Now, That’s Flying!

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by Stu Simpson

I was, as the saying goes, right on the ragged edge. It was the toughest approach I’d ever made in 25 years of flying, right at my limits, and it was fun! I fought turbulence and wind shear like I’ve never seen. And for a few seconds I was actually frightened in an airplane; a very strange feeling for me.

And I did make it, but it was ugly. I touched down beneath the trees on my first bounce just as a three-point buck wandered onto the last third of the strip. But by the end of my second bounce, I knew this just wasn’t meant to be, nor did I want to subject my wingmen to such a beating. I powered up, still coursing with adrenaline, and left that backwoods airstrip behind.

Now, that’s flying!

And then there’s Darren Scarlett, who owns an RV-7. It’s beautiful and powerful. It has a 180 horsepower engine and a constant speed prop. It’s fast, too. I mounted a video camera in his cockpit once and recorded him as he did three rolls and then pulled up into a Cuban Eight. I watched by the runway as he shot a low inspection pass at high speed. I could see his smile flash as he zoomed by in the sunlight.

Now, that’s flying!

How about Geoff Pritchard? He’s got this pristine, and I do mean pristine, 1946 Champ that he recently rebuilt from the ground up. It’s gorgeous in red and white. When that Champ is on the taxiway silhouetted against the evening sun, or in the sky against the deep blue, the effect is simply mesmerizing. Geoff and the Champ float along up there thumbing their noses at age and time, making the most of every minute they’re in the sky.

Now, that’s flying!

Wade Miller has what some consider a dream job. He’s an airline captain. He pilots a 737, worth around $70 million dollars, probably more. It has stuff in the cockpit that comes straight out of Star Wars. And Wade gets to work with it all. The plane’s capabilities are simply amazing. It zips along at about 500 mph, climbs beyond 40,000 feet, and still lands on runways only a mile long in nearly any weather. And 737’s make money.

Now, that’s flying!

Barry Davis flies a homebuilt airplane now, but he used to fly a Cessna 182. A great deal of that flying was done at night. He’d cruise over the city and watch the world sleeping below. He’d see cars and trucks scooting along beneath the endless cones of street lamps. A million or more lights of all colours would dazzle as they reflected from the glass of the downtown skyscrapers. Red and green fireflies would race through the blackness above the horizon as other planes came and went at the airport. And an uncountable number of stars would twinkle overhead until an errant cloud would scrub them away for a few moments.

Now, that’s flying!

And Bob Kirkby. Bob has a terrific airplane – a Piper Super Cruiser. It’s a flying piece of history that looks like it just rolled out the factory door. It did, of course, back in 1947, but you’d never know to look at it. Bob loves to get up in the Cruiser with one of his grandkids, or another airplane buddy, or maybe just by himself. He’ll go about half an hour away to where there’s a restaurant that serves pie almost right next to a grass airstrip. Bob and the Cruiser love grass runways.

After pie, he’ll take-off to who-knows-where and cruise along at, oh, maybe a thousand feet over the ground. He’ll watch as the land changes color in the season, maybe getting greener, maybe browner. Bob will feel the stick as the wind tugs on the ailerons every now and then, checking to see what it can get away with. He might snag a thermal and then ease off some power as that small burst of heat floats him along a little bit faster on a little bit less gas. Bob will smile at that.

And soon he’ll make that last turn onto final approach at his own grass airstrip. Bob will set the Cruiser down so smoothly that for the first few seconds he’ll wonder if he even landed. Really, I’ve seen him do it.

Oh, ya. Now, that’s flying!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Letting Go

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by Stu Simpson

This guy is not your typical ultralight shopper, I thought to myself. He’s too young. Not one of the older, soon-to-be-middle-aged types that seem to dominate the masses of ultralight flying.

He pulled his car beside mine and stopped. A handsome kid in his early twenties stepped out and introduced himself as Dave. With him was a pretty brunette who seemed almost as interested as he was.

Ninety minutes later, for all intents and purposes, he owned the Beeve. All that remained was the paper work.

We finalized a few details and arranged to meet later in the week to close the deal. He drove away happy to own the Beeve. And I drove away remembering it.

The next few days were filled with mixed emotions for me. On one hand, I was losing what had been a major piece of my life for the past 3 years. On the other hand, with the money from selling the Beeve, I’d be able to build my next airplane. In truth it’s an enviable spot to be in. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d lost a part of myself.

Your first airplane is like your first love. I know it’s an old analogy, but it’s true. Your first plane shapes your soul and opens your heart in ways you’d never seen before. You become a part of that airplane, and it becomes a part of you.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently remembering the Beeve, remembering the flights I’ll never forget. Like the trip to Radium, B.C. with Todd McArthur and Bob Kirkby. Many people thought we were nuts to fly ultralights in the mountains. But we and our airplanes proved them wrong.

And who could forget the flight home from the ’92 Red Deer Airshow? McArthur and Larry Motyer and I stumbled into, among other things, a thunderstorm. When things like that happen, and you come up smiling on the other end, you gain a tremendous amount of confidence in your airplane.

When you own an airplane, you’re suddenly released from the bondage of renting. You have the freedom to fly whenever you want (actually, its more like whenever your wife says you can). So if one of your buddies phones up and asks if you want to go flying, you simply arrange what time to meet and head for the airfield (if your wife says you can, that is).

Some of my best flying memories center around the flights me & the Beeve made with other UL jocks. Guys like Don Rogers, Fred Wright, Bob Kirkby, and other guys from the flying club. There were times we’d chase each other around the sky, and moments of simple elegance in perfect formation. There were morning and evening flights whose beauty left me breathless. And there were flights that were just so much pure fun and adventure, I sometimes wondered if it was real.

The thing I’ll remember most about the Beeve is the way it felt in my hands. The light controls, the instant response. It’d go right where I asked it to. Always. With 40 horsepower, it climbed like a bat. And it never had trouble with crosswinds. It was incredibly easy to land (Rogers still thinks it was my superior skill). In short, the Beeve was just so easy to become a part of.

Despite all the Beeve’s virtues, it was time to let it go. It came down to a choice between making extensive modifications, like adding a more powerful engine and an enclosed cockpit, or buying another airplane entirely. When I crunched out the numbers I realized that selling the Beeve and building new would amount to the same overall expenditure as modifying it. But building new would give me more in the long run, like re-sale value and growth potential.

I decided there were certain things I wanted in my next airplane. An enclosed cockpit was paramount. I got really tired of that 65 mile per hour winter wind chill in the Beeve’s open air office. My new plane had to be a tail dragger and it had to be able to accept a Rotax 503 (cuz that’s what I had to put in it). I wanted something a bit faster than the Beeve because other guys in the club are speeding up as well. And finally, it had to be inexpensive to build.

I settled on the T.E.A.M. HiMAX after extensive consultation with Chris Kirkman and Knute Rasmussen. Kirkman built a miniMAX a few years ago and was very pleased with the results. Knute eventually bought the MAX from Chris and showed it to me a few months ago. I made up my mind right then I would build one as well, though I opted for the high-wing version because of the larger cockpit arrangment.

Construction of the HiMAX is underway now and that’s helping to put the Beeve behind me. I was lucky to have owned it and I hope the new owner is as appreciative of it as I was.

It’s time for me to move on to another plane, but I’ve still got lots of photos and logbook entries to peruse whenever I miss the Beeve. And I’ve got the memories. That’ll make it a little easier to let go.

Good Exposure: A Snapshot of Calgary’s Foto Flite

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by Stu Simpson

It could happen to you: You’re relaxing in the backyard on a sunny afternoon, knocking back a cold one, when the unmistakable drone of a piston-twin many thousands of feet up tickles your ears. Being an airplane nut, you immediately look skyward and see a bright white speck hurtling along from east to west. Then you smile, and say cheese! and have another slug of beer. You’ve just had your picture taken by the boys from Foto Flite.

Ariel photography, or more correctly, aerial survey, has been around nearly as long as flying itself. In fact, it’s one of the building blocks of this country’s aviation industry. The government contracted bush flyers in the early part of the century to use their airplanes to map the vast and remote expanses of Canada’s wilderness. These contracts formed an essential part of the cash flow that allowed many aviation companies to keep flying.

Foto Flite is a Calgary-based company that has specialized in the aerial survey game for more than thirty years.

Who Takes Pictures From Airplanes, Anyway?

The government, mostly, says company president Dave Skelton. “Most of our work, 50% of it, is generated by government agencies. They’re the biggest users of this type of information and they all use it for planning purposes.”

Map-making is the most common use of Foto Flite’s data. But is also allows the governement to keep an eye on other things on the ground. For instance, forestry companies are granted access to certain clearly defined areas to do their logging. With aerial photography both the government and the logging people can see exactly where the boundaries are. It helps keeps everyone happy.

Government agencies aren’t the only ones who want pictures from the air. Oil companies, seismic companies, surveyors, and real estate agents all use aerial photography. “We’re used by anyone who wants to look at the ground from up high,” says Skelton.

Bare Necessities

I asked Skelton what’s required to be able to take pictures from the air. Of course you need an airplane and a camera (more on them later), but each of those are useless without the right weather.

“We are very weather dependent,” Skelton says. Simply put, you can’t photograph what you can’t see, and cameras can’t see through clouds.

Foto Flite’s crews fly anywhere from 2000′ to 24,000′. If there are clouds between the plane and the ground, the picture is spoiled, which means they’ll have to come back another day. Thus, large high pressure systems are what Skelton’s flight crews hope for.

Since his business depends so heavily on good weather I wondered what Skelton thought about weather forecasting in Canada. What he said surprised me; Dave Skelton is probably the only guy in aviation who speaks highly of weathermen. “Weather forecasting in Calgary is pretty good up to 48 to 72 hour in advance,” he said.

One of Skelton’s crew members looks at it a bit differently. Ben Chaban has been in aerial survey for nearly 30 years and what he sees is how the whole weather picture has changed lately. “We used to get big, clear high pressure centres all the time,” he told me. “But in the last few years all we seem to get is a westerly flow and lots of bad weather.”

The aerial survey season in Canada is notoriously short, running only from March to late September or early October. Therefore, it’s essential to make the most of time available. And that means the equipment, both plane and camera, has to be in top working order all the time. Maintenance is a top priority with Foto Flite.

Speaking of Equipment…

Some might think all you need to take pictures from the air is a Piper and a Polaroid. But it’s not quite that simple. Oh sure, if you want to grab a few snaps of Aunt Dolly‘s farm from a couple hundred feet up, your trusty pocket Instamatic might just cut it. But if you want pictures that are going to be part of a legal land site description, you’re going to need something a bit more complicated – and expensive, too.

Obviously, the first thing required for aerial photography is an airplane. It has to be one that can fly high enough to get the most cost-effective use of the camera system. It has to be stable enough to be a good camera mount, and it has to have the cabin space to hold the camera and camera operator. Then you need a camera. Not just any camera, but one specifically designed for the task.

Foto Flite settled on two different types of airplanes, and one camera system. Their two planes are a ’74 Piper Aztec and a ’72 Navajo with the Panther conversion (350 hp per side instead of 310, winglets, a quieter cabin, and Q-tip props). The Aztec does the same job, but does it a bit slower.

Talk to pilot Darren Reeve and he’ll tell you the Panther is a much better airplane for the job. “It’ll climb at 1000 feet per minute right up to 20,000 feet,” he says, “and the winglets really help to keep us stabilized on our flight lines.” That stability is important, because a slight error at altitude is compounded exponentially on the ground image.

Then there’s the camera in the Panther; it’s called a Leica RC-30. A highly specialized unit, it weighs in at about four hundred pounds and cost Skelton half a million bucks. As you can see from the pictures, it’s not exactly something you’d take to Aunt Dolly’s family reunion. “With the RC-30, we don’t take bad pictures anymore,” Skelton told me.

The RC-30 sits on a gyro-stabilized mount that keeps it pointed where its supposed to be pointed, even in turbulence. Chaban’s job is to run the camera, which he does through a computer that’s also tied into the plane’s GPS nav system. Each film cassette allows for about 250 exposures. The camera gives a frame overlap of about 60% and this, in turn, lets the photo interpreters see the ground in “stereo”. In other words they’ll have a three dimensional view of the ground, which is necessary for map-making.

The camera looks downward through an optically perfect glass plate set into the belly of the plane. So if the crew has to take side-angle pictures, like those seen in travel brochures, the airplane has to be banked and in a turn in order for the camera to see its subject.

Modifying an airplane for aerial photo work isn’t cheap. Skelton says it costs about forty grand per plane because of all the wiring and control cable re-routing that’s required. The belly glass alone is worth $8,000. And the price for modification jumps astronomically if the airplane is pressurized.

The Nature of The Beast

The nature of aerial survey work seems to be summed up in one word; precision. Toward that end everything is done to make sure the airplane is exactly where it is supposed to be to get the right pictures.

For example, Ben Chaban, whose job title is Aerial Survey Navigator, does most of his work these days on a computer. His flight (course) lines are all pre-written for him and his computer uses an operating system known as QNX, which is very good at crunching numbers.

Most of Foto Flite’s work is done between 18,000 feet and 20,000 feet. Skelton says they make their runs in an east to west grid pattern. Then, once the actual photos are printed, they’re easier to view and orientate with one another.

As pilot, Darren Reeve’s job is to get the plane to the correct position and altitude. Then he turns on course, Chaban punches a button, and the computer and camera do the rest. It’s a far cry from the old days when navigators had to use prisms and maps to get their position right. “Compared with visual navigation,” Chaban says, “I’ve got a lot more work to do now, but it’s easier.”

Chaban has a varied background in physics and photography. He’s been all over the world including Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. “I’ve probably been everywhere in Australia that has an airstrip,” he says. He likes the variety found in aerial surveying, likes not knowing where he’ll be or what he’ll be doing from day to day. To say he loves his job would be an understatement.

By contrast, his pilot, Darren Reeve sees this job as a very pleasant stop-over on the way to his dream of being an airline pilot. He graduated from Mount Royal College’s Aviation Program in 1994 and has amassed 2500 hours.

Reeve likes both the variety, and the fact that this job is so challenging. “It’s a great way to build time and I get a lot of responsibility right away,” he says. It also pays about twice what a charter pilot with similar experience would make on a sched-run.

A typical photo mission lasts anywhere from 3 – 4 hours and requires a lot of concentration. Reeve analogized it this way: “It’s like flying the ILS for two or three hours at a time, and doing twenty to thirty intercepts in one flight.”

Teamwork is a key element for an aerial survey crew. I theorized to Chaban that in his thirty years of navigating he must have suffered some less than adequate pilots. He just laughed and agreed, then quickly bragged about how his current driver was very adequate.

Back On The Ground

Once the pictures have been taken, the film has to be developed. Foto Flite has it’s own lab and photo technicians on-site in their office at YYC. With its facilities the company can create huge mosaics from single pictures. Skelton showed me a large poster of Calgary that is actually one of his mosaics made up of 180 separate aerial photos.

Not everyone wants just simple black and white pictures of the ground, so Foto Flite offers different services. They’ll take pictures in color, but that jacks the film price by a factor of 2.5. They also use a technique called false color infrared, which can tell scientists different things about large areas of vegetation.

It’s interesting to note that for every hour spent flying and taking pictures, there’s one day’s worth of work to be done in the lab.

Dave Skelton says the future of Foto Flite looks digital. “There’s no doubt we’ll have to switch over to computer-based equipment in the future,” he says, “but digital photography can’t yet match the quality and resolution we get with film.”

For the moment, though, Skelton is content to expand his business south of the border. They’ve just set up shop in Mesa, Arizona using the company’s Aztec. Skelton predicts good things from Mesa, especially in light of the region’s longer photo-flying season.

So the next time you’re having a beer in the backyard and you hear a twin go over at about twenty thousand feet, don’t forget to look up, smile, and say cheese! You might just be getting your picture taken.

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.