to move anywhere. A smaller cloud, east of the big storm, was the focus of our attention. It looked pretty rambunctious, spewing rain and such from it’s underside. Unfortunately, it was heading straight for our destination.

The sight of Linden on the not-so-distant horizon made my mouth water. But I knew it was not to be.

We were three miles directly west of the Beiseker airport. Checking my six, I found Don perched a few hundred yards back. So I made what military people call a “command decision”. I chickened out.

I turned hard right for Beiseker and Don followed.

We taxied in just as a Cessna 206, loaded to the rails with skydivers, taxied out. We hopped out and surveyed the airport from the ramp, talking easily, as old friends do. The sky to the north got slowly worse, confirming our choice in diverting to Beiseker.

Meanwhile, the 206 had departed and was droning higher and higher with it’s load of jumpers. Listening carefully, Don realized we were actually hearing two planes. Sure enough, directly over the airport was a cross-shaped speck that quickly started spewing crazy people. They’d have to be crazy, wouldn’t they?

Five chutes soon blossomed with five live bodies hanging underneath. The jumpers hollered joyously as they floated the last few hundred feet to earth, which was probably the last place any of them wanted to be right then.

We spent another half hour on the ground relaxing and swapping stories with the drop pilots. Checking the airport log, we found Todd MacArthur’s name, Larry Motyer’s, and mine in an entry dated early August, 1992. That’s when the three of us flew back from the Red Deer Airshow, barely making it to Beiseker after trudging through low cloud, rain, and thunder storms.

Rogers and I bugged out a few minutes later with me taking off first. But I slowed passing the town of Beiseker so Don could take the lead. The air was considerably smoother now, allowing us a tighter formation than on the flight up. I formed on the Norseman’s left wing, near enough to see the rivets outlined beneath the plane’s fabric.

As we neared Irricana, Don began slowly descending. Then I saw why.

South of the town is a large slough, that’s where he was headed. Rogers is a bit of a rascal and loves to do a good buzz job, especially over water.

I stayed up high as Don scooted down over the pond. Startled by his approach, a flock of birds took off, splashing their wings and feet, spoiling the calm surface.

Don was having a ball. He banked gently one way, then the other. The Norseman became a silhouette, an outline of a simple airplane caught in the sunlight bouncing off the water. What a thoroughly beautiful sight.

Once over land again, the Norseman dipped it’s nose for a few seconds, then pulled up sharply, climbing for height. I slowed the ‘Max to compensate for Don’s lack of forward speed. He quickly resumed his lead and I my wingman’s slot, and we continued south.

I moved in tighter now, marveling as I always do at the pure magic of this type of flying. It’s these times when I shake my head, absolutely amazed that everyone else doesn’t want to do this.

I spent the next thirty-five minutes or so glued to Don’s wing, straying only once when we angled eastward to avoid flying over Kirkby’s neighbors. I admired the big, rugged Norseman and recalled from years ago the few hours I’d spent in one.

We separated north of Indus, Don opting for the straight-in to runway 16 while I elected to try my cross-wind technique on 28. I stayed on the ground only a few minutes, chatting with Don and Gord Tebutt. I invited Tebutt back up to Kirkby’s with me, but his time wouldn’t allow it.

So, I checked my fuel and clambered back into the ‘Max. Don swung the prop for me, repeating a ritual as old as powered flight, and to pilots like us, just as sacred.

The trip home allowed for some time to reflect on the day and entrench it in my memory. My thoughts ambled happily through images of tail-draggers, formation flying, and grass runways. Then I smiled to myself and silently thanked God for the simple things.

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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.

The Kingdom on the Horizon

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by Stu Simpson

My God, that tree was close!

I sailed the Giant over a tall, jagged pine with less than ten feet to spare and snapped my attention back to the runway ahead. Over the button and still twenty feet up, I chopped the throttle, nosed over and headed for the grass. Still a bit hot on the speed, the Giant touched down hard and I danced on the rudder pedals to dodge the mole hills that dotted the runway like chicken pox. Luckily, the mounds were soft and squashed easily away beneath the tires.

Gustafsson was on the radio, now, emphatically warning Botting and Clarke to beware of the pines. I taxied all the way to the end to give my wingmen some room. I turned around just in time to watch Glen Clarke, the last of our troupe, bring his J-3 Cub in for an unusually rough landing. My heart nearly stopped when the Cub’s left wing came within inches of the ground as he fought to control the plane on the strip’s uneven surface. But Glen, who’s one of the best pilots I know, got things back under control quite nicely and we all trundled over to the shut-down area.

All in all, just another routine landing at the Highwood-Adderson airstrip.

I quickly began refueling with the extra gas I brought along. The Giant would need it for today’s flight. The Dragonflies would leave this strip in the foothills and fly to the vast and mysterious kingdom of the west, called the Rocky Mountains. They sit next to the sky, only a few miles west of Calgary. Their blue-grey silhouettes are always just out of reach for the average ultralight pilot. Castled with granite ramparts that sometimes tear the very clouds from the air, the Rocks form a legendary, forbidden place. They’re notorious for their meteorological treachery and have dangerously few places for emergency landings. All aviators must be cautious in this domain.

I knew these facts, but felt we could successfully challenge the mountains today. And I figured such a flight probably wouldn’t be as dangerous as our landing at Adderson’s.

During our time on the ground we met Royle Adderson, a successful businessman who owns the ranch and airstrip; and Bob Purkess who looks every inch the tough and ready cowboy that he is. Purkess runs the ranch for Adderson. Both were very welcoming and helpful, especially when Botting had trouble with his engine. He‘d somehow fouled a plug on start-up when we were ready to leave.

Despite an hour’s work, and having all the supervision he could handle, Botting couldn’t get the engine to run satisfactorily. He wisely decided to scrap the mountain trip and go home. Clarke volunteered to escort him. Gustafsson and I would continue on.

Soon after takeoff, the mountains ahead loomed high and sharp in the near distance. It was difficult, as we drew closer, to think of the surrounding peaks as anything other than alive. Like ancient monarchs of the earth, they projected absolute authority and practically dared us to make a mistake. They‘d be merciless if we did.

The mountains are the undisputed kings of the world here. They know it, and with complete arrogance, they don’t care who else knows. Hell, they can even control the weather. Like all kings, they jealously guard their power, being wholly unwilling to share even a bit of it. One can visit their kingdom, and even stay a while. But in the end, the mountains will always endure, always rule. Understand that, they seemed to say, and we’ll get along fine. My heart beat a little faster as we reached the first northward turn into the Highwood Valley.

We banked our planes to follow the highway below and I’m not ashamed to say I stared open-mouthed at the spectacle before us. Here, the Highwood is broad and inviting, stunning and daunting. The lush green slopes give way to sparse grass further up the mountain sides, and then become bare rock for the last couple thousand feet to the summits.

And the height of the peaks! Gustafsson and I were in a continuous, shallow climb from the point we left Adderson’s. But no matter how high our brave chariots took us, there was never any shortage of jagged spires ascending even higher. At one point, we were at 9200 feet and still craning our necks to look up and see the mountain tops. Ultralight pilots rarely see such dizzying numbers on the altimeter. We’re unused to looking up at the earth as we fly. It was a startling refresher in humility.

As we continued north, the valley walls featured cuts and gaps between the peaks. These openings led to who knows where. Each portal was a tantalizing temptress, promising adventure and wanton pleasure for the senses, if we’d only give in to our lust and explore them. And we were tempted! We’d have dearly loved to be seduced by those secret chambers in the sky. But we also knew that succumbing to the wiles of such harlots could easily lead to our deaths. Instead, we stayed our course and clung to the fragile illusion of safety with the road below. In our fidelity, though, we selfishly felt cheated.

The valley once again turned west for a few miles, and then back north. The terrain here, approaching the Highwood Pass, was much narrower than the area we’d just left. The slopes were steeper, too. Thus, a good deal of vegetation had been torn away by avalanches and rock slides. One broad cut in the eastern wall opened to another valley that sheltered a small and incredibly beautiful lake. The water covered only a few acres of the valley floor and was reached via a small trail from the highway. Many hikers would visit this little Shangri-la, and some would even scale the surrounding mountains for a look at it. But only a very few men would ever see it as Gustafsson and I did then.

The Highwood Pass was nowhere near as high as I thought it’d be. In fact, at only 7200 feet, it was about a thousand feet lower than anticipated. But it was tight and thus made a wonderful backdrop for the photos and videos we shot.

There was one, last summit on the left as we exited the Highwood. Craggy and endlessly fissured, it possessed remarkable character and seemed to watch us very carefully as we flew past. Perhaps it worried that we’d made off with some of the palace treasure.

Kananaskis Country was next. One glance in the space of a heartbeat, and we were left breathless. To the west, the Kananaskis Lakes held us spellbound, while the glacier-topped mountains beyond forbade any but the most foolish aerial venture in that direction. The forests of the lower elevations covered the valley floor like a thick carpet, which, from our height, looked positively luxurious.

In turn, K-Country’s various recreation areas passed beneath us. There were campgrounds, ski hills and vacation resorts. All the while, K-Country’s summits passed beside and above us. One unusually shaped mountain looked like it had oozed, barely molten, from God’s granite-pouring ladle and simply been left to harden like a nine thousand foot tall slag heap. Others nearby seemed to have their tops snapped off like pieces of hard candy. They were then abandoned, rough and broken and ugly. And in that ugliness lay their beauty, unblemished by the incessant human pursuit of symmetry, efficiency and straightness.

By unwelcome contrast, the TransCanada Highway, with its carefully surveyed boundaries and arrow straight lanes, soon came into sight. It conveyed thousands of hurrying people who cared nothing for little airplanes or broken mountain tops.

Gustafsson and I weren’t yet ready to leave the Rocks and join that mob. So, we followed the cut-off road through the Stoney Creek region, just to stay in the wilderness a little longer. All too soon, the mountains gave way to the foothills. And they quickly descended to become the prairies, from where we’d always wondered about the far off kingdom. We radioed to one another our sadness at having to leave. We wanted more excitement and unease, not comfort and familiarity. We wanted more mountains. Our spirits paralleled the diminishing numbers on our altimeters.

Yet, for all our sadness, we had no regrets. For we’d been to see the kings and the grand palace they all shared. True, we’d only strolled through a single, beautifully appointed corridor. But we’d glimpsed a few of the dazzling and magnificent chambers adjoining it. And even if we had to leave then, I know a couple of airborne voyagers who’ll someday be back.

The First Year of Merl

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by Stu Simpson

I’ve been ‘Merling” for a full year now, and I’m having the time of my life.

For those who might not know, early last year another airplane crashed into and destroyed my beloved Green Giant at Linden. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. Three months later, I took to the air in “Merl” as I named my new 1991 Macair Merlin. I’ve been happily flying Merl ever since.

It’s been very interesting comparing Merl to the Giant. They both fit into the same class of airplane, but each plane’s designer achieved their goals in different ways.

For instance, the Giant’s fuse’ was made of aluminum tubes riveted together and bonded to a fiberglass and foam ‘bathtub’ north of the cockpit. The wing had foam ribs, wooden spar caps and a composite shear web.

Merl, on the other hand, is made with an entirely welded steel tube fuselage. The wings have all aluminum spars and foam ribs. The ailerons are Junkers style and hang right out in the breeze. The design was originally equipped with a centre Y stick. Both designs are fabric covered.

Let’s do some straight comparisons. Both airplanes have nice large cockpits. The visibility forward and up was better in the Giant, due to a taller cabin. But Merl allows me to see much better what’s behind and to the sides of me.

Merl’s bench seats are more comfortable than the Giant’s buckets were, especially over a long flight. In Merl, I’m actually able to stretch my feet across the cockpit to the opposite pedals if need be on a long flight. No way I could’ve done that in the Giant.

The Giant had the edge in control feel. The controls there were really smooth with just the right amount of feedback. It’s one of those details that you’d expect from a designer like Dave Marsden, who holds a Ph.D. in Aeronautical Engineering. Merl’s controls and control feel are much more pedestrian; not at all unpleasant, just not as nice as the Giant’s.

Merl’s controls are blessedly simple, though. I adore simplicity in airplanes, especially ones I have to maintain. I switched from the Macair centre Y stick to a fiendishly light, simple, effective and cheap dual stick arrangement. The Giant’s controls were a complex series of tubes, rod ends and welded plates that wound their way through the cockpit area.

The Giant’s trim system was better with a simple over-head lever as opposed to Merl’s tractor PTO control beneath the left seat. I do like the fact that Merl has its 19 gallons of fuel in wing tanks. The Giant only had about 16 gallons, kept in two different fuselage tanks, one of them right behind the cockpit.

Getting in and out of the Giant was a bit easier than getting into Merl, but Merl’s doors can open in flight since they hinge upward. This certainly makes starting the plane a lot simpler and safer when compared to the Giant. Merl has much easier access to the cockpit controls when I’m throwing the prop around.

One area where Merl shines over the Giant is in cargo space. With a large cargo deck behind the seats, which could be made even larger, I have no problems packing for a week of Air Adventuring. Packing extra gear was a lot more difficult in the Giant.

Something my wingmen really like is Merl’s colour. I continually hear from them how much easier it is to spot Merl in our formations. You’ll get that reaction when you switch from camo green to cherry red.

How do they compare in performance? Merl uses the engine that I salvaged from the Giant, a Continental A-75-8. I’m lucky enough to get to hand-prop it each time I want to commit flight.

Merl’s climb rate isn’t quite as good as the Giant’s was. It may be because Merl has a smaller wing than the Giant did, by about ten square feet. But I’m also taking off, on average, more heavily loaded with fuel than I did with the Giant. I often wonder if the Sensenich prop on Merl is as efficient as the Giant’s McCauley. However, when Merl’s light it jumps into the air.

It’s really enjoyable to go exploring short strips with the confidence that I can get Merl in and out of them. I didn’t have many worries with the Giant, either, except when it came to rougher surfaces. The Giant had smaller tubing on the gear and smaller tires. Its gear wasn’t quite as rugged. These days I happily land in summer-fallowed fields with Merl, but I’d have been reluctant to try it with the Giant.

The Giant’s ground handling was quite a bit better than Merl’s, but that’s largely due to some incorrect geometry in Merl’s tail wheel assembly. That’s on the fix-it list for this spring.

In the air, Merl and the Giant differ measurably. Merl has a faster roll rate, but is less stable in roll. It’s also more difficult to keep coordinated in a turn because of the Junkers ailerons. Merl’s a bit more sensitive in pitch, and is tougher to land well, compared to the Giant. Merl’s more sensitive than the Giant was. I don’t mind that one bit. I got into this game to fly, not to just sit and watch the airplane have all the fun.

Merl flies faster than the Giant did. I cruise quite easily around 80 mph, but that’s only a 5 mph edge over the Giant. I don’t need to go any faster. Merl’s a good cross country airplane. It fits right in with Champs, Chiefs, Cubs and T-Crafts. I’d happily take it just about anywhere.

By way of overall comparison to the Giant, Merl is a harder airplane to fly well. But it’s also that much more rewarding when I get it right. It’s more capable than the Giant was, and safer, due to its all steel construction and wing-mounted fuel tanks. With the tundra tires, it also provides more landing options.

The last year with Merl has really given me a strong sense of history, too, because it’s such a throwback to a simpler era. The Continental, designed in the 1930’s and built in the 40’s, is right at home dragging Merl around the sky. And it reinforces that connection to the past.

I was surprised to look at my log book and realize I’ve clocked about 115 hours in the last twelve months, more than I’ve ever flown in a year. With Merl, I’ve been all over Alberta and deep into the mountains of B.C. Hopefully, this year I’ll make it to northern Saskatchewan. Lucky me, eh?

I’m ever so pleased knowing that there’s still a place in the sky, and on grass strips everywhere, for airplanes like mine. If Merl and I have anything to say about it, there always will be.

The First Time

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by Stu Simpson

A strange coincidence occurred a few days ago that caused me to remember a long passed and very important day.

I was driving to an appointment and looking at the sky. I was judging the weather as I often do, as to it’s suitability for flying. The ceiling was high overcast, the temperature around +5 degrees, and the winds were light. In short, an excellent day.

Here’s the strange part. The conditions were exactly – and I do mean exactly – the same as the day I soloed. Sensing something of the dramatically weird, I later checked my log book and nearly fell over when I discovered the day in question was the seventh anniversary of my first solo flight. Bizarre, eh?

March 23rd, 1986 was a day I’d dreamt about my whole life. Or so it seemed. I arrived at Indus airport that spring day with more than a few butterflies in my stomach. This was the day I was scheduled to take an airplane up all by myself. If everything went well I would also land the plane and walk away afterwards. I was both excited and scared.

I walked toward my mount – a bright yellow single-seat Beaver with a 35hp motor – and wondered if it was as anxious as me. I forced myself to calm down and began my pre-flight.

When the pre-flight was finished my instructor, John Reed, came over to offer some last minute advice. He suggested I get away from the field after take-off and get used to the airplane. He warned it would handle more aggressively than the two-seat trainer version. I should do some basic manoeuvres, he said, and return to the airport for a few circuits. He even told me to have fun.

I fired up and climbed in. I secured my helmet and straps and began my taxi. A few minutes later I found myself at the button of runway 10 with 1900 feet in front of me and no excuses left.

I eased the throttle ahead and the little Rotax screamed happily. The ride was rough as the Beaver’s wheels pounded at the runway’s ruts and holes. Everything became suddenly smooth as the wings finally bit and yanked me skyward. I was flying – alone.

My heart soared as I realized, with concrete certainty (and no small amount of pride) that I could fly. The dream was now reality.

I angled to the right to avoid some power lines, pleased to be applying a lesson learned in training. I climbed out eastward to clear the circuit. Reed wasn’t kidding when he’d mentioned the control discrepancies. The two-seater had sluggish, mushy controls. But this plane, with it’s push-pull tube activated ailerons, was a fireball – sensitive and snappy.

The air remained perfect, with only a hint of wind. I practiced climbs, descents and turns. Then I went through the pre-stall checklist and gritted my teeth. If I screwed this up and wound up in a spin there would be no one to help me, no one to blame.

Ease the gas back, come back on the stick – tap the rudder to keep it straight, don’t want to depart – there’s the nibble…and the break! Stick forward, add power, and pull out gently. Piece of cake, I said to myself. I was gaining confidence and competence every minute.

I did a few more stalls and became acquainted with some of the plane’s idiosyncrasies.

I re-entered the circuit a few minute later and flew it as though Reed were still in the back-seat. I recited the pre-landing checklist to myself (something I still do): “No aircraft in the circuit, none about to enter it. Seat-belts are secure (I gave the straps a tug). Wind direction is from the south-east. Nearing key position”.

A couple more descending turns and I lined up on final to runway 10. The glide path looked good. I eased the throttle back as I coasted over the fence, then the numbers. The Beaver floated for a few yards as lift slowly surrendered to gravity. The mains kissed the grass smoothly – no, perfectly – and the plane settled gently on it’s springs.

To tell the truth, that first solo landing was a work of art. I can’t really remember another one that was better.

I blasted off again and performed two more touch-and-go’s before packing it in for the day. Reed was there to shake my hand and congratulate me when I shut down.

A pilot’s first solo quickly becomes a memory as his flight learning curve arcs sharply upward. His log book fills with tales of cross-country flights, group flights, and many more adventures found only among the heavens. But the first solo is a moment a pilot never truly forgets. Maybe because he can never repeat it.

The Boys of Autumn

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by Stu Simpson

The weather guys owed us this one. And they had paid up with interest by giving us perfect conditions for flying, a sharp contrast to the rest of the season, which had been absolutely crappy since April. So, like any sensible ultralight jockeys, we were taking advantage of it.

There were three of us. Don Rogers, call sign Dragonfly-01, had the lead. I was 02, and Gerry MacDonald in his two-seat Beaver, was number three. Don led us westward from Indus. We headed for the hills east of Priddis so Don could take aerial pictures of a friend’s acreage. We hadn’t discussed where we’d go next. I like that.

The air was like satin, caressing us gently as we droned toward the Rocks. I didn’t know what the day held in store for us but I wasn’t going to let this moment pass uncaptured. I had my own camera along, so I pulled it out and started snapping. The Chinook and the Beaver contrasted beautifully with the October blue sky.

I spent about ten minutes bobbing around the sky flying with my knees. But I’d managed to grab some decent pictures before returning to the formation. In the meantime, Don had found the landmarks to point him to his buddy’s house. He peeled off to the south and began his descent. That left Gerry and I at about 4700 feet to practice our formation flying.

We ambled lazily over the hills, flying circles to get the hang of formation turns. Gerry welded his airplane to my left wing as we alternated between a gentle left bank, and straight and level. What a pleasant surprise to find yet another pilot who likes flying formation, and is good at it. I wondered what else would surprise me today.

We were chatting with Don about where to go next when we overheard some chatter from the Thompson’s Ranch glider strip. They sounded pretty busy over there, launching gliders every few minutes. We decided that strip would be our next destination.

Don was nearly finished with his low altitude photo passes so he told Gerry and I to start heading to Thompson’s. He’d start climbing after us and catch up. We radioed our intentions to the glider riders and their tow plane and turned our noses south. I recalled from my training days that unpowered craft have the right-of-way in the circuit and I began scanning for the thermal jockies’long wings and slim bodies.

Just as Gerry and I passed over mid-field, I spotted a glider about three miles away. He was on a long downwind for runway 25, while the tow plane was yanking another one off the ground. We extended to the south of the field and Gerry slid back to my six for the circuit. As soon as the glider was past us, I turned in for the downwind. Don was just crossing over mid-field. But by the time Gerry and I were on short final, he was ready for his base leg.

Upon landing we were immediately set upon and welcomed by members of the Cu-Nim Gliding Club. We spent some time talking about our planes and theirs, each group wondering what the other’s craft were like to fly. We watched several gliders get towed aloft by a Bellanca Scout, and I even managed to get a few more pictures. I live for days like that.

Half an hour later we were getting itchy wings again. We batted a few destinations around and finally settled on High River. We didn’t feel like landing at the airport, so we’d just head to the north end of the town, then turn back for home. All in agreement, we saddled up and fire-walled it down runway 07, impressing the hell out of the glider guys. At least they should have been impressed.

The colors of autumn were a firey spectacle in the trees below us. We laughed and joked on the radio as the day continued to unfold it’s magic. Don spotted another friend’s house-in-the-country. The best I could do was be the first to notice the wonderful, unmistakable, aroma  f a nearby feed lot. Gerry seemed content to just park himself off my wing and smile. Then a series of perfect circles appeared in a grain field below which began a flurry of jokes regarding UFO’s and peanut butter cups.

When we reached the town of High River we noticed an abandoned WWII training field whose runways were still barely visible in the grass. It would be nice if the field was still there, allowing us to drop in every now and again. But it’s long since overrun with grass and buildings and power lines.

We crossed the #2 highway and made our turn to the north. Don assigned me the lead before we left Thompson’s and had taken my right wing. So instead of making the wide turn from the outside, he elected to cut across the rear of the flight to take the outside of an echelon left.

We coasted along for the next twenty minutes just staring at the world below and the unlucky souls who weren’t up there with us.

Occasionally I’d lose sight of one of my wingmen as he drifted into the blind spot above my wing. But all I had to do was glance down at our shadows to know where he was.

We began our descent for Indus when we reached the South Calgary airport. Three planes, acting as one, nosed over and throttled back. We levelled out on the other side of the Bow and set up to pass east of the field to enter the downwind for runway 28. We passed over the airport with perfect spacing, once again, impressing the hell out of the people on the ground.

Don and Gerry peeled off, one after the other, in beautifully executed turns. I bid them farewell and continued on to Kirkby Field, smiling deeply to myself and letting the last few minutes of the flight wash over me.

What an absolute joy it was to fly that autumn day, with the sun shining, my leather jacket flapping in the wind, and two great flyers to share it with.

Something Worth Waiting For

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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.

It happens.

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.

It happens.

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.

It happens.

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.