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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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.