The Kingdom on the Horizon

Back to Articles

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.

Advertisements

Something Worth Waiting For

Back to Articles

by Stu Simpson

I guess it all started a few weeks ago when I got this notion that I’d like to fly to Wetaskiwin. Of course I didn’t want to go alone, so I invited a bunch of other guys. We had everything lined up, departutre points and times were all set, and everyone knew what the game plan was. Everyone but the weatherman, that is.

The day we were all set to go the wind was straight out of the west at 30 knots. So much for Wetaskiwin.

When I phoned Gerry Moore to let him know we’d scrubbed the flight he suggested another destination. One that was much closer and maybe even more interesting.

He told me about a strip he’d found in the Highwood Pass southwest of Longview, which immediately intrigued me. I love exploring with my airplane and finding airstrips that aren’t on the map.

So I called everyone again and said we’d try for the Highwood. And again we set departure points and times. And again the weather was awful. I’ve got hand it to Jim Corner, though. He flew into Kirkby’s that morning riding a 25 knot tail wind, only to learn we weren’t going.

It happens.

I was determined to find this place. So I arranged another try for the next evening. We agreed on the departure point and time (starting to sound familiar, isn’t it?), and this time we even got airborne.

Wilf Stark, Don Rogers and Ron Axelson accompanied me as we made our way southwest that evening. The wind was stronger than forecast (big surprise, that) but we were still making reasonable progress. Right up to when Rogers radioed that he was having trouble transferring fuel from his Norseman’s rear tank to the main feeder tank. Then Stark chimed in, saying he thought he didn’t have enough gas. Our nearest alternate was Black Diamond’s Thompson’s Ranch. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we’d best divert to Black Diamond, fix the problems and go home.

It happens.

Our time grounded at BD was fun. We examined some of the aircraft there and, of course, we took every opportunity to kid Rogers about his personal plumbing problems. Stark determined that he had enough fuel to get him and his Super Koala home safely, but then it was Axelson’s turn to sweat. The battery on his Ercoupe had bought the farm, so he spent several minutes hand-propping his baby until it finally caught.

The flight home was uneventful, if you can call a summer evening’s flight above stunning green hills, valleys and fields uneventful.

Four days later Stark, Bob Kirkby and I were in the air again, and this time I knew we’d make it. The wind ambled calmly from the south at a leisurely six or seven knots, and a layer of high cirrus spread above us to dampen the unsettling effects of daytime heating.

“Dragonflies, this is Three,” called Kirkby when we were a little south of Okotoks, “watch this.”

He nosed over for a second or two and then launched his Renegade into a short series of chandelles and stall-turns. Wilf and I watched him maneuver gracefully around the sky before plying him with admiring “Oooo’s” and “Aah’s”.

Soon, Black Diamond drifted by off my right wing and I remembered the many flights I’d made in the area years before with my Beaver. I have to admit, I’ve missed the hills and mountains near there.

Longview ought to be just over the next hill, I thought, checking the map. Then an unfamiliar voice rattled in my earphones.

“Dragonflies, this is Lima Kilo Papa. What’s you’re position please?”

“Lima Kilo Papa, this is Dragonfly One,” I replied. “We’re approximately seven miles northeast of Longview at fifty-seven hundred feet, southwest bound.”

Kilo Papa asked for a few more details to better clarify where we were. The he radioed that he had us in sight and would shortly be passing a few hundred feet beneath us. He added that he was headed for Black Diamond this morning and heard us on the radio. He wanted to check us out because we “sounded like fun.”

“Kilo Papa, Dragonfly One has you visual,” I called as he sailed underneath us.

“Is that a Supecub?” queried Wilf.

“Roger,” came the answer.

“That’s a gorgeous airplane,” said Stark. I could practically hear the smile on his face.

The Cub driver asked what type of airplanes we were flying and I provided him with a brief description of each. He asked where we were heading and I told him that, too. He got quite interested in this and said he’d flown the Highwood pass before, looking for the same strip, but hadn’t found it yet. Then he asked if he could tag along with us. Of course, we gladly welcomed him.

So the four of us droned on into the Highwood valley looking for an airstrip in the woods.

Kirkby was the first to spot it. At the very south end of the valley, where it turns west again, it lay directly in our path about a mile-an-a-half ahead. Since I was flight lead it fell to me to make the first approach and landing.

As I crossed over the strip I thought it looked pretty good, albeit a little narrow. Forty-foot tall pine trees jutted up not fifty feet from the button, and a pond was located at the side of the runway at about mid-field. It would have to be avoided at all costs. A thrill ran through me and I found myself smiling involuntarily at the challenge of the coming landing.

I turned final about a third of a mile back and kept a wary eye on the distant wind sock. It was still parallel with the runway and indicating about 7 knots. I eased the ‘Max through a small gap in the pines, pulled the throttle back, and nosed over gently for the ground. The plane settled smoothly on the mains, with the tail-wheel alighting almost immediately afterward.

I lengthened my rollout to give Stark plenty of room for his landing, which he accomplished beautifully. Then I back-tracked and followed him off the runway just as Kirkby was clearing the trees on final.

Wilf and I climbed out and the first thing we heard from the crowd that had gathered was, “Thanks for the great airshow!” We swelled with pride.

The Supercub taxied in as we introduced ourselves and chatted with the rancher who owned the land, and his friends. John, the Cub driver introduced himself, too. We spent about thirty minutes chatting and letting these warm-hearted folks examine our airplanes.

Then it was time to go. You see, on these adventures getting there is most of the fun, and getting back is the rest of it.

Since I was first to land, it seemed only natural that I be first to takeoff. I noticed the slightly longer takeoff run since our field elevation was 4800 feet, about 1500 feet higher than the home ‘drome. Naturally, climb out took a bit longer, too.

John and his Supercub were headed to High River. On the radio he bid us farewell, thanking us for the good time and promising Bob he’d drop in to Kirkby Field in the future.

Quick and smooth describes our return flight, at least unitl we crossed the Bow River. There, the thermals kicked themselves loose from the prairie and rumbled right by us on their way up.

A garbled radio call, “… traffic…. eleven…” It sounded like Bob. I reflexively checked north, which was my eleven o’clock position, and my heart nearly stopped.

A Mooney was headed straight for me! I nosed over and yanked the throttle back, telling Wilf to drop down a few hundred feet. Seconds later I watched through the top of my cockpit as the Mooney zoomed by less than a hundred feet away. He hadn’t changed course by so much as a degree. Maybe he figured he had the right of way. Or maybe he didn’t even see me.

The odd thing is this: I’ve flown many, many hours with Kirkby and he has never, ever had a radio problem. Not until he tried to warn me I was about to be killed. Even after the near miss his radio functioned perfectly.

It happens.

Fortunately, Wilf was never in any danger, and a few minutes later we all touched down safely at Kirkby Field.

Another adventure would now be written into our log books, and hopefully etched for ages in our memories. It sure took us enough tries to get there, to that airstrip in the woods, but I’m sure glad we kept trying. This flight was definitely something worth waiting for.

A Morning Of Promise

Back to Articles

by Stu Simpson

This was clearly a Saturday morning with promise. It could hardly be anything else when everywhere I looked I saw small, fun airplanes. For instance, Al Botting had his new Piper Vagabond tied down ready to start. It’s amber gleam nearly matched that of the sun. Next to him was Peter Wegerich and his yellow Cubby II, a slightly shrunken iteration of Botting’s bird. One could be forgiven for doing a double take when seeing them so close together.

Botting was going to loose his tail-wheel virginity that morning. He and Kirkby had plans to take the Vagabond up so Botting could get checked out in it and join the ranks of the real men who fly tail-draggers. No more training wheels for him.

On the other side of the hangars Carl Forman tinkered with the radio and battery in his MiniMAX. The Max’s battery has been vexing him for months, never quite doing what he hopes it’ll do. And then there’s the left fuel tank issue. Don’t even get him started about that! Just up the ramp was Bernie Kespe with the top cowl off his pristine Renegade biplane. He was working on a starter problem.

And there in the corner, just in front of my hangar, sat my beloved Green Giant; loaded, fueled and eager to move the sky around.

Carl and Pete and I planned to fly to the bottom end of the Highwood Pass, about 60 miles southwest and on the very leading edge of the Rockies. There’s a ranch strip there that’s about 4000’ long but with very challenging approaches on each end. The trip to the Highwood has never been anything less than stunning, and it promised to be so this day, too.

It turned out at the last minute, though, that Carl would have to stay home. Remember those battery and fuel tank issues? Enough said.

Pete and I blasted off runway 16 and climbed strongly in the morning wind. We leveled off at 4000’ and turned southwest.

“I sure like seeing green fields,” I radioed to Pete.

“Ya,” he replied, “they’re sure a lot nicer to look at.” And a lot nicer for us to fly over, too, I thought. They don’t throw as much heat and convective turbulence as the browner spring time fields do.

As we motored along I remarked to Pete, as I’ve done to my wingmen hundreds of times, that I still can’t believe there are people down there who don’t want to do this.

“I’ve wanted to do this my whole life,” Pete confessed. “Now I’ve finally gotten to where I have the time and I can afford it. This is great.”

Thinking about his comments for a moment, I decided that maybe there is something to be said for growing up, even if only a little bit. Wonder what our wives would have to say about that.

We started a slow climb crossing the Bow River and the new highway bridge there. We were near DeWinton when Pete called again.

“There’s a field down there that looks awfully familiar to me,” he said, smiling. He referred to the last time we made this trip, coincidentally just two days short of a year ago. On that jaunt Pete had an engine failure over this very spot. He put the Cubby down in the farmer’s field and effected repairs. I forget what caused the engine failure – a minor electrical fault, I think – but he was up and flying again half an hour later. The rest of the flight simply orbited over top in a wide circle while he fixed the problem.

Since then, Pete decided the tired old 503 just wasn’t the right engine for his Cubby so he switched to a 65 horse Zanzottera, sold out of Surrey, B.C. The new mill runs very sweetly. Pete’s now got more power in the Cubby, more confidence in the engine and is getting a lot more fun out of flying.

The mountains were starting to rise from the haze, jagged and grey against the horizon, and growing larger with each passing mile. A glance out the right side revealed we were coming in line with the departure path of Black Diamond’s runway 14. We switched over to 123.4, the frequency that Black Diamond’s gliders use.

“Black Diamond traffic, be advised ultralights Dragonflies 1 and 2 are currently 6 miles southeast at 4600 feet, south-westbound for the Longview area. Any conflicting, please advise.”

We listened intently for several minutes but surprisingly, heard no reply. That’s strange because the glider guys are usually beating each other over the head to be the first ones in the air on such a day. We made one more call a few minutes later before clearing their area, but still heard nothing back.

We crossed highway 22 between Black Diamond and Longview. The terrain was rising faster now with the onset of the foothills. We eased our birds a few hundred feet higher and then set up to take pictures of each other with the hills and mountains in the background.

Pete’s Cubby was stunning against the brilliant green foliage below, and the magnificent Alberta blue above.

“You sure have a beautiful airplane, Pete,” I commented admiringly.

“Ya,” he said in his usual laconic manner, “I’m pretty happy with this yellow. I’d have bought the plane anyway, regardless of colour, so the yellow’s just a bonus.” I chuckled at his remarks and went back to taking pictures.

My photos done, I marveled for a few moments at the raw, blatant power of the Rockies. Though Pete and I had the power of flight at our disposal and were flying above all else, we weren‘t flying above them. And there they were in front of us, filling our windscreens, daring us to try. I figured it’d be wisest that morning to stick to our original plan and meet the Rockies’ altitude challenge another day.

We continued enroute, intercepting highway 40 as it coursed into the mountains. The Highwood strip soon appeared as a narrow swatch of light green grass running east and west on a ranch south of the highway. It’s a challenging strip, with high trees at either end, and a pond on either side about halfway along. The runway’s not very wide, either. Simply put, it promised to be a lot of fun.

We arrived overhead and eyeballed the windsock.

“Dragonfly 1 to 2. The sock indicates wind from the south at about five to seven knots. It’ll give us a crosswind, but not by much.”

“Ya, roger. I’ll follow you in.”

“1 copies. I’m descending on the downwind for 25.” I pulled the throttle way back and dumped the nose over to begin the drop from 6000 feet. After several seconds the Giant was still way too high, so I cranked in a side-slip to bleed off more altitude.

The Highwood requires a careful approach to minimize exposure to the trees should the unthinkable happen to the engine. Half a mile from the button I turned about 160 degrees because there wasn’t enough room in the narrow valley for a proper base leg. I angled toward the strip, keeping the highway beneath me for as long as possible before committing to the runway.

My heart beat faster and adrenaline coursed through me as the trees flashed beneath. The left wing missed a tall stand by only 10 feet; there was no time to look at the right one. A snapshot vision flashed through my mind of me picking pine boughs from the Giant after landing.

Ground speed was too fast and a quick glance at the sock confirmed the wind had shifted to my tail. But it was still at only a few knots, I might be able to make it. I mentally prepared for a go ‘round. Side-slipping a little more to lose some height past the trees, I wandered a little wide of the runway. So I booted the rudder, pulled the stick to the right and the Giant centered out over the strip, but it was clear we were going to land long. Should I go around?

At the last second I decided it was safe and discarded the notion of trying again. The wheels touched smoothly about a third of the way down the runway, the long grass helping to slow the plane. I was too far past the exit to make a one-eighty before Pete landed, so I had no choice but to continue taxiing ahead until I heard from him. A few moments passed, then Pete calmly radioed that he’d landed and I had lots of room to turn around.

We taxied in and shut down. Then we spent a pleasant half hour chatting with a cowboy named Bob Purkess, who works the ranch there, and his hired man Clayton. We told him all about our planes such as how they’re built and the differences between Pete’s Cubby and the Giant.

Before we departed Purkess invited us to call him before we land next time so he could ensure there were no horses on the runway. Very neighbourly of him, indeed.

The wind was still coming from the east as we back-tracked and it looked like it’d stay that way. We started this takeoff with a slight downhill run, which really helped overcome the drag of the long grass.

I hauled the Giant into ground effect then built up some more speed to make sure I’d clear the trees that were rapidly approaching. As soon as we ascended above the tops of the pines the wind tagged us on the nose and boosted our climb rate by a few hundred feet per minute. The Giant reminded me again why I love it more each time I fly it.

We climbed steadily from the Highwood’s 4600’ elevation to 5500’ for the ride home. We weren’t quite ready to leave the foothills, though, so instead of turning northeast we continued north to follow along the hills. This area made for a spectacular background as Pete and I snapped even more photos of each other’s planes.

North of Turner Valley and west of Millarville we stumbled across a nicely kept ranch strip we’d never seen before. We circled overhead, using the windsock and tie downs to confirm it was, in fact, an airfield. But time was getting on and we decided against a landing. Besides, we didn’t want to use up all our adventure in one day. But I promised myself we’d be back.

Calgary’s ever expanding sprawl seeped through the late morning haze soon after we turned back eastbound. The view was quite a letdown considering where we’d just been.

But, at least we were flying; there were so many more down there who weren’t. Pete and I agreed it was good to be cruising at only 70 mph, which let us stay in the sky a little longer. The world looks better at that speed and we simply get more from life aloft.

My landing back at Kirkby’s was terrific. So was Pete’s, which was only fitting in light of the wonderful day we were having.

We chatted happily on the ground with Botting, who hadn’t quite lost his tail-wheel virginity that morning because the wind came up with a little more enthusiasm than he preferred. But he still enjoyed flying his Vagabond while Kirkby flew the landings and takeoffs for him.

Carl got up flying, too, but the pesky battery and fuel problems continued to haunt him. Bernie was nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t a perfect day for everyone on Kirkby Field. But for Pete and I, who got the chance to have ourselves a flying adventure, the morning had certainly fulfilled its promise.