Flight of the Shadow Dancers

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by Stu Simpson

It was as close to perfection as I’d ever seen. Our two ultralight planes floated along in a rare harmony that could have been a beautiful dream. Except this reality was much better.

It was an early September evening as Don in his Chinook, and me in my Beaver, made our way gently southward toward the Bow River. The air was warm and velvety, offering a faint breeze to any and all creatures of the sky. Below us, the summer was making a final, gallant stand against the inevitable autumn and the landscape seemed caught in the middle. Acre after acre of harvested grain fields were quilted together, glowing in the golden sunlight.

Don led the way. I placed my ship off his right wing in an easy echelon formation. Both our planes are yellow with blue trim and the early evening sun seemed to give each plane its own halo.

Neither of us carried a radio, meaning there was nothing to distract us from the pure, simple magic of flying.

I looked down to my left and watched our shadows dart and flit over the earth. They too kept perfect formation with one another as they raced along, occasionally assuming some distorted shape while passing over a ditch or a building.

Every now and then I would see the Chinook’s control surfaces move just a little and the plane would go exactly to where Don wanted it to be.

I was overwhelmed with delight. No one who has been there, in a faultless sky, with a trusted wingman, comes away untouched by the moment.

A few minutes later we had reached the Bow. The Chinook dropped its nose and began a steady descent toward another, adjoining river valley, the Highwood. My Beaver followed obediently.

We felt a few bumps in the air as the wind wiggled it’s way over and around and through the valley. We passed over a campground with trailers and tents. Campers and fishermen stopped what they were doing and gazed up at those glowing airplanes. The people exclaimed to each other that it sure looked like fun and that they sure wouldn’t mind trying it. Only a few announced, “You’d never get me up in one of those crates!” And for a few seconds, for better or worse (mostly better), we had an audience of a few dozen fascinated souls.

While the flatlands above the river were starting to look like fall, the Highwood Valley was still firmly entrenched in summer. The trees still held their deep green shades. The grassy meadows looked luxurious, calling out to any person who wanted to run through them, inviting any airplane to land in them. Though tempted, we politely declined and flew on.

Once away from the campground, we flew even lower, the Chinook still out front and me right behind. We continued to explore the valley, finding surprises like a twin Cessna, an old railway bed and a herd of cows that simply ignored us.

I pushed my throttle lever and moved the stick to the left. A second or two later I pulled along Don’s left wing. I waved to him “Follow me”. I pulled the nose up and banked away from him, heading for the flats above the valley.

We left the valley behind and crossed the top of the cliffs with twenty feet to spare. I pushed over and headed earthward again. What I had in mind was some nap-of-the-earth flying. That’s where an airplane buzzes along only a few feet above the terrain following the exact contours of the ground.

The whole world zipped along just inches below us, our shadows now near and large. My adrenaline surged. It’s such a paradox flying that close to the earth, because it magnifies the separation from it and gives a pilot the purest sensation of flight. A slight tug on the control stick, and the airplane is bound for the heavens. A tiny push to the left or right, and you go there too. It is simply the ultimate freedom.

I looked over my right shoulder and watched Don a few feet away. I could see a huge grin on his face. I turned forward and noticed a grove of trees a few hundred metres ahead. I dropped even lower. 75 mph of airspeed ate up the distance quickly and I pulled the nose up, missing the tallest tree with just enough daylight between us. I looked back and watched Don do the same.

We nosed back over together and continued on, making shallow turns here and there and climbing slightly to clear any barbed-wire fences.

Then I spotted some familiar shapes on the ground ahead. It was a small herd of deer. I looked over to Don and pointed. He gave me a thumbs up indicated he’d spotted the deer also.

The leader of the herd was a huge five-point buck. He wasn’t even afraid of us. He just looked up, kind of curious I suppose, but he didn’t move. We wheeled around and made another pass just to see watch him a bit longer. This time the animals seemed a little nervous and jogged a few meters as we neared. We decided to let them get back to their dinner and continued on back toward the Bow.

That’s when it happened. Don had just finished buzzing a row of small trees and bushes. He banked left, well in front of me. I turned left also to stay with him. I watched in utter amazement as our two shadows lined up and overlapped. They stayed that way for several seconds, moving with each other in a way that looked like they were dancing. It was a beautiful, unforgettable, image as the sun and two airplanes – our airplanes – aligned in a manner so rare.

We passed by some farmers next. They were in a field with a truck and a tractor. We waved happily as we whistled by and they waved back.

We crossed the river again and just continued to make the most of the evening’s unusual magic. We started chasing each other around, getting on one another’s ‘six’ until something else distracted us. Then we’d zoom down to see what it was. We saw some more deer and even a coyote. We followed the shape of the earth from five feet up and we hopped over fences and trees and power lines. We watched as the sun sank lower too, telling the world to get ready for bed. Life just doesn’t get much better.

But we were quickly losing our daylight. I followed Don as he reluctantly turned for Indus airport, his home-drome.

We pulled up and entered the circuit and made a pair of greaser landings. Nothing was going to spoil this flight.

We taxied over to Don’s hangar and shut down. We talked excitedly for a few minutes about the things we’d seen and how much fun it all was. I happened to notice that Don had a permanent smile tacked onto his face. I noticed I did too.

We soon ran out of things to discuss about the flight, so I saddled up again and took off for home.

I felt like Don and I had been granted the keys to a magic kingdom that day. A place where only the lucky and the skilful get to go. And even though we were only allowed a short visit, I knew we had certainly made the most of it. I wonder what our next visit will be like.

About Time

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by Stu Simpson

Time plays a crucial part in nearly everything we do as aviators. Most critically, of course, it tells us when we have to land, because there will come a time when the fuel gauge reads empty and gravity will forcefully remind us of our own mortality. I like the old Transport Canada poster that gravely proclaims “That’s time in your tanks”.

Time is also a way for pilots to keep score, a way of measuring who has the biggest, uh,… log book. It often seems he who dies with the most hours wins. Other things being equal, we seem to naturally respect pilots who have a higher number of flying hours. Of course, it’s important to remember that anyone with 10,000 hours at some point had 10.

Time is important to our airplanes, too. The number of hours an airplane has under its wings tells a lot about it; things like how the airplane’s been flown, and maybe by whom. Alternatively, an airplane’s age may also give it a certain value. The date it was built might cause a pilot to stare misty-eyed into the sky and dream of a different, simpler time when Cubs, Vagabonds and Taylorcrafts ruled the lower regions of the sky. Time tells whether I need to change the oil in my airplane’s engine. Time tells if a helicopter’s rotor blades need replacement. And like it or not, time tells each of us when we’re used up, too.

But to me, time is so much more than just a measuring stick. When it comes to airplanes, I think of time as a gift. The more time I get in the sky, the more cherished the gift.

For instance, some guys I know love speed. There are few things that excite them as much as 200 mph. They want to get into the sky, go as fast as they can, and get there, all in the shortest possible time. After all, speed is really just a function of time.

I subscribe to a different logic. For me, speed just isn’t where it’s at. I don’t need a lot of speed with my airplane. Fact is, I prefer to go slow. If I go too fast, I get there too soon and I don’t get to fly as long. I don’t really have any place to go, anyway. I’ve no family far away that I visit regularly (though I did fly a few hundred miles to see my folks, recently). Nor do I use my airplane for business travel. For me, and most of the guys I fly with, the journey really is the destination. And the destination is always an adventure. Wherever I end up is pretty much where I want to be, as long as I flew there. If I have at least some airspeed I’ll be content.

I miss too much if I go fast. I don’t get time to see the fields beneath, or the rivers, mountains or clouds. When I fly Merl I get to really see the world. I see where people live, what their towns look like, where they’ve built roads and water towers and gardens. I see the things I want to see. Going any faster I might not have the time to watch and enjoy all that.

Yup, Merl and I cruise along at about 80 mph, and I do get to fly a little longer. Oh, I know it helps to have a little extra go when the sun’s getting weak and the wind’s getting strong. But if I went any faster I’d lose time and flying would just be too easy.

I like to truly appreciate each second I’m aloft, to enjoy where I’m at, what I’m doing and the people I’m with. On each flight I look at the world in a new light, looking for things I’ve never seen before. I take time to enjoy the subtle shades of sunlight bouncing off the Rockies during a winter inversion. I look for the beauty in the planes flying off my wing, to see the sun dazzling off their fabric, or throwing tiny shadows past their rivets. And yes, we really do fly close enough to see all that.

I also use the time to enjoy Merl. I try on each flight to cement in my memory the feel of the controls, the way I pull the stick when we climb. I absorb the gentle bounces and the minute sensations of each flight. I take time to feel what it is to fly, to have Merl at my whim, to sense the tilt of the wings – to really feel it – as we bank into a turn. Indeed, I try to get the absolute most out of the time in my tanks.

You see, I know that someday this will all be gone. There’ll come a time when I can’t fly, when Merl, whose engine dates from before the middle of the last century, will be no more. I know there’ll be a day when I look up at a plane in the sky and say “I used to do that”. And young people will stare at me and wonder what it was really like to go up in machines that burned 100LL and took thrust from propellers, of all things.

Time, in fact, is one of the main reasons I write of flying. It’s my feeble attempt to actually capture some time, to harness it and hold it back so that far from now I, or someone else, can read my scribbles, return to this time and know again how it feels to fly – not merely drive – a small, simple airplane around the sky.

And, too, many years from now, the writing will help me remember after they’re gone, the men and the airplanes with whom I’ve flown. It gives me a chance to say now that I’m glad I’ve known you; glad for all the time I’ve spent just off your wing; glad that I’ve shared with you the wind and known what it truly means to fly; that I’m glad for this gift of time.