Voyage Across the Sky – A Light Plane Odyssey

In the summer of 2012 two pilots set out to fly their small airplanes - a homebuilt ultralight and a 66 year-old-classic - from Calgary, Alberta to San Francisco, California and back. It was an aerial odyssey that would cover more than 2700 miles and take more than two weeks to complete. Fighting mechanical problems, mountains, deserts and incorrigible wind and weather, Geoff Pritchard and Stu Simpson challenged the sky and temped fate to pull of the adventure of a lifetime.  Take a seat, strap in and join them on a Voyage Across the Sky!
Pilots from Voyage Across the Sky – A Light Plane Odyssey

In the summer of 2012 two pilots set out to fly their small airplanes – a homebuilt ultralight and a 66 year-old-classic – from Calgary, Alberta to San Francisco, California and back. It was an aerial odyssey that would cover more than 2700 miles and take more than two weeks to complete. Fighting mechanical problems, mountains, deserts and incorrigible wind and weather, Geoff Pritchard and Stu Simpson challenged the sky and temped fate to pull of the adventure of a lifetime.

Take a seat, strap in and join them on a Voyage Across the Sky!

Follow CRUFC Member Troy, on his flight from Calgary, AB to Los Angeles, CA

We leave late this afternoon for Spokane, then down to Redding for the night.  Plan is La tomorrow if the weather lets us into the basin.  Use the spot above to follow along.

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Ultralight Flight: CTV News Video Interview with CRUFC President

Ultralight Flight

CTV News Original Air Date: Friday, September 14, 2012

Watch Video Interview

In Alberta, ultralight airplanes crashed near Ponoka, Indus and Lloydminster in the summer of 2012. That’s three accidents in as many weeks – one fatal.

Aviation enthusiasts say ultralight aircrafts are well-built machines. They point to Transport Canada, saying the required training hours are not always enough.

How safe is the hobby? What causes accidents? Mechanical problems or pilot error? How can “rules” be balanced with the public’s freedom to fly?

Alberta is a hub for this hobby, and we get the discussion on life and death issues off the ground with three experts. Mike Hughes, from Wetaskiwin, owner of Challengerwest – sales and support for advanced ultralight aircraft in western Canada; Shane Daly is President of Innovative Wings Inc., which offers building and maintenance service for amateur-built and home-built aircraft; and Norm Vienneau, President of the Calgary Recreational and Ultralight Flying Club.

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.

A Morning Of Promise

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by Stu Simpson

This was clearly a Saturday morning with promise. It could hardly be anything else when everywhere I looked I saw small, fun airplanes. For instance, Al Botting had his new Piper Vagabond tied down ready to start. It’s amber gleam nearly matched that of the sun. Next to him was Peter Wegerich and his yellow Cubby II, a slightly shrunken iteration of Botting’s bird. One could be forgiven for doing a double take when seeing them so close together.

Botting was going to loose his tail-wheel virginity that morning. He and Kirkby had plans to take the Vagabond up so Botting could get checked out in it and join the ranks of the real men who fly tail-draggers. No more training wheels for him.

On the other side of the hangars Carl Forman tinkered with the radio and battery in his MiniMAX. The Max’s battery has been vexing him for months, never quite doing what he hopes it’ll do. And then there’s the left fuel tank issue. Don’t even get him started about that! Just up the ramp was Bernie Kespe with the top cowl off his pristine Renegade biplane. He was working on a starter problem.

And there in the corner, just in front of my hangar, sat my beloved Green Giant; loaded, fueled and eager to move the sky around.

Carl and Pete and I planned to fly to the bottom end of the Highwood Pass, about 60 miles southwest and on the very leading edge of the Rockies. There’s a ranch strip there that’s about 4000’ long but with very challenging approaches on each end. The trip to the Highwood has never been anything less than stunning, and it promised to be so this day, too.

It turned out at the last minute, though, that Carl would have to stay home. Remember those battery and fuel tank issues? Enough said.

Pete and I blasted off runway 16 and climbed strongly in the morning wind. We leveled off at 4000’ and turned southwest.

“I sure like seeing green fields,” I radioed to Pete.

“Ya,” he replied, “they’re sure a lot nicer to look at.” And a lot nicer for us to fly over, too, I thought. They don’t throw as much heat and convective turbulence as the browner spring time fields do.

As we motored along I remarked to Pete, as I’ve done to my wingmen hundreds of times, that I still can’t believe there are people down there who don’t want to do this.

“I’ve wanted to do this my whole life,” Pete confessed. “Now I’ve finally gotten to where I have the time and I can afford it. This is great.”

Thinking about his comments for a moment, I decided that maybe there is something to be said for growing up, even if only a little bit. Wonder what our wives would have to say about that.

We started a slow climb crossing the Bow River and the new highway bridge there. We were near DeWinton when Pete called again.

“There’s a field down there that looks awfully familiar to me,” he said, smiling. He referred to the last time we made this trip, coincidentally just two days short of a year ago. On that jaunt Pete had an engine failure over this very spot. He put the Cubby down in the farmer’s field and effected repairs. I forget what caused the engine failure – a minor electrical fault, I think – but he was up and flying again half an hour later. The rest of the flight simply orbited over top in a wide circle while he fixed the problem.

Since then, Pete decided the tired old 503 just wasn’t the right engine for his Cubby so he switched to a 65 horse Zanzottera, sold out of Surrey, B.C. The new mill runs very sweetly. Pete’s now got more power in the Cubby, more confidence in the engine and is getting a lot more fun out of flying.

The mountains were starting to rise from the haze, jagged and grey against the horizon, and growing larger with each passing mile. A glance out the right side revealed we were coming in line with the departure path of Black Diamond’s runway 14. We switched over to 123.4, the frequency that Black Diamond’s gliders use.

“Black Diamond traffic, be advised ultralights Dragonflies 1 and 2 are currently 6 miles southeast at 4600 feet, south-westbound for the Longview area. Any conflicting, please advise.”

We listened intently for several minutes but surprisingly, heard no reply. That’s strange because the glider guys are usually beating each other over the head to be the first ones in the air on such a day. We made one more call a few minutes later before clearing their area, but still heard nothing back.

We crossed highway 22 between Black Diamond and Longview. The terrain was rising faster now with the onset of the foothills. We eased our birds a few hundred feet higher and then set up to take pictures of each other with the hills and mountains in the background.

Pete’s Cubby was stunning against the brilliant green foliage below, and the magnificent Alberta blue above.

“You sure have a beautiful airplane, Pete,” I commented admiringly.

“Ya,” he said in his usual laconic manner, “I’m pretty happy with this yellow. I’d have bought the plane anyway, regardless of colour, so the yellow’s just a bonus.” I chuckled at his remarks and went back to taking pictures.

My photos done, I marveled for a few moments at the raw, blatant power of the Rockies. Though Pete and I had the power of flight at our disposal and were flying above all else, we weren‘t flying above them. And there they were in front of us, filling our windscreens, daring us to try. I figured it’d be wisest that morning to stick to our original plan and meet the Rockies’ altitude challenge another day.

We continued enroute, intercepting highway 40 as it coursed into the mountains. The Highwood strip soon appeared as a narrow swatch of light green grass running east and west on a ranch south of the highway. It’s a challenging strip, with high trees at either end, and a pond on either side about halfway along. The runway’s not very wide, either. Simply put, it promised to be a lot of fun.

We arrived overhead and eyeballed the windsock.

“Dragonfly 1 to 2. The sock indicates wind from the south at about five to seven knots. It’ll give us a crosswind, but not by much.”

“Ya, roger. I’ll follow you in.”

“1 copies. I’m descending on the downwind for 25.” I pulled the throttle way back and dumped the nose over to begin the drop from 6000 feet. After several seconds the Giant was still way too high, so I cranked in a side-slip to bleed off more altitude.

The Highwood requires a careful approach to minimize exposure to the trees should the unthinkable happen to the engine. Half a mile from the button I turned about 160 degrees because there wasn’t enough room in the narrow valley for a proper base leg. I angled toward the strip, keeping the highway beneath me for as long as possible before committing to the runway.

My heart beat faster and adrenaline coursed through me as the trees flashed beneath. The left wing missed a tall stand by only 10 feet; there was no time to look at the right one. A snapshot vision flashed through my mind of me picking pine boughs from the Giant after landing.

Ground speed was too fast and a quick glance at the sock confirmed the wind had shifted to my tail. But it was still at only a few knots, I might be able to make it. I mentally prepared for a go ‘round. Side-slipping a little more to lose some height past the trees, I wandered a little wide of the runway. So I booted the rudder, pulled the stick to the right and the Giant centered out over the strip, but it was clear we were going to land long. Should I go around?

At the last second I decided it was safe and discarded the notion of trying again. The wheels touched smoothly about a third of the way down the runway, the long grass helping to slow the plane. I was too far past the exit to make a one-eighty before Pete landed, so I had no choice but to continue taxiing ahead until I heard from him. A few moments passed, then Pete calmly radioed that he’d landed and I had lots of room to turn around.

We taxied in and shut down. Then we spent a pleasant half hour chatting with a cowboy named Bob Purkess, who works the ranch there, and his hired man Clayton. We told him all about our planes such as how they’re built and the differences between Pete’s Cubby and the Giant.

Before we departed Purkess invited us to call him before we land next time so he could ensure there were no horses on the runway. Very neighbourly of him, indeed.

The wind was still coming from the east as we back-tracked and it looked like it’d stay that way. We started this takeoff with a slight downhill run, which really helped overcome the drag of the long grass.

I hauled the Giant into ground effect then built up some more speed to make sure I’d clear the trees that were rapidly approaching. As soon as we ascended above the tops of the pines the wind tagged us on the nose and boosted our climb rate by a few hundred feet per minute. The Giant reminded me again why I love it more each time I fly it.

We climbed steadily from the Highwood’s 4600’ elevation to 5500’ for the ride home. We weren’t quite ready to leave the foothills, though, so instead of turning northeast we continued north to follow along the hills. This area made for a spectacular background as Pete and I snapped even more photos of each other’s planes.

North of Turner Valley and west of Millarville we stumbled across a nicely kept ranch strip we’d never seen before. We circled overhead, using the windsock and tie downs to confirm it was, in fact, an airfield. But time was getting on and we decided against a landing. Besides, we didn’t want to use up all our adventure in one day. But I promised myself we’d be back.

Calgary’s ever expanding sprawl seeped through the late morning haze soon after we turned back eastbound. The view was quite a letdown considering where we’d just been.

But, at least we were flying; there were so many more down there who weren’t. Pete and I agreed it was good to be cruising at only 70 mph, which let us stay in the sky a little longer. The world looks better at that speed and we simply get more from life aloft.

My landing back at Kirkby’s was terrific. So was Pete’s, which was only fitting in light of the wonderful day we were having.

We chatted happily on the ground with Botting, who hadn’t quite lost his tail-wheel virginity that morning because the wind came up with a little more enthusiasm than he preferred. But he still enjoyed flying his Vagabond while Kirkby flew the landings and takeoffs for him.

Carl got up flying, too, but the pesky battery and fuel problems continued to haunt him. Bernie was nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t a perfect day for everyone on Kirkby Field. But for Pete and I, who got the chance to have ourselves a flying adventure, the morning had certainly fulfilled its promise.

The Dragonflies’ Farewell to the Renegade

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by Stu Simpson

Bob Kirkby had finally gotten lucky. After many months of advertising, he finally sold his Murphy Renegade ultralight to a fellow in Cold Lake, Alberta.

Kirkby and the new owner cut the deal in March and the buyer wanted to get it home as soon as possible. Wisely recognizing that he didn’t have the experience or warm enough weather to fly it there himself, he told Bob he’d take it home in pieces on a truck.

“I didn’t want to see it go like that,” Bob said. It took Kirkby about half a second to change the fellow’s mind. Rather than rip it apart, Bob would deliver the Renegade by flying it to Cold Lake.

That was a pretty courageous decision; many things could go wrong on such a trip where the Renegade could get bent. And Bob wasn’t getting paid until he delivered it in one piece. Also, since he’d be making the trip in spring-time Alberta, the weather conditions would be anybody’s guess.

I offered to escort Bob and fly him home in my Sylvaire Bushmaster; a great big camouflage-painted ultralight that I call the Green Giant. It’d be safer to have someone else along, and a ride in the Giant would sure beat a 20 hour bus ride back to Calgary. Glen Bishell, who flies a Bushmaster out of his farm strip near Carstairs, offered to come along, too, just for the hell of it. Bish is like that, which is one of his more endearing qualities.

We waited through an abnormally frigid March and most of abnormally frigid April. Looking at the forecast, we set a tentative departure date for a Sunday in mid-April. The weather maps looked good on Saturday night, indicating the chance of tailwinds for both directions of the flight. But the weather turned into a freak blizzard for anywhere in Alberta north of Innisfail. As it was, Calgary had a wind storm with gusts beyond 50 knots. The wind actually blew Kirkby’s wind sock right off its post.

Bishell and Kirkby and I waited impatiently, checking the weather every few hours during the next days. If we found a weather window, we knew it’d be a small one and that it’d likely close on us quickly.

Toward the following Friday the weather started to look a lot better, though still a bit cold for flying an open cockpit. The go/no go decision fell largely to Bob, who’d have to endure the cold from the biplane’s cockpit. He decided we were on. It would be the Renegade’s last flight with the Dragonflies (Dragonfly is the call-sign of the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club).

The air still had a chilly snap to it as we taxied out at 10 a.m. We reasoned the day would warm up as it progressed, which is also what the weather guys said would happen. Boy, was that wrong.

Bishell, timing his takeoff from Carstairs, planned to fly east and meet us in the air near Three Hills. Together at last, we’d continue the hop to Stettler and our first gas stop. But Bob had a minor radio problem shortly after takeoff from his strip east of Calgary. Glen’s radio was acting up, too, so we all decided to land at Three Hills.

Several people appeared on the ramp to peer curiously at our birds. We impressed them with the fact that we were flying our ultralights to such a distant and remote place as Cold Lake. A few expressed surprise that our planes were even ultralights. They still had the notion of a couple of chainsaw motors duct taped to a hang glider and a lawn chair.

Airborne once more with all radios fully functional, we turned again toward Stettler. Bish and his GPS informed us of a tailwind originating from the southeast. Trouble was, it’s rare around here to have a warm southeast wind in any season but summer. Sure enough, the temperature was dropping as we flew north. I was starting to worry about Bob and the effects the cold might have on him. He discovered it was a little warmer at lower altitude, so we all wandered down a few hundred feet.

The leg to Stettler allowed me a few moments to reminisce about the years spent flying alongside Kirkby and his Renegade. I wandered through memories of flights together on warm bright mornings and perfect summer evenings. There were numerous cross-country adventures, too; like our trip through the Rockies in ‘92 where Bob nearly got run over by a C-130 Hercules. In ‘99, Bob and the Renegade flew with a bunch of us around Alberta, including a stop at Cold Lake. I’ll never forget Kirkby’s unstoppable grin each time he climbed down from the Renegade after a flight. I was lucky enough to share the sky with another man who’s got a large part of his soul still trapped in the 1920’s.

Drifting reluctantly back to the present, I couldn’t help noticing the change in landscape beneath us. About halfway to Stettler, the world went from velvety blonde prairie to, well, just lumpy. Like crossing a street, we were suddenly over an endless and alien array of small hillocks punctuated with slushy sloughs and unruly stands of carrigana. It all looked positively incorrigible.

Stettler eventually appeared right where it was supposed to be. After landing we drained our fuel cans and started looking around for a way into town for more. No sooner had the thought crossed our minds when a pick-up truck pulled up to the airport building. Gary Fink was the driver’s name and he graciously offered to drive me to the nearest gas station for some go-juice.

Gary, who’s from Forestburg, is an aviation nut like us. He just happened to be in town to get plough blades and decided to stop at the airport to see if anything interesting was sitting on the ramp. He was very happy to help, but perhaps not as happy as we were to have his help.

Back in the air, it got even colder as we went north. Our altitude didn’t matter much, it was just cold. Glen reported the air temperature as four degrees below zero. Bob never flew the Renegade unless it was better than 5 above.

This leg, to St. Paul, was 130 miles long and all over featureless, unfamiliar terrain. Navigation was without question the toughest I’ve done yet. Map reading was both a miserable and exhilarating chore as I tried matching a sparse assortment of landmarks to the few shades and scribbles of my chart. I’d search out a creek here, or perhaps a pipeline there, if the land hadn’t grown over it in the years since the map was drawn. An odd bend in an otherwise ruler-straight road was an infuriating treasure, forcing me to scrutinize the constantly jiggling map to find it. Only rarely was I successful, but I had to try.

The convective bumps of the afternoon only made things worse, especially down low where we had to stay for warmth. A couple of times I was more than a little worried about exactly where we were. But, sure enough, the railroad I’d been trying to keep my thumb on wandered into view; or we’d cross a powerline near where it crossed an irrigation ditch, just like the chart said it would. With each little victory I allowed myself a silent cheer. But make no mistake – all this fun was a hell of a lot of work.

Bish and I checked regularly to ensure Bob was still all right over there. We were both really worried about him in the cold.

St. Paul finally drifted into sight. Half frozen, Kirkby made an admittedly bad landing, but was happy to just be on the ground again. Before anything else we headed to the airport lounge to warm up.

While refuelling I discovered I left my rear gas cap on the ramp at Stettler. This maddened and embarrassed me because I should know better. Bish and I quickly fashioned a temporary cover from a piece of tarp and some duct tape.

Just as we headed out to the airplanes to go, Glen noticed Bob’s left tire was flat. Turns out part of the inside of the tire had rubbed a hole in the tube. We had to use my spare tube, which was entirely the wrong size. Bob agreed to try it after accepting the fact it only had to survive one takeoff and one landing. We got a lot of help from Harve Heeg, who flies a beautiful old C-172 from St. Paul. He loaned us his compressor and some tools we needed to get the job done.

The Dragonflies seem to have a short, but troubled history at St. Paul. In 1999, during the CUFC’s first Alberta Air Adventure Tour, one of the pilots had a stuck valve on his Champ there. On top of that, we had to wait several hours for the wind to subside enough for us to continue the trip. I thought of all of this as we shivered in the icy wind fixing the Renegade’s tire. At least there was no doubt this trip was an adventure.

Once the tire was fixed we pondered the prospects of Cold Lake tower clearing us straight through their control zone to the Regional Airport, situated just north of the air base. This would be important to minimize flight time for Bob. Would military flights preclude our transit through the zone? Looking at my watch I chuckled and realized we weren’t going to have any problems.

“Wait a minute, guys,” I said. “It’s nearly 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon. Any CF-18 drivers are already well on their way to a beer.”

We launched out of St. Paul and stayed as low as we dared over the broken bush and lake-covered countryside. Southwest of Bonnyville, we all had a good laugh when Kirkby lost his map through the front cockpit hole. The good news was that the temperature was a little warmer on this leg.

Once past Bonnyville, we dialled in the air base.

“Cold Lake Tower, ultralight Dragonfly 1 is with you,” I radioed.

“Dragonfly 1, go ahead,” the controller replied. She sounded about 15 years old, but no less professional for it.

“Tower, Dragonfly 1 is lead ship in a package of three ultralight aircraft currently five east of Bonnyville at 2900 feet, inbound to the Regional. We’d like permission to transit the zone.”

“Dragonfly 1, you’re cleared direct to the Regional. Wind is 180 at 10. Call the Regional in sight.”

I acknowledged the instructions, happy my hunch was correct. It was tough to find the airport in the snow covered bush, but it soon appeared as a long grey stripe near a tree line. I called the tower again and the controller cleared us to the local ATF.

We gratefully set down on runway 25 just a few minutes before 6 p.m. I again remembered this was the end of Bob’s last adventure in the Renegade.

A couple of guys flagged us down and waved us to the last hangar in the furthest corner of the field. And sure enough, by the time we stopped taxiing, Bob’s tire was flat again But he’d delivered the Renegade safe and sound, and in one piece. All in all, Kirkby was pretty happy.

Our night in Cold Lake was busy. We had to find a proper tire and tube for the Renegade so Bob could give Gerald Fehr, the new owner, a proper check out the next morning. We found the right tire in the Renegade’s new hangar, but finding the tube proved to be more difficult. We eventually located one at the local Wal-Mart. Turns out the Renegade’s tires are the same size as a lawn tractor’s.

Gerald is an avionics tech on CF-18s in 416 Squadron – the same squadron we toured in ’99. He proved to be a magnificent host. He bought Glen and I each a bucket of gas for the trip home, and then bought us all dinner. He also arranged accommodations at the Lakeshore Inn; a bed and breakfast that was simply the very best place I’ve stayed anywhere.

The next morning dawned clear and cold, but the wind was light. After a bit of running around town to get a few more things in shape for the Gerald’s check flight, we headed back to the Regional.

Once the Renegade’s wheel was back together Bob showed Gerald all he needed to know to start learning to fly it. Gerald crammed himself carefully into the front cockpit of his new plane and could hardly contain his excitement for the first flight.

The checkout with Bob went well despite the gusty crosswind that now plagued the field. It was scooting through the sock at 10 – 15 knots from the south. Since we planned to be heading southwest soon, I wasn’t too pleased. Bish and I agreed we enjoyed Cold Lake a lot more in ’99.

After Gerald and Bob shot a few circuits it was time for us to go. Kirkby jumped in with me, happy to be warm in an airplane again. Bish was kind enough to carry the gas cans and extra equipment.

The wind on the surface at the air base was southeasterly at 10 knots when I’d checked it an hour earlier. Lloydminster was showing 15 gusting 22. That news worried me. I hoped to stay as close as possible to right angles to that wind for as much of the trip as we could. We decided to head southwest and make for Vegerville for our first gas stop.

Naturally, the wind was much stronger aloft, so we tried to stay low. But even below a thousand AGL, Glen’s GPS showed an average headwind component of 15 mph, sometimes 20, and sometimes 25. This was going to be a long day.

One bonus for me was having Kirkby along to navigate while I flew and fought with the turbulence. Having him read the map cut my workload by half. We were all rather surprised to see convective turbulence from snow covered land.

The leg to Vegreville took two hours. Sometimes our ground speed was less than 50 mph. That’s pretty significant in airplanes that cruise at 70 – 75 mph. We were very glad to turn onto the downwind for Vegerville’s runway 13.

On the ground we once again found a willing aviator to help us get gas. Tom Wharton drove us to town, and even lent me an extra gas can so I could fill up completely. During the drive, Tom bragged of the fantastic amount of recreational aviation activity that happens at Vegreville.

For instance, when we arrived he and several others were busy covering a wing on an Avid Flyer re-build. The other wing was in the paint booth in Tom’s hangar, where he keeps the RV-6A he’s building. A trike resides in the hangar next to Tom’s, and the list goes on. Just before we left, four conventional aircraft flew in for the donuts the Vegerville guys have on offer each Saturday. The Vegreville crew has a lot to brag about, indeed.

It was while taxiing out to the active that one of my tires went flat; our third flat tire of the trip. Luckily, I bought a replacement tube in Cold Lake so fixing it was really only an annoyance. We were soon back in the air southbound for Stettler. Winds were 10 gusting 15 from the south-southeast.

This leg was the toughest one of the return trip. Navigation was still difficult; the turbulence was worse than the day before because the snow had melted; and to top it all, my radio failed. But we were still enjoying the adventure and we definitely didn’t want to be stuck on the ground driving home.

Being aloft granted us a privileged view of some incredible sights. There were flocks of bright white geese, or maybe swans, each assembly at least a thousand in number. They swarmed like white fireflies against the dull barrens below. And like a smaller version of the Red Deer River, the Battle River trickled southeastward with dramatic rock protrusions guarding its banks. The late afternoon light exaggerated their parched formations, compelling them to appear even more exotic.

Then the land got lumpy again and we knew we were nearing Stettler. About ten miles north of the town, we finally outran the cold. The temperature on the ramp was a pleasant thirteen degrees. Hopping out of the Giant, I heard Bish call my name. I looked up to see my gas cap whizzing toward my head. I caught it just in time and resolved to wear my helmet around Bishell anytime I’ve lost something on an airport ramp.

Glen soon found another kind soul to drive us for gas; a fellow who works on the airfield and was just a few minutes from heading home. We also picked up a couple of hot dogs at the gas station.

Back at the field, Kirkby and I agreed there’s not much better place to have supper than over the cowl of an airplane on a warm spring evening in the middle of a flying adventure.

After I fixed my radio, we left Stettler and turned southwest for home. I noticed Bish slowly drifting off to the west and radioed that he should turn a bit more to the left for the proper course. He replied that he was right on the course his GPS said was correct for Three Hills. After a few more minutes, and some convincing navigational evidence from Kirkby and I, Bish reasoned he might have the wrong coordinates entered for Three Hills. He checked later and found the GPS was directing him to a field southwest of Innisfail. At this writing, there’s no word on how the wrong coordinates got entered. I’m guessing it was terrorists.

I was firmly vindicated in my stubborn refusal to adopt GPS as my primary nav device, and I had Kirkby as a witness. I didn’t say anything about it to Bish, though. That would’ve been indiscrete.

We soon crossed the line where the lumpy part of the earth turned flat again. Bob and I each felt relieved to be back over familiar and beautiful territory that felt much closer to home. The lofty radio towers atop Three Hills’ three hills soon slipped by our right side and we cursed such structures like ultralight pilots everywhere do.

Bish broke off for home when we reached Linden, peeling easily away toward the falling sun. We continued on toward Kirkby Field, still fond of the evening and loving the simple fact that we were flying. We raced a sports car for a few minutes south of Acme and then spotted a pretty yellow Cub poking its nose out of a hangar at the Lemay strip near there.

I turned the Giant into the circuit at home about 10 minutes before sunset, then greased it on to runway 16. It was a fitting end to another good adventure in the sky.

The adventure might be over, but we sure got our money’s worth out of it, I decided. Not only was it a chance to test our airplanes and ourselves, we got the chance to say goodbye. I know I’ll miss flying alongside the Renegade, but I’m pleased we gave it a good send-off and a proper escort to its new home. It was the least we could do for a friend.

A Linden Excursion

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by Stu Simpson

The airfield was nothing more than a swath of cut grass running north to south near the coulee. It had a windsock at one end, and some power lines too. It was pure and simple, the way those strips are supposed to be. It’s not even on the map. Which isn’t really surprising since the Linden airfield, and the town itself, really belong to a time long past.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, jumping to the meat before I’ve served the potatoes, so to speak. The potatoes part begins at Kirkby Field.

I was in my hangar pre-flighting my Beaver when I heard two ultralights approaching from the south. It was Larry Motyer in his Merlin, and Wayne Winters in his Easy Flyer. And Bob Kirkby (the guy for whom Kirkby Field is named) was rolling his Renegade out of its shack. Yup, we were in for some serious fun this morning.

The day was terrific. The morning had dawned clear and warm with just a whisper of wind from the north. The breeze played in the grass bordering the runway while gophers chased each other in circles. It was the perfect setting for a trip back in time.

Larry and Wayne landed and the four of us chatted as Bob and I readied our airplanes. The Calgary Ultralight Flying Club had been invited to fly in to Linden, a small village an hour north of Kirkby’s, to participate in their summer fair day. The townspeople were holding a pancake breakfast, a parade, and fun and games all day long. It’s rather flattering to be invited to a party, so if the people of Linden were inviting us, we were darn sure going to show up.

We were just waiting for Don Rogers to make an appearance. But no one had heard from him. He’d said that he might not be able to make it so we assumed he wouldn’t.

The four of us saddled up and took off into the morning air. Turning north, I took the lead as Larry settled off my left wing. Wayne then formed up on the Merlin. Because Bob’s plane is so much faster than our bug smashers, he took a position out to the right and flew slow circles so he wouldn’t get too far ahead of us.

I felt myself drifting back through time. Watching the world going by beneath us, I realized it looked more or less the same as it did in the 1930’s. Tractors plowed dirt fields leaving huge clouds of dust to fend for themselves. The seeded grain fields, newly green and growing, created a beautiful contrast in the morning sun. Grain elevators rose up from the prairie like prophets of fortune. Towns surrounded them, like a congregation seeking salvation in the elevators offering.

Our small flight was a flying circus , a group of barnstormers in colorful, rag-tag airplanes that had been assembled in garages and hangars. Each plane was as unique as the pilot flying it. We were vagabonds roaming the summer sky until we reached our destination. Once there, we’d over-fly the area, just like the flyers of old, the noise of our motors attracting the attention of those less fortunate souls on the ground. The townspeople, drawn by the spectacle, would no doubt rush out to the nearby airfield in hopes of getting a closer look at these unusual craft and the courageous men who flew them.

As we passed the town of Irricana I heard a familiar voice in my earphones. It was Don. He said he was about 15 minutes behind us. I assigned him a call sign and smiled to myself, pleased that he’d made it after all.

We continued northward as we watched the world unfold. Bob called to let me know we were near the Beiseker airport. He said he’d switch frequencies and let any local traffic know about our position and destination. He did the same thing a few miles later as we neared the Acme strip.

By then Linden was visible in the distance. My heart raced with the anticipation of landing at a strange and new airstrip. I had driven through the town as a child and seen the strip beside the highway, but I’d never seen it on any maps. Hopefully it would be in the same place it was years before.

We approached the town from the south and I spotted the field immediately. It was beautiful. A long strip of grass set right inside the town limits. A rare prairie gem. A two-seat Beaver and something that looked like a Challenger sat off the end of the runway. And across the road the townspeople were gathered for their pancake breakfast.

We entered the circuit for runway 16. I landed long to give my wingmen some spacing. As I taxied clear of the runway I noticed another airplane in the circuit behind Bob. It was Ken Johnston in his Renegade. He hangars at the Acme strip and occasionally drops into Kirkby’s as well.

I climbed out of my Beaver and pulled it clear of the taxi way. I smiled to myself as I watched the other members of our troupe, including Don, land one after the other.

The plane that looked like a Challenger was in fact a Thundergull, a high-wing pusher similar to a Beaver but a little less draggy.

We were met on the ground by a very friendly fellow named Dennis Wickersham. Dennis was responsible for organizing the aviation end of Linden’s summer fair. He said he was really glad we’d made it and was very pleased with the number of airplanes we sent. He handed each of us a lapel pin and some info about the town, and even offered us a ride over to breakfast.

I’ve never been one to refuse a free meal (or for that matter a free ride) so we hopped into the back of Dennis’ pick-up for the short jaunt to the food.

I must say the people of Linden treated us well. They filled us up on flapjacks and O.J. and invited us to watch their parade and generally hang out with them. They are simple, warm, and down-to earth people. You just don’t find their kind of hospitality anymore these days. But in Linden it’s as common as cows in the coulees.

I had to get home for work and would have to miss the parade (though I did have another helping of flapjacks). Wayne, Bob and Larry decided they’d fly back with me, but Don decided to stick around and watch the fun. We made our way back to the airfield where a large crowd had gathered around our planes. They were milling and peering and probably envying our toys. I chatted for a few minutes with Don Westersund who had flown in from Three Hills with a Piper Cherokee. I also talked to John Page, the owner of the Thundergull, as we took a closer look at his bird. And just as I was taxiing out, a beautifully coloured red and yellow Piper landed and taxied past. I live for days like that.

The four of us blasted off and did one more quick circle of the town. We watched the parade, complete with fire trucks and floats, meander through the streets as people waved from the curbs. As we turned reluctantly homeward, this time with Wayne in the lead, I knew what I’d say if I were flying an airliner over the town right then.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out your left window you’ll see the village of Linden. Please set your watches back about sixty-five years. You’ll be glad you did.”

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