Flight to the Frozen Ghost

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by Stu Simpson

I could see the Beaver and the Chinook on the horizon about 2 miles east of where I was, and I got more excited as I readied my airplane to join them.

It was Todd and Don flying their airplanes from Indus to Thompson’s Ranch airfield, a place we simply called, the “Glider Strip”. I was going to hop over from my strip and meet them. From there, we would all takeoff together and head northwest to meet some friends of mine on the ice at Ghost Lake.

The weather for the trip was very good. The temperature was about 3 degrees, with a light west wind. The western sky displayed a prominent and well-defined chinook arch giving high cloud cover. But it was clear that any mountain wave activity was travelling well above the altitude where we would be flying.

I thought about all of this as I sat in my single Beaver while the motor warmed up. Finally, everything was ready, so I powered up and blasted off.

It was a five minute flight over to the Glider Strip. Todd and Don were eager to go, so they fired up and one by one we rolled down runway 25 and into the winter sky.

We headed northwest, in loose formation, to pick up the highway we would follow north. As we droned on in the smooth afternoon air, Don was flitting around the formation trying to get the hang of flying close to other airplanes. He hadn’t done any major formation flying before this day. But we were all having a ball. I called Todd on the radio and informed him that I was rating the day as 2-thumbs-up, so far. He readily agreed.

When we were about twelve miles south of Springbank airport, Todd suggested I call and advise the tower of our route and intentions. So, I flipped over to 118.2 and did just that. The controller told us to remain clear of the zone and advised me he would inform other traffic in the area about our presence. He also wanted us to call him when we were west of the airport. I agreed and then switched back to 123.3, the frequency our flight was using for the day.

Don was still jumping around the formation from spot to spot. Sometimes he would be off Todd’s right wing for a few minutes, and the next thing I knew Todd was saying the Chinook was at my six o’clock low, where I couldn’t see him. I sincerely hoped Don was enjoying the view of my behind.

Before long, we were crossing the Trans-Canada highway and I again called Springbank to tell them our position. After I switched back to our frequency, I noticed our ground speed had seriously declined. As we approached a large gas plant, Todd noticed steam from the plant showing the wind as north-west at about 15kts. We had kind of expected this, since the wind normally picks up in this region as it blows down the Bow Valley from the Rockies.

We continued on, with our destination only a few minutes away.

In about 5 more minutes, the Ghost dam and reservoir came into view and I began to mentally plot how we would land on the ice. We could soon see numerous ice boats zooming across the lake and we agreed that a low pass over the ice would definitely be in order. That way, we could get a better idea of the ice landing conditions, and, equally important, let everyone down there know we were here. I did not relish the thought of becoming an iceboat-kabob.

I volunteered to make the first low pass. As I approached the dam, I could feel the wind picking up to about 20kts at about 200 ft. off the surface. But it was still steady with only a few light gusts. The ice also looked good, with the snow drifts only inches deep. I decided to try a landing.

I made a right hand circuit and settled onto the ice with the greatest of ease. The only problem came in dodging a few large pieces of driftwood frozen into the surface. Hitting one of those would have meant changing the day’s rating to thumbs-down.

Todd and Don landed safely and soon we had a small crowd huddled around our planes asking questions about aircraft they had never seen before.

We spent an enjoyable 45 minutes on the ground chatting with friends and looking at ice boats. Ice boats look like a lot of fun – the kind of fun that doesn’t cost you mega-bucks. In that respect, ice boating is much like ultralight flying.

It soon came time to go so we headed back to our planes. We watched the crowd form again as they waited anxiously to see us take-off. I had a little trouble starting my engine, but I soon had it running smoothly.

Todd blasted off first, showing an impressive climb rate into the wind. Don was next, again with an impressive climb, and I followed last, making one final high fly-by before I headed home.

The headwind we’d bucked for the last few miles into the Ghost, was now at our backs and giving us a nice little boost as we headed southeast. I again called Springbank to let them know about us and we were cleared en-route.

I must say the weather was consistent for us, because we lost our tailwind at exactly the same point we had picked up the headwind earlier. Another example of how the Calgary weather can be so quirky.

The flight back to Black Diamond was smooth and uneventful. Even Don seemed content to hold a steady right echelon slot in the flight. As we flew on together, I couldn’t help thinking of how lucky we were to be there, buzzing along a few hundred feet over creation, enjoying a gift so few have experienced. We knew that soon we would have to land our planes, put them in hangars and leave the airfield. But right then, for a few brief moments, we were at the best place in heaven or earth. We were flying.

But daydreaming can’t last forever so as we got closer to the Glider Strip, I called Todd on the radio. I told him that I was going to divert south to go straight to my strip. He and Don were going to land at the Glider Strip and use the facilities before flying back to Indus. I thanked Todd and Don for making the trip in my direction and peeled off high to head home.

Todd and Don ended up landing down-wind at the Glider Strip (there’s no wind sock there in the winter), but managed a proper takeoff to head back to Indus. They made it home a short time later, having logged 3.6 hours. I had logged 2.5 hours for the day.

As I stood outside my hanger, my airplane tucked away until our next flight, I watched my buddies lift off and turn eastward. I reflected on the day and decided it had been a nice little adventure. I also decided that I could hardly wait for the next one.

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“I Could Do This Forever”

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 by Stu Simpson

Me & the Beeve were at 700′ AGL, having just blasted off from Kirkby Field. We had no particular place to go. There was no one to meet, no appointments to keep. Just a blue sky and light, warm winds to dance around in all afternoon.

I decided to head south toward Indus and see if anything was happening there. But one of my character flaws is that I’m so easily distracted, this time by Bailey’s Field. It appeared a few miles away, looking pristine and gorgeous, as it always does.

Bailey’s Field holds a special fascination for me. It’s a beautiful 4500′ strip in the middle of the prairie about six miles north-east of Indus. There are a few hangars on the property and a huge house with a swimming pool in it. In fact, you can see right into the pool room when you do an over-shoot on runway 16. I’ve seen a few airplanes on the strip, but the one that stands out is an old Beech 18 done up in RCAF colors. It’s a beautiful round-engined bird that looks like it could tell lots of great stories. In short, Bailey’s Field is the airstrip of my dreams.

So it seemed only fitting that I shoot a couple of circuits there on my way to Indus. I crossed over the field and entered the left hand downwind. The runway was covered with a skiff of snow completely untouched by aircraft or man. I landed long, the Beeve’s wheels settling gently onto the endless white ribbon of runway. As soon as the nose gear touched, I fire-walled the throttle and raced off for another circuit. I noticed on the downwind leg the runway seemed spoiled now that it had gear tracks on it. But to any passing aviator, those gear tracks would tell a little story of their own.

I was on my way again after one more circuit. The Beeve felt wonderful in my hands, quick and nimble, responding without a moment’s hesitation. We wheeled and turned and laughed our way through the sky.

Indus looked shamefully deserted from a couple of miles away. But as I got closer, I could see people and airplanes moving around down there. I crossed over the field and started doing circuits on runway 28. I have to tell you, my landings that day were some of the best I’ve done in a long time.

The runway had been well used since the last snowfall, as was evident from all the gear tracks. But there was a small area right at the button that had no tracks in it anywhere. This was my target. It was a great way to practice spot landings. After every touchdown I could see my tire tracks in the snow and improve the next landing. Shooting circuits is a great way to spend your time, isn’t it? There’s nothing like the feeling of greasing an airplane back to earth. The type of touchdown that, if you didn’t hear the rumble and rattle of the gear, you might not know you’d landed.

I wasn’t alone in the circuit though. Fred Wright had waited for an opportune moment and taken to the sky in his green Chinook. Wayne Winters had done likewise in a miniMAX. We three shared the airport for a while until I noticed Freddy peel off to the south. I turned the Beeve to follow him, just to see what he was up to.

About a mile south of the field, Freddy turned to the east, went about half a mile, and turned back west. Suddenly he was pointing straight at me. Now, Freddy’s not blind, so I took this to be just what it was. A challenge.

I maneuvered easily out of his way, but before I could say “Holy hammer-head, Batman!”, he had jumped me. That sly dog was going for my tail like a puppy goes for puppy chow. But he didn’t have the angle to get his nose pointed at me. I racked the Beeve into a hard left turn and lost sight of the Chinook. I kept looking back over my shoulder but I still couldn’t find him. I was pretty sure I was out-turning him, because there ain’t much that can turn with the Beeve.

After about two and a half 360’s, I levelled out heading west. I spotted Freddy about 600′ away, at my 9 o’clock, going the opposite direction. I yanked the Beeve left at the same time Freddy saw me comin’. He put everything he had into a tight left turn, but there was just no escape for him from that point on. He was as busy as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest as he tried to get away. But I just sat up about fifty feet higher than the Chinook, throttled back, and followed him around. Whenever the moment was right, I’d dump the nose, roll onto his tail from six-o’clock high, and waste him. At least that’s the way I remember it. Freddy might have a different version of events.

After the carnage was over, we formed up and headed back toward Indus. I followed Freddy in and made a full-stop landing on runway 28. He was all smiles and charged with adrenaline as I climbed out of the Beeve. We spent the next few minutes re-hashing the dogfight over and over again, like pilots have done for decades.

Then I met Knute Rasmusen, owner of the mimiMAX that Winters was flying. The three of us chatted as we watched Winters in the circuit. After a few minutes of hangar flying, Freddy decided he wasn’t going waste anymore of the day on the ground. I liked his attitude so I invited both guys to fly back up to Kirkby’s with me. They thought that was a splendid idea.

Winters was on his last go ’round so Knute said he’d join us after he fueled up. Freddy and I decided to wait upstairs shooting some more bump-and-runs, and when Knute was ready, we’d head north together.

Freddy and I took off and by the time we’d shot two circuits Knute was pulling onto the button of runway 28. I turned north for home and slowed so my wingmen could catch up.

Knute quickly established himself off my right wing. Freddy perched a little further back, forming on the miniMAX. I could almost see the smiles on their faces as we coasted along up there. Occasionally I’d lose sight of Knute as he wandered toward my six, and I found myself trying to make like an owl to find him again. My neck muscles got a good workout.

All too soon the shiny sheet metal of Kirkby’s hangars appeared and I set up for a long, straight-in approach to runway 34. I touched down and slowed just in time to make the turn at mid-field. I taxied the Beeve to the hangar and jumped out to watch Freddy and Knute land. But they decided to drag the field first.

I wheeled the Beeve into the shack as the Chinook and the MAX set up their approaches. Freddy put down first and taxied clear. The two of us watched closely as Knute hung the miniMAX on the fine edge and brought it in slower than I thought possible. He’s a guy who knows his airplane.

“Ain’t this the life, Freddy?”, I asked as Knute taxied in.

“Man”, he replied, “I could do this forever.” I nodded agreement and silently wondered what the rich folks were doing.

Once settled, Knute graciously showed us around his airplane. He even let me sit in it. I have to admit, I’m quite impressed with the design. Think I might get one.

After about half an hour Freddy was getting understandably restless again. So the two of them saddled up and bugged out, taking off the same way they’d landed. As they turned south Freddy’s words kept running through my mind. And I thought, I too could do this forever.

Adventures To Remember

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by Stu Simpson

It’s November. I don’t much care for November because it’s hard to get flying time. November steals more and more sunlight from each day, and the weather’s no fun at all, often being cold and drizzly and generally miserable for days on end. Ya, I know, it happens every year. But I don’t have to like it.

November often reduces me to perusing logbooks and photo albums to get my aviation fix. Instead of actually getting up there doing it, I’m stuck at home in a comfortable chair with a tasty beverage, left to merely reminisce about past adventures aloft. My wife calls it pouting.

But sometimes, if I try really hard, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can smell my leather flight jacket; I can feel the roaring drone of the Rotax; and I can hear the tinny, electronic voices of my wingmen.

Tonight, as I sort gently through some memories, I recall a recent and very exciting aerial adventure, though it was admittedly much more exciting for Freddy than for me.

We were southbound in our Himaxes from that jewel of an airstrip called Kirkby Field. Freddy Wright was supposed to be in echelon off my right wing. To be honest though, I didn’t really know where he was in the formation. We eventually found ourselves a couple of miles south of the Indus Airport.

It was a grand October day; sunny and warm, with virtually no wind. A truly wonderful day to fly. Well, wonderful so long as your airplane keeps all it’s pieces. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Freddy’s radio was pretty scratchy, maybe on account of his antenna installation, and I wasn’t really hearing him that well. Suddenly, his voice filled my earphones:

“Bam, bam, bam. You’re going down, Stu!” he said. Or, rather, that’s what I THOUGHT he said. I pictured Freddy back at my six lining me up like he was the Red Baron, or something. But there was an anxious note in Fred’s voice when there should have been mischief. Somewhat concerned, I asked him to repeat what he’d said, and he did. It sounded just like the first time. I eased into a gentle right bank and asked him where he was.

“I’m right behind you,” he replied, “I’m going down.” It was all instantly clear. Freddy hadn’t said “bam, bam, bam”, he’d said “pan, pan, pan”! He was in the litter box up to his neck, and I thought he was playing Top Gun.

But I’ll tell you, Freddy’s got stones. Not once did I hear even a hint of panic in his voice. He was confident and controlled, and he put that Himax into a damned rough field without so much as a nick in the paint. Even on the ground he was cool as a cucumber.

Turns out his prop came off. Yup, he was just bombing along when the ol’ fan decided to take a left turn for Albuqurque. Freddy made a mistake when he installed the prop and left out a few reinforcing studs on the prop flange.

I beetled back to Indus after Freddy radioed he was alright. There, Don Rogers hitched a flat-deck trailer to his truck. Fred Beck jumped in with us and the Great Himax Rescue was on.

Getting the ‘Max onto the trailer and back to the hangar was a snap. Freddy found the prop the next day, almost perfectly intact, with only one blade cracked. He stuck the two good blades into a two-blade hub and was back in the air a few days later.

Here in my easy chair, I glance out the window and see the November fog has closed in. The house across the street is barely visible. I know with sad certainty that Andy Gustafsson and I won’t be pushing the sky around tomorrow. Hey, that reminds me of the last time Andy and I flew together…

“Dragonfly One to Dragonfly Three,” I radioed Jim, “can you set up off Andy’s right wing so I can get some pictures of you guys?”

Both Andy’s Challenger II and Jim Corner’s float-footed Kitfox were ahead of me and to my left. Andy was just done taking his own inflight snaps of Jim’s plane, and I didn’t want to miss my opportunity.

Jim slipped the ‘Fox expertly into position to the right of, and just behind the Challenger. The Highwood River coursed crazily through the autumn prairie below us, making an excellent background for the pictures.

I spent the next few minutes bopping around the formation taking what pictures I could. Then I heard Fred Beck calling us. But I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself again.

You see, I forgot to mention that we were at Indus a few minutes earlier. Jim, Andy, and I landed there to pick up Freddy Wright for our trip to High River. Jim’s plane was the hit of the day. Gustafsson and I, and our planes, are found at Indus fairly regularly. But Jim’s plane isn’t seen nearly as often and he gets a lot of attention wherever he takes it, especially now the ‘Fox floats.

We chatted with Wright and other members of the Indus Rat Pack for a while, and invited a few Rats along to HR. Fred Beck decided he’d make the jaunt, as did Dave Bolton.

You know, those guys couldn’t own two more diverse airplanes. Beck‘s little yellow Chinook is a single-seat, 28hp, wing-warping, weed-hopper true to the pure form and spirit of ultralight flying. He’s lucky to hit sixty going downhill with a tailwind. Bolton’s plane, on the other hand, is a Quickie. It uses the same engine as Beck’s Chinook, but the tiny Quickie is all fiberglass, and all fast. It screams along faster than a hundred miles an hour.

Everyone agreed that if these two were going to rendezvous with us at High River Beck ought to have taken off yesterday, and Bolton should give the rest of us a couple days head start. In the end, Beck left right after the pre-flight briefing, and Dave promised he’d try to be patient.

Fred Wright, Jim, Andy and I scooted out of Indus. Just after Wright took off he announced his engine was having some minor conniption fit. Freddy was certain he’d make it back to land without any problem. After his grand performance the other day, I didn’t doubt him a bit. He’d try to fix the problem and catch up with us later.

The three of us continued on and soon slid into a an easy ‘V’ formation for the trip south. After we’d all taken each other’s pictures over the Highwood is when we heard Fred Beck calling. And now I’ve got the story back around to where it should be.

Andy and I answered Beck time and again, but he was having radio problems and was only getting part of our transmissions. Suddenly, a white streak flashed by off our right side. It was Bolton showing us the limit of his patience.

Dave, who didn’t have a radio, satisfied himself by making wide 360’s off to the right. Meanwhile, Beck was still receiving us intermittently, but we somehow managed to get a fix on his position. Andy spotted him first, at our 11 o’clock, when we were 9 miles out of HR. He was a bright yellow speck bopping along over the dark, summer-fallowed fields. Our planes steadily overtook the Chinook a couple of miles later.

“Dragonfly Five to Dragonfly One,” called Beck in his cheerful Dutch accent, “where are you guys now?”

“One to Five, we’re just passing high off your left wing,” I replied.

There was silence for a few seconds, then: “Okay, I see you now. You guys really look good up there.” He can be such a charmer.

A few minutes later we switched over to 123.0 and I called High River.

“High River traffic, be advised ultralights Dragonflies 1, 2 and 3 are currently 6 miles north-east of the field at 4300 feet, inbound to cross over mid-field for landing at High River. Over.”

I was surprised to hear someone reply, and equally surprised at what he said.

“Dragonfly 1, the airport is closed. There’s a painting truck on runway 24, and runway 14 is being oiled. It’s your discretion.”

Where does discretion come into it, I wondered? If the airport’s closed, the airport’s closed. Not much need for discretion, just stay away. I could barely make out the trucks working away in the distance like little dinky toys. So much for High River.

I thanked the radio man for his help and called for the Dragonflies to switch back to our enroute frequency. We did try to warn Beck, but just couldn’t reach him with his errant radio. I had no idea where Bolton was.

Fortunately, we had a back-up plan for where to go next. Andy wanted to head west and grab a few aerial snaps of a friend’s acreage about five miles from the airport. Jim and I circled high while Andy immortalized the place on Polaroid. He said later he didn’t want to get too low on account of the buffalo herd in the adjoining pasture. That’s quality planning, if you ask me.

Dave and his Quickie reappeared. He buzzed us a couple more times as we headed north for Okotoks, then he vanished again. Freddy Wright managed to meet up with us in the circuit there and our four planes made an impressive arrival just ahead of a local training flight.

On the ground, we had some munchies and tried to figure out what happened to Bolton and Beck. Andy said he heard Beck call that he was heading back to Indus. We figured Dave likely headed home, too. Then the conversation turned to Bolton’s strip, and it turned out neither Corner nor Wright knew where it was.

“No problem,” said Andy and I, “we’ll show you.” So we saddled up and flew west toward Black Diamond. Once clear of Okotoks, we switched to 123.4. The sun was out again, and it was busy wringing the last few drops of colour out of the foothills before everything turned white.

“Well, fellas,” I radioed happily to my wingmen, “I wonder what the rich folks are doing today.”

“Actually,” said an unfamiliar voice, “the rich folks are wondering why you’re on our frequency.” It was the Black Diamond glider guys, and I think that comment pretty much sums up their whole arrogant attitude.

“Because we’re heading into your area,” I responded. I gave him our position, altitude and intentions. Then we listened and watched as a Cherokee left the airstrip and flew past us on the right.

The gal flying the Piper took a long glance at us and said we “sure look pretty”. Being manly men, of course, each of us would have preferred a more manly adjective, like sexy, or studly, or something. But we sure appreciated her courtesy and class. I hope the glider guy was taking notes.

As I led the flight into the circuit over Dave’s strip, I couldn’t help remembering the time Bernie Kespe got slushed-in there. It was a day last spring, and I landed first. I’ll tell you, hitting the deep, sopping slush on the runway was just like catching a wire on a carrier. Bernie didn’t have his radio so I couldn’t warn him off. Later, on takeoff, I barely made it out, even with the Himax’s tall, skinny wheels. Bernie tried six times to get up to flying speed, but the Renegade’s big, fat tires just wouldn’t let him. He flew it out a few days later.

On the ground at Bolton’s the four of us all enjoyed hearing how Dave had a bit of drama at HR. It was only when he was on short final that he realized the runways were under repair. He goosed it just in time and caught up with us again on our way to Okotoks.

It was time to go home, so we headed back northeast. Once we got north of the Bow, Freddy broke right and made for Indus. Instead of going straight back to Kirkby’s, I decided to stick with my wingmen, at least as far as Andy’s strip, near Delacour. Passing Chestermere, just outside YYC’s control zone, I remarked to Jim how the water must look awfully tempting. Chuckling, he admitted it was so.

We each went our separate ways a few minutes later when we got to Andy’s street. I turned back south, peeling off high and right in a graceful climbing turn. Over my shoulder, I watched Jim follow Andy down; he wanted to see where the Challenger lives. Then, he too headed for home, at Airdrie.

Well, the November fog is even thicker, I’ve run out of stories, and my beverage cup is empty. But even if I don’t have good weather right now, I know I’ve still got things good. Because I know I’ll fly again soon, and I know there’ll be lots more adventure to remember.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go check the forecast one more time.