The Kingdom on the Horizon

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by Stu Simpson

My God, that tree was close!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And Lived On the Wind

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by Stu Simpson

It’s tough to believe but I was the only one there. On a nearly calm morning with a high, cool overcast and promise in the wind, I was the only guy on Kirkby Field. Admittedly, this was because the others have day jobs. But some of my flying mates are retired, and so I was puzzled. I resolved not to concern myself over it, though, and instead set about readying the Giant to fly.

Linden would serve well as a destination. I’d have breakfast and buy a pie for my wife. One of the immutable truths for married pilots who fly for fun is that it never hurts to have a few extra air miles in the bank.

Once aloft and climbing strongly, the Giant felt sure and solid as it always does. It’d been too long since I’d had the controls in my grasp, nearly a week. That was when some of us wound up at a rancher’s strip in the foothills southwest of Calgary. The rancher’s name is Butler.

I love places like Butler’s for a number of reasons. They’re often set in beautiful places, in Butler’s case a shallow but narrow valley running roughly northeast to southwest. Airstrips like these practically throw a gauntlet at a pilot’s feet, so blatant is their challenge. But a pilot must be cautious answering the dare because such strips’ approach regimens require care and imagination to defeat any obvious and less obvious dangers.

The biggest problem at Butler’s is how the west end of the runway abuts a road. Naturally, the road has power lines beside it – lines without marker balls on them. Thus, the pilot bears the responsibility to see the road, spot the lines and take every pain to miss them on landing. If you’re unwilling to shoulder such a burden you’re well advised to fly to another, less demanding runway.

As testing as places like Butler’s are, the real reason I like them so much is that I’ve never been there before. I must now confess to a barely contained aeronautical wanderlust. I’m constantly at odds with myself over flight. Part of me wants to load a few belongings and tools in the Giant and just fly away to places where I’ve never been before, and then keep going. Of course, my logical side recognizes the folly of such action and keeps me on a reasonably satisfying, though occasionally chafing tether. Places like Butler’s, and other treasures that few pilots know of, turn up close to home with just enough regularity to keep me here.

Wegerich and I found Butler’s strip last summer, but declined to land. I returned on my own one winter day to locate it again and mark it on my map. I considered a landing then, but I was alone and didn’t want to alight when there were no other friends with whom I could share the adventure.

As I drew overhead of Butler’s this time, I spotted the road and power lines and thus warned my wingmen, Huzzey and Bishell. Huzzey piloted his Challenger II carrying his lovely wife, Chris; and Bish was in his Bush Caddy. It’s a shame Wegerich wasn’t around.

I cleared the power lines and set down on the surprisingly smooth runway. I knew I’d very much like any man who keeps a runway so well. After my wingmen landed we met Pierce Butler and I did like him. He was very down to earth in his muddy rubber boots and flannel work jacket. He built the airstrip to harbour his Cessna 182, a suitably capable craft for such a locale. Butler mentioned how he enjoyed reading my stories in a national aviation newspaper and I immediately liked him even more.

Our takeoff from Butler’s was exciting as we clawed our way up between the heavily treed hills from his runway’s 4200’ elevation. The Giant handled it well but I’d be reluctant to try it on a hot day at gross weight.

The memories of Pierce Butler and his airstrip brought a smile to my face as I steered the Giant a bit to the right for Linden. It seemed the wind was pretty hefty aloft and a quick check confirmed it to be about 17 mph, but right on the nose. Good, I’d get to fly a little longer.

The village of Irricana peeked into sight ahead. I’d stay west of there and consequently of Beiseker, too, about 5 miles further up the road. That would leave sufficient distance to clear Beiseker’s ATF because there’d be training flights landing there for sure.

A few little rain drops splashed onto the windscreen and skittered back in the propwash, leaving tiny droplet trails. But the clouds, benign in their appearance, showed no sign of spewing more. Perhaps a breeze had simply dusted these drops from a cloud the way someone sweeps crumbs from a table top.

Irricana passed beneath my right wing with its toy-sized houses, streets and cars. One house was oddly arranged, clearly defiant of the village’s architectural conservatism. Triangular in shape, like an alpine chalet, it was also canted at a rakish angle to the perfectly squared property boundaries. It would take some courage to build a house like that in Irricana. All the other houses nearby were much less adventurous being staid, square and parallel with the streets and each other.

I wouldn’t have seen that house if I flew higher or faster. I’d have never known for sure there’s at least one person in Irricana who likes things a little different than his neighbours. And I wouldn’t have admired the owner’s bravery like I do now. You come across interesting people when you’re flying low and slow, even if you never meet them.

I avoided the power lines landing at Linden. They have balls to mark them, which is very considerate of whoever hung them there. A beautiful young Mennonite girl served me breakfast. Then she sold me a banana cream pie to take home to my wife, who loves them, and hopefully me, for bringing them.

I turned sharply right once airborne again from Linden’s runway and headed for some land to the east that I wanted to see before I turned for home. Presently, the farm my uncle owned when I was a boy was clearly visible. Adventure then was riding dirt bikes with my cousin Byron through pastures and coulees, and camping among the gigantic poplars out back of the farm house. We’d fish from a row boat on a small reservoir nearby. I suppose when you’re twelve most things are an adventure, but even then I couldn’t wait to be up here.

Things have changed down there since I was a kid, but not everything. The farm house has been painted and the trees cut down, but the reservoir still bears trout. And I still can’t wait to be up here.

My ground speed was measurably higher heading home. From east of Linden the route back to Kirkby’s would certainly impinge on Beiseker’s airspace. On Beiseker’s frequency a young Asian-sounding man in a C-172 stated he was approaching from the southwest. He sounded a little unsure, but still brave in his efforts to conquer the Cessna at Beiseker, or perhaps Beiseker in the Cessna. Either way, he seemed admirably determined.

The student inadvertently keyed his radio mic on final so that anyone listening heard his instructor patiently talking him through the landing.
“Bring the airspeed back to 60 knots for final approach and adjust the …”. He suddenly released the mic button, maybe as he stretched his fingers trying to relax. The instructor, apparently a young woman, sounded forgiving and tolerant as she shared with him her gift of wings.

I envied the student for the challenges ahead and silently wished him well. I wanted to radio and tell him so, but thought it might distract him in his conquests.

Where will he go with his flying? Will he be one of so many who learn to fly and then get bored and quit? Can he even afford to keep flying after he achieves his license? I hope so. I like pilots and would like to see more of them.

I sailed the Giant back to Kirkby Field completely enraptured with airplanes and flight. Occasionally, I’d giggle to myself just from pure joy. For a couple of moments I could hardly believe my luck being up there flying – and in my own airplane, too! Grinning incessantly, I hauled the Giant around Kirkby’s circuit a couple of times, telling myself I needed the practice. Truth is, I just didn’t want it to end.

My first approach was way too fast and I touched long, but with barely a tremor from the landing gear. Very pleasing, that. Ultralight pilots, though, admire short landings more than smooth ones. It’s neither vanity nor exhibitionism. At the places we land such skill might one day separate a pilot from his demise. There’s never been a runway that’s too long.

My next landing was a peach. I set the Giant down firmly and still made the intersection turn-off a few hundred feet from the button. I remained completely saturated in satisfaction and contentment as I taxied the Giant in.

It dawned on me for the millionth time – this must be what it was like. This has to be how the barnstormers felt as they cast themselves to the clouds and lived on the wind. They’d have revelled in the absolute wonder and freedom of just being up there flying. They’d feel giddy and thrilled, knowing they’d just lived a whole minute in the sky and were about to do so all over again. And every breath they took aloft would be the most precious they’d ever drawn. I just know they felt that way. My God, how could they not?

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