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by Stu Simpson

In aviation’s low-level VFR arena pilots can choose between several different maps with which to navigate. We use maps (actually, the correct term here is chart) published by the government, by aviation groups, and even by auto clubs. Granted, not every flight you’ll make is a cross-country flight. But no matter what you fly, sooner or later, you’re going to stray from the familiar turf of your own airport’s backyard, and you’re going to need a map.

So which map is best? Which has the most detail, the best scale and will be easiest to read in a busy, possibly windy cockpit? Simple questions with a not so simple answer; it depends.

It depends, among other things, on where you want to go, how fast you’re going to get there, and what toys you have to play with (VOR, ADF, GPS, and such).

The three most common charts used in the Calgary area are the 1/500,000 VFR Navigation Chart (VNC), the 1/250,000 VFR Terminal Area Chart (VTA), and the Alberta Aviation Council’s map that has scales of both 1/500,000 and 1/1,000,000. The first two are put out by the federal government. Let’s look at the AAC‘s first.

The AAC puts out a new map every five years, the most recent one being the 1993 version. One side of the page covers the entire province in the one to a million scale. The other side, in a one to half-million scale, only covers the area south of a line through Bonneyville, and east of a line through Exshaw. Oddly enough, the Council has been one of the strongest supporters of the Banff and Jasper airports, yet those strips don’t appear on their most useful chart.

It’s clear from the outset that this map was designed purely for conventional pilots flying with electronic nav aids, which is fair, because those are the people who fill the AAC’s roster. VORs figure prominently in these maps and the compass roses that accompany each of them are large and easy to read. The symbology for the VORs is the same as on the government’s charts, but not so for the NDBs. They’re indicated as small black triangles and their identifier boxes block out all the features beneath them. The government’s identifier boxes are printed to leave the underlying features visible.

The one shining feature of the AAC’s map (and one reason why so many are sold) is that it lists dozens of farm strips that aren’t shown on the government’s maps. Each of the Council’s maps comes with a guide book giving pertinent information on each airport that the map displays, including those out-of-the-way farm strips. One can simply read the lat/long coordinates from the guide book and then transpose the location to another map.

Another feature unique to AAC maps is their display of section, township, and range lines, which can be useful in some remote areas.

But unless you’re flying an airplane with a VOR receiver or an ADF (which tunes and points to the NDBs) the AAC’s maps are almost useless as serious navigation tools. The only features that are readily visible are large bodies of water, large population centres, major highways, and electronic nav aids. Important things like towns, roads, railways, and topographical features are either excluded or printed in such light color as to be almost unreadable.

Let’s make a huge leap in scale and look at the VTAs. VFR Terminal Area Charts are printed in 1/250,000 scale and depict a relatively small area surrounding major airports and their accompanying population centres. A key notion here is congestion. Just as these areas tend to be cluttered on the ground, they’re almost as much so on paper, especially in one to half-million scale.

Ergo, the VTA, with a better scale that defeats the clutter. These maps are especially good if you’re unfamiliar with the area depicted on them. They clearly show airspace restrictions, reporting points, significant landmarks, and all the information needed to use the airports shown. The level of detail is, quite simply, wonderful.

Calgary has a VTA chart (Edmonton’s is on the reverse side) and you might just think this is the answer to your navigational nightmares. Maybe, maybe not.

You see, the large scale that makes the VTA’s so easy to read also makes them a bit cumbersome, particularly over longer distances, and especially in an open cockpit. The VTA must be folded rather largely to be of any significant use.

The problem is twofold (pun very much intended). First, folding the map to have your course showing leaves you with a |–(TRY TO BE MORE PRECISE.)–| fairly hefty chunk of paper in your cockpit. If it’s an open cockpit, that means more paper flapping in the wind, and in the worst case scenario, a hefty chunk of paper leaving your cockpit.

Secondly, the folds might hide significant nav points along either side of your course. If you’re well prepared though, you’ll have your map arranged so that the folds complement the route. But if you’re covering a significant distance, you might find yourself doing some in-flight folding.

The speed of your airplane might be a factor in deciding whether you use this map. Faster planes will eat up the distance depicted on the VTAs in very short order, and if you’re navigating from point to point, you might find yourself getting behind the flight. Obviously, with ultralights this is rarely a problem.

Which brings us to our remaining map, the 1/500,000 VNC. VNCs are the standard VFR chart and show just about anything you could ask for. All the topographic details are there, as are roads, powerlines, obstructions, and of course, airports. The detail makes for very accurate navigation, even at lower altitudes where far-off nav points might not be visible. The scale is perfect and it allows a pilot to pick his points in advance and plan ahead.

The scale also lends itself well to long distance flights at any speed. When the map is folded it’s small enough not to be a bother, yet allows plenty of distance on either side of your course line. The VNCs cover tremendous territory. The Calgary chart, for example, covers all of southern Alberta, most of southern B.C., and a fair chunk of several American states. That’s pretty good navigational value.

The main drawback, and the only one as far as I can see, is the VNC’s clutter in congested areas. Naturally, a pilot who’s familiar with a congested area will have an easier time flying there. For one who’s not familiar with the area, a VTA might be just the ticket, provided one exists for that area.

So which map is best? In my mind, the one to half-million VNC gets the nod. It combines the best of all possible features for VFR point-to-point navigation. It’s easy to read, and therefore easy to use. To be fair though, if I were planning a flight to the lower mainland of B.C., my first purchase for the trip would be the Vancouver VTA.

My next purchase would be a GPS so I wouldn’t have to deal with all those maps in the first place.

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.

Doing It Together: How to Organize, Plan and Fly Group Flights

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by Stu Simpson

There seems to be very few people doing any group flying these days. The vast majority of those who do are flying ultralights, homebuilts or are in the military. I’m proud to say that we in the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club make group flying a nearly weekly habit. As such we’ve developed a fair amount of experience in this area so I thought I’d share the lessons we’ve learned and hopefully whet your appetite for getting up there and going somewhere with other pilots who think like you.

Why Bother?

What’re the advantages of group flying? Why go to the trouble? Turns out there are plenty of very good reasons. First and foremost, group flying is FUN! All pilots enjoy hangar flying on the ground, why not do it in the air where it’s many times more enjoyable? The sense of camaraderie, achievement and adventure from group flying is unparalleled.

Group flying is also a fabulous way to learn. After a while, flying alone can get a bit dull and the learning curve tends to flatten out. But flying with other guys, especially in close proximity to them, is always challenging. It forces you to heighten your situational awareness, be sharp on the stick and fly your airplane that much better. It’s very rewarding and provides a strong sense of accomplishment when you do it well.

Group flights sometimes involve more than just pilots, too. For the CUFC’s annual Air Adventure Tours, which last four or five days in the summer, we bring along a ground crew. It’s composed of family members and other CUFC members who don’t own airplanes yet but who definitely want in on the adventure. We’ve traveled from Calgary into the Rockies as far as Castlegar; traversed Alberta and B.C. to places as far away as Cold Lake and Dawson Creek; and made hundreds of closer, local flights together.

The main thrust of this article is aimed at larger groups of planes, four or more, and longer duration flights. However, all of the principles apply equally to local flights to your favourite pie and coffee place. After all, each leg of a long trip is often about as long as a leg you might fly in your own neck of the woods.

Planning: The First Step

The CUFC has learned that planning is an absolutely crucial factor for successful group flights. If you have a good plan to begin with, AND everyone knows the plan, it can make up for a lot of shortcomings and problems later on. It’s important to keep everyone informed.

We usually start planning our Air Adventure Tour in January or February. It’s not essential to start that early, but it gives participants a good long time to book holidays and plan around other events. We decide on a route, bashing out the pros and cons of various suggestions. We get input from those who might have any particular knowledge of the route such as problem terrain or appealing features. Bring to these sessions a lot of maps, some stick pins, and a plotter.

Picking the route is fun. For instance, is there a particular destination in mind, a place on which to focus the trip? There needn’t be just a single destination; there can be many. There might be an historical point at one stop, a neat museum or airshow at the next. Perhaps there’s a route you want to fly because of the unique scenery, or simply just because it’s there.

For ultralights, our experience shows routes with legs of 1 to 1.5 hours duration are best. Two hours is the maximum. This is because ULs often don’t have much more range than two hours in optimum conditions. Nor are they as comfortable for pilots as conventional aircraft. Open cockpits, which are often found on ULs and homebuilts, may warrant special consideration, too.

Pick your stops at airports that suit your aircraft AND the size of your group. For example, in the summer of 2002 we made a stop at an ultralight field near Grande Prairie, Alberta. Being an ultralight strip, it was perfect for our planes and had our kind of people welcoming us. But we had 13 airplanes to land there, which taxed the ramp space to the absolute limit. We had a Starduster Too and a C-182 flying with us on the trip that couldn’t land because of the strip’s short length.

Consider other features of the airports along the route. If you have conventional aircraft along, will the strip have fuel for them? Will the runways be long enough and smooth enough? Be cautious and check carefully before landing at unknown strips that aren’t on the map or in the Canada Flight Supplement. The owner may say the field is fine, but what are his standards? Fields listed on the map or in the CFS will rarely be unsuitable.

Try to pick airports near towns where you can acquire a wider variety of supplies and services that might be needed, either expectedly or unexpectedly. If your trip involves overnight stays, pick centres as large as possible for the same reasons. You’ll also likely find better accommodations and restaurants.

Be aware that the route you choose may limit the number and type of aircraft that participate in the flight. Mountainous terrain scares off a lot of ultralight pilots and large bodies of water will likely dissuade those without floats.

Plan to fly the trip between Monday and Friday to avoid business and service closures along the way. It’s incredibly frustrating to need that one little thing you can’t get because it’s Saturday in a small town. It’ll also ease the pressure to get back home by Sunday for folks who work on Monday. Mid-week flying makes the whole trip much more enjoyable.

When it comes to scheduling your trip, pick a date and stick to it. Plenty of people will come to you later and ask you to change things by a day or two, or a week or two. But doing so will throw the whole thing into a tail-spin, especially for those who initially planned on the original dates.

Pool your group’s resources. Make use of the equipment and expertise among your club or group members. One of our guys has a slip tank to carry fuel for the planes. It goes into the back of someone’s pick-up truck. Another of our members is an electronics whiz. He rigged antennas for the ground vehicles so the ground crew can stay in touch with the aircraft. Still another member, an accountant by profession, keeps track of financial matters for the trip.

Make sure participants, especially aircrews, understand there are minimum equipment requirements. I can’t recommend strongly enough that all aircraft flying on the trip be required to depart with a functioning 2-way VHF radio. Aircraft should have a useful range of 2 hours, plus a 30 minute reserve, and be able to cruise at a given airspeed. This speed depends on the other aircraft in the group. For instance, on the CUFC’s last trip to Dawson Creek we had three groups of aircraft. One flight of five cruised at about 60 mph, the second at 70, and the third flight of three planes at 80 – 85 mph. It’s fine to have different speed ranges, but it’s safest and more fun to have others to fly with in that range.

We’ve discovered the ground crew works best when as many as possible have CB or FRS radios. It’s crucial that at least one ground vehicle have a VHF radio (an external antenna is a must) to stay in touch with the aircraft. All this communication ability adds tremendously to the ground crew’s effectiveness and enjoyment on the trip.

Other important gear includes maps, CFS, GPS, cell phones, batteries, cameras, survival and safety gear, spare parts and tools. Naturally, some of this stuff will be too heavy to carry in ultralight aircraft, so it’ll have to go by ground vehicle.

Leadership & Procedures

Leadership of your group flight is another critical element. Before departure on each leg it’s important to hold a pre-flight briefing for everyone, including ground crew. This is especially important for the opening leg of the trip. The briefing is where everyone learns the plan, so don’t rush it. Encourage questions, keep an open mind to better, safer ideas, but don’t be afraid to politely reject an idea that’s just not going to work. Have someone who’s well able acquire and present the weather.

If the group is big enough break it up into flights of four or five aircraft at most. Use call-signs rather than registration idents for air-to-air and air-to-ground communications. The CUFC uses the call-sign Dragonfly. We’ve found that calling “Dragonfly 1”, or whatever, is much quicker, safer and easier to remember than an alphabet soup of aircraft ident letters. It also lends an air of professionalism and a unique identity to the whole adventure.

A note or two about radio procedure. When starting up for each leg, do your group radio check-ins on a discrete frequency to avoid clogging the local ATF or MF. After switching to a new frequency each flight member should check-in so lead knows they’re there and serviceable. Also, once clear of the ATF or MF switch to a pre-arranged, unused enroute/chatter frequency. This adds an immense amount of fun to the entire adventure. The designated ultralight frequency in Canada is 123.4 MHz, and the chatter channel is 122.75, but we find these are often quite busy and make our enroute communication tougher. Establish a “home frequency” so that if anyone gets lost on the radio, they can go to the home frequency and someone will meet them there to tell them the correct channel. These procedures have worked exceptionally well for the Dragonflies.

When departing for each leg have the faster flights leave first. This avoids congestion at the next stop. Otherwise, quicker planes can catch up to the slower ones and cause over-crowding in the landing circuit at the next airport.

Have a plan for how the aircraft will fly together. Many of the CUFC members enjoy formation flying, but tight formation over long distances is quite tiring. Plan looser formations so that each member of the flight is clearly visible to at least one other flight member. A pilot may have a comm failure enroute, but if someone else can easily see them they’re still pretty safe. A “V” formation works best for this.

Each flight of aircraft should have a designated leader for each leg, and a back-up in the event of a radio failure or other problem. Establish these procedures before leaving the ground. When approaching an airport the CUFC’s procedure is for the leader to request his flight to go into line astern (trail) formation about 8 miles back. The flight leader makes the radio calls for the group while approaching the field and onto the downwind. Once in the circuit each flight member then calls his own circuit positions on the radio. If you’re going to have more than one aircraft on the runway at once, be sure to add that it’s a formation landing or takeoff.

Establish emergency procedures and ensure each flight and ground crew member knows them well. The ground crew will be a very important link in the event of an emergency such as an engine failure and forced landing.

Much of what’s discussed above applies equally to the ground crew members. They should have a designated leader for each leg and communication for them is just as important. The CUFC has learned that a good ground crew is as precious on these trips as the air we breathe.

Stick To The Plan

The best way to carry out a group flight of either short or long duration is to have a good plan and to stick to it. If everyone knows the plan and knows what’s expected of them, they won’t wonder and they’ll do their best to achieve the goal. Of course, any good plan has flexibility and contingencies built into it.

Never forget that groups flights, especially larger ones, are a tremendous opportunity to promote recreational aviation. At nearly every airport we landed at on our 2002 Tour we garnered a tremendous amount of attention from both the general and aviation public, and sometimes from the news media. We learned it’s pretty impressive to see fifteen airplanes blow into town like an old-fashioned flying circus. For the 2003 Tour we’re planning to bring a number of brochures or circulars highlighting ultralight aviation.


The group flights the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club have conducted, both near and far, large and small, have been unforgettable, and and because of it there‘s a special bond between those who were there. When these flights are planned and flown with a strong emphasis on professionalism, safety and fun they become magnificent adventures that give us terrific memories and a wealth of proudly earned flying experience. And isn’t that why we got into this game in the first place?