Places With a Past

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by Stu Simpson

“Where do you wanna go today?” I asked Botting.

“Well, we should go some place, I guess,” he replied with deadpan humour.

I peered over his shoulder at the pretty yellow Vagabond glowing in the morning sun. A propane heater hissed as it spewed warmth up into the Vag’s engine cowling. It didn’t really matter to us where we went, so long as we were flying.

“How about south?” I asked. “Have you ever been to Ron Laverty’s strip east of Vulcan?”

“I suppose we could try that,” Al said thoughtfully. “What about going to the old Vulcan RCAF strip, too?” Al`s a talented historian who rarely passes up a chance to visit places with a past.

The Vulcan RCAF airfield certainly qualifies. It was active during World War II, training bomber crews in the fine arts of their deadly trade. It sits twelve miles southwest of the Vulcan townsite.

“Sure. How about we head up to Linden after that?”

Al nodded his agreement. He’d be flying with a co-pilot, Elmer Dyck.

We each finished our pre-flights, mounted up and took off south.

This day was faultless, a prairie pilot’s dream. The wind was a whisper, the early March sky a dazzling blue that forbade any intrusion of cloud. Perfectly portioned rectangles of black summer-fallow occasionally interrupted the sandy coloured earth below, and a few patches of brilliant snow clung desperately to the remains of winter.

Such days are to be revered, for later in March the sun would climb higher and heat the earth so that mid-day flying would be a violent ordeal much akin to a boxing match on a trampoline. But not today. Today was satin and silk.

The Bow River soon passed by, rushing on to its destiny with the Hudson’s Bay. Huge ice ledges along the banks hung precariously over the water, waiting tensely to crack and fall beneath the weight of spring’s imminent warmth. On the horizon, the town of Vulcan sat as a faint silhouette slightly left of our course. It gave us something to steer away from to find our destination.

RCAF Vulcan’s giant white hangars, six of them still standing, eventually appeared from nearly 20 miles back. How many young bomber crews had shared that same view of the field? Within minutes we were overhead and choosing our landing direction.

Runway 33 it would be. I curved around to short final on the infield runway. Ancestrally speaking, it’s really a taxiway. But the actual runway, running parallel a few metres to the east was still under upgrade after having become overgrown with bushes and weeds. But someone was clearly working hard to clear it and restore it to usable condition. It wasn’t far off now.

I touched down, taxied back to the end and cleared onto the button of 28, jumping out of Merl to look for Al and Elmer. Botting brought the Vag in just so, and settled artfully to the scrabbled surface. Then he taxied over and shut down.

We normally park near the hangars at the north end, but we’d already seen them recently and we didn’t plan to stay long anyway. I peered at them across the open expanse of the airport. They were still bright white but slowly succumbing to the creeping ravages of time. The large windows on the upper walls were speckled with broken panes, some of which were boarded over.

Al and I explored a couple of the hangars on our last visit. The inescapable history of them, and the whole airfield, was deeply moving. No one back in the 1940s really expected these simple but behemoth structures to last this long. Fortunately, they did last, and they still stand today, quietly commemorating an incomprehensible sacrifice.

A burgundy pick-up truck caught my attention as it approached from the direction of the hangars. The driver turned out to be the airfield’s owner, John Sands. We spent a pleasant twenty minutes talking with him about the airfield. Botting indicated none too subtly that he and many others would like to see an excavation of the grounds to dig up the aircraft and equipment rumored to be buried there. Sands talked proudly of his workings to turn the field into a thriving, self-sustaining airport again. He had plans to rent out the field to a sky diving operation in the coming summer. I very much appreciated him wanting to give Vulcan RCAF a future again, rather than just a past.

The topic of our immediate future arose and we told Sands of our next destination. He suggested that instead of flying east and then north, that we take a look at another ex-RCAF field halfway between Granum and Fort Macleod. Hmmm. We hadn’t really planned to fly that far south today, but it’d be someplace new to see, it was only 36 miles away, and we’d have the privilege to fly there in our airplanes.

Ah, what the hell, we agreed. Let’s go. Sands offered up the coordinates from his GPS, and Al and I punched them into ours. A few minutes later we jumped into the sky again and turned south for a place we never knew existed until a few minutes ago. We weren’t sure we’d land there, but we weren’t going home without at least having a look.

In less than half an hour we were over top the strip. It was clearly another old war field with a triangular runway arrangement. But cattle, snow melt and mud covered the runways and we had no real desire to challenge any of them for landing rights.

Fort Macleod was up ahead, only a few minutes distant. I asked Botting what he thought of heading there. He politely checked with Elmer and it was decided. We banked a few degrees to the left, settled on course and dialed in Macleod’s radio frequency.

Ft. Macleod. It’s where my mom is from and as a kid I spent lots of time there with my grandparents. But it was more than 20 years since I’d been near the place, seemingly a whole lifetime. What would it be like now?

We crossed Highway 3 inbound for the field. I glanced beneath Merl’s left wing and felt a shiver of memory as my grandparents’ old house slipped past the left wing. I shook it off and concentrated on ground features so we could find our way into town more easily. Strange that as a kid I never visited the airport here.

The outline of the RCAF station was a mere phantom on the earth after 65 years. The runway and taxiway outlines were still visible, but overrun with a new housing development. A smooth modern runway cut across the middle of the old ones like they were never there. It impressed me that two of the old hangars were still standing and in use as industrial buildings.

We soon landed, parked and started walking north into town. As we approached the industrial park at the south end of Ft. Macleod, we couldn’t really see much of the town proper. But when we crossed the railroad tracks at the grain elevators I collided with a sledgehammer of memories.

Things had certainly changed, but I could still see – and feel – the way it was all those years ago.

Grandpa, a very cagey and competent businessman, owned a big chunk of the west end of town. He had a gas station, an A&W, a motel, a coin laundry, an appliance repair shop and a trailer court. I was thirteen when I helped him build his and Grandma’s last house there. He paid me $3.00 an hour that summer on my first real job. The house was enormous.

Now, more than 30 years later, the house seemed a little smaller, a little run down and was harder to see behind evergreens and dense shrubbery. What was once a shabby baseball field adjacent to the house, and containing the town’s landmark water tower, was now a residential subdivision. The water tower was long gone.

Grandpa and Grandma used to live above the back of the gas station, and it sat next to the A&W restaurant. I smiled remembering how many free root beers and french fries we grandkids consumed.

Al and Elmer and I wandered about Grandpa’s old properties for a while, my wingmen generously patient with my sentimentality. We’d turn a corner and, something – maybe a fence, the back of a building, or an old alley – would trigger another roaring flood from my past.

A dam, holding back time, had fractured and burst, nearly drowning me in its deluge. I’ve never felt such a powerful memory force as I did that day. It was simply overwhelming.

It was also the first time I felt like a ghost, floating nearly invisible at the centre of a swirling storm of memory that only I could feel. No one there would know me now, nor give a whit about my memories of the place. Not even Al or Elmer could feel it. In the silent vaults of my history I was utterly alone.

Reluctantly, I admitted it was time to leave. We hiked back to the airport, giving me time to sort through the shards of my past. Then we fired up our planes and were quickly airborne once more.

Northbound for Kirkby Field a hundred miles distant, I reflected on what had led us here. We’d simply picked a direction to fly, a place to briefly set down, and then happily strolled hand in hand with fate to see where it would all lead. I contentedly watched Ft. Macleod drift away behind Merl’s right wing. The town got smaller and smaller until it was soon just a distant speck of what used to be.

What sweet delight it was to fly that perfect March day; to take flight on a simple but incredible journey back through time. We’d indeed touched places with a past; some historic, some intensely personal. And our voyage reminded us that there are some things we don’t ever want to forget.

“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.

Book Review: Hero: The Buzz Beurling Story, by Brian Nolan

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BOOK REVIEW by Stu Simpson

George Frederick "Buzz" Beurling, Ca...
George Frederick "Buzz" Beurling, Canadian WWII ace. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who claims to be an aviation afficianado in Canada had better know who George Beurling is. For those who don’t know (and shame on you for it) Beurling was Canada’s highest scoring ace of World War II. It’s somewhat embarrassing that everyone reading this will likely know of Americans Chuck Yeager or Bob Hoover, yet very few will know of one of our own national war heroes. But Brian Nolan has done a very creditable job of trying to remedy such ignorance.

Nolan’s book, published in 1981, chronicles Beurling’s life from beginning to unexpected end and tells the story of a classically tragic figure. It is the story of a very young man who gladly sought, received, and excelled at, the job of airborne assassin. It is also the story of someone who seemed able to do little else.

Beurling grew up in Verdun, Quebec and was smitten with flying very early on in life. He was a typical airport kid who traded odd-job labour for flying lessons. He soloed at age sixteen in the summer of 1938, and with only ninety minutes of solo time was teaching himself aerobatics.

"Buzz" Beurling, famous flying ace d...
Beurling, famous flying ace during World War II, signs an autograph for
Helen Fowler, while other female employees of the Aluminum Co. look on.
Kingston, Ontario. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Beurling was an eternally restless sort, not cut out for the routine of day to day life. He eventually tried to enlist in the RCAF, and was rejected. But he found a home in Britian’s RAF in the early part of the WWII where he became a constant thorn in the side of just about everyone around him, especially his superiors. Beurling was eventually transferred to Malta where in just a few months in the summer of 1942 he shot down nearly thirty German and Italian planes before being shot down himself.

In the section of the book covering Malta, Nolan reveals what a master technician and tactician Beurling really was. He had an almost computer-like ability with numbers, angles, closure rates and other factors essential to air combat. Yet he was sullen and solitary on the ground. And he was still constantly running afoul of his superiors.

Nonetheless, it was in Malta that George Beurling earned his fame, and he would later remark that his time there, though desparate and dangerous, was the best time of his life.

After the war Beurling seems to have done very little more than have a long term affair with a New York socialite (he was married and separated at the time). In early 1948 he signed on with the fledgling Israeli air force as a mercenary pilot. In Rome, in May that year, Beurling was on his third circuit of a refresher flight in a Noorduyn Norseman bush plane. The plane caught fire and crashed and burned, killing Beurling and the check pilot.

George Beurling speaking at an event with Will...
George Beurling speaking at an event with William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1943. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My only complaint with Nolan’s biography of Beurling is how the author seems unable to view Beurling through the eyes of a flyer (not surprising since Nolan is not a pilot). Though clearly a book about an aviation figure, “Hero” was not written for an aviation audience.

Nonetheless, “Hero” is a well researched chronicle of an intruiging and little-known Canadian. Nolan has talked with those who knew Beurling at different stages of his life and has woven these anecdotes together with official data to tell a compelling story. He presents Beurling as an endless dichotomy of talent and inner turmoil. If the author is to be believed, George Beurling’s tragic flaw seems to have been his ability to achieve greatness, yet his inabliltiy to accept its accompanying responsibilities.