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.

Return of the Giant

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by Stu Simpson

In case you haven’t heard, the Giant is back. And this time it’s better than ever.

I’m talking, of course, about the Green Giant – my Sylvaire Bushmaster II that I’d previously re-engined at the turn of the century with a Rotax 582 (up from a 503). Well, I re-engined again, this time with a Continental A-75.

I’d been toying for some time with the idea of an upgrade, and actually had plans to begin the project in the spring of this year. A bearing failure and subsequent forced landing in November of 2004 precipitated the start of the project a little early. In the end, it was excellent timing, for I’d have otherwise lost all the 2005 summer flying season to the project.

With the help of quite a number of people, chief among them Gerry Theroux, Bob Kirkby and Ken Beanlands, the Giant is back in the air with a new look and a new sound.

After several proving hours on the engine with some short and medium length hops, it was time to really put it to the test with a long cross-country flight on July 1st. Former CUFC president Ed D’Antoni suggested a trip to Castor, a distance of about 115 miles. He suggested it largely due to the airfield’s proximity to one of the town’s restaurants.

I was all for it, and so was Al Botting, Bob Kirkby and Ken Beanlands. Strangely, though, D’Antoni bowed out at the last minute. Hmmmm….

We set out on a perfect morning with hardly any wind on the surface, and a 15 mph tailwind at 6000’. We soon soared past Beiseker and the Red Deer River Valley and arrived over top the moonscape prairie south of Stettler. It’s wonderful land to see, comprised of small, well-rounded hills that are rarely more than 20 feet high. It appears to be the effluent of an enormous geological sneeze.

Once past that region, we flew past many huge sloughs that somehow got listed on the map as lakes. These muddy troughs were full to their brims after the recent rains and served well as landmarks for those of us navigating by map. Actually, I was the only one navigating by map.

We landed on Castor’s pristine paved runway and taxied in to make our way to the food. Botting arranged a ride to a nearby restaurant with a very kind local gentleman named Bill. Bill was a sharp contrast to the waitress in the café who treated us like we were the biggest pain in her day. Good thing the food was okay.

Bill kindly shuttled us back to the field after lunch and we soon set out for Three Hills and more gas. Now, the thunderstorms were building around us and we were anxiously watching the sky as we went.

On the ground at Three Hills we looked east to a huge cell sitting directly in the path we’d taken less than an hour before. We got out of Dodge just in time. Another massive cell was laying a whoopin’ on Drumheller, and a third storm was handing it to the area north of Bishell’s, where Beanlands shelters his Christavia.

We decided to escort Beanlands as far west toward home as the weather would allow. Once airborne, we saw the storm had moved well north of Bishell’s strip and that Ken would have no troubles with it. On the other hand, another cell appeared to be brewing near Kirkby’s. We thought it prudent to quickly turn for home.

We finished the flight with no problems and the cells we worried about didn’t amount to much. I was ecstatic over the Giant’s and the Continental’s performance. I logged 3.5 hours and all temps and pressures were right where they needed to be. Fuel consumption was the same or less than the Rotax. We should try this again sometime, I decided.

Sometime arrived a few days later when Botting and I coerced Andy Gustafson into a flight south with his Merlin. Bob Kirkby needed an aerial photo of the High River airport for a COPA brochure he was building. What better excuse to fly than a photo recon mission for COPA?

We set out from Kirkby’s on another perfect morning. We soon got the shots of High River and decided to head west to the scenic terrain of the foothills. We over-flew the Turner Valley Ranch strip, Butler’s strip and the flood-ravaged hamlet of Priddis. Coasting along next to the Rocks, I couldn’t help but recall the fantastic flight Andy and I made to that magical, mysterious kingdom last fall.

Then it was time to turn for home. We turned east along Highway 22X and eased off the altitude so as not to bust Calgary’s Class C space. One feature that caught my eye was Red Deer Lake, another over-sized slough that actually had water in it again. It’s been nearly dry for more than 15 years. We set course to pass over Glen Clarke’s strip and I peered intently down trying to spot his Cub. No joy there. Boy, did he miss a good one this time.

Since Andy was kind enough to join us at Kirkby’s, Botting and I decided to return the favour and escort him home. Besides, with our photo recon mission complete we needed an excuse to stay aloft a bit longer.

Our flight lasted exactly two hours, and again the Continental ran flawlessly. I don’t have a moment’s regret about switching engines again and I know the A-75 will give me a great many great years. So bring ‘em on, because the Giant is back!

And Merl Makes Five

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by Stu Simpson

I remember a June evening in 1992 when I set my Beaver down on a strip, a beat-up pasture really, near Langdon. It was where Ron and Bernie Then kept their new red & blue Macair Merlin, labeled C-IDDN. I recall admiring the Merlin but being skeptical of the centre “Y” stick. I saw the Merlin a few times after that flying around the area. Each time I wished I could own a fully enclosed airplane like that someday, and I envied those guys flying it.

Naturally, I had no idea that I would actually own that very airplane fourteen years later. But I do own it now, and I call it Merl.

Endings and Beginnings

On January 14th, someone landed a Cessna 172 hot, long and downwind at Linden and crashed into my beloved Green Giant, almost totally destroying it. The enormity of that day hit me when I got back to Kirkby Field and opened up my hangar to see nothing there. I was later able to salvage the Continental A-75 engine, the instrument panel and the seats.

I couldn’t sit idle for long. There was flying to be done and I was missing out. I eventually received a reasonable insurance settlement and bought C-IDDN.

I soon found out that the Thens sold it to Dr. Jack Barlass, who subsequently sold it to Gary Fox, of Nanton. Several of us flew to Fox’s strip in the Porcupine Hills one winter day in 2002. Again I admired the Merlin, and again I recall not preferring the centre stick. Richard Schmidt had purchased the Merlin from Fox just a few days prior. I looked forward then to him joining the Dragonflies soon.

Well, Schmidt did make some trips with the Dragonflies over the next few years. He also made some improvements to the Merlin and put some hours on it, both of which are healthy things for an airplane. But I still never thought for a second that I’d ever own it.

Exactly five weeks after losing the Giant, though, I handed over a cheque to buy C-IDDN from Schmidt. It had been sitting at Indus for a few months where it acquired a layer of dust accented by bird turd and kitty prints. Wayne Winters generously flew it to Kirkby’s for me. I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to see a pair of solid wings in my hangar once more.

The Real Work Begins

Now the real work started. I had numerous changes in mind for Merl, as I’d named it. Primary among them was an engine change. Equally important was having a place where I could do the job. Bob Kirkby has my unending gratitude for making his heated hangar available for the job. I look forward to when I can return the favour.

My Continental checked out ok with Ken Vike, engine re-builder par excellence’ in Kamloops. It was on its way back to Calgary and would soon adorn Merl’s new nose. Naturally, the Rotax had to be removed and sold, which happened in less than a week. Gary Abel bought it with plans to stuff it into the front of his Cubby II. That airplane will really perform with a 582 in it.

Since the Continental relies on gravity for its fuel flow, I’d also need wing tanks. With a total capacity of nearly 20 gallons, these were naturally supplied by Wayne Winters. Interestingly, the old Macair wing is tapered both in chord and depth, unlike Winters’ current constant chord wing. This meant the wing tanks were just a bit big and had to be cut down by half a gallon or less. Along with the fuel tanks, Wayne’s also supplied a great deal of knowledge and insight into the Merlin design and structure. What a treat it is to have the Merlin factory so close to home.

The wing tank installation was quite a chore, but I managed to get them in safely and securely. They’ll give me nearly 5 hours of range.

I also had to make some minor changes to the cabin structure and the landing gear, the welding for which was done by Garrett Komm. Mike Sweere and Ted Beck welded up the new engine mount for me.

Remember how I’ve mentioned that I didn’t like the centre “Y” stick? Well, I decided to do something about it. I designed a simple dual stick arrangement and Winters welded it up. It’s basically “U”-shaped and attaches to the same collar the centre stick did. It pivots on that centre torque tube and essentially functions as a large yoke. When I move the stick right or left, it doesn’t pivot on the floor, it rotates on the centre torque tube. It feels very natural and is really easy to adapt to. Glen Bishell’s been successfully flying a very similar arrangement for a few years in his Bush Caddy. Winters is toying with the idea of offering it as an option on the Merlins.

Next came the design and fabrication of the rest of the panel forward structure. This was relatively easy after what Gerry Theroux taught me last year when we did the same conversion on the Giant. In fact, I’m very proud of the fact I only had to call him twice for advice on this project. And when he looked at the finished project, nearly everything met “Gerry Spec”.

Weight and balance was a pleasant surprise. Merl weighed out to 700 pounds empty and well within the published C.G. range. In fact, it gave me quite a bit of room to play with as far as adding cargo capacity aft of the cockpit.

Three months to the day of the Giant’s demise, I tied Merl down and ran it up. The Continental fired on the second blade and oil pressure was instant and good. The wind was pretty gusty that morning so I planned only on some taxi tests to start. The taxiing went well so I decided to graduate to some runway runs and maybe crow hops. Those also went well, so I decided to fly it.

I sat at the end of the runway and pushed the throttle all the way in. Merl was airborne in about 200 feet, maybe less, and climbing about 600 fpm. That high-lift wing was definitely doing its thing.

I flew around northeast of the field for about 20 minutes and got a proper feel for the controls. The ailerons were a bit sloppy, but I knew I could adjust that. I brought it back into the circuit and set down nicely on Kirkby’s runway 16. I noted the oil pressure was quite a bit lower than I’d like, and I wondered why.

I made a few more flights in the following week and a few things became apparent. Despite having adjusted the ailerons’ play and position, the system was still binding a bit somewhere. Also, the oil pressure was too low when the oil temperature was high. And finally, I was having a lot of trouble keeping Merl coordinated in turns.

I talked to Winters and Andy Gustafson about the yaw problem. Both told me Merlins have a lot of adverse yaw due to the Junkers style ailerons. That made sense, so at Winters’ urging, I use aileron to enter a turn and lots of rudder to maintain the coordination. I also added a small trim tab to the rudder. The ailerons stiffness was solved with some lubricant in the right places. Now the system is nearly frictionless.

As for the oil pressure, I tried everything I could thing of, and that Vike could think of. Finally, I sent it back for him to examine. His shop ran it on a test stand and got excellent pressure at temperature, then determined that there was something wrong with the hose linking the engine to the gauge. It’s likely a small bit of rubber that’s flapping and acting as a valve. Pretty easy to fix. At this writing I hope to have the engine back and installed within days. Then I can really get back to getting to know my new airplane.

Merl’s the fifth airplane that I’ve owned and I think I’m going to love it. It’s got all the features important to me in an airplane; good STOL performance, good speed, long legs, roomy cockpit, sturdy construction and fun to fly. With any luck, it’ll be the last plane I own for a great many years to come.

My many thanks go to the various members of the CUFC, only some of whom are mentioned here, for all their help, knowledge and skill on this project. Their generosity and willingness to give are precisely why our club is the high-quality, professional organization that it is. I’m very proud to be associated with you all.

The Dragonflies’ Farewell to the Renegade

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by Stu Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once past Bonnyville, we dialled in the air base.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wild Ride On The Wind

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by Stu Simpson

It wasn’t my fault. Really, it wasn’t. As flight lead I did all the checking and prepping I was supposed to do before we took off. But we still wound up in this mess. Now I had to get us out of it. But really, it wasn’t my fault. Read on, you’ll see.

We were on the ground at Bishell’s strip near Carstairs, about 35 miles north of Calgary. All our planes were lined up nose to tail facing north on the side of Bish’s expansive runway. There was Pete Wegerich’s Cubby II, my Green Giant, followed by Al Botting’s Challenger, Bishell’s Bushmaster, and finally Glen Clarke’s J-3 Cub. A rather nice looking line of aircraft if I dare say.

We wanted to go further north to the Olds-Didsbury airport but the weather just wasn’t going to permit it. A large thunderstorm was tracking straight for O-D and that’s why we all landed at Bishell’s.

When I checked with Flight Service before leaving the home ‘drome of Chestermere-Kirkby Field just east of Calgary, the briefer told me there were some thunderstorms associated with a cold front near Red Deer. I remembered the front from the weather maps I checked earlier. She said the front would be moving southward much later in the evening. Perhaps I should have been more suspicious of her information when I learned she didn’t even know where Carstairs was. Just another byproduct of closing Calgary’s flight service station, I guess.

Anyway, our flight to Carstairs was pleasant as we ambled along with a warm 10 – 15 mph. tail wind. We spied a fairly significant thunder cell off to the west of Carstairs (the one that had a bead on O-D) and I wondered why the briefer hadn’t mentioned it. After all, she’d noted the ones near Red Deer.

After our diversion to Bishell’s, the five of us were talking airplanes in the lounge above his hangar when we heard a hell of a roaring from outside. Al and I poked our noses out the door and saw the wind had indeed come up quite a bit. In fact it was blowing better than 25 knots, and gusting quite a bit higher. It had also changed direction by 180 degrees. What was going on?

We decided it might be a good idea to check on our planes since they weren’t tied down. We hustled down the stairs into the now chilly evening outside.

“My airplane’s rolling backward!“ Al exclaimed as we looked toward the flight line. We both started running for the planes.

Al’s Challenger has a large wing and the plane sits nose-high when it’s empty on the ground. So, if a headwind catches it it’ll roll quite easily backward, as it was doing now straight toward Bishell’s Bushmaster.

“Don’t worry!”, I yelled back over my shoulder (I run faster than Al). “At least it’ll stop when it hits Bishell’s plane.” Botting chuckled behind me.

I reached the Challenger first and grabbed a wing strut when there was only a few feet between the Challenger and the Bushmaster. Al arrived a few seconds later and we spun the Challenger’s tail into the wind. Then I noticed the Giant also rolling slowly backward as it rocked heavily in the wind.

Wegerich, Bishell and Clarke each have parking brakes, so they enjoyed the luxury of simply walking quickly, rather than running for their planes.

But, where did this wind come from?

Peter and I calculated the wind was likely a by-product of the thunderstorm now northwest of the strip. Kind of strange, I thought, since it was quite a distance away. Still, I’ve seen thunderstorms do some pretty amazing things. We all figured the wind would subside as the storm wandered off. We were also glad we wouldn’t have to taxi in this wind. When it came time, we could just launch from our current positions.

We waited and watched for 20 minutes as the storm did what we predicted and trundled off north-eastward. But instead of dropping off, the wind was actually getting worse. Other things had changed, too; the air had gotten very hazy with moisture and dust, and there was a remarkable drop in the temperature. There were no clouds associated with these changes, though. Just a bright summer evening and a cruel tempest trying to rip the wings off the Dragonflies.

We decided this was something much more sinister than the meteorological effluent of a thunderstorm. It was a rogue cold front.

See? I told you it wasn’t my fault.

It was time to get out of Dodge before the wind got any worse. And as bad as it was on the ground, each of us knew instinctively it was going to be a lot stronger aloft. Good thing it was going our way.

But what about when we got home? If we had this wind on the ground at Kirkby’s we’d be in big trouble just trying to clear the active, let alone taxiing to our hangars. This wind would easily flip our planes over if it hit us from the side.

Naturally, being flight leader it fell to me to take off first. I thought for a moment about offering to share the glory of leadership and let someone else go first, but my pride wouldn’t let me. Besides, I doubted I’d get away with it.

My takeoff roll was incredibly short, maybe 50 feet. The air was surprisingly smooth as I worked the Giant up and into the wind. Naturally, climbing out was virtually effortless, though forward progress truly sucked.

“It’s an elevator ride, boys,” I radioed, “but it’s a smooth one.”

“Roger that. Dragonfly 2 is rolling,” Peter called.

As my wingmen were getting airborne I angled northeast, not wanting to get away on them before we had a chance to form up. When we were all in good position to join, I banked the Giant to catch the wind.

It was like hitchhiking on a hurricane! I could actually feel the G-forces in the seat of my pants as the wind catapulted us southward.

We formed up into an echelon with Wegerich off my right wing and Botting and Clarke off the left. As we rocketed south Peter reported periodically on our tailwind, which varied between 40 and 50 miles per hour.

“We’re going to have a lot of trouble landing and taxiing in this wind,” Pete said.

“I think we’re going to catch up to this thing in about 15 miles and probably beat it home.” I replied. I’ve run races like this before and always won. I did the math in my head and figured we’d do the same this time, but I could tell my wingmen weren’t so sure. Looking at our ground speed, I could hardly blame them.

While we ripped along, at times with nearly 120 mph of ground speed, a large cloud of dust and haze stretched ahead from northeast to southwest ahead. It made sense that this was likely the actual cold front. When we drew east of Airdrie I flipped over to Calgary tower’s frequency. YYC was still landing planes on runway 16 with 8 to 10 knots from the south. This confirmed my suspicions about the cold front’s actual position and that we were quickly sneaking up the monster’s back side.

Now I started to worry about the turbulence we’d encounter punching through it. I warned the guys to expect significant bumps, though the ride had been remarkably smooth to now. Nevertheless, I pulled my straps tighter.

We hit the back of the front (I love how that sounds) just north of the Balzac Road, about 10 miles northeast of Calgary International. The turbulence lasted only a minute or two and wasn’t anywhere near as rough as I figured it would be. Still, there were some hum-dingers that gave us a ride somewhat more thrilling than a traveling carnival.

As we squirted out through the front of the front the air temperature rose significantly. And I was quite alarmed to note that the Giant was doing likewise. I suddenly realized what was happening. The cold front, being cold and all, was wedging itself beneath the warmer air we were now in. The warm air was shooting upward to get out of the way and it was dragging us along for the ride.

I eased the throttle back and shoved the Giant’s nose down to arrest the ascent, but the altimeter continued swinging up toward 4800 feet, the floor of Calgary’s controlled airspace. We were most definitely not welcome there and could face a mid-air collision being so close to the airport.

I keyed the radio mic. “Remember boys, we have to stay below 4800.” I throttled back more and pushed the nose even further down, but it wasn’t working. I was pointed nose-down, had better than 80 mph indicated and was still climbing at nearly 600 feet per minute! I have to admit, I was impressed.

Peter, Al and Glen were right with me. It was quite a kick looking out and seeing the rest of the flight still welded in formation and all pointed in the same nose down attitude. We’d stuck together punching through the cold front, and we were sticking together through this mess. Those guys are quality flyers!

Our altitude finally stabilized at about 4750 feet, though it still took a bit of forward stick to stay there. A few minutes later we were able to drop back down to a height above ground level where ultralight jocks are much happier.

“Our ground speed has reduced to about 60 miles an hour,” Pete reported.

Hmm, 60, eh? Well, the headwind is a little stronger than I’d have liked, but we seemed to be winning the race. Then I looked to the west.

The cold front was catching up to us! Or was it? The cloud of dust and haze that characterized it was now upon Calgary International, directly abeam our right wings. But a look out the left side revealed the east end of the front was still far enough behind. I had an image of a meteorological game of crack-the-whip with the west end of the front coming up from behind to smack us yet again.

“Dragonfly 1 to the flight,” I called, “let’s descend and maintain 4000 feet to minimize the headwind.” We’d be only 700 feet AGL.

“Number 2 descending.”

“3 descending to 4000.”

“4 copies.”

We nosed over again and gratefully gained a few more knots going across the ground.

“Dragonfly 4 to Dragonfly 1,” called Glen. “I’m going to go on ahead to my strip to try and beat this thing home.” Glen’s strip is about 5 miles southwest of Kirkby Field, at the south end of Chestermere Lake.

“Roger that, Glen. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble. Thanks for coming along tonight.” Al and Peter each bid Glen goodnight and we watched his pretty Cub motor out ahead in the evening sun.

I turned my attention back to the west end of the front, which was now further south than we were. This was going to be close.

Kirkby Field was in sight so we all switched to 123.4. I decided these were special circumstances so I radioed the Dragonflies’ intentions to make a straight-in approach and landing on runway 16. I hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for it.

I did my best to keep the speed up on final, landing long to clear the active as soon as possible for my wingmen right behind me. I shut down in front of my hangar and bolted out of the Giant to get the big doors open. The front was clearly visible off to the north and bearing right down on us.

It was a great sense of relief to finally get the Giant tucked away safely inside the hangar with the doors closed and latched. Then I helped Al and Pete get theirs secured.

I timed it. Nine minutes after I shut down, the cold front hit Kirkby Field. I know things can get tighter than that, but not by much.

I’m nobody’s thrill seeker or adrenaline junkie, but I have to admit I really enjoyed our ride on the wind that night. Naturally, we try and avoid situations like that one, but there’s a satisfying feeling of confidence in knowing that we Dragonflies can face the elements and with our skill and team work, handle such unexpected adventures. And I hope you see that it really wasn’t my fault.

A Ticket To Adventure

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by Stu Simpson

No doubt about it, an airplane is a ticket to adventure, and an ultralight airplane is the ‘E’ ticket. Ultralights are airplanes that you fly, not just drive around the sky like two-winged family sedans on automatic pilot. If you’re interested in growing some honest-to-God stick & rudder skill, step right up.

Ultralights have evolved into proper airplanes every bit as tough and reliable as a Chief or a Cub. Fact is, most of them are built identically to those types, matching and often exceeding their performance. Best part is, they can be had and operated for a fraction of a conventional plane’s cost.

There’s no question ultralights have their limits, just like any aircraft. Most cruise between 60 and 90 miles an hour, so a weekend trip to the coast and back isn‘t very likely. But a smooth evening flight to your buddy’s strip certainly is. Or maybe it‘ll be an airborne exploration flight with other planes on a Saturday morning. No, they’re not the fastest machines in the sky, just the most fun.

I’m on my fourth airplane, and all of them have been ultralights. There’s no way I’d miss this.

My first plane, bought in 1991, was a Spectrum Beaver, the single-seat model with 40 horsepower. It was a true stick & rudder plane with an open cockpit and only a tach and airspeed indicator for instruments. It maneuvered beautifully and quickly, responding to my every command. I had more fun and adventure in the 130 hours that I flew that plane than I’d had in my whole life.

In the summer of 1991 several CUFC members flew to Red Deer for their annual airshow. We got to mix with all the airshow performers, look at their planes up close and show off ours. Best of all, we got to perform each morning in the show, giving a formation display the crowd really enjoyed. Major fun.

The next summer three of us flew our ultralights through the Rockies from Calgary to Radium, B.C. and back. Along the way we chatted by radio with each other and an airline crew, and nearly got run over by a C-130 Hercules on a mountain flying exercise. And the beauty we saw! If you think looking out from a mountain is spectacular, you’re going to love what you see from an airplane.

For a while, I thought I couldn’t have more fun in an airplane than I did in that one. But its open cockpit was starting to be a bother in winter, even on warmer winter days. I eventually sold the Beeve to a farmer near Trochu. To tell you the truth, sometimes I still miss it.

My next aviation adventure came in building an airplane. I built it in my basement, one component at a time, from a pile of lumber, some metal parts, and a good set of plans. I’d never built anything before, so this was really a challenge. But the job was much easier than I expected. It only cost me about 9 grand and 16 months to get it into the air. Building and flying the Himax ranks as one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, or ever will do. The feeling of building and actually flying your own airplane is indescribable.

My Himax was a magnificent creature, having all the Beaver’s fine virtues with a closed cockpit. It was my first tail-dragger, resembling a Cessna Bird Dog that shrunk in the wash. The Himax cruised a little faster than the Beeve, at about 70 mph. Not as fast as a Cessna 172, but quicker than Grandpa Pokey-Pants in a beat up Buick. And loads more fun than the Buick, too.

The Himax and I really got around. I flew it all over southern Alberta to farm strips and controlled airports, alike. In 1999, me and several other CUFC members flew around north central Alberta on a trip that lasted 4 days and included a stop at a CF-18 fighter squadron in Cold Lake. The next summer a group of four of us went back to the Rockies, this time to Castlegar in south central B.C. That was an absolutely unforgettable adventure.

For a while, I thought I couldn’t have more fun in an airplane than I did in that one. But after about 7 years and 300 hours I started to get a bit bored with the Himax and began looking for something a bit different. I latched onto a sweet looking little plane out of Edmonton called the Avenger, another wooden tail-dragger, but with a low wing.

The Avenger didn’t really work for me. As you know, there are some people we just don’t get along with. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with them, but they somehow irritate us and just don’t quite click. That’s how the Avenger was for me. I’m a fairly big guy, and the Avenger just didn’t fit me well. I thought I’d enjoy the low wing, but it turns out I didn’t. The plane flew well, but just never felt quite right for me.

I eventually sold it to another club member who fell in love with it. I was pleased that he did.

Now, I’ve got the Giant. The Green Giant, that is. It’s a big old Sylvaire Bushmaster painted camo green. I love it!

It’s got two seats so I can take another pilot along, a tail-wheel, and a 65 hp liquid-cooled Rotax engine with dual electronic ignition. Very cool. It‘s also got a big wing that gets me in and out of just about any place I want to go. The Giant actually started out as the factory demonstrator built in 1985. So, since ultralights have only been around since the early 80’s, the Giant might just qualify as an antique.

I’ve been flying the Giant for nearly two years now and the adventure with it started on the first flight home from Edmonton. I dodged thunderstorms, battled unexpected 25 knot winds, and fought with abnormal fuel consumption and faulty carburetors. But the Giant got me home.

I remember the time in February ‘02 when a group of us landed to see another guy’s ultralight at an 800’ long strip high in the Porcupine Hills south of Calgary. It took two tries to takeoff again in the snow there, which was as deep as my wheel axles. But the Giant got us out with just enough room to spare.

The Giant has proven to be a great cross-country airplane, too. In the spring of last year Glen Bishell and I escorted Bob Kirkby and his Renegade biplane to its new owner in Cold Lake. Due to weather considerations we had to stay low the whole way, which made map reading and navigating really tough. Flying up and back, we covered more than 700 miles at about 700 feet. Major adventure, there.

And last summer the CUFC and a few other ultralight guys traveled to Dawson Creek, Slave Lake and back just for the hell of it. We had 15 planes along, and the Giant performed wonderfully. Sometimes, I think I could never have more fun in an airplane than I’m having in this one. But we know where that can lead.

I like to look back through my log books every now and again just to remind myself of all the pure stick & rudder joy I’ve discovered in these airplanes. I remember the gentle evenings drinking in the smell of a wheat field from 10 feet up, or the satisfying kiss of a perfect 3-point landing. I’ll recall the lost memory of a short field approach into an uphill strip only a few hundred feet long, and perfect formation maneuvers with my wingmen.

Then I’ll stare longingly at the Giant, wondering when we can fly again, wondering when I can next use my ticket to adventure.