2012 – Troys East Coast Air Venture – 2012-07-30

Today was one one of the most beautiful flights.  We first climbed out of Sudbury to the high cruising altitude of 3500 ft;-).  We over flew the city then headed to the camp we stayed at 15 years ago on our drive out.  Thanks to the iPad we found it no trouble and took a few pics.  After that we climbed on top the scattered layer.  It was so mucky and hazy that I decided to descend for better views. We flew west of perry sound and the scenery was absolutely beautiful.  It is amazing how many islands are there and the huge number of boats.  It was smooth over the lake with the odd float plane cruising under us.  The kids really liked looking out the window.

Toronto center was so nice and helpful.  We joined the shoreline at Hamilton and followed it into st Catherine’s.  It is hot on the ground so we slowly got ready for the cab ride.  Now having supper and beer in niagra before we walk to see the falls.  A great trip so far.  We will get pics tonight once we get the kids to bed.

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Now, That’s Flying!

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by Stu Simpson

I was, as the saying goes, right on the ragged edge. It was the toughest approach I’d ever made in 25 years of flying, right at my limits, and it was fun! I fought turbulence and wind shear like I’ve never seen. And for a few seconds I was actually frightened in an airplane; a very strange feeling for me.

And I did make it, but it was ugly. I touched down beneath the trees on my first bounce just as a three-point buck wandered onto the last third of the strip. But by the end of my second bounce, I knew this just wasn’t meant to be, nor did I want to subject my wingmen to such a beating. I powered up, still coursing with adrenaline, and left that backwoods airstrip behind.

Now, that’s flying!

And then there’s Darren Scarlett, who owns an RV-7. It’s beautiful and powerful. It has a 180 horsepower engine and a constant speed prop. It’s fast, too. I mounted a video camera in his cockpit once and recorded him as he did three rolls and then pulled up into a Cuban Eight. I watched by the runway as he shot a low inspection pass at high speed. I could see his smile flash as he zoomed by in the sunlight.

Now, that’s flying!

How about Geoff Pritchard? He’s got this pristine, and I do mean pristine, 1946 Champ that he recently rebuilt from the ground up. It’s gorgeous in red and white. When that Champ is on the taxiway silhouetted against the evening sun, or in the sky against the deep blue, the effect is simply mesmerizing. Geoff and the Champ float along up there thumbing their noses at age and time, making the most of every minute they’re in the sky.

Now, that’s flying!

Wade Miller has what some consider a dream job. He’s an airline captain. He pilots a 737, worth around $70 million dollars, probably more. It has stuff in the cockpit that comes straight out of Star Wars. And Wade gets to work with it all. The plane’s capabilities are simply amazing. It zips along at about 500 mph, climbs beyond 40,000 feet, and still lands on runways only a mile long in nearly any weather. And 737’s make money.

Now, that’s flying!

Barry Davis flies a homebuilt airplane now, but he used to fly a Cessna 182. A great deal of that flying was done at night. He’d cruise over the city and watch the world sleeping below. He’d see cars and trucks scooting along beneath the endless cones of street lamps. A million or more lights of all colours would dazzle as they reflected from the glass of the downtown skyscrapers. Red and green fireflies would race through the blackness above the horizon as other planes came and went at the airport. And an uncountable number of stars would twinkle overhead until an errant cloud would scrub them away for a few moments.

Now, that’s flying!

And Bob Kirkby. Bob has a terrific airplane – a Piper Super Cruiser. It’s a flying piece of history that looks like it just rolled out the factory door. It did, of course, back in 1947, but you’d never know to look at it. Bob loves to get up in the Cruiser with one of his grandkids, or another airplane buddy, or maybe just by himself. He’ll go about half an hour away to where there’s a restaurant that serves pie almost right next to a grass airstrip. Bob and the Cruiser love grass runways.

After pie, he’ll take-off to who-knows-where and cruise along at, oh, maybe a thousand feet over the ground. He’ll watch as the land changes color in the season, maybe getting greener, maybe browner. Bob will feel the stick as the wind tugs on the ailerons every now and then, checking to see what it can get away with. He might snag a thermal and then ease off some power as that small burst of heat floats him along a little bit faster on a little bit less gas. Bob will smile at that.

And soon he’ll make that last turn onto final approach at his own grass airstrip. Bob will set the Cruiser down so smoothly that for the first few seconds he’ll wonder if he even landed. Really, I’ve seen him do it.

Oh, ya. Now, that’s flying!

West by Northwest

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by Stu Simpson

I could tell this was going to be fun. The day had adventure written all over it. And you’ve just gotta know the day is ok when Don Rogers shows up early instead of late.

He and Fred Wright were on a long downwind for Kirkby’s runway 16 when I first heard them. I had just started my pre-flight when I caught the distinctive whine of their 503’s to the south. Don landed first, settling gently to the grass. Freddy took his time, the Chinook’s big wing coasting in ground effect until just before the intersection. Then he too settled to the earth and became mortal again.

The three of us were going exploring today, heading to Dave Forrester’s place. Forrester is the big cheese at the local R.A.A. chapter. He lives north of Cochrane about a mile off highway 22, half way to Cremona. He gave me a hand-drawn map to his place when we met at the October CUFC meeting. I don’t know what Forrester does for a living, but he ain’t a cartographer.

Still the map was the only way we were going to find his place. I’d checked on the Calgary chart to see if I could match up his symbology with the government’s. If my calculations were correct, I was reasonably certain we could find the place.

The only thing that worried me was a note that Forrester had put on his map. It read, “Strongly suggest an overshoot before landing – center is 20′ higher than the ends & runways undulate”. I could only imagine what “undulate” meant.

When everyone was sure of where we were going and how we’d get there, we all saddled up and turned north. I had been elected leader for the day so Don set up off my left wing and Freddy off the right. I must say, we cut an impressive figure in the afternoon blue.

It wasn’t too long before we drew close to Jim Creasser’s place. I looked for him on the ground as we flew by, but he was nowhere to be seen. A few minutes later we crossed highway 2 and I began scanning for landmarks to navigate by.

We had to follow the highway west from Airdrie to it’s intersection with highway 22. None of us had been this route before and we were very pleasantly surprised at the landscape beneath us. The bald prairie changed quickly to a very uneven texture of small hills and knolls covered with autumn’s brown grass and scrub. Its not what you would call pretty, in fact it looked rather alien, but it sure was interesting.

Then we saw the most surprising thing of the day. About halfway along 567, 100 meters north of the road was a fort. No kidding. Someone had simply built a log fort in the middle of nowhere. It was just like one from an old cavalry movie, complete with guard towers in the corners. How or why it’s there is a complete mystery to us.

The moonscape quickly changed to more hilly country. We watched as Nose Creek cut an enormous gorge northward through the area. Then we came to another river, whose name I don’t know. Looking at the map though, I noticed if we followed this river, it would take us very close to where we wanted to be. And it would even save us a few minutes travel time.

We followed the creek to the next intersection that Forrester had drawn. Then we were over a spot that looked just like his map. Sort of. It had the fields in almost the right place. And if you looked hard you could kinda see a path in the field that looked like it might have been a runway. At one point anyway. And there were some buildings that looked big enough to house an airplane.

I decided to do a fly-by to check the place out. I told Don (Fred’s radio wasn’t working) my plan and began descending. I was just turning in for the left-hand downwind when a wind sock caught my eye. Then two runways became clearly visible, one north/south, the other east/west. Only the strip was in a different field. I had completely missed the mark. I might add, in a futile effort to save face, that my wingmen also missed the correct field.

Fortunately, I was set up perfectly to turn to a right-hand downwind for a landing to the south. Let me tell you, Forrester wasn’t kidding when he mentioned the hill in the middle of the strip. He did get the height right, about 20 feet higher than the end. Now I know why I got picked to go first.

My wingmen were visible in the circuit as I coasted in on final. It occurred to me that I’d never made an uphill landing before. But with the wind blowing right on the nose, and the ground coming gently up to meet me, my touch down was a beauty. I dodged a few badger holes on the roll-out and cleared the runway near a fenced cow pasture (since my last pasture landing, I keep a pretty close eye on where the cows are).

Don was on short final, slowly sinking toward the ground. It was just plain eerie to watch the Chinook disappear from sight. I kept expecting a column of smoke and fire to erupt from the other side of the hill, like in the movies, but of course the Chinook came trundling over the top of the hill a few seconds later. Then Freddy touched down and we all went exploring on the ground.

But no one was home. Either somebody had squealed and told Forrester we were coming, or we just flew in on the wrong day. So we just hung around on the ground and checked out the Forrester homestead’s hangar. There were three planes in it. One was a beautiful old Luscombe in immaculate condition. What a sweetheart. There was also a homebuilt in there, type unknown. The front end was in pieces because of work being done on the engine. The last plane in the shack was Forrester’s Kolb Firestar. A pretty, yellow single-seater that looks like a lot of fun.

It was time to bug out. These fall days run notoriously short of light in a hurry and we didn’t want to take any chances. We ambled out to the hay-field/airstrip. I suited up and swung the prop. And swung the prop. And swung the prop again. But nothing wanted to light. The motor would gargle and struggle for a few seconds, then it would just kind of croak. Don and Fred both shut down and came over to help. We tried everything, changing the plugs, switching the plugs, and fooling with the carb. Nothing was working. Then Don suggested we check the sparks and sure enough we found our problem. The PTO plug wasn’t getting anywhere near the spark that the mag side was getting. We decided to give it a few more tries and, fortunately, it caught.

We each did our first uphill takeoff, which was fun. It’s on days like this you appreciate a good climb rate. We all formed up and turned back to the southeast. We had spent a fair amount of time trying to get the Beeve working again and it had cost us some daylight. With the wind on our noses at about 7 – 10 knots, we we’d be cutting it close to make the home ‘drome before dark.

Then my radio died. I figured that since Don was the only one of us who had an operable radio he should take the lead. So when he was in a safe position, I peeled off to take up the left-wing slot on him. He didn’t get it. We flew on like that for a few minutes with me waving my arms like an idiot trying to signal him that he was now number 1. I don’t know what he thought I was doing, maybe airobics (pun intended) or something, but he soon peeled off to take up his original slot.

Poor Fred. God knows what he thought was going on.

We soon made our way back to highway 2, about halfway home. Don had been very careful watching our altitude so near the Calgary control zone, and we’re very glad he did. Just as we passed over the highway, a Cessna Citation sailed over going at about 150 knots, missing us by only 600′ as it turned final for YYC‘s runway 16.

Our formation turned south when we reached the east end of the control zone. Home was only a few minutes away. Good thing too, because we were running out of daylight and I was running out of body heat and bladder space.

A mile north-east of Kirkby’s I peeled off to the east and entered my base leg for runway 16. The Chinooks continued southbound to Indus as Don bid me farewell on the radio, which was sort of working again. I cleared the runway and climbed out to watch them silhouetted on the evening sky. It was truly a beautiful sight and a post-card ending to a great day of flying.

I guess that will likely be our last major cross-country flight until next spring. Unless, of course, we have a mild winter, or a really good destination and a warm day, or hot chocolate waiting at the end of the line, or….. Well you get the picture. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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.

So… You’re a Pilot, Eh?

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by Stu Simpson

There I was…(dontcha’ just love flying stories that start this way)…not at thirty thousand feet in an F-14, not at Mach 1 in a CF-18, not even at 60mph in a Beaver Rx-35. No, I was walking on a warm spring evening eating an ice cream bar. I know it may sound boring to you, but those ice cream bars are darned tasty.

Anyway, I was thinking about flying, and airplanes, and pilots. I began to wonder what makes a pilot tick, and furthermore, what makes him want to fly? I bet psychiatrists (and pilot’s wives) have been asking the same questions for years.

I think the big attraction to flying is the romance of aviation. Since the early 1900’s, after people realized flyers weren’t just jelly-brained daredevils, pilots have been thought of as people with special talents and guts of iron (and who are we to argue? Right?).

The image of the biplane pilot, as he struts jauntily to his machine, has thrilled people for years. We’ve all had fantasies of duelling in mortal combat with Fokkers, Messerschmits, and MiG‘s, of having stick and rudder at one’s hands and feet, of being able to spew red-hot rapid-fire death at the touch of a button, of lusty lasses and bawdy nights spent recounting tales of aerial daring while quaffing copious amounts of root beer…

Such thoughts are enough to send any red-blooded young (and not so young) man scurrying to the local flying field in search of lessons.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s have a show of hands to indicate who thinks they could have replaced Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’? Let’s see now, one, two, three,…uh-huh. Just as I thought. All of you.

A U.S. Navy study tells of a number of traits common to pilots, one such trait being self-confidence.

If a pilot is not confident in his abilities, he simply will not fly well. Every aviator, from the 747 captain to the dirt strip ultralight jockey, has to believe 100% that no matter what happens, he can fly his plane well and bring it back to earth safely. Chances are, he thinks he can do it better than anyone else. Some people call it ‘The Right Stuff‘.

Time for another show of hands. How many of you out there think you could land an airliner if the pilots got sick and croaked?

Notice how you all put your hands up? Again. No confidence problems here.

I mean, don’t you just hate that lousy rule that says each pilot on an airliner has to eat a different meal than the other, in case one gets food poisoning? I do. I’d love a shot at trying to land one of those mothers. Hey, if things get a little rough…well, that’s what those pre-flight crash briefings are for anyway. I live for the day when an ashen faced stewardess walks from the cockpit and asks, “Is anyone on board a pilot?”

Back to the U.S. Navy study. The researchers found other traits common to pilots. Firstly, they love to fly (Big surprise there, eh?). For many aviators, flying becomes central to their very existence, sometimes meaning more to them than family and friends.

Pilots are also rather direct people who like to be in control of things. Translated: We always insist on pushing the grocery cart at the Safeway store. Pilots are usually very honest people (except for a few disreputable reprobate business types), especially with themselves. They are constantly evaluating and trying to perfect their technique. At least the good ones are.

What are some other good things about being a pilot? Let’s see. Well, we get to wear really neat clothes, like leather flying jackets, and flight suits with wings and patches on them, and all those zippers and pockets (and we never forget what’s in those pockets. Right?) Pilots also get to wear ‘flight helmets’. Even if it’s really a motorcycle helmet, once you wear it flying, it becomes a ‘flight helmet‘. And why not? I mean, when I hear the term ‘flight helmet’ it sounds so macho that I could just bend lead pipe, or something.

I think one of the main reasons guys start flying is so they can wear aviator shades. I mean, just go to any airport and see how many guys are wearing those wimpy Wayfarers or Vuarnets (I don’t even know how to pronounce that word). Not many I’ll bet. Here’s a line to justify to your wife why you need to spend nearly one hundred dollars on a pair of Ray-Bans. “Well, you wouldn’t want me to crash, would you, Honey?” Just watch her whip out the Visa card (either that, or she’ll stand there and laugh her head off, like my wife did).

But what really keeps a pilot flying? Is it the thrills, the freedom, the leather jacket? I don’t know. I suppose the reasons are different for every pilot. I think one trait that didn’t show up in the aforementioned study is that pilots are dreamers. Dreamers who have the courage to follow their dreams.

I think ultimately, flying is its own reward. The egotism, the hangar flying, the leather jackets, and the dreams are all just bonuses for someone who flies.

One last thought: Ever notice how the view from a tall building, or a big hill doesn’t seem to mean as much now that you, as a pilot, have been higher?

Of Dragonflies and Thunder

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by Stu Simpson

A swarm of tiny shadows danced in unison as they raced northward across the sun-charred fields east of Calgary. The airplanes were ultralights, six of them in all, no two the same. The pilots called themselves Dragonflies, the unofficial call sign of the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club. Their destination was the Red Deer International Airshow.

We had just rendezvoused in the air near Chestermere Lake. And what a terrific array of planes we were. Todd led the formation in his float equipped 2-seat Beaver. Rounding out the Indus contingent was Ron in his Crusader, Larry in his Merlin and Don in his Chinook. Bob Kirkby in his pristine Renegade, and me in my single Beaver completed the formation after launching from Kirkby’s strip.

Our only worry was a pair of thunderstorms ahead of us. The larger storm, to the northwest, was a huge bugger. To the northeast was another, smaller cell that was growing quickly. There was a slot between them that looked just right for our flight to sneak through.

As we passed abeam Airdrie, I suggested to Todd that we divert to the west and see if we could sneak around the west side of the larger cell. So the formation swung to a westerly heading for about five minutes. It took that long for me to realize that I had goofed. The storm was much larger than it appeared and there was no way we were going to get around behind it.

We all swung north again. As we tried to out-run the western cell’s trajectory, we also had to stay clear of the other storm’s growing intensity. We were seeing lightning at regular intervals and the air was getting rougher. A massive swath of hail pounded the earth below the big storm. Frankly, it just didn’t look like much fun.

We took about five minutes of rain as we finally threaded the needle and dodged Thor’s hammer.

The air on the other side of the cells was cool and calm. We droned on, chatting back & forth on the radio, and just enjoying flying together on a beautiful evening.

Soon, Todd made the call for the Dragonflies to switch to Red Deer’s frequency and we got back to business.

He arranged a straight-in approach for us on runway 34. A few of us had to make 360’s to properly space ourselves in line for landing. But one after the other we touched down and cleared the active. I imagine that for about ten minutes, Red Deer, with six planes on final, and more lining up, was one of the most congested airports in the province. We taxied to our designated hangar and shut down for the night.

Walking toward the terminal, we couldn’t help but notice a pair of rather unique jets sitting on the ramp. They were twin-engined, twin-tailed, and pained blue and gold. They were MiG-29‘s of the Ukrainian Air Force.

We had a golden opportunity before us. Since there were no cordons around the airplanes, it seemed only natural that we examine them close up – which we did.

As I peered into the wheel wells and exhaust nozzles, as I examined the wing roots and tail surfaces, I marvelled at the incredibly sturdy structure of the MiG-29. And I couldn’t help but think how five years ago it would have been impossible for MiGs and Dragonflies to be standing there on the ramp beside each other. As I said, it was a golden opportunity.

We spent the rest of the evening getting settled in at the hotel and chowing down.

We were beginning to worry about another ultralight jock who was supposed to be joining us, but hadn’t shown up yet. Gord had planned to fly his two-seat Beaver up the west side of Calgary, re-fuel at Olds/Didsbury, and fly on to Red Deer. We eventually learned that he had landed in the middle of a vicious hail storm at Olds/Didsbury. If it was the same storm we had narrowly avoided, he was lucky to have landed at all. Gord had to spend the night on the couch at the O/D clubhouse. But he arrived in Red Deer in time for breakfast the next morning.

The next two days were a mix of frenzied activity in the mornings, and pleasant sun-soaking in the afternoons. We had practiced a routine for this year’s show, based on a takeoff from the taxi-way, as we’d done in past years. But the airshow officials wouldn’t allow a taxi-way takeoff and we had to move our takeoff to the main runway. This meant our planes would be further from the crowd and harder to see. It was no big deal, just a little disappointing.

Our routine, basically a large “S”-shaped pattern with a pitch-out to downwind, then landing, went off quite well both days. Many thanks go to Bob in his Renegade for an excellent job of leading the flight.

We spent the remaining time on the ground exploring the airshow, hangar flying with other pilots, and answering questions about our airplanes.

I was amazed this year at the large amount of interest generated by the flock of ultralights. We spoke with a lot of conventional pilots who were disgruntled at the high cost of flying Spam-cans. Most figured our machines were definitely the way to fly. Todd’s airplane was especially popular and he was kept busy all weekend with inquiries about it. It was the same for Bob.

Ultralights made an awesome showing at Red Deer, with a total of 10 different types on display. Paul Hemingson, president of the C.U.F.C. deserves much of the credit for this tour de force, as does Gord Tebutt. Hemingson arranged everything so the guys were able to participate in the show. Tebutt was really busy hawking club hats and brochures. Both he and Paul did a beautiful P.R. job for our club and for U.L. flying.

After we’d flown our show on Sunday, I noticed a large amount of gear oil dripping from my gear box. Before I could say “Holy Rotax, Batman!”, Bob and Don had ripped the gear box off, located the problem, and found a way to fix it. Things were back to normal in less than an hour. Thanks guys.

Sunday also turned out to be a day of frustrating indecision. Gord had come up with the idea of leaving at noon. It looked like there were going to be major thunderstorms developing by late afternoon. Gord, understandably gun-shy, wanted to bug out before the weather closed us in. Some guys thought it was a good idea, and some guys didn’t mind the idea of another night in Red Deer.

In the end, Gord was the only one who did leave at noon. He had a safe flight home, and as later events would show, he guessed right.

The rest of us stayed another night. The forecast called for T-storms all night and clear skies in the morning.

The forecast was wrong.

The next morning dawned cold and grey. The ceiling was about 1200′ overcast and the temperature had dropped to about 15 degrees. Reports in Calgary indicated a higher ceiling, with a more broken cloud layer. In other words, it appeared the weather was better as you went south.

We’d decided to depart in two groups; guys who wanted to go earlier, and guys who didn’t. Todd, Larry, and I would be the early group. Tony would join us in an S-10, which he’d flown up on Friday for static display. Bob, Don, Paul and Ron would follow a bit later. It looked like it’d be pretty routine.

The first group blasted off at about 7:00 a.m. and headed for home. As soon as we were in the air, we saw an entirely different weather picture from what we’d been told.

All we could see was a low, broken cloud deck. It appeared to bottom out around 500′ AGL, so we thought we could ace it. After all, we could fly low and slow enough to easily avoid any tall obstacles with plenty of time to spare.

We began following the power lines that would lead us straight to home. We stayed over the lines as much as we could. But the cloud was getting lower and thicker with every mile.

We dropped our altitude a bit to keep the ground in sight. Soon it became rather obvious that we couldn’t follow this path much longer. The ceiling ahead was lower still. We had to make a deviation and soon.

We’d lost sight of Tony by this time. His faster S-10 just couldn’t fly slowly enough to stay with us. His plane was NORDO and he was out there somewhere in the soup. But we could do nothing for him.

We heard a familiar voice on the radio. It was Paul, who had apparently left Red Deer on his own.

Now, he sounded worried and a bit confused. He’d run into the same low cloud layer we were in and he’d decided to find a place to set down. But he was several miles west of us and also on his own.

Then I saw a hole, a way to slip through and make it home. Off to my 11 o’clock ran a small creek. It coursed through a valley in a southeasterly direction. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, the ceiling was better above this valley and to the east of it.

I called Todd and suggested we follow the valley. I figured it would put us somewhere near Beiseker. From there, it’s an easy jaunt to home. Our little formation turned southeast.

We’d only gone a couple of miles when Todd called Paul on the radio. Paul sounded even more worried this time and his transmissions were getting weaker. It felt like we were listening to the last, desperate calls of someone lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Paul’s last transmission left me with chills.

“I’m very low now. I’m circling around, looking for some place to land. I just hope I don’t run into a tower or something.”

That was the last we heard of him. We tried for a few minutes more to contact him, but height and distance were against us. We simply flew on, hoping for his safety.

The valley that looked so promising had turned ugly. We were down to 300′ off the deck and still dodging thick cloud. A few miles west of Torrington, the valley turned south again and we thought that was a good sign. Trouble was, the valley quickly disappeared into flat prairie again.

We discussed the option of trying for the Three Hills airport. But a quick look at the eastern sky quelled that notion.

We were totally winging it at this point, flying strictly by the seat of our pants. We had maybe 150′ of altitude, half a mile visibility, and only dirt roads for land marks.

Then it started to rain. Just a light sprinkle at first. But it quickly graduated into a steady down pour, during which my radio died. That’s when I saw the lightning. We had flown into the middle of an embedded thunderstorm.

Again and again the lightning flashed, just barely bright enough to see. It seemed to smirk at us, to gloat as if we were prey unwittingly drawn into the storm’s hidden tentacles.

There was nothing we could do but fight it out and hope to win. The wind was throwing us around so badly that it would have been disastrous to even attempt an emergency landing. I had lowered my RPM’s to try and save my wooden prop from rain damage. I found out later that Todd nearly stalled as he tried to slow also.

We were lower than 100′ and I could hardly see. My windscreen was a kaleidoscope of water, my helmet visor little better. This was definitely high adventure.

We scraped through the storm only to find the same bleak horizon ahead of us. I had a rough idea we were north of the town of Linden, but no way of knowing for sure. I figured we would simply continue south and eventually cross the Trans-Canada highway.

I checked my wingmen and was delighted to find they were still welded in a tight echelon off my right wing. We had to fly that way to keep each other in sight in such dismal visibility.

A few tense moments later I spotted something that looked familiar. I motioned to Todd and Larry to follow and I started a gentle turn to the east.

Just barely visible, was the town of Acme. I knew then we were only a few miles from Beiseker. We followed the highway between those towns like it was the last trail out of hell.

We finally landed at Beiseker at about 9:30 a.m. and spent the next three hours there. We were able to phone my wife, Tina, and learn that the other group was trying to get to Olds/Didsbury. Tina was doing an excellent job of coordinating information on the ground. She had received disjointed information that two planes had landed at O/D and the pilots were out looking for another one. Exactly what that meant, we weren’t sure. We also learned that Paul had landed safely at an Air Cadets glider strip north of Olds.

Two more thunderstorms passed over Beiseker during our stay there. We decided to get out before a third one arrived.

We blasted off at about 12:30 p.m. and headed southwest for a hole in the overcast. About five miles from Beiseker we popped out into good weather. The ceiling was back up to 2000′ and the visibility was 15 miles or better.

As we droned toward home, Todd called my attention to the ground. A spam-can, it looked like a Cherokee or similar, had made a forced landing in a grain field directly below us. The crash was obviously recent as the RCMP was still there, along with a few other vehicles. We had to wonder what the Piper driver though as he watched three ultralights buzz by.

Thirty minutes later I peeled away from the formation to land at Kirkby’s, where I hangar my plane. Todd and Larry went on to safe landings at Indus.

We learned later that Tony had landed at Springbank and the other Dragonflies had made it safely to ground in the Olds area, though at two separate airports, and not without their own hair raising story. (See Bob Kirkby’s article elsewhere in this issue).

I think I know how barnstormers in the 20’s and 30’s felt. It’s a great feeling to have conquered such overwhelming odds in an airplane and to have true tales of adventure to recount.

The Dragonflies will go on to other flights, other destinations and other adventures. But that weekend, with it’s MiGs, it’s thunderstorms, it’s danger, and it’s friendship will always be remembered.

Back to Articles

Maps

Back to Articles

by Stu Simpson

In aviation’s low-level VFR arena pilots can choose between several different maps with which to navigate. We use maps (actually, the correct term here is chart) published by the government, by aviation groups, and even by auto clubs. Granted, not every flight you’ll make is a cross-country flight. But no matter what you fly, sooner or later, you’re going to stray from the familiar turf of your own airport’s backyard, and you’re going to need a map.

So which map is best? Which has the most detail, the best scale and will be easiest to read in a busy, possibly windy cockpit? Simple questions with a not so simple answer; it depends.

It depends, among other things, on where you want to go, how fast you’re going to get there, and what toys you have to play with (VOR, ADF, GPS, and such).

The three most common charts used in the Calgary area are the 1/500,000 VFR Navigation Chart (VNC), the 1/250,000 VFR Terminal Area Chart (VTA), and the Alberta Aviation Council’s map that has scales of both 1/500,000 and 1/1,000,000. The first two are put out by the federal government. Let’s look at the AAC‘s first.

The AAC puts out a new map every five years, the most recent one being the 1993 version. One side of the page covers the entire province in the one to a million scale. The other side, in a one to half-million scale, only covers the area south of a line through Bonneyville, and east of a line through Exshaw. Oddly enough, the Council has been one of the strongest supporters of the Banff and Jasper airports, yet those strips don’t appear on their most useful chart.

It’s clear from the outset that this map was designed purely for conventional pilots flying with electronic nav aids, which is fair, because those are the people who fill the AAC’s roster. VORs figure prominently in these maps and the compass roses that accompany each of them are large and easy to read. The symbology for the VORs is the same as on the government’s charts, but not so for the NDBs. They’re indicated as small black triangles and their identifier boxes block out all the features beneath them. The government’s identifier boxes are printed to leave the underlying features visible.

The one shining feature of the AAC’s map (and one reason why so many are sold) is that it lists dozens of farm strips that aren’t shown on the government’s maps. Each of the Council’s maps comes with a guide book giving pertinent information on each airport that the map displays, including those out-of-the-way farm strips. One can simply read the lat/long coordinates from the guide book and then transpose the location to another map.

Another feature unique to AAC maps is their display of section, township, and range lines, which can be useful in some remote areas.

But unless you’re flying an airplane with a VOR receiver or an ADF (which tunes and points to the NDBs) the AAC’s maps are almost useless as serious navigation tools. The only features that are readily visible are large bodies of water, large population centres, major highways, and electronic nav aids. Important things like towns, roads, railways, and topographical features are either excluded or printed in such light color as to be almost unreadable.

Let’s make a huge leap in scale and look at the VTAs. VFR Terminal Area Charts are printed in 1/250,000 scale and depict a relatively small area surrounding major airports and their accompanying population centres. A key notion here is congestion. Just as these areas tend to be cluttered on the ground, they’re almost as much so on paper, especially in one to half-million scale.

Ergo, the VTA, with a better scale that defeats the clutter. These maps are especially good if you’re unfamiliar with the area depicted on them. They clearly show airspace restrictions, reporting points, significant landmarks, and all the information needed to use the airports shown. The level of detail is, quite simply, wonderful.

Calgary has a VTA chart (Edmonton’s is on the reverse side) and you might just think this is the answer to your navigational nightmares. Maybe, maybe not.

You see, the large scale that makes the VTA’s so easy to read also makes them a bit cumbersome, particularly over longer distances, and especially in an open cockpit. The VTA must be folded rather largely to be of any significant use.

The problem is twofold (pun very much intended). First, folding the map to have your course showing leaves you with a |–(TRY TO BE MORE PRECISE.)–| fairly hefty chunk of paper in your cockpit. If it’s an open cockpit, that means more paper flapping in the wind, and in the worst case scenario, a hefty chunk of paper leaving your cockpit.

Secondly, the folds might hide significant nav points along either side of your course. If you’re well prepared though, you’ll have your map arranged so that the folds complement the route. But if you’re covering a significant distance, you might find yourself doing some in-flight folding.

The speed of your airplane might be a factor in deciding whether you use this map. Faster planes will eat up the distance depicted on the VTAs in very short order, and if you’re navigating from point to point, you might find yourself getting behind the flight. Obviously, with ultralights this is rarely a problem.

Which brings us to our remaining map, the 1/500,000 VNC. VNCs are the standard VFR chart and show just about anything you could ask for. All the topographic details are there, as are roads, powerlines, obstructions, and of course, airports. The detail makes for very accurate navigation, even at lower altitudes where far-off nav points might not be visible. The scale is perfect and it allows a pilot to pick his points in advance and plan ahead.

The scale also lends itself well to long distance flights at any speed. When the map is folded it’s small enough not to be a bother, yet allows plenty of distance on either side of your course line. The VNCs cover tremendous territory. The Calgary chart, for example, covers all of southern Alberta, most of southern B.C., and a fair chunk of several American states. That’s pretty good navigational value.

The main drawback, and the only one as far as I can see, is the VNC’s clutter in congested areas. Naturally, a pilot who’s familiar with a congested area will have an easier time flying there. For one who’s not familiar with the area, a VTA might be just the ticket, provided one exists for that area.

So which map is best? In my mind, the one to half-million VNC gets the nod. It combines the best of all possible features for VFR point-to-point navigation. It’s easy to read, and therefore easy to use. To be fair though, if I were planning a flight to the lower mainland of B.C., my first purchase for the trip would be the Vancouver VTA.

My next purchase would be a GPS so I wouldn’t have to deal with all those maps in the first place.