Things To Do In The Sky When You’re All Alone

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by Stu Simpson

Now don’t take this the wrong way, but I was really disappointed to see Wilf Stark drive up to my hangar at Kirkby Field. Disappointed, you see, because he was supposed to have flown in. But the field where Stark hangars his Rans S-12 was snowed under.

Wilf wasn’t coming flying today, I realized somberly. His Super Koala was in pieces undergoing minor repairs and his FP-303 wasn’t quite ready yet for its first flight. I guess our jaunt to Okotoks would have to wait for another day. How ironic that Wilf owns, or co-owns, three airplanes but would still be grounded. I knew I’d miss him up there.

Stark watched by the runway as me and the Himax lifted into a perfect winter sky. We left runway 34 behind after what seemed an awfully long run. Climb-out was sluggish, too – only about half the normal rate. But the revs were good, so was acceleration. Pondering the problem, I figured I’d best get what altitude I could, stay close to the strip, and sort things out.

I perched the ‘Max at 700 feet on the airfield perimeter and made a couple of north-south runs. With an incredible grasp of the obvious, I realized that my runs northward were much quicker than those going the other way. Yup, I’d taken off downwind.

A downwind take-off, imagine that. Oh, the shame and embarrassment. I won’t waste your time with excuses (though they’re certainly quality ones – some of my best, in fact).

Instead of dwelling on my fate at the next CUFC meeting, I concentrated on flying. There’d been a month of bad weather since me and the ‘Max had the sky beneath us, so our reunion was a joyous one. I flung us gleefully through the air in tight turns; first one way, then the other, each entry and roll-out tight and precise. The airplane was solid and pure. Together we were masters of the air, invincible.

I spotted a train as it coursed along the tracks south of Kirkby’s. Suddenly, it was 1920. I was an air-mail pilot flying my Jenny to prove that airplanes could move the mail faster than the rails. I nosed over into a shallow dive, fiercely racing the train, and soon came up beside the locomotive. The engineer sat with his back to me, probably didn’t even know I was there. I pulled ahead a few seconds later though, and banked arrogantly in front him.

Would that engineer think me a fool and a daredevil for flying such a crate? Or would he look at me as a beggar looks at a rich man? Either way, he was stuck down there, a slave to the clock, while I was up here chasing sunbeams through the wind.

Finished with the train, I made Indus my next destination. Maybe something was going on down there. Too bad, I reflected again, that Wilf wasn’t up. I’d really been looking forward to honing my formation flying skills with him.

A woman’s voice was in my ears suddenly, telling the world she was landing at Three Hills. Was she a student? An instructor, maybe? Or was she just someone else out for fun?

Indus was a bust. The only activity there was Winters finishing up a flight with a student. I did a touch and go, just for the practice, and headed back north.

Over Kirkby’s again, I saw Wilf meandering around his hangar and the taxi-way. I decided to head to Stefanivic’s (where the Rans hangars) just on the off-chance that Ben had gotten the runway cleared. If so, maybe Stark could still make it into the air. But it was not to be. Ben had his Bobcat were working away as I flew over, but the runway remained untouched.

So what should I do now? Some nap-of-the-earth stuff, I decided. I made for the large field a half-mile away where I usually do my low flying. There are no wires or buildings or fences there, and it’s nice and flat – a perfect spot.

I crossed the road at the north end of the field at about 75′. A movement ahead caught my eye – a coyote that had seen and heard me a long time ago. He took off running at full speed, but he was no match for me and my airplane.

Suddenly, it was 1944. I was a Typhoon pilot strafing the enemy. I drew closer with each passing second, his image flickering through the spinning prop as he snatched quick glances back at me. There could be no escape. All I had to do was line him up with my front spark plug cap and press the firing button. Just a couple more seconds…. NOW! I mashed a non-existent trigger and imagined tracers tearing up the snow around him, blowing him to little bits. The coyote flashed beneath my left wing. Safe and sound, he was more than a little pissed off as he suddenly reared up and clawed the air in my direction. I guess I’d be mad too, if I’d just been strafed.

Some truck tracks made their way through the field, so I decided to follow them. From ten feet up I curved the ‘Max around each bend and turn, staying directly above the trail until it disappeared into a small stand of trees near the irrigation canal. Next, I buzzed some grain bins and then found a snow-bound tractor, frozen and desolate, abandoned for the season. Then I decided some touch-and-goes at Kirkby’s were in order.

I turned the ‘Max southward and began a gentle climb to circuit height. The home ‘drome came into view as I made for the downwind (I was absolutely certain of the wind direction this time). I figured it’d be a good plan to practice my short-field technique because I’ve yet to see a runway that’s too long.

Turning final a bit higher than usual, I throttled back and let the ‘Max settle into its descent. The plane rocked gently as we slipped through the inversion layer and its inherent light turbulence. How would this landing turn out? Would I nail the ‘Max to the button in a sterling three-pointer? Or would I be too fast and float along in ground-effect before dropping in with a thud? I smiled at the challenge ahead.

Every landing, I think, is a moment of truth for a pilot. Because on each landing gravity and a hundred other laws of physics will act without mercy or favour. And the airplane will ask of its pilot, “Can you bring me back to earth correctly? Can you put us down gently, under control? Or are you going to turn us both into a pile of rubbish in the middle of the runway? Well, what’s your answer?” Anyone who’s been there knows what I mean.

I answered correctly seven times straight, which isn’t to say all my landings were great. A couple of them were too fast and resulted in thuds. One was too slow, one was absolute crap, and three were pretty good. But my last landing, number seven, was exquisite; a soothing three-point greaser that was so slick I questioned for a second if I was really down. In my little tail-dragger, that’s something to cherish.

Wilf and I did get up flying together later that week, and we got to Okotoks, too. But on this flight, from out of the blue, fate did me a favour. It reminded me, in the very best way, that there are plenty of things to do in the sky when you’re all alone.

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Something Worth Waiting For

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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.

My Idea of Fun

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by Stu Simpson

“Well Bob, what do you figure?”, I asked.

Kirby had just landed after flying a circuit in his Renegade to check the flight conditions.

“It’s pretty bumpy up there from all the thermal activity.”, he replied. “You’ll have more trouble with it than I will.” He was referring to the light wing loading of my Beaver.

“Aw, what the hell”, I said, “Let’s give it a try.”

Ten minutes later I was rolling down runway 16 at Kirby Field. The Beeve lifted easily into the afternoon sky and I turned to the southwest. I soon settled in on course and waited for Kirkby to catch up. Which he did a few minutes later, perching off my left wing, the Renegade glinting in the afternoon light.

I drank in the sensations of the day and smiled to myself. The sun was high and bright in a spring-time blue sky. The wind scooted out of the south at eight to twelve mph, warmly tickling my face as it passed by. My leather jacket flapped in the slip stream. The earth was still blotchy black and tan, not yet awoken from a long, hard winter. The ground was casting thermals up at us like thunderbolts. The hot rising air tossed us around like a juggler tosses bowling pins. But I’ll tell you, there wasn’t any other place else we’d rather be.

As our little formation drew near Indus I radioed my wingman with a question. “Dragonfly 02 this is Dragonfly 01. How do you read?”

“Dragonfly 01, I read you loud & clear,” replied Bob.

“Good. Be advised you’ve got a radio tower at your twelve o’clock for three quarters of a mile”.

Kirkby whipped his plane into a hard left turn. I think he was having flash-backs to his flight from Red Deer last summer where he very nearly hit a similar tower. He thanked me for the warning and veered to the east to avoid the tower completely. No sweat, it was the least I could do.

We passed over the Bow River a short while later and watched it meander out toward Saskatchewan. We saw cars traveling the roads below us and I marveled for the thousandth time how they, and the rest of the world’s possessions, seemed like toys beneath our wings. I knew we didn’t belong to the earth though. We belonged to the wind.

About five miles north-east of Okotoks we switched to 122.8, the local frequency. After listening for our traffic, I radioed our position and was pleasantly surprised to hear a reply.

“Dragonflies”, the caller stated, “conditions at the airport are; wind from the south at about 8 knots, favouring runway 16. The only traffic is a Cessna 172 taxiing for takeoff.”

We entered the circuit as I watched the Cessna takeoff. I’m only guessing, but I’ll bet the pilot was having nearly as much fun as us. We landed a few minutes later, cleared the active and walked over to the hangar building.

When we walked into the airport office, we were greeted by a grey haired fellow whose voice I recognized from the radio. His name was Mac Arbuthnot, the chief pilot at the Okotoks Flight Center. He’s been flying airplanes since girls have had garters. He spent several years bush flying in Ontario and then instructing all over
the place. Bob and I spent an enjoyable half hour hangar-flying with Mac and swapping lies–uh, I mean true stories. I even bought myself an official “Chicks-Dig-It” Okotoks Flight Center ball cap.

Checking out the wind sock, it seemed the breeze was picking up a bit. So we decided it might be a good time to split, bug out, vamoose, and go home. Especially since Mac was starting to ask for more details about those “stories”.

Bob waited patiently on the taxi-way while I strapped in. I usually takeoff from the intersection at Okotoks and this day would be no exception. I fire-walled the throttle and the Beeve was up and flying again after only a forty foot ground roll. I made an immediate left turn out and listened as Bob announced his takeoff. A few minutes later, we were formed up again and heading north to home.

Our trip back was quite a bit smoother and faster than the flight down. We had the wind at our tail and we rode with the bumps instead of against them. As we passed over Indus airport, I was disappointed to see the place deserted. I figured there’d at least be some guys out doing circuits.

Kirkby Field quickly appeared as a tiny dot on the horizon and I felt a twinge of sadness that our flight was nearly over. All too soon I watched from my downwind leg as Kirkby made a perfect touchdown on his grass runway. I had to fight my way down through the thermals just to get on the glide path. A light wing loading can be such a pain.

My landing wasn’t one of the greatest, but at least I didn’t break anything. Bob grabbed a strut and helped me taxi in the cross wind.

I shut down and we talked a bit about the flight and the bumps and the wind and just how much fun the whole thing was. Then we each put our planes away, said goodbye and went to the next place we had to be.

I guess for me, the end of a flight is the end of an adventure. I regret that it’s all over, but I’m still happy I had a chance to be there. And I know I’ll be back for more.

Me & The Beeve – The First Year

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by Stu Simpson

Well, it’s been a year now. A little more really, but who’s counting? It’s been my first year as an aircraft owner. But I don’t own just any airplane. I own The Beeve.

Sure, The Beeve’s a little rough around the edges – the fabric has seen better days, the wind screen needs replacing, the prop too – but it’s got it where it counts.

Where it counts most is in the engine. Which happens to be a Rotax 447.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I should tell you what my airplane was before it was The Beeve.

It started out as just another one of Spectrum’s single-seat RX-45 Beavers, serial number SB122. The guys at Spectrum thought the single-seaters would do alright on 28hp. And they were right. Then they thought, “35hp would be even better.” They were right again. Then they thought, “40hp would be the best.” They were really right about that one.

When I first decided I wanted The Beeve, it had been sitting, in large pieces, for three years in a hangar at Indus airport. There were 3 hours flight time on the airframe.

I made a deal with the owner that I could tear the wings apart to fully inspect them, and the rest of the airplane, before buying it. If everything checked out I’d fly it away.

So, after a two month delay, I finally took possession of my airplane. But it went to it’s new hangar on a flat-deck trailer, still in large pieces. It took another month, and the help of some good friends, to get the engine overhauled, everything put back together, tested, and flight-ready.

Then it happened. I pushed the throttle to the stop and blasted off. Blasted is the only way to describe it. I had never flown a plane with so much power at hand. What a treat!

I buzzed around for a few minutes, well within gliding distance of the field. It was much like shaking hands with someone destined to become your best friend.

Then it came time to land.

It was my first landing at Black Diamond. And it was very hairy. I hadn’t realized how severely the trees bordering the runway would affect the wind. But we made it anyway.

At that point my airplane was no longer just another ultralight. It became The Beeve.

Me & The Beeve have really gotten around since then. Two weeks after our first flight, I installed a cargo deck and a three gallon fuel tank behind the cockpit. A few days later we flew to Red Deer to be in our first air show.

On the trip home, we ran into some really strong headwinds. That flight turned into one of the toughest I’ve ever had. But the Beeve got me home safe and sound.

I spent the rest of the summer getting to really know my airplane, finding out what it could do. For instance, my Beeve loves to climb. About 1000′ per minute, I think. Even more in a good headwind. It also likes turning. Left turns seem to be the favourite because the prop turns toward the right. It’ll do a 360 in a radius of about 40 feet. Pretty tight, huh?

We enjoy doing stalls of course, and the odd chandelle too. It doesn’t do much for spins though, just prefers to toddle off into a mild spiral after I push the rudder pedal. I have to admit, The Beeve is quite stable in any flight regime.

Me & The Beeve won’t win any speed races either. Cruise speed is a comfortable 60 mph. A little slower than the new ships, but still quicker than Grandpa Pokey-pants in his ’73 Buick. And it sure beats walkin’.

As I said, me and The Beeve get around. Obviously, most of our flights are local ones. We go to little airports, like High River, Okotoks, and Airdrie. Airports that enjoy our company and always have a smile ready for us when we drop in.

We’ve been to lots of other airports too, of course, and some nifty out-of-the way spots. Last winter we flew up and landed on Ghost Lake. And we made some flights in the foothills last fall where the autumn colors left me breathless. We’ve also flown the mountains. We’ve been to Banff and even as far as Radium, B.C. and back. What adventure we’ve had together, me & The Beeve.

And we haven’t done all this adventuring by ourselves either. We have friends who think like us, who like to go exploring from the air. The best flights happen when all of us go together. We fly in formation and talk back and forth on our radioes, and peel off to see something nifty that catches our eye and we have more fun than is probably legal. I just hope we never get caught.

The Beeve’s a tough little bugger. I’ve made a few landings after which The Beeve would have been perfectly justified in stopping cold, kicking me out, and smacking me right on the noodle. We’ve been bounced and jerked and pounded by turbulence that would make Chuck Yeager toss his ‘right stuff’. But The Beeve just flies on, always willing to forget as we scoot along to the next little airstrip.

Numbers supposedly speak volumes. So I checked the numbers and found out it’s true. For instance, in the year I’ve been flying The Beeve, we’ve spent more than 65 hours in the air. That’s more than three times what I flew in the previous year. You’d have a tough job finding Spam-can drivers with that much time in a year.

I wonder where we’ll go next. I want to make a trip to the Red Deer Forestry strip and camp out for the weekend. I’ll bring some covers for The Beeve, in case it rains. And there are still lots of friendly little airports to explore.

I guess the bottom line is this: Every time me & The Beeve blast off together, regardless of where we’re going, it’s the start of another adventure. And that makes us pretty lucky.

I’ve got a confession to make. Sometimes, after we’ve landed on a perfect summer evening, when I’m ready to close up the hangar, I’ll just stand and look at The Beeve. I’ll give it a little rub on the nose, maybe fuss over some bug guts. Then I’ll just quietly whisper, “Thanks”.