The Kingdom on the Horizon

by Stu Simpson

My God, that tree was close!

I sailed the Giant over a tall, jagged pine with less than ten feet to spare and snapped my attention back to the runway ahead. Over the button and still twenty feet up, I chopped the throttle, nosed over and headed for the grass. Still a bit hot on the speed, the Giant touched down hard and I danced on the rudder pedals to dodge the mole hills that dotted the runway like chicken pox. Luckily, the mounds were soft and squashed easily away beneath the tires.

Gustafsson was on the radio, now, emphatically warning Botting and Clarke to beware of the pines. I taxied all the way to the end to give my wingmen some room. I turned around just in time to watch Glen Clarke, the last of our troupe, bring his J-3 Cub in for an unusually rough landing. My heart nearly stopped when the Cub’s left wing came within inches of the ground as he fought to control the plane on the strip’s uneven surface. But Glen, who’s one of the best pilots I know, got things back under control quite nicely and we all trundled over to the shut-down area.

All in all, just another routine landing at the Highwood-Adderson airstrip.

I quickly began refueling with the extra gas I brought along. The Giant would need it for today’s flight. The Dragonflies would leave this strip in the foothills and fly to the vast and mysterious kingdom of the west, called the Rocky Mountains. They sit next to the sky, only a few miles west of Calgary. Their blue-grey silhouettes are always just out of reach for the average ultralight pilot. Castled with granite ramparts that sometimes tear the very clouds from the air, the Rocks form a legendary, forbidden place. They’re notorious for their meteorological treachery and have dangerously few places for emergency landings. All aviators must be cautious in this domain.

I knew these facts, but felt we could successfully challenge the mountains today. And I figured such a flight probably wouldn’t be as dangerous as our landing at Adderson’s.

During our time on the ground we met Royle Adderson, a successful businessman who owns the ranch and airstrip; and Bob Purkess who looks every inch the tough and ready cowboy that he is. Purkess runs the ranch for Adderson. Both were very welcoming and helpful, especially when Botting had trouble with his engine. He‘d somehow fouled a plug on start-up when we were ready to leave.

Despite an hour’s work, and having all the supervision he could handle, Botting couldn’t get the engine to run satisfactorily. He wisely decided to scrap the mountain trip and go home. Clarke volunteered to escort him. Gustafsson and I would continue on.

Soon after takeoff, the mountains ahead loomed high and sharp in the near distance. It was difficult, as we drew closer, to think of the surrounding peaks as anything other than alive. Like ancient monarchs of the earth, they projected absolute authority and practically dared us to make a mistake. They‘d be merciless if we did.

The mountains are the undisputed kings of the world here. They know it, and with complete arrogance, they don’t care who else knows. Hell, they can even control the weather. Like all kings, they jealously guard their power, being wholly unwilling to share even a bit of it. One can visit their kingdom, and even stay a while. But in the end, the mountains will always endure, always rule. Understand that, they seemed to say, and we’ll get along fine. My heart beat a little faster as we reached the first northward turn into the Highwood Valley.

We banked our planes to follow the highway below and I’m not ashamed to say I stared open-mouthed at the spectacle before us. Here, the Highwood is broad and inviting, stunning and daunting. The lush green slopes give way to sparse grass further up the mountain sides, and then become bare rock for the last couple thousand feet to the summits.

And the height of the peaks! Gustafsson and I were in a continuous, shallow climb from the point we left Adderson’s. But no matter how high our brave chariots took us, there was never any shortage of jagged spires ascending even higher. At one point, we were at 9200 feet and still craning our necks to look up and see the mountain tops. Ultralight pilots rarely see such dizzying numbers on the altimeter. We’re unused to looking up at the earth as we fly. It was a startling refresher in humility.

As we continued north, the valley walls featured cuts and gaps between the peaks. These openings led to who knows where. Each portal was a tantalizing temptress, promising adventure and wanton pleasure for the senses, if we’d only give in to our lust and explore them. And we were tempted! We’d have dearly loved to be seduced by those secret chambers in the sky. But we also knew that succumbing to the wiles of such harlots could easily lead to our deaths. Instead, we stayed our course and clung to the fragile illusion of safety with the road below. In our fidelity, though, we selfishly felt cheated.

The valley once again turned west for a few miles, and then back north. The terrain here, approaching the Highwood Pass, was much narrower than the area we’d just left. The slopes were steeper, too. Thus, a good deal of vegetation had been torn away by avalanches and rock slides. One broad cut in the eastern wall opened to another valley that sheltered a small and incredibly beautiful lake. The water covered only a few acres of the valley floor and was reached via a small trail from the highway. Many hikers would visit this little Shangri-la, and some would even scale the surrounding mountains for a look at it. But only a very few men would ever see it as Gustafsson and I did then.

The Highwood Pass was nowhere near as high as I thought it’d be. In fact, at only 7200 feet, it was about a thousand feet lower than anticipated. But it was tight and thus made a wonderful backdrop for the photos and videos we shot.

There was one, last summit on the left as we exited the Highwood. Craggy and endlessly fissured, it possessed remarkable character and seemed to watch us very carefully as we flew past. Perhaps it worried that we’d made off with some of the palace treasure.

Kananaskis Country was next. One glance in the space of a heartbeat, and we were left breathless. To the west, the Kananaskis Lakes held us spellbound, while the glacier-topped mountains beyond forbade any but the most foolish aerial venture in that direction. The forests of the lower elevations covered the valley floor like a thick carpet, which, from our height, looked positively luxurious.

In turn, K-Country’s various recreation areas passed beneath us. There were campgrounds, ski hills and vacation resorts. All the while, K-Country’s summits passed beside and above us. One unusually shaped mountain looked like it had oozed, barely molten, from God’s granite-pouring ladle and simply been left to harden like a nine thousand foot tall slag heap. Others nearby seemed to have their tops snapped off like pieces of hard candy. They were then abandoned, rough and broken and ugly. And in that ugliness lay their beauty, unblemished by the incessant human pursuit of symmetry, efficiency and straightness.

By unwelcome contrast, the TransCanada Highway, with its carefully surveyed boundaries and arrow straight lanes, soon came into sight. It conveyed thousands of hurrying people who cared nothing for little airplanes or broken mountain tops.

Gustafsson and I weren’t yet ready to leave the Rocks and join that mob. So, we followed the cut-off road through the Stoney Creek region, just to stay in the wilderness a little longer. All too soon, the mountains gave way to the foothills. And they quickly descended to become the prairies, from where we’d always wondered about the far off kingdom. We radioed to one another our sadness at having to leave. We wanted more excitement and unease, not comfort and familiarity. We wanted more mountains. Our spirits paralleled the diminishing numbers on our altimeters.

Yet, for all our sadness, we had no regrets. For we’d been to see the kings and the grand palace they all shared. True, we’d only strolled through a single, beautifully appointed corridor. But we’d glimpsed a few of the dazzling and magnificent chambers adjoining it. And even if we had to leave then, I know a couple of airborne voyagers who’ll someday be back.

The First Year of Merl

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.

The First Time

by Stu Simpson

A strange coincidence occurred a few days ago that caused me to remember a long passed and very important day.

I was driving to an appointment and looking at the sky. I was judging the weather as I often do, as to it’s suitability for flying. The ceiling was high overcast, the temperature around +5 degrees, and the winds were light. In short, an excellent day.

Here’s the strange part. The conditions were exactly – and I do mean exactly – the same as the day I soloed. Sensing something of the dramatically weird, I later checked my log book and nearly fell over when I discovered the day in question was the seventh anniversary of my first solo flight. Bizarre, eh?

March 23rd, 1986 was a day I’d dreamt about my whole life. Or so it seemed. I arrived at Indus airport that spring day with more than a few butterflies in my stomach. This was the day I was scheduled to take an airplane up all by myself. If everything went well I would also land the plane and walk away afterwards. I was both excited and scared.

I walked toward my mount – a bright yellow single-seat Beaver with a 35hp motor – and wondered if it was as anxious as me. I forced myself to calm down and began my pre-flight.

When the pre-flight was finished my instructor, John Reed, came over to offer some last minute advice. He suggested I get away from the field after take-off and get used to the airplane. He warned it would handle more aggressively than the two-seat trainer version. I should do some basic manoeuvres, he said, and return to the airport for a few circuits. He even told me to have fun.

I fired up and climbed in. I secured my helmet and straps and began my taxi. A few minutes later I found myself at the button of runway 10 with 1900 feet in front of me and no excuses left.

I eased the throttle ahead and the little Rotax screamed happily. The ride was rough as the Beaver’s wheels pounded at the runway’s ruts and holes. Everything became suddenly smooth as the wings finally bit and yanked me skyward. I was flying – alone.

My heart soared as I realized, with concrete certainty (and no small amount of pride) that I could fly. The dream was now reality.

I angled to the right to avoid some power lines, pleased to be applying a lesson learned in training. I climbed out eastward to clear the circuit. Reed wasn’t kidding when he’d mentioned the control discrepancies. The two-seater had sluggish, mushy controls. But this plane, with it’s push-pull tube activated ailerons, was a fireball – sensitive and snappy.

The air remained perfect, with only a hint of wind. I practiced climbs, descents and turns. Then I went through the pre-stall checklist and gritted my teeth. If I screwed this up and wound up in a spin there would be no one to help me, no one to blame.

Ease the gas back, come back on the stick – tap the rudder to keep it straight, don’t want to depart – there’s the nibble…and the break! Stick forward, add power, and pull out gently. Piece of cake, I said to myself. I was gaining confidence and competence every minute.

I did a few more stalls and became acquainted with some of the plane’s idiosyncrasies.

I re-entered the circuit a few minute later and flew it as though Reed were still in the back-seat. I recited the pre-landing checklist to myself (something I still do): “No aircraft in the circuit, none about to enter it. Seat-belts are secure (I gave the straps a tug). Wind direction is from the south-east. Nearing key position”.

A couple more descending turns and I lined up on final to runway 10. The glide path looked good. I eased the throttle back as I coasted over the fence, then the numbers. The Beaver floated for a few yards as lift slowly surrendered to gravity. The mains kissed the grass smoothly – no, perfectly – and the plane settled gently on it’s springs.

To tell the truth, that first solo landing was a work of art. I can’t really remember another one that was better.

I blasted off again and performed two more touch-and-go’s before packing it in for the day. Reed was there to shake my hand and congratulate me when I shut down.

A pilot’s first solo quickly becomes a memory as his flight learning curve arcs sharply upward. His log book fills with tales of cross-country flights, group flights, and many more adventures found only among the heavens. But the first solo is a moment a pilot never truly forgets. Maybe because he can never repeat it.

The Boys of Autumn

by Stu Simpson

The weather guys owed us this one. And they had paid up with interest by giving us perfect conditions for flying, a sharp contrast to the rest of the season, which had been absolutely crappy since April. So, like any sensible ultralight jockeys, we were taking advantage of it.

There were three of us. Don Rogers, call sign Dragonfly-01, had the lead. I was 02, and Gerry MacDonald in his two-seat Beaver, was number three. Don led us westward from Indus. We headed for the hills east of Priddis so Don could take aerial pictures of a friend’s acreage. We hadn’t discussed where we’d go next. I like that.

The air was like satin, caressing us gently as we droned toward the Rocks. I didn’t know what the day held in store for us but I wasn’t going to let this moment pass uncaptured. I had my own camera along, so I pulled it out and started snapping. The Chinook and the Beaver contrasted beautifully with the October blue sky.

I spent about ten minutes bobbing around the sky flying with my knees. But I’d managed to grab some decent pictures before returning to the formation. In the meantime, Don had found the landmarks to point him to his buddy’s house. He peeled off to the south and began his descent. That left Gerry and I at about 4700 feet to practice our formation flying.

We ambled lazily over the hills, flying circles to get the hang of formation turns. Gerry welded his airplane to my left wing as we alternated between a gentle left bank, and straight and level. What a pleasant surprise to find yet another pilot who likes flying formation, and is good at it. I wondered what else would surprise me today.

We were chatting with Don about where to go next when we overheard some chatter from the Thompson’s Ranch glider strip. They sounded pretty busy over there, launching gliders every few minutes. We decided that strip would be our next destination.

Don was nearly finished with his low altitude photo passes so he told Gerry and I to start heading to Thompson’s. He’d start climbing after us and catch up. We radioed our intentions to the glider riders and their tow plane and turned our noses south. I recalled from my training days that unpowered craft have the right-of-way in the circuit and I began scanning for the thermal jockies’long wings and slim bodies.

Just as Gerry and I passed over mid-field, I spotted a glider about three miles away. He was on a long downwind for runway 25, while the tow plane was yanking another one off the ground. We extended to the south of the field and Gerry slid back to my six for the circuit. As soon as the glider was past us, I turned in for the downwind. Don was just crossing over mid-field. But by the time Gerry and I were on short final, he was ready for his base leg.

Upon landing we were immediately set upon and welcomed by members of the Cu-Nim Gliding Club. We spent some time talking about our planes and theirs, each group wondering what the other’s craft were like to fly. We watched several gliders get towed aloft by a Bellanca Scout, and I even managed to get a few more pictures. I live for days like that.

Half an hour later we were getting itchy wings again. We batted a few destinations around and finally settled on High River. We didn’t feel like landing at the airport, so we’d just head to the north end of the town, then turn back for home. All in agreement, we saddled up and fire-walled it down runway 07, impressing the hell out of the glider guys. At least they should have been impressed.

The colors of autumn were a firey spectacle in the trees below us. We laughed and joked on the radio as the day continued to unfold it’s magic. Don spotted another friend’s house-in-the-country. The best I could do was be the first to notice the wonderful, unmistakable, aroma  f a nearby feed lot. Gerry seemed content to just park himself off my wing and smile. Then a series of perfect circles appeared in a grain field below which began a flurry of jokes regarding UFO’s and peanut butter cups.

When we reached the town of High River we noticed an abandoned WWII training field whose runways were still barely visible in the grass. It would be nice if the field was still there, allowing us to drop in every now and again. But it’s long since overrun with grass and buildings and power lines.

We crossed the #2 highway and made our turn to the north. Don assigned me the lead before we left Thompson’s and had taken my right wing. So instead of making the wide turn from the outside, he elected to cut across the rear of the flight to take the outside of an echelon left.

We coasted along for the next twenty minutes just staring at the world below and the unlucky souls who weren’t up there with us.

Occasionally I’d lose sight of one of my wingmen as he drifted into the blind spot above my wing. But all I had to do was glance down at our shadows to know where he was.

We began our descent for Indus when we reached the South Calgary airport. Three planes, acting as one, nosed over and throttled back. We levelled out on the other side of the Bow and set up to pass east of the field to enter the downwind for runway 28. We passed over the airport with perfect spacing, once again, impressing the hell out of the people on the ground.

Don and Gerry peeled off, one after the other, in beautifully executed turns. I bid them farewell and continued on to Kirkby Field, smiling deeply to myself and letting the last few minutes of the flight wash over me.

What an absolute joy it was to fly that autumn day, with the sun shining, my leather jacket flapping in the wind, and two great flyers to share it with.

Something Worth Waiting For

by Stu Simpson

I guess it all started a few weeks ago when I got this notion that I’d like to fly to Wetaskiwin. Of course I didn’t want to go alone, so I invited a bunch of other guys. We had everything lined up, departutre points and times were all set, and everyone knew what the game plan was. Everyone but the weatherman, that is.

The day we were all set to go the wind was straight out of the west at 30 knots. So much for Wetaskiwin.

When I phoned Gerry Moore to let him know we’d scrubbed the flight he suggested another destination. One that was much closer and maybe even more interesting.

He told me about a strip he’d found in the Highwood Pass southwest of Longview, which immediately intrigued me. I love exploring with my airplane and finding airstrips that aren’t on the map.

So I called everyone again and said we’d try for the Highwood. And again we set departure points and times. And again the weather was awful. I’ve got hand it to Jim Corner, though. He flew into Kirkby’s that morning riding a 25 knot tail wind, only to learn we weren’t going.

It happens.

I was determined to find this place. So I arranged another try for the next evening. We agreed on the departure point and time (starting to sound familiar, isn’t it?), and this time we even got airborne.

Wilf Stark, Don Rogers and Ron Axelson accompanied me as we made our way southwest that evening. The wind was stronger than forecast (big surprise, that) but we were still making reasonable progress. Right up to when Rogers radioed that he was having trouble transferring fuel from his Norseman’s rear tank to the main feeder tank. Then Stark chimed in, saying he thought he didn’t have enough gas. Our nearest alternate was Black Diamond’s Thompson’s Ranch. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we’d best divert to Black Diamond, fix the problems and go home.

It happens.

Our time grounded at BD was fun. We examined some of the aircraft there and, of course, we took every opportunity to kid Rogers about his personal plumbing problems. Stark determined that he had enough fuel to get him and his Super Koala home safely, but then it was Axelson’s turn to sweat. The battery on his Ercoupe had bought the farm, so he spent several minutes hand-propping his baby until it finally caught.

The flight home was uneventful, if you can call a summer evening’s flight above stunning green hills, valleys and fields uneventful.

Four days later Stark, Bob Kirkby and I were in the air again, and this time I knew we’d make it. The wind ambled calmly from the south at a leisurely six or seven knots, and a layer of high cirrus spread above us to dampen the unsettling effects of daytime heating.

“Dragonflies, this is Three,” called Kirkby when we were a little south of Okotoks, “watch this.”

He nosed over for a second or two and then launched his Renegade into a short series of chandelles and stall-turns. Wilf and I watched him maneuver gracefully around the sky before plying him with admiring “Oooo’s” and “Aah’s”.

Soon, Black Diamond drifted by off my right wing and I remembered the many flights I’d made in the area years before with my Beaver. I have to admit, I’ve missed the hills and mountains near there.

Longview ought to be just over the next hill, I thought, checking the map. Then an unfamiliar voice rattled in my earphones.

“Dragonflies, this is Lima Kilo Papa. What’s you’re position please?”

“Lima Kilo Papa, this is Dragonfly One,” I replied. “We’re approximately seven miles northeast of Longview at fifty-seven hundred feet, southwest bound.”

Kilo Papa asked for a few more details to better clarify where we were. The he radioed that he had us in sight and would shortly be passing a few hundred feet beneath us. He added that he was headed for Black Diamond this morning and heard us on the radio. He wanted to check us out because we “sounded like fun.”

“Kilo Papa, Dragonfly One has you visual,” I called as he sailed underneath us.

“Is that a Supecub?” queried Wilf.

“Roger,” came the answer.

“That’s a gorgeous airplane,” said Stark. I could practically hear the smile on his face.

The Cub driver asked what type of airplanes we were flying and I provided him with a brief description of each. He asked where we were heading and I told him that, too. He got quite interested in this and said he’d flown the Highwood pass before, looking for the same strip, but hadn’t found it yet. Then he asked if he could tag along with us. Of course, we gladly welcomed him.

So the four of us droned on into the Highwood valley looking for an airstrip in the woods.

Kirkby was the first to spot it. At the very south end of the valley, where it turns west again, it lay directly in our path about a mile-an-a-half ahead. Since I was flight lead it fell to me to make the first approach and landing.

As I crossed over the strip I thought it looked pretty good, albeit a little narrow. Forty-foot tall pine trees jutted up not fifty feet from the button, and a pond was located at the side of the runway at about mid-field. It would have to be avoided at all costs. A thrill ran through me and I found myself smiling involuntarily at the challenge of the coming landing.

I turned final about a third of a mile back and kept a wary eye on the distant wind sock. It was still parallel with the runway and indicating about 7 knots. I eased the ‘Max through a small gap in the pines, pulled the throttle back, and nosed over gently for the ground. The plane settled smoothly on the mains, with the tail-wheel alighting almost immediately afterward.

I lengthened my rollout to give Stark plenty of room for his landing, which he accomplished beautifully. Then I back-tracked and followed him off the runway just as Kirkby was clearing the trees on final.

Wilf and I climbed out and the first thing we heard from the crowd that had gathered was, “Thanks for the great airshow!” We swelled with pride.

The Supercub taxied in as we introduced ourselves and chatted with the rancher who owned the land, and his friends. John, the Cub driver introduced himself, too. We spent about thirty minutes chatting and letting these warm-hearted folks examine our airplanes.

Then it was time to go. You see, on these adventures getting there is most of the fun, and getting back is the rest of it.

Since I was first to land, it seemed only natural that I be first to takeoff. I noticed the slightly longer takeoff run since our field elevation was 4800 feet, about 1500 feet higher than the home ‘drome. Naturally, climb out took a bit longer, too.

John and his Supercub were headed to High River. On the radio he bid us farewell, thanking us for the good time and promising Bob he’d drop in to Kirkby Field in the future.

Quick and smooth describes our return flight, at least unitl we crossed the Bow River. There, the thermals kicked themselves loose from the prairie and rumbled right by us on their way up.

A garbled radio call, “… traffic…. eleven…” It sounded like Bob. I reflexively checked north, which was my eleven o’clock position, and my heart nearly stopped.

A Mooney was headed straight for me! I nosed over and yanked the throttle back, telling Wilf to drop down a few hundred feet. Seconds later I watched through the top of my cockpit as the Mooney zoomed by less than a hundred feet away. He hadn’t changed course by so much as a degree. Maybe he figured he had the right of way. Or maybe he didn’t even see me.

The odd thing is this: I’ve flown many, many hours with Kirkby and he has never, ever had a radio problem. Not until he tried to warn me I was about to be killed. Even after the near miss his radio functioned perfectly.

It happens.

Fortunately, Wilf was never in any danger, and a few minutes later we all touched down safely at Kirkby Field.

Another adventure would now be written into our log books, and hopefully etched for ages in our memories. It sure took us enough tries to get there, to that airstrip in the woods, but I’m sure glad we kept trying. This flight was definitely something worth waiting for.

So… You’re a Pilot, Eh?

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?

Running the Gauntlet

by Stu Simpson

It was 6:20 a.m. when I yanked the starter cord on my RX-45 Beaver. I had been awake more than an hour as the Rotax sprang to life and warmed up. A few feet away, Bob was just strapping in to his Renegade bi-plane. We had to hurry if we were going to keep our appointment with Todd. We were slated to rendezvous with him in the air south of Bob’s strip.

The wind was light, but gusty, from the north-northwest. I silently wondered if it was the same upstairs and if it would cause any problems for the adventure we’d planned.

I blasted off first and made a right turn to the south. As soon as I lifted the wing, I was catapulted downwind. The winds aloft were 15-20 kts. Too bad we weren’t headed for Florida today.

I watched Bob takeoff and form up on me and together we headed south for Indus.

Todd wasn’t quite ready for takeoff as we fired past Indus airport. So Bob and I simply turned our noses into the north wind and just kind of hovered over the field, waiting for Todd.

Soon enough he taxied his float-footed 2-seat Beaver to runway 28 and lifted into the early (God, it was early!) morning air. We all turned westward and began a one-and-a-half hour battle with the breeze.

So, with a whopping ground-speed of 30 mph, and a crab angle of 30 degrees, we watched the Rockies inch steadily closer. For better or worse, our Rocky Mountain adventure had begun.

The Dragonflies were in the air again, headed this time for Radium Hot Springs. It was supposed to be a proof-of-concept flight, to practice for our journey to Abbotsford later in the summer. We hoped this trip would give us a glimpse of what mountain flying is all about. Better to find out now than learn it the hard way en-route to Abbotsford.

Our plan was to fly to Banff, meet our ground crew, and refuel there. Then, we’d follow the highway to Eisenhower Junction, hop over the Vermillion Pass and fly south to Radium. Sounds pretty simple, right?

I was beginning to think it wasn’t quite so simple as we flew past the south-west corner of Calgary. We had been in the air more than 45 minutes and had only traveled about 20 miles. I began to think about canceling the trip and trying another day.

But the weather looked much better in the mountains, so we decided to press on. We would make our go/no-go decision at the mouth of the Bow Valley.

In the meantime, we radioed Springbank Flight Service and told them our plans. The flight service specialist who answered suggested we file a flight plan. I spent the next few minutes giving him the information he required and he opened a plan for us.

We continued on toward Banff feeling a little more secure knowing that someone else was looking out for us.

It took us more than ninety minutes to reach Bear Hill, which is essentially the mouth of the Bow Valley. I radioed Todd and told him I would make a turn into the valley toward Banff and see what the wind was like. Then we’d make our decision about continuing or going home.

As I crested Bear Hill, I banked left to follow the valley. I’m not sure why, but our head-wind was gone and had actually turned into a slight quartering tail-wind. I knew then we’d have good weather to Banff, and probably beyond.

I radioed my wingmen.

“Dragonfly flight, this is Dragonfly 01. The wind here has really dropped off. I recommend we continue on to Banff.”

“Dragonfly 03 copies. Uh, roger that.” Todd replied.

“Dragonfly 02 copies,” said Bob.

The Bow Valley was beautiful that morning. The sun was shining, the sky was clear blue, and the mountains were a jagged mixture of deep green and stone grey. Who could ask for more?

We finally landed at Banff where our ground crew was waiting. Bernie Kespe had graciously volunteered to haul our gas and tools for the weekend in his pick-up truck. His wife Ida, and my wife, Tina, completed the ground crew roster. They had been waiting at the Banff airport for nearly an hour and were beginning to worry.

After 2.5 hours in the air, we were quite relieved to land at Banff. But we knew the toughest part of the trip, the flight from Storm Mountain to Radium, still lay ahead.

We spent the time at Banff snacking on fruit and refuelling the airplanes. Then Bob discovered a broken bracket on his engine. He and Bernie spent about half an hour on field repairs so Bob could go on. Just as Todd and I fired up again, Bob had another problem. A cable on his electric starter had broken. That required another fifteen minutes to repair.

As a result we didn’t leave Banff until 10:15. The weather was still good though. In fact, it was getting better as a layer of high cloud was quickly forming. This would help keep daytime heating down and make our ride a little smoother. When you’re flying the Rocks, every little bit helps.

We were all pretty tense as we lifted off from Banff and turned westward. The flight to Banff, while a little long, had been relatively easy. But we didn’t know what to expect beyond there. The Vermillion Pass is quite high, about 5800′. We had all heard horror stories about gale force winds coming down from Storm Mountain and we were worried.

Still, it was really the only safe route we had to cross the continental divide. We flew on.

About five miles east of Eisenhower Junction, as I flew along the south side of the valley, I looked over to keep an eye on Bob and Todd on the north side. Suddenly, to my amazement, I saw an Armed Forces C-130 Hercules go screaming up the middle of the valley at our altitude. I frantically called Bob.

“Dragonfly 02 you have a C-130 coming up on your left!”

I heard Todd call the same warning. Bob calmly replied he already had the Hercules in sight. I quickly began scanning my tail for any other “Herky-birds” that might be looking to snack on some Dragonflies. Fortunately, there were none, so I turned my attention back to getting past Storm Mountain.

Bob was up at about 7500′ when he shot the pass. He reported the air as quite bumpy, but still manageable.

I went in next, at about 6500′. I’m sure I had a death grip on the stick as I watched the highway go by underneath me. The ride was bumpy, with most of the gusts coming in the form of cross-winds. I’d be warned first by the wind on my face, then feel the tail being kicked around back there. The wind was unpredictable, coming from every direction. A couple of times it wanted to stand me on a wing tip, but I worked the controls, stayed level, and continued on.

I was suddenly awe-struck by our surroundings. I felt like we had strayed into some sacred chamber of the gods. Holding absolute power, they seemed to peer down, grey and unflinching at these three puny Dragonflies who dared to challenge them. I knew they could squash us with just one mighty blow from a stormy fist. I silently hoped we hadn’t pissed them off.

Todd was last into the pass. He was flying a few hundred feet higher than I, about a half mile back. I don’t think he was too busy because he had time to take some great pictures.

Once we got by Storm Mountain the ride really improved. I recall one high valley that was simply incredible. It had an entire gamut of colors. Stunning green meadows, dark green pine trees, white snow, and a baby blue glacier. I could hardly believe the spectacle. This was scenery you just don’t see unless you’re flying.

Then I heard a surprising call on the radio.

“Dragonfly 01, this is Canadian 667 heavy. Do you read?”

What could the big boys possibly want with us, I wondered.

“Canadian 667 heavy, Dragonfly 01, go ahead,” I replied.

The jet crew had been asked by Springbank to contact us and relay our status. I told them we were doing fine and expected to arrive at Radium at 12:30 local time. Canadian 667 confirmed our information and relayed it to Springbank. I thanked the jet crew and signed off. I smiled to myself, thinking how nice it was to have such guardian angels. It was also neat to be able to play with the big boys, even for a short time.

We soon made Kootenay Crossing and I noticed the huge contrast between the Vermillion Valley, that we had just left, and the Kootenay Valley we were now in. This valley was wide and spacious, while the last one had been narrow and seemed to scrape our wing tips.

Bob had been circling at Kootenay Crossing waiting for us. He’d gone on ahead because he needed to run his engine at a healthier RPM and Todd and I just couldn’t keep up.

From there, we cruised the next 20 minutes to the Radium Pass. I spent a fair amount of that time climbing so I could make the pass. I had no idea the next five minutes would be the most exciting of the day.

The pass into Radium is narrow. I mean really narrow. It’s only about half a mile wide and there are simply no emergency landing spots along the highway. (I suppose Todd could have landed in the Hot Springs pool, but it would have been a bit embarrassing.) We were really sweating as we wiggled our way past the tight peaks. But we could see the Columbia Valley on the other side and we knew we had just about made it.

Waves of relief swept over me as we popped out the other side of the pass. I could see Bob spiraling down to land. Then I noticed he wasn’t really circling. I started looking for the airport and knew why he wasn’t circling. He couldn’t find the airport!

I wondered if the thing had been abandoned and nobody told us. Just as I thought about diverting to Windermere, I looked down and spotted the strip. Bob had spotted it also and was now on downwind. Todd must have been laughing at us because he could land on the Columbia River if he had to. But, he landed after Bob and quickly cleared the runway. I landed last, at 12:15 p.m.

All of us were extremely relieved to be there. I think each of us was a little surprised that we had made it at all. We were also pretty pleased with ourselves. We had faced the unknown, had run the gauntlet, and had come out unscathed.

Bernie, Ida, and Tina arrived a few minutes later and helped us tie down. Then we went into town and found a motel for the evening. Next, it was time for some grits.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Radium Hots Springs pool relaxing and talking airplanes. We had a nice dinner together and headed back to the airfield to prep the airplanes for the return trip in the morning.

We turned in early because we had a 5:30 wake up the next day, and planned to be in the air at 6:30.

That’s exactly what happened. We fired up and blasted off right on time. We had to start this leg of the trip with a climb from 2650′ to more than 7000′ to clear the Radium Pass.

As we circled upward, I noticed how perfect the morning was. Cool and clear with hardly a breath of wind. That’s what I thought anyway, until Todd called with some weather news. He reported that the winds aloft were pretty strong from the north. I worried it might really slow us down as we headed home up the Kootenay Valley. We’d just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, we each used the north wind to help our climb.

Finally, we could delay no longer. We turned toward the pass. Todd went in first, with me a quarter of a mile behind, and Bob following with a bit more altitude. The winds in the pass were quite turbulent compared to those in the valley. Fortunately though, the bumps were mild and easy to handle. We eased out the other side and turned north.

Mysteriously, the north wind had disappeared and again had turned into a tail wind for us. Maybe the mountain gods were on our side after all.

I gazed north looking for the pass into the Vermillion Valley. It was then that the unbelievable beauty of the day hit me. In all my life I have never seen a sight so breathtaking. The morning sun made the mountains actually seem alive. It was a view so spectacular that I will never forget it.

The morning air was like glass. It was cool and smooth, as only morning air can be. I was very glad we had dragged our butts out of bed so early and that we could enjoy such utter perfection.

The flight north to Eisenhower Junction was uneventful, except for the amazing scenery. We stayed to the west side of the valleys to exploit any sun-warmed, up slope air. Bob was regularly making 360’s to keep from getting too far ahead of us, and we even had the chance to line up so Todd could take some pictures. Life just doesn’t get any better than that.

As we cleared the Vermillion Pass and turned into the Bow Valley, we could clearly see the last bend before the town of Banff. Todd reminded us all to keep a sharp eye out for C-130’s and even talked to a helicopter pilot flying in the area.

We coasted into Banff at exactly 8:30, after holding a few minutes to allow a Mooney to take off. We even managed to arrive ahead of our ground crew.

The hardest part of the trip was over. The rest would be a piece of cake. We took off again at 9:15 after refueling and thanking our ground crew.

We absolutely could not have made the trip without Bernie, Ida and Tina. It was an added bonus that Bernie is an experienced ultralight jock and really knew how to help. The trip was just as much their adventure as ours.

The air was still rock steady from Banff to Calgary. We felt only the occasional bump, as if the air above the hills were yawning, just coming to life. We simply couldn’t have asked for anything better.

As we passed the southeast corner of Calgary, Bob radioed that he was going on ahead to his strip a few miles away. I would follow in a few minutes, and Todd would fly on to Indus, a couple of miles east.

I looked over at Todd off my right wing and gave him a thumbs up. Since his radio battery had died, he replied the only way he could. He gripped the stick between his knees and gave me two thumbs up. I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I gave him a final salute and peeled off to the northeast.

I landed a few minutes after Bob and thought about the adventure we’d had. We’d done what some said was crazy. We’d flown ultralights in the mountains and done it safely. We’d logged nearly eight hours flight time in two days without so much as a hiccup. And we had a ball!

Still, it sure was good to be back. As I taxied down the runway, Bob called on the radio.

“Dragonfly 02 to Dragonfly 01, welcome home,” he said.

I simply replied, “Roger that.”

Return of the Giant

by Stu Simpson

In case you haven’t heard, the Giant is back. And this time it’s better than ever.

I’m talking, of course, about the Green Giant – my Sylvaire Bushmaster II that I’d previously re-engined at the turn of the century with a Rotax 582 (up from a 503). Well, I re-engined again, this time with a Continental A-75.

I’d been toying for some time with the idea of an upgrade, and actually had plans to begin the project in the spring of this year. A bearing failure and subsequent forced landing in November of 2004 precipitated the start of the project a little early. In the end, it was excellent timing, for I’d have otherwise lost all the 2005 summer flying season to the project.

With the help of quite a number of people, chief among them Gerry Theroux, Bob Kirkby and Ken Beanlands, the Giant is back in the air with a new look and a new sound.

After several proving hours on the engine with some short and medium length hops, it was time to really put it to the test with a long cross-country flight on July 1st. Former CUFC president Ed D’Antoni suggested a trip to Castor, a distance of about 115 miles. He suggested it largely due to the airfield’s proximity to one of the town’s restaurants.

I was all for it, and so was Al Botting, Bob Kirkby and Ken Beanlands. Strangely, though, D’Antoni bowed out at the last minute. Hmmmm….

We set out on a perfect morning with hardly any wind on the surface, and a 15 mph tailwind at 6000’. We soon soared past Beiseker and the Red Deer River Valley and arrived over top the moonscape prairie south of Stettler. It’s wonderful land to see, comprised of small, well-rounded hills that are rarely more than 20 feet high. It appears to be the effluent of an enormous geological sneeze.

Once past that region, we flew past many huge sloughs that somehow got listed on the map as lakes. These muddy troughs were full to their brims after the recent rains and served well as landmarks for those of us navigating by map. Actually, I was the only one navigating by map.

We landed on Castor’s pristine paved runway and taxied in to make our way to the food. Botting arranged a ride to a nearby restaurant with a very kind local gentleman named Bill. Bill was a sharp contrast to the waitress in the café who treated us like we were the biggest pain in her day. Good thing the food was okay.

Bill kindly shuttled us back to the field after lunch and we soon set out for Three Hills and more gas. Now, the thunderstorms were building around us and we were anxiously watching the sky as we went.

On the ground at Three Hills we looked east to a huge cell sitting directly in the path we’d taken less than an hour before. We got out of Dodge just in time. Another massive cell was laying a whoopin’ on Drumheller, and a third storm was handing it to the area north of Bishell’s, where Beanlands shelters his Christavia.

We decided to escort Beanlands as far west toward home as the weather would allow. Once airborne, we saw the storm had moved well north of Bishell’s strip and that Ken would have no troubles with it. On the other hand, another cell appeared to be brewing near Kirkby’s. We thought it prudent to quickly turn for home.

We finished the flight with no problems and the cells we worried about didn’t amount to much. I was ecstatic over the Giant’s and the Continental’s performance. I logged 3.5 hours and all temps and pressures were right where they needed to be. Fuel consumption was the same or less than the Rotax. We should try this again sometime, I decided.

Sometime arrived a few days later when Botting and I coerced Andy Gustafson into a flight south with his Merlin. Bob Kirkby needed an aerial photo of the High River airport for a COPA brochure he was building. What better excuse to fly than a photo recon mission for COPA?

We set out from Kirkby’s on another perfect morning. We soon got the shots of High River and decided to head west to the scenic terrain of the foothills. We over-flew the Turner Valley Ranch strip, Butler’s strip and the flood-ravaged hamlet of Priddis. Coasting along next to the Rocks, I couldn’t help but recall the fantastic flight Andy and I made to that magical, mysterious kingdom last fall.

Then it was time to turn for home. We turned east along Highway 22X and eased off the altitude so as not to bust Calgary’s Class C space. One feature that caught my eye was Red Deer Lake, another over-sized slough that actually had water in it again. It’s been nearly dry for more than 15 years. We set course to pass over Glen Clarke’s strip and I peered intently down trying to spot his Cub. No joy there. Boy, did he miss a good one this time.

Since Andy was kind enough to join us at Kirkby’s, Botting and I decided to return the favour and escort him home. Besides, with our photo recon mission complete we needed an excuse to stay aloft a bit longer.

Our flight lasted exactly two hours, and again the Continental ran flawlessly. I don’t have a moment’s regret about switching engines again and I know the A-75 will give me a great many great years. So bring ‘em on, because the Giant is back!

A Morning Of Promise

by Stu Simpson

This was clearly a Saturday morning with promise. It could hardly be anything else when everywhere I looked I saw small, fun airplanes. For instance, Al Botting had his new Piper Vagabond tied down ready to start. It’s amber gleam nearly matched that of the sun. Next to him was Peter Wegerich and his yellow Cubby II, a slightly shrunken iteration of Botting’s bird. One could be forgiven for doing a double take when seeing them so close together.

Botting was going to loose his tail-wheel virginity that morning. He and Kirkby had plans to take the Vagabond up so Botting could get checked out in it and join the ranks of the real men who fly tail-draggers. No more training wheels for him.

On the other side of the hangars Carl Forman tinkered with the radio and battery in his MiniMAX. The Max’s battery has been vexing him for months, never quite doing what he hopes it’ll do. And then there’s the left fuel tank issue. Don’t even get him started about that! Just up the ramp was Bernie Kespe with the top cowl off his pristine Renegade biplane. He was working on a starter problem.

And there in the corner, just in front of my hangar, sat my beloved Green Giant; loaded, fueled and eager to move the sky around.

Carl and Pete and I planned to fly to the bottom end of the Highwood Pass, about 60 miles southwest and on the very leading edge of the Rockies. There’s a ranch strip there that’s about 4000’ long but with very challenging approaches on each end. The trip to the Highwood has never been anything less than stunning, and it promised to be so this day, too.

It turned out at the last minute, though, that Carl would have to stay home. Remember those battery and fuel tank issues? Enough said.

Pete and I blasted off runway 16 and climbed strongly in the morning wind. We leveled off at 4000’ and turned southwest.

“I sure like seeing green fields,” I radioed to Pete.

“Ya,” he replied, “they’re sure a lot nicer to look at.” And a lot nicer for us to fly over, too, I thought. They don’t throw as much heat and convective turbulence as the browner spring time fields do.

As we motored along I remarked to Pete, as I’ve done to my wingmen hundreds of times, that I still can’t believe there are people down there who don’t want to do this.

“I’ve wanted to do this my whole life,” Pete confessed. “Now I’ve finally gotten to where I have the time and I can afford it. This is great.”

Thinking about his comments for a moment, I decided that maybe there is something to be said for growing up, even if only a little bit. Wonder what our wives would have to say about that.

We started a slow climb crossing the Bow River and the new highway bridge there. We were near DeWinton when Pete called again.

“There’s a field down there that looks awfully familiar to me,” he said, smiling. He referred to the last time we made this trip, coincidentally just two days short of a year ago. On that jaunt Pete had an engine failure over this very spot. He put the Cubby down in the farmer’s field and effected repairs. I forget what caused the engine failure – a minor electrical fault, I think – but he was up and flying again half an hour later. The rest of the flight simply orbited over top in a wide circle while he fixed the problem.

Since then, Pete decided the tired old 503 just wasn’t the right engine for his Cubby so he switched to a 65 horse Zanzottera, sold out of Surrey, B.C. The new mill runs very sweetly. Pete’s now got more power in the Cubby, more confidence in the engine and is getting a lot more fun out of flying.

The mountains were starting to rise from the haze, jagged and grey against the horizon, and growing larger with each passing mile. A glance out the right side revealed we were coming in line with the departure path of Black Diamond’s runway 14. We switched over to 123.4, the frequency that Black Diamond’s gliders use.

“Black Diamond traffic, be advised ultralights Dragonflies 1 and 2 are currently 6 miles southeast at 4600 feet, south-westbound for the Longview area. Any conflicting, please advise.”

We listened intently for several minutes but surprisingly, heard no reply. That’s strange because the glider guys are usually beating each other over the head to be the first ones in the air on such a day. We made one more call a few minutes later before clearing their area, but still heard nothing back.

We crossed highway 22 between Black Diamond and Longview. The terrain was rising faster now with the onset of the foothills. We eased our birds a few hundred feet higher and then set up to take pictures of each other with the hills and mountains in the background.

Pete’s Cubby was stunning against the brilliant green foliage below, and the magnificent Alberta blue above.

“You sure have a beautiful airplane, Pete,” I commented admiringly.

“Ya,” he said in his usual laconic manner, “I’m pretty happy with this yellow. I’d have bought the plane anyway, regardless of colour, so the yellow’s just a bonus.” I chuckled at his remarks and went back to taking pictures.

My photos done, I marveled for a few moments at the raw, blatant power of the Rockies. Though Pete and I had the power of flight at our disposal and were flying above all else, we weren‘t flying above them. And there they were in front of us, filling our windscreens, daring us to try. I figured it’d be wisest that morning to stick to our original plan and meet the Rockies’ altitude challenge another day.

We continued enroute, intercepting highway 40 as it coursed into the mountains. The Highwood strip soon appeared as a narrow swatch of light green grass running east and west on a ranch south of the highway. It’s a challenging strip, with high trees at either end, and a pond on either side about halfway along. The runway’s not very wide, either. Simply put, it promised to be a lot of fun.

We arrived overhead and eyeballed the windsock.

“Dragonfly 1 to 2. The sock indicates wind from the south at about five to seven knots. It’ll give us a crosswind, but not by much.”

“Ya, roger. I’ll follow you in.”

“1 copies. I’m descending on the downwind for 25.” I pulled the throttle way back and dumped the nose over to begin the drop from 6000 feet. After several seconds the Giant was still way too high, so I cranked in a side-slip to bleed off more altitude.

The Highwood requires a careful approach to minimize exposure to the trees should the unthinkable happen to the engine. Half a mile from the button I turned about 160 degrees because there wasn’t enough room in the narrow valley for a proper base leg. I angled toward the strip, keeping the highway beneath me for as long as possible before committing to the runway.

My heart beat faster and adrenaline coursed through me as the trees flashed beneath. The left wing missed a tall stand by only 10 feet; there was no time to look at the right one. A snapshot vision flashed through my mind of me picking pine boughs from the Giant after landing.

Ground speed was too fast and a quick glance at the sock confirmed the wind had shifted to my tail. But it was still at only a few knots, I might be able to make it. I mentally prepared for a go ‘round. Side-slipping a little more to lose some height past the trees, I wandered a little wide of the runway. So I booted the rudder, pulled the stick to the right and the Giant centered out over the strip, but it was clear we were going to land long. Should I go around?

At the last second I decided it was safe and discarded the notion of trying again. The wheels touched smoothly about a third of the way down the runway, the long grass helping to slow the plane. I was too far past the exit to make a one-eighty before Pete landed, so I had no choice but to continue taxiing ahead until I heard from him. A few moments passed, then Pete calmly radioed that he’d landed and I had lots of room to turn around.

We taxied in and shut down. Then we spent a pleasant half hour chatting with a cowboy named Bob Purkess, who works the ranch there, and his hired man Clayton. We told him all about our planes such as how they’re built and the differences between Pete’s Cubby and the Giant.

Before we departed Purkess invited us to call him before we land next time so he could ensure there were no horses on the runway. Very neighbourly of him, indeed.

The wind was still coming from the east as we back-tracked and it looked like it’d stay that way. We started this takeoff with a slight downhill run, which really helped overcome the drag of the long grass.

I hauled the Giant into ground effect then built up some more speed to make sure I’d clear the trees that were rapidly approaching. As soon as we ascended above the tops of the pines the wind tagged us on the nose and boosted our climb rate by a few hundred feet per minute. The Giant reminded me again why I love it more each time I fly it.

We climbed steadily from the Highwood’s 4600’ elevation to 5500’ for the ride home. We weren’t quite ready to leave the foothills, though, so instead of turning northeast we continued north to follow along the hills. This area made for a spectacular background as Pete and I snapped even more photos of each other’s planes.

North of Turner Valley and west of Millarville we stumbled across a nicely kept ranch strip we’d never seen before. We circled overhead, using the windsock and tie downs to confirm it was, in fact, an airfield. But time was getting on and we decided against a landing. Besides, we didn’t want to use up all our adventure in one day. But I promised myself we’d be back.

Calgary’s ever expanding sprawl seeped through the late morning haze soon after we turned back eastbound. The view was quite a letdown considering where we’d just been.

But, at least we were flying; there were so many more down there who weren’t. Pete and I agreed it was good to be cruising at only 70 mph, which let us stay in the sky a little longer. The world looks better at that speed and we simply get more from life aloft.

My landing back at Kirkby’s was terrific. So was Pete’s, which was only fitting in light of the wonderful day we were having.

We chatted happily on the ground with Botting, who hadn’t quite lost his tail-wheel virginity that morning because the wind came up with a little more enthusiasm than he preferred. But he still enjoyed flying his Vagabond while Kirkby flew the landings and takeoffs for him.

Carl got up flying, too, but the pesky battery and fuel problems continued to haunt him. Bernie was nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t a perfect day for everyone on Kirkby Field. But for Pete and I, who got the chance to have ourselves a flying adventure, the morning had certainly fulfilled its promise.

Places With a Past

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.