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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My Idea of Fun

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by Stu Simpson

“Well Bob, what do you figure?”, I asked.

Kirby had just landed after flying a circuit in his Renegade to check the flight conditions.

“It’s pretty bumpy up there from all the thermal activity.”, he replied. “You’ll have more trouble with it than I will.” He was referring to the light wing loading of my Beaver.

“Aw, what the hell”, I said, “Let’s give it a try.”

Ten minutes later I was rolling down runway 16 at Kirby Field. The Beeve lifted easily into the afternoon sky and I turned to the southwest. I soon settled in on course and waited for Kirkby to catch up. Which he did a few minutes later, perching off my left wing, the Renegade glinting in the afternoon light.

I drank in the sensations of the day and smiled to myself. The sun was high and bright in a spring-time blue sky. The wind scooted out of the south at eight to twelve mph, warmly tickling my face as it passed by. My leather jacket flapped in the slip stream. The earth was still blotchy black and tan, not yet awoken from a long, hard winter. The ground was casting thermals up at us like thunderbolts. The hot rising air tossed us around like a juggler tosses bowling pins. But I’ll tell you, there wasn’t any other place else we’d rather be.

As our little formation drew near Indus I radioed my wingman with a question. “Dragonfly 02 this is Dragonfly 01. How do you read?”

“Dragonfly 01, I read you loud & clear,” replied Bob.

“Good. Be advised you’ve got a radio tower at your twelve o’clock for three quarters of a mile”.

Kirkby whipped his plane into a hard left turn. I think he was having flash-backs to his flight from Red Deer last summer where he very nearly hit a similar tower. He thanked me for the warning and veered to the east to avoid the tower completely. No sweat, it was the least I could do.

We passed over the Bow River a short while later and watched it meander out toward Saskatchewan. We saw cars traveling the roads below us and I marveled for the thousandth time how they, and the rest of the world’s possessions, seemed like toys beneath our wings. I knew we didn’t belong to the earth though. We belonged to the wind.

About five miles north-east of Okotoks we switched to 122.8, the local frequency. After listening for our traffic, I radioed our position and was pleasantly surprised to hear a reply.

“Dragonflies”, the caller stated, “conditions at the airport are; wind from the south at about 8 knots, favouring runway 16. The only traffic is a Cessna 172 taxiing for takeoff.”

We entered the circuit as I watched the Cessna takeoff. I’m only guessing, but I’ll bet the pilot was having nearly as much fun as us. We landed a few minutes later, cleared the active and walked over to the hangar building.

When we walked into the airport office, we were greeted by a grey haired fellow whose voice I recognized from the radio. His name was Mac Arbuthnot, the chief pilot at the Okotoks Flight Center. He’s been flying airplanes since girls have had garters. He spent several years bush flying in Ontario and then instructing all over
the place. Bob and I spent an enjoyable half hour hangar-flying with Mac and swapping lies–uh, I mean true stories. I even bought myself an official “Chicks-Dig-It” Okotoks Flight Center ball cap.

Checking out the wind sock, it seemed the breeze was picking up a bit. So we decided it might be a good time to split, bug out, vamoose, and go home. Especially since Mac was starting to ask for more details about those “stories”.

Bob waited patiently on the taxi-way while I strapped in. I usually takeoff from the intersection at Okotoks and this day would be no exception. I fire-walled the throttle and the Beeve was up and flying again after only a forty foot ground roll. I made an immediate left turn out and listened as Bob announced his takeoff. A few minutes later, we were formed up again and heading north to home.

Our trip back was quite a bit smoother and faster than the flight down. We had the wind at our tail and we rode with the bumps instead of against them. As we passed over Indus airport, I was disappointed to see the place deserted. I figured there’d at least be some guys out doing circuits.

Kirkby Field quickly appeared as a tiny dot on the horizon and I felt a twinge of sadness that our flight was nearly over. All too soon I watched from my downwind leg as Kirkby made a perfect touchdown on his grass runway. I had to fight my way down through the thermals just to get on the glide path. A light wing loading can be such a pain.

My landing wasn’t one of the greatest, but at least I didn’t break anything. Bob grabbed a strut and helped me taxi in the cross wind.

I shut down and we talked a bit about the flight and the bumps and the wind and just how much fun the whole thing was. Then we each put our planes away, said goodbye and went to the next place we had to be.

I guess for me, the end of a flight is the end of an adventure. I regret that it’s all over, but I’m still happy I had a chance to be there. And I know I’ll be back for more.

Flight of the Shadow Dancers

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by Stu Simpson

It was as close to perfection as I’d ever seen. Our two ultralight planes floated along in a rare harmony that could have been a beautiful dream. Except this reality was much better.

It was an early September evening as Don in his Chinook, and me in my Beaver, made our way gently southward toward the Bow River. The air was warm and velvety, offering a faint breeze to any and all creatures of the sky. Below us, the summer was making a final, gallant stand against the inevitable autumn and the landscape seemed caught in the middle. Acre after acre of harvested grain fields were quilted together, glowing in the golden sunlight.

Don led the way. I placed my ship off his right wing in an easy echelon formation. Both our planes are yellow with blue trim and the early evening sun seemed to give each plane its own halo.

Neither of us carried a radio, meaning there was nothing to distract us from the pure, simple magic of flying.

I looked down to my left and watched our shadows dart and flit over the earth. They too kept perfect formation with one another as they raced along, occasionally assuming some distorted shape while passing over a ditch or a building.

Every now and then I would see the Chinook’s control surfaces move just a little and the plane would go exactly to where Don wanted it to be.

I was overwhelmed with delight. No one who has been there, in a faultless sky, with a trusted wingman, comes away untouched by the moment.

A few minutes later we had reached the Bow. The Chinook dropped its nose and began a steady descent toward another, adjoining river valley, the Highwood. My Beaver followed obediently.

We felt a few bumps in the air as the wind wiggled it’s way over and around and through the valley. We passed over a campground with trailers and tents. Campers and fishermen stopped what they were doing and gazed up at those glowing airplanes. The people exclaimed to each other that it sure looked like fun and that they sure wouldn’t mind trying it. Only a few announced, “You’d never get me up in one of those crates!” And for a few seconds, for better or worse (mostly better), we had an audience of a few dozen fascinated souls.

While the flatlands above the river were starting to look like fall, the Highwood Valley was still firmly entrenched in summer. The trees still held their deep green shades. The grassy meadows looked luxurious, calling out to any person who wanted to run through them, inviting any airplane to land in them. Though tempted, we politely declined and flew on.

Once away from the campground, we flew even lower, the Chinook still out front and me right behind. We continued to explore the valley, finding surprises like a twin Cessna, an old railway bed and a herd of cows that simply ignored us.

I pushed my throttle lever and moved the stick to the left. A second or two later I pulled along Don’s left wing. I waved to him “Follow me”. I pulled the nose up and banked away from him, heading for the flats above the valley.

We left the valley behind and crossed the top of the cliffs with twenty feet to spare. I pushed over and headed earthward again. What I had in mind was some nap-of-the-earth flying. That’s where an airplane buzzes along only a few feet above the terrain following the exact contours of the ground.

The whole world zipped along just inches below us, our shadows now near and large. My adrenaline surged. It’s such a paradox flying that close to the earth, because it magnifies the separation from it and gives a pilot the purest sensation of flight. A slight tug on the control stick, and the airplane is bound for the heavens. A tiny push to the left or right, and you go there too. It is simply the ultimate freedom.

I looked over my right shoulder and watched Don a few feet away. I could see a huge grin on his face. I turned forward and noticed a grove of trees a few hundred metres ahead. I dropped even lower. 75 mph of airspeed ate up the distance quickly and I pulled the nose up, missing the tallest tree with just enough daylight between us. I looked back and watched Don do the same.

We nosed back over together and continued on, making shallow turns here and there and climbing slightly to clear any barbed-wire fences.

Then I spotted some familiar shapes on the ground ahead. It was a small herd of deer. I looked over to Don and pointed. He gave me a thumbs up indicated he’d spotted the deer also.

The leader of the herd was a huge five-point buck. He wasn’t even afraid of us. He just looked up, kind of curious I suppose, but he didn’t move. We wheeled around and made another pass just to see watch him a bit longer. This time the animals seemed a little nervous and jogged a few meters as we neared. We decided to let them get back to their dinner and continued on back toward the Bow.

That’s when it happened. Don had just finished buzzing a row of small trees and bushes. He banked left, well in front of me. I turned left also to stay with him. I watched in utter amazement as our two shadows lined up and overlapped. They stayed that way for several seconds, moving with each other in a way that looked like they were dancing. It was a beautiful, unforgettable, image as the sun and two airplanes – our airplanes – aligned in a manner so rare.

We passed by some farmers next. They were in a field with a truck and a tractor. We waved happily as we whistled by and they waved back.

We crossed the river again and just continued to make the most of the evening’s unusual magic. We started chasing each other around, getting on one another’s ‘six’ until something else distracted us. Then we’d zoom down to see what it was. We saw some more deer and even a coyote. We followed the shape of the earth from five feet up and we hopped over fences and trees and power lines. We watched as the sun sank lower too, telling the world to get ready for bed. Life just doesn’t get much better.

But we were quickly losing our daylight. I followed Don as he reluctantly turned for Indus airport, his home-drome.

We pulled up and entered the circuit and made a pair of greaser landings. Nothing was going to spoil this flight.

We taxied over to Don’s hangar and shut down. We talked excitedly for a few minutes about the things we’d seen and how much fun it all was. I happened to notice that Don had a permanent smile tacked onto his face. I noticed I did too.

We soon ran out of things to discuss about the flight, so I saddled up again and took off for home.

I felt like Don and I had been granted the keys to a magic kingdom that day. A place where only the lucky and the skilful get to go. And even though we were only allowed a short visit, I knew we had certainly made the most of it. I wonder what our next visit will be like.

Feelings of Flight

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by Stu Simpson

People ask me what it’s like to fly, to be a pilot, and I’m afraid to answer. I worry that once I get started, I won’t be able to stop. I want to tell the curious about all the sensations and feelings of flight, of all that flight evokes in me. But those who ask are really only stopping by for a sip, not the whole bottle.

I think I can tell you, though.

I feel exhilaration when I fly. Even after more than 2000 take offs in airplanes, each one still shoots a thrill right through me. I’m still so excited to be there, so utterly happy to leave the earth. I see the ground slip away beneath my wings, all things down there getting smaller, and I know I’m doing something amazing and fascinating.

I feel wonder when I fly. I look at the clouds next to me, above me, below me. Clouds are ever intriguing. They’ve so many colours, are so utterly alive. They’re growing, dying and otherwise changing every single instant. And what about the sky itself? I mean, how could anything be so big?! Who couldn’t be awed by flying?

I feel giddy when I fly, like I’m really sneaking off with a precious secret that so few know about. It makes me smile.

I feel safe when I fly. I know my airplane is strong and secure, that my engine is good. I know the men I fly with, that they’re reliable and careful and made of good stuff. I know myself better when I’m in the sky. I know what I can do, and equally important, what I can’t.

I feel like an adventurer when I fly. I love to discover the earth from the air. Each flight becomes an exciting voyage, an exploration. How many times have I been the first to soar through a patch of sky that no airplane has ever traversed? How often have I taken off and not picked a direction until I was airborne? How often have I flown over this part of the earth and never seen it the way it was right then? There are so many unexpected wonders, so many unforeseen encounters and delightful surprises to be found up there.

I feel fear when I fly, but not a lot of it, and not very often. I’m not ashamed of fear, though I don’t enjoy it. But I know the value of fear. Fear helps keep me and my airplane safe and alive. I use it to become a better pilot. I’m afraid that something might go really, really wrong that might break my airplane and me. If that happened, I might not be able to fly. I really fear that.

I feel alone when I fly. The solitude is complete, absolute, even if I share the sky with other airplanes. Another plane may be mere feet from mine, the pilot’s grin and thumbs-up clearly visible. But the distance between us is such that we may as well be on different planets. I can no more fly his plane than he could fly mine. I answer to no one up there, and if I err the consequences are mine alone to endure. I like such independence, the total responsibility for myself and my destiny.

I feel moved when I fly. And I understand why some men are compelled to paint beautiful pictures of airplanes, or to write about airplanes and of flying them. I understand the passion that flight inspires in these people and the love they express.

I feel noise when I fly. I feel the engine thundering, clattering, humming. I feel the prop beating the wind into submission. My airplane’s sound changes when the ball’s not centered and I feel the air thumping against the side.

I feel the wind when I fly. It may come at me from my nose, or from above or below. Like any pilot, I love the wind at my back. Wherever it comes from, I feel it. I feel it gently wiggle my ailerons, or jab at the rudder. I feel it when it stands me unexpectedly on a wing, or throws me toward heaven or earth at alarming rates. I even feel the wind when it does nothing but let me pass unfettered. Such smoothness of flight I adore.

I feel a part of something good when I fly with others. Then, I’m with men whose love is the same as mine, who also delight in the feelings of flight. They too see artistry in the shape of a wing, the curve of a rudder. They smile at a tail wind, and are men for whom few things are more satisfying than the instant of a three-point landing made on a grass runway. They marvel at the bare simplicity of a Continental engine. Their day is charmed when they catch the sun glinting off the plane flying next to them. To be welcomed by such men, to be treated as an equal among them is deeply humbling, and I cherish their acceptance.

I feel at home when I fly. In the sky in an airplane is where I dearly love to be. It’s comfortable and familiar. I know where things are – in my plane, on the ground, and in the air. I know how things work, and if they don’t, how to make them work. The sky welcomes me. It completes who I am, and offers a place where I can escape, or relax, or be excited. In the sky I can be who I want to be. It’s all that a good home should be. I’d feel greedy and ashamed asking for more.

Mostly, I feel lucky when I fly. Very few share this gift I have, so to have it and allow it to go unappreciated would be disgraceful and unworthy. There are others who want what I have when I fly. Thus, I’m certain it’s good, and I do my best to be thankful. In doing so I desperately hope the gods smile on me, knowing I don’t take flight for granted. Maybe they’ll let me keep my gift a bit longer.

And, if I should someday lose this fortune, at least I’ll be satisfied knowing I’ve spent my riches well.