I Like Speed

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by Stu Simpson

I have an airplane that flies fast, and I really like it. I spent many years extolling the virtues of low and slow, and I was right. Or, at least, it was right for me then. But that’s all changed now. I’ll explain.

Geoff Pritchard and I flew our planes from Calgary to San Francisco and back on an epic two-week long flying adventure. That was in the summer of 2012 and I don’t expect I’ll ever top that experience.

We flew the trip in old, relatively slow airplanes; he in a ’47 Aeronca Champ, and me in my ’91 Macair Merlin.  We cruised at about 85 – 90 mph.  That’s not too bad when you compare it to a car.  It’s about 40 – 50 percent faster and we get to cut the corners that ground transport just can’t ignore.  For instance, we made Cranbrook in a little over two hours, which normally takes about four hours by car.

The problem for me came when we were flying north through Oregon and Washington states on our way home. No matter what we did, or at what altitude we flew, we could not escape an insidious 20 – 25 mph headwind.  The socks and flags on the ground were all hanging limply, but the minute we busted 200 or 300 feet, there was the wind punching us incessantly on the nose. A steady stream of cars below relentlessly left us behind. The view wasn’t even good because a combination of forest fire smoke and the area’s natural summer haze limited visibility to a milky seven or eight miles.

I decided just south of Salem, Oregon, that I’d had enough of low and slow.  I dearly loved my Merlin, but I’d had enough of watching traffic pass me.  I decided then that I’d either get a faster airplane or give up flying altogether.  It sounds pretty extreme, perhaps, but the simple fact is that low-speed flying was neither teaching me anything nor challenging me much anymore.

Fast forward a month and, as much to my surprise as anyone else’s, I suddenly owned a much faster airplane, my beloved Cavalier.  Fast forward another few months and my equally beloved Merlin was gone, sold to the US.

So, why speed, then? What do I get from going faster?  Of course, the most obvious answer is that I just get there sooner. I find I like that. A lot. The Cav cruises anywhere between 130 and 140 mph true airspeed. That’s at least 50% faster than Merl cruised.

Speed helps beat the wind, too. I really like that, especially in this part of the world where winds frequently exceed 20 knots. Simply put, for the Cavalier, the wind is rarely a limiting factor in my flying anymore. It usually only matters now in terms of crosswind landings at destination airports. Well, that and the fact it may rip my hangar doors off if it’s too strong.

Speed opens up more places where I can fly. The Cav’s speed allows me to fly a much larger radius in a given amount of time compared to Merl. Pretty easy math, that one. Since I’m an avid aerial explorer, that extra range really appeals to me. Thus, places like Drayton Valley, Edmonton, Lacombe, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge are all so much closer. I can go there and back in a day, easily.

And places hundred of miles away are much closer now, too. I made it to the Oshkosh area in about two days. That’s 1300 miles and would have taken me about four days in Merl. On the return trip, also two days long, I made it from Regina to Kirkby Field in 2.7 hours. There was maybe five miles per hour on the tail. That’s a trip that would normally take seven hours to drive. Such efficiency and time saving has become more important to me because I want to range further across North America as my flying advances.

I suppose I’m afflicted with a bit of vanity, too. Other guys in our club are speeding up, and I don’t want to be left behind. With Merl, I’ve sometimes envied my flying buddies as they’ve gotten to places ahead of me, and I’ve also felt a bit guilty that I may have delayed them.

There are a couple of down sides to the Cavalier, but they’re minor.  The cockpit is smaller, which took some getting used to because of my size.  While most folks fit comfortably, it can be cramped with two people in there, depending on the other person’s size. But at least I can carry another person with me, something I couldn’t do in Merl because it was registered as an ultralight.  I’ve been able to use the Cav to upgrade to my Private Pilot License, too.  Something I just could not have done in Merl.

The other thing I miss, compared to Merl, is the ability to land practically anywhere. I landed some pretty cool places with that airplane; farmer’s fields, extremely short runways, and dangerous backwoods airstrips. Its  STOL abilities provided terrific landing freedom and I do miss that, plenty.

The Cav has pretty impressive STOL characteristics, too, but nothing that can touch Merl’s. I can slow down enough to fly alongside Bob Kirkby in his Piper PA-12, but I can almost keep up with his Cherokee 235, too.

The Cavalier doesn’t have the speed that a Van’s RV does, but it’s reasonably close. And for the pittance of money I have into the Cav, the low operating costs it demands, and the mileage and economy I get on its 125 hp, most other airplanes just can’t compete.  It’s an unbelievable compromise.

I’ve flown several days in the first year of owning the Cav when I faced very strong head winds, yet my ground speed has never dropped below 100 mph in cruise. The Cav travels well. It’s efficient. It’s fast. And I smile every single time I look down and see me passing cars.

Just Between Pilots

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by Stu Simpson

There it was, a little white speck taxiing toward the button of Airdrie’s runway. The pilot of the speck, Andy Gustafson, promised us on the radio he’d be with us in a few minutes.

I glanced out past my right wing to see Glen Clarke in his magical J-3 Cub. As Andy told the world he was leaving earth, Garrett Komm radioed that he was flying his Merlin southbound on the west end of Airdrie. We’d be flying north of the city, so there’d be no conflict.

Garrett and I traded information on our respective positions and began the silent duel to be the first to spot the other. Garrett won, singing out how he saw us eight miles east. A few minutes later, as Andy eased his Merlin into position off my left wing, I finally sighted Garrett, another white speck moving southward over the steadily withering October prairie.

We soon cleared Airdrie’s ATF and switched to the Dragonflies’ frequency. I peeked at the map and asked Andy which way to go, since he’d picked the route for today. We were headed for the Red Deer Forestry airstrip in the Alberta foothills southwest of Sundre. Sitting higher than 4600 feet ASL, it’d make for a challenging and indelibly memorable day of flying.

I initially thought we’d fly west of Cochrane, then track the forestry road north to get there. But Andy decided on a more direct route, one that cut across the foothills and bush, following no roads at all. Happily confident in the Giant’s wonderful Continental A-75 engine, I easily agreed.

Andy gave me steering directions and our formation turned a little more northwest, hungry for another bite of sky and a chance at some airborne adventure.

The Rocky Mountains serrated the western horizon, slicing roughly into the sharp blue sky. They were already deep in snow above 6000 feet. The snow line extended forever to the north and south, ruler-straight against the gray granite. The mountains’ brilliant white peaks warned us of the approaching winter and urged us to seize this day, to wring from it all the flight we could before cold and darkness cloaked the earth and heavens.

But we’d not have winter on this trip. The sky was absolutely clear and we could easily see 40 or 50 miles. At that moment I was more drawn to what lay below us.

Autumn holds an undeniable beauty in the part of the world that is southern Alberta. Its allure is irresistible to pilots, promising calm, cool air, great airplane performance, and a wonderful spectacle of colour.

But it was too late in the season for us to see any colour. We missed Mother Nature’s art show by a week, or so. The foothills had completely capitulated to autumn’s advances and become a smudgy, green-brown bushscape. There were plenty of evergreens, but any deciduous trees had shed nearly all their leaves so that only a few precious drops of red or gold remained for us to savour.

Once we passed Highway 22, we climbed steadily to 7500 feet, which would give us plenty of room to clear the quickly approaching hills and mountains.

The temperature dropped as we climbed, and my helmet visor fogged for an instant with each breath in the cold cockpit. Naturally, the Giant loved it. The wings had better air to bite, the prop, too. It spun powerfully on its shaft, the blades’ imperfections glinting and scribing sunlit circles on whatever lay ahead.

We soon passed over a gas plant in the middle of the forest. It was an incredible contradiction to see forest and bush a few thousand decades old surrounding an ultra high-tech manufacturing facility.

And what of our own contradictions? We were flying airplanes and using equipment from many different ages of aviation’s history, too. Clarke’s Cub hails from 1939, while Andy’s Merlin, only a few years old, is one of the latest light aircraft designs in Canada. The Giant is 20 years old now, but the engine was built just after World War II. And Gustafson and I each used devices that read navigation signals from outer space as we snapped photos of each other with cameras that don’t use film.

Murray Cherkas, aka Budgie, was on the radio, telling us he was following the Red Deer River from Sundre to the Forestry strip. He flies a Murphy Rebel with 160 horsepower. He promised he’d be overhead the runway in a few minutes. We were still 13 miles back and I was still chilly.

True to his word, Budgie reported overhead the field, but then reported the runway as 4/8 overcast with cattle. He circled the strip and offered to make some low passes to shoo the cattle away. But the cows endured, reluctant to abandon such tasty grasses just to appease a few airplanes. Budgie and his passenger, Don Wilson, made four low-and-overs before finally admitting defeat in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bovines.

We might have been able to land in the remaining half of the runway, but I didn’t care to try it. My wingmen concurred, so we decided to go elsewhere. There were a few choices. We could fly to the Clearwater forestry airstrip, about 30 miles northwest and similarly situated on the edge of the mountains. Or we could go to Sundre, or maybe Red Deer. After a brief election we settled on Red Deer and banked around to the northeast.

Andy and Glen and I formed up again in a ‘V’ to watch the rugged wilderness slowly recede, and civilization slowly reappear. The world below was going about its day, not paying much attention to a few little airplanes humming happily along above them. I spotted a few guys riding quads through some dirt and mud. It looked like fun, though I failed to see how they could possibly be having as much fun as us. I mean, we even had a tailwind.

Glen and Andy sat off my wings and watched it all with me. But, Budgie had his Rebel out ahead of us now, a bright little cross zooming low across the dark bush.

The day was quickly becoming dream-like. But it was even better than that because this was real. I tried to completely saturate myself in it, to absorb every bit of the sky around me and memorize every instant of the flight. I wanted to gather each moment, to hoard them like a miser, and never, ever share them with anyone except my wingmen.

Days like this, times spent so utterly immersed in pure stick-and- rudder, are why I’m usually more at home in the sky than on the ground. Geez, how did it ever get this bad?

The Dickson Reservoir brought me back to reality as it floated past several minutes later. Holiday properties lined either shore, granting getaways for those who owned them. If only those people knew about the sky.

But then, maybe it’s better they don’t know. Maybe if they did, all of them would be up here, too. And that would mean more rules, fewer sticks and rudders, less magic. Nah, it’s better that we keep these days just between pilots.

The air was so clear we could actually see the city of Red Deer from about 30 miles away. I called for the flight to descend to 6000 feet and I was pleased when the cockpit started warming up again. Once near the Innisfail airport, we went down even further to 5000’. Budgie was already on the ground, having gone ahead with his superior speed.

Red Deer’s flight service specialist welcomed us with information about a Cessna flying circuits and another on pipeline patrol, low and just west of the airport. We promised to stay high until we crossed the pipeline guy’s course, though we never did see him.

We dropped into the downwind for runway 16, being as professional as possible with our procedures. I soon coasted the Giant over the numbers and then did my best imitation of a bad landing, bouncing and floating in the runway’s sun-stoked thermals. Fortunately, I heard later that I wasn’t the only one.

We filled our bellies at Tipitina’s and then Andy and I made a quick trip to the past as we explored the old airplanes on the airport. A bunch of A-26s, DC-3s, PBYs, Electras and CL-215s completely captivated us as they dripped oil and oozed history. They belong to Air Spray, an air attack contractor. There was even an F-86 Sabre the company uses for target towing. A number of Cessna 310s, Piper Aerostars and Rockwell Shrike Commanders sat scattered among the larger, round- engined classics. They stood patiently among their betters like well- behaved squires; tolerated, even appreciated, but not yet as deeply loved as the true knights because they just didn’t have the history.

Andy and I strolled back to our flight line, and I again said a silent thanks that some of the Dragonflies are flying on pieces of history, too.

We saddled up and departed Red Deer, but not before thanking the FS specialist for his help and courtesy. We don’t find treatment like that everywhere we go and we sure appreciate it when we do.

Once clear of the MF zone, we picked up the high-tension power lines that lead straight from Red Deer to Chestermere, where our planes hangar. The wires glinted brightly in the afternoon, inviting us to follow. Admittedly, we were pretty easy to convince.

The harvested prairie fields glowed in the sunshine, drenching our planes in autumn gold, but reminding us again of winter’s proximity. Every so often an emerald-hued patch of winter wheat or some other recently seeded crop would appear. These dazzling gems, destined for harvest next year, reassured us spring and summer will someday return.

We were nearly home when Andy peeled off for his pasture strip just below. We watched him set the Merlin gently onto the grass and then we bid him farewell. He thanked us for a great day of flying. The Giant and the Cub touched down a few minutes later at Kirkby Field and taxied to the gas tanks. We were mortal once more.

Glen and I helped one another fuel up. Then we discovered, rather by accident, that the Giant’s nose makes a convenient leaning spot. He and I stayed there a while, chatting comfortably about the flight, seeing no reason to let go of the day just because we’d landed. We were each the other’s best excuse not to go home.

The sun shone down, and jets sailed over, heading for Calgary.

We sat ourselves on the grass near the Giant’s nose, and talked and laughed and dreamt about pilots and airplanes and flight. We noted how Al Botting hasn’t been flying his Vagabond much because he’s been traveling in England. And did you know the Giant’s 6-bits came from a Champ that was wrecked in a windstorm in Grand Prairie decades ago? Our conversation flowed easily, a lazy river of contentment on a warm afternoon. It wound this wayand that, touching on things like props and prop hubs, brakes and radios, our landings at Red Deer – anything air-related – anything that would keep us in the company of flight just a little longer.

And then time very rudely interrupted, telling us we’d best get home so we can do this very thing again, soon.

Glen clambered into the J-3’s back seat, and when he was ready, he signaled. I simultaneously stepped up to the engine and back in time once more. Just like it was 1939 all over again, I swung the old wooden prop once, then twice, before the engine roused and whirred to life. The prop whistled languidly through the air.

Clarke taxied out and I walked to the side of the runway to watch him takeoff. He ran the engine to full power and skipped easily into the sky, as Cub pilots will do.

The Cub flew over me and my heart soared with excitement and envy. I desperately wanted to run to the Giant, call Glen on the radio, and tell him frantically to wait, that I was coming with him, we could go fly some more. I’d only be a minute firing up. Really, only a minute.

I didn’t run to the Giant, but I can’t quite recall how I resisted. Instead, I just watched while the Cub turned gently for home andslowly diminished in the afternoon.

Yes, I thought, days like this really are best shared just between pilots.

Voyage Across the Sky – A Light Plane Odyssey

In the summer of 2012 two pilots set out to fly their small airplanes - a homebuilt ultralight and a 66 year-old-classic - from Calgary, Alberta to San Francisco, California and back. It was an aerial odyssey that would cover more than 2700 miles and take more than two weeks to complete. Fighting mechanical problems, mountains, deserts and incorrigible wind and weather, Geoff Pritchard and Stu Simpson challenged the sky and temped fate to pull of the adventure of a lifetime.  Take a seat, strap in and join them on a Voyage Across the Sky!
Pilots from Voyage Across the Sky – A Light Plane Odyssey

In the summer of 2012 two pilots set out to fly their small airplanes – a homebuilt ultralight and a 66 year-old-classic – from Calgary, Alberta to San Francisco, California and back. It was an aerial odyssey that would cover more than 2700 miles and take more than two weeks to complete. Fighting mechanical problems, mountains, deserts and incorrigible wind and weather, Geoff Pritchard and Stu Simpson challenged the sky and temped fate to pull of the adventure of a lifetime.

Take a seat, strap in and join them on a Voyage Across the Sky!

2012 San Francisco Air Venture 2012-07-02 Day Summary

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2012 San Francisco Air Venture Departure (2012-07-02)
2012 San Francisco Air Venture Departure (2012-07-02) @ 08:30 from Chestermere, Alberta.

The first day of the trip is under our belt.  It was a hell of a day of flying, for sure.

We decided to cross the Divide via the Crowsnest Pass route to Cranbrook.  We scraped through between the clouds and some convenient saddles between mountain peaks.  Luckily, the clouds were building, but not dropping.  Very exciting mountain flying, but not dangerous.  We got to chat with Darren Scarlett a bit, too, because he was up flying high west of Calgary.

We each had crappy landings at Cranbrook.  We had trouble with the pumps at Creston, but we got that sorted out and then hopped he 3.5 miles to the border strip at Porthill where we entered the US.  Really easy crossing, and the border people were excellent.

The flight down the Creston Valley, over Sandpoint, and into Coeur d’ Alane was terrific, even though we had a pretty strong headwind at altitude.  Lots and lots of flooding in that valley, same with the Kooteney valley near Cranbrook.

The scenery we’ve seen today has been indescribable.  From the Cowboy Trail to the high mountain peaks, to the fertile valleys, it’s been simply spectacular.  I really think it’ll be hard to match anywhere else on the trip.  Got lots of good video and I’m really looking forward to putting the video together.

Tomorrow, we’ll do two hops; from here to Richland, Washington, then on to Bend, Oregon.  We flew nearly 5 hours today with the longest leg being Kirkby‘s to Cranbrook about 2:20.  Hopefully, tomorrow won’t be as long.  We’re both knackered.

We met guys in Cranbrook who’ve heard of the CRUFC and are pretty interested in the trip.  At Creston we met some guys from Lethbridge, too; namely Ron Janzen and his partner.  They bought Troy’s RV-7 and both know Darren Scarlett.  It was nice to see them again.  They’ll be coming up to Kirkby’s breakfast next weekend.

This is a truly terrific adventure, already.  Both Geoff and I have been this way before, but tomorrow we’ll be venturing into places we’ve not been yet.  Luckily, they won’t be so humid as some of the places in BC were today.

Gotta get ready for tomorrow.  I’ll try and do a daily post to keep you up to date.

Blue Skies,

Stu

2012 San Francisco Air Venture 2012-07-02 @ 17:29
2012 San Francisco Air Venture 2012-07-02 @ 17:29

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.

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.

The Simple Things

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by Stu Simpson

The shadow was just where he promised it would be – behind and to the right of mine. A few seconds later I saw the airplane that made it. Don Rogers‘ red and white Husky Norseman slid into position off my right wing as we climbed out northbound from Kirkby Field.

It had been 18 months since Don and I had flown together. That last jaunt, with him in his Chinook and me in my Beaver, was in March of ’94 to a farm strip near Vulcan. Back then, our airplanes looked exactly like what they were – ultralights.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those types of planes. Nope, not a darn thing. It’s just that I couldn’t help wanting something a little more, well, conventional looking. I’d spent nearly three hundred hours in open cockpit ultralights, and frankly, I wanted to be warm again. I also wanted something with the engine out front and a wheel way out back. So I built a TEAM Himax, a nice, simple, wooden tail-dragger.

Don was also looking for a change. He too wanted something a bit more conventional. He eventually flogged his trusty Chinook and bought the Norseman, a nice, simple, metal tail-dragger.

You’ll notice that neither of us had any desire to leave the ultralight fold. No, sir. We like it down here in the weeds. In our minds, this is where the real flying is.

And this day, we were flying to where the real pie is. Or so I’m told. The village of Linden is about 40 miles north of Kirkby’s. The airstrip is right in the town limits and just down the street from a coffee shop that serves absolutely scrumptious pie. At least that’s how the legend goes.

Don’s gone to Linden on a few occasions for the pie and often times told me we should go there together. So today, the last day of September, would be the day. And we were doing it in airplanes that look like airplanes. That means something to us.

It was late in the afternoon and the air under us hadn’t quite settled yet, making it tough to keep a close formation. Heck, with all that convective air, it was tough to keep an altitude. But we did our best.

Each of us was also keeping an eye on the sky. There was a squall off to the northwest that was slowly getting bigger, but it didn’t seem to want to move anywhere. A smaller cloud, east of the big storm, was the focus of our attention. It looked pretty rambunctious, spewing rain and such from it’s underside. Unfortunately, it was heading straight for our destination.

The sight of Linden on the not-so-distant horizon made my mouth water. But I knew it was not to be.

We were three miles directly west of the Beiseker airport. Checking my six, I found Don perched a few hundred yards back. So I made what military people call a “command decision”. I chickened out.

I turned hard right for Beiseker and Don followed.

We taxied in just as a Cessna 206, loaded to the rails with skydivers, taxied out. We hopped out and surveyed the airport from the ramp, talking easily, as old friends do. The sky to the north got slowly worse, confirming our choice in diverting to Beiseker.

Meanwhile, the 206 had departed and was droning higher and higher with it’s load of jumpers. Listening carefully, Don realized we were actually hearing two planes. Sure enough, directly over the airport was a cross-shaped speck that quickly started spewing crazy people. They’d have to be crazy, wouldn’t they?

Five chutes soon blossomed with five live bodies hanging underneath. The jumpers hollered joyously as they floated the last few hundred feet to earth, which was probably the last place any of them wanted to be right then.

We spent another half hour on the ground relaxing and swapping stories with the drop pilots. Checking the airport log, we found Todd MacArthur’s name, Larry Motyer’s, and mine in an entry dated early August, 1992. That’s when the three of us flew back from the Red Deer Airshow, barely making it to Beiseker after trudging through low cloud, rain, and thunder storms.

Rogers and I bugged out a few minutes later with me taking off first. But I slowed passing the town of Beiseker so Don could take the lead. The air was considerably smoother now, allowing us a tighter formation than on the flight up. I formed on the Norseman’s left wing, near enough to see the rivets outlined beneath the plane’s fabric.

As we neared Irricana, Don began slowly descending. Then I saw why.

South of the town is a large slough, that’s where he was headed. Rogers is a bit of a rascal and loves to do a good buzz job, especially over water.

I stayed up high as Don scooted down over the pond. Startled by his approach, a flock of birds took off, splashing their wings and feet, spoiling the calm surface.

Don was having a ball. He banked gently one way, then the other. The Norseman became a silhouette, an outline of a simple airplane caught in the sunlight bouncing off the water. What a thoroughly beautiful sight.

Once over land again, the Norseman dipped it’s nose for a few seconds, then pulled up sharply, climbing for height. I slowed the ‘Max to compensate for Don’s lack of forward speed. He quickly resumed his lead and I my wingman’s slot, and we continued south.

I moved in tighter now, marveling as I always do at the pure magic of this type of flying. It’s these times when I shake my head, absolutely amazed that everyone else doesn’t want to do this.

I spent the next thirty-five minutes or so glued to Don’s wing, straying only once when we angled eastward to avoid flying over Kirkby’s neighbors. I admired the big, rugged Norseman and recalled from years ago the few hours I’d spent in one.

We separated north of Indus, Don opting for the straight-in to runway 16 while I elected to try my cross-wind technique on 28. I stayed on the ground only a few minutes, chatting with Don and Gord Tebutt. I invited Tebutt back up to Kirkby’s with me, but his time wouldn’t allow it.

So, I checked my fuel and clambered back into the ‘Max. Don swung the prop for me, repeating a ritual as old as powered flight, and to pilots like us, just as sacred.

The trip home allowed for some time to reflect on the day and entrench it in my memory. My thoughts ambled happily through images of tail-draggers, formation flying, and grass runways. Then I smiled to myself and silently thanked God for the simple things.

The Last Explorers

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by Stu Simpson

I think ultralight pilots are among the last true explorers. I say this because every time an ultralight jock wanders off into the blue, looking for some place he’s never been, he is off on a small scale version of a grand adventure. He’s left the earth and left behind the places and things familiar to him in order to find something beyond. Something new and different, and maybe a little strange.

Here’s what I mean. Random House says exploring means “to traverse a region for the purpose of discovery”. I don’t know any ultralight flyers who’ve gone exploring and come back empty handed. Sure, a guy may not have found what he was looking for, but at the very least he came back with a tale of true adventure. One he can tell at the next hangar flying bull-session and build on every time he repeats it, until it turns out he really did discover Mars one morning in his ultralight.

I have to admit I really enjoy exploring from the air. Its so much more fun than just hopping in the car, reading the road map and setting the cruise control for Wonkatonkwa. And up there I can’t just stop and ask directions. Its not like exploring from a spam-can either. I don’t have VOR/DME, Omega, LORAN, or G.P.S. (To be honest, I don’t even have a compass – I only know two guys who do.) No, we poor ultralight pilots are left with only our wits, our charts, and our eyeballs to use on these voyages. And let’s not forget plain ole’ dumb luck.

I was flipping through my log book the other day when I realized that some of my fondest flying memories arise from flights I made to find places I’d never been to. One flight in particular stands out.

I was hangaring my airplane near Black Diamond when I decided I wanted to fly to the High River airport. Since I’d never been to that area before, I dug out my trusty, battle scarred, bug smeared sectional chart and pored over the route. It looked like it would be a comfortable enjoyable flight. And it was. The wind was light from the south and the air was pretty smooth. High River quickly appeared on the horizon.

I entered the circuit and wheeled my Beaver around to line up for runway 14. On final I noticed the runway surface was an odd shade of black. No matter, just concentrate on the approach. I crossed the threshold and looked down at the runway as my plane settled for landing.

I suddenly realized what the odd black stuff was – oil. In fact, it looked like the Exxon Valdez had come aground on runway 14. I had a vision of my unfaired wheels throwing black goop all over the wings and me until we looked like an oil soaked seagull. Just before touchdown I firewalled the throttle and made a missed approach. I guess I discovered more than I’d bargained for on that trip.

Navigating, and thus exploring, on the prairies is much more difficult than in regions with more trees or hills. The landmarks all tend to look alike, and at the low altitudes UL’s occupy, airports can be particularly hard to spot. It makes it even more satisfying to meet that challenge and find your destination. Such was the case on the morning I set out to find the Airdrie airport.

The trip to Airdrie airport was quite exciting. The route from Kirby Field, east of Chestermere, skirts right along the Calgary control zone. I was constantly eyeballing spam-cans and heavy metal through the a.m. haze, some of them passing only 500′ over me. Added to that was a wicked and unpredictable wind-shear that would sneak up and clobber me when ever it thought I wasn’t paying attention.

And I couldn’t seem to spot the airport. The closer I got to the area where it was supposed to be, the more things I found that didn’t look like an airport at all. I was only a mile and a half out before I finally zeroed in on the runway. It was right where the chart said it was, but I couldn’t see it until I nearly tripped on it. We explorers have to learn to trust our maps.

Here’s my favourite exploring story.

I was at work one day when I overheard two guys talking about a Clint Eastwood western, called “UNFORGIVEN“, being filmed somewhere south of Longview. Apparently the film set‘s location was a very closely guarded secret. The producers, so the conversation went, had built an entire western town out there.

I thought this was all pretty interesting and it’d make a great hanger flying story if I could fly out and find this little movie set on the prairie. I estimated that by the time I’d repeated the story ten times, it would have grown to the proportions of Clint asking me to co-star in the movie but me having to decline because I had to get home for dinner. (They asked me to be in “TOP GUN”, ya know.)

Anyway, I blasted off the next day to discover the secret location of the movie set. My first guess was that the set would be located in the scenic Eden Valley, which runs west and south from Longview. I flew the length of the valley at about 1000’ AGL, sometimes burning tight 360’s, and examining every little building I found. But it was clear the movie set wasn’t there. I then crossed the eastern ridge of the valley and meandered back out over the flats. I still couldn’t see anything that looked like a movie set; only ranches, grain bins and cows.

Flipping a coin in my head, I banked away to the south.

Several minutes later I spotted something on the prairie about 10 miles away. I adjusted my course a few degrees and was rewarded a few minutes later as a small group of buildings began to take shape in front of me. It was the town of “Big Whiskey”. I’d found it.

I approached the set from the north and hoped that my buzzing around wouldn’t interrupt the shoot. I figured on a quick pass overhead; if they were filming I’d bug out to be polite. But I couldn’t see anything like a camera down there, and no one was shooing me away. So I just circled overhead, memorizing the layout to compare it with the final movie. The people on the ground even waved at me as I circled. A few minutes later I peeled off and headed back north to home, feeling very pleased at having found the secret set. What a great flight that was.

I’m not naive enough to think ultralight explorers have opened up any new frontiers or trade routes, or made the world a phenomenally better place to be. (But on the other hand, we haven’t displaced entire cultures of people either.) It’s mostly done in the name of fun. So I encourage any UL jock to get up there and fly to a place you’ve never been. Become one of the last explorers.

What you discover when you get there is entirely up to you. But what ever you find, it’ll be something worth remembering.