Ultralight Flight: CTV News Video Interview with CRUFC President

Ultralight Flight

CTV News Original Air Date: Friday, September 14, 2012

Watch Video Interview

In Alberta, ultralight airplanes crashed near Ponoka, Indus and Lloydminster in the summer of 2012. That’s three accidents in as many weeks – one fatal.

Aviation enthusiasts say ultralight aircrafts are well-built machines. They point to Transport Canada, saying the required training hours are not always enough.

How safe is the hobby? What causes accidents? Mechanical problems or pilot error? How can “rules” be balanced with the public’s freedom to fly?

Alberta is a hub for this hobby, and we get the discussion on life and death issues off the ground with three experts. Mike Hughes, from Wetaskiwin, owner of Challengerwest – sales and support for advanced ultralight aircraft in western Canada; Shane Daly is President of Innovative Wings Inc., which offers building and maintenance service for amateur-built and home-built aircraft; and Norm Vienneau, President of the Calgary Recreational and Ultralight Flying Club.

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.

Of Dragonflies and Thunder

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by Stu Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The forecast was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Letting Go

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by Stu Simpson

This guy is not your typical ultralight shopper, I thought to myself. He’s too young. Not one of the older, soon-to-be-middle-aged types that seem to dominate the masses of ultralight flying.

He pulled his car beside mine and stopped. A handsome kid in his early twenties stepped out and introduced himself as Dave. With him was a pretty brunette who seemed almost as interested as he was.

Ninety minutes later, for all intents and purposes, he owned the Beeve. All that remained was the paper work.

We finalized a few details and arranged to meet later in the week to close the deal. He drove away happy to own the Beeve. And I drove away remembering it.

The next few days were filled with mixed emotions for me. On one hand, I was losing what had been a major piece of my life for the past 3 years. On the other hand, with the money from selling the Beeve, I’d be able to build my next airplane. In truth it’s an enviable spot to be in. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d lost a part of myself.

Your first airplane is like your first love. I know it’s an old analogy, but it’s true. Your first plane shapes your soul and opens your heart in ways you’d never seen before. You become a part of that airplane, and it becomes a part of you.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently remembering the Beeve, remembering the flights I’ll never forget. Like the trip to Radium, B.C. with Todd McArthur and Bob Kirkby. Many people thought we were nuts to fly ultralights in the mountains. But we and our airplanes proved them wrong.

And who could forget the flight home from the ’92 Red Deer Airshow? McArthur and Larry Motyer and I stumbled into, among other things, a thunderstorm. When things like that happen, and you come up smiling on the other end, you gain a tremendous amount of confidence in your airplane.

When you own an airplane, you’re suddenly released from the bondage of renting. You have the freedom to fly whenever you want (actually, its more like whenever your wife says you can). So if one of your buddies phones up and asks if you want to go flying, you simply arrange what time to meet and head for the airfield (if your wife says you can, that is).

Some of my best flying memories center around the flights me & the Beeve made with other UL jocks. Guys like Don Rogers, Fred Wright, Bob Kirkby, and other guys from the flying club. There were times we’d chase each other around the sky, and moments of simple elegance in perfect formation. There were morning and evening flights whose beauty left me breathless. And there were flights that were just so much pure fun and adventure, I sometimes wondered if it was real.

The thing I’ll remember most about the Beeve is the way it felt in my hands. The light controls, the instant response. It’d go right where I asked it to. Always. With 40 horsepower, it climbed like a bat. And it never had trouble with crosswinds. It was incredibly easy to land (Rogers still thinks it was my superior skill). In short, the Beeve was just so easy to become a part of.

Despite all the Beeve’s virtues, it was time to let it go. It came down to a choice between making extensive modifications, like adding a more powerful engine and an enclosed cockpit, or buying another airplane entirely. When I crunched out the numbers I realized that selling the Beeve and building new would amount to the same overall expenditure as modifying it. But building new would give me more in the long run, like re-sale value and growth potential.

I decided there were certain things I wanted in my next airplane. An enclosed cockpit was paramount. I got really tired of that 65 mile per hour winter wind chill in the Beeve’s open air office. My new plane had to be a tail dragger and it had to be able to accept a Rotax 503 (cuz that’s what I had to put in it). I wanted something a bit faster than the Beeve because other guys in the club are speeding up as well. And finally, it had to be inexpensive to build.

I settled on the T.E.A.M. HiMAX after extensive consultation with Chris Kirkman and Knute Rasmussen. Kirkman built a miniMAX a few years ago and was very pleased with the results. Knute eventually bought the MAX from Chris and showed it to me a few months ago. I made up my mind right then I would build one as well, though I opted for the high-wing version because of the larger cockpit arrangment.

Construction of the HiMAX is underway now and that’s helping to put the Beeve behind me. I was lucky to have owned it and I hope the new owner is as appreciative of it as I was.

It’s time for me to move on to another plane, but I’ve still got lots of photos and logbook entries to peruse whenever I miss the Beeve. And I’ve got the memories. That’ll make it a little easier to let go.

Doing It Together: How to Organize, Plan and Fly Group Flights

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by Stu Simpson

There seems to be very few people doing any group flying these days. The vast majority of those who do are flying ultralights, homebuilts or are in the military. I’m proud to say that we in the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club make group flying a nearly weekly habit. As such we’ve developed a fair amount of experience in this area so I thought I’d share the lessons we’ve learned and hopefully whet your appetite for getting up there and going somewhere with other pilots who think like you.

Why Bother?

What’re the advantages of group flying? Why go to the trouble? Turns out there are plenty of very good reasons. First and foremost, group flying is FUN! All pilots enjoy hangar flying on the ground, why not do it in the air where it’s many times more enjoyable? The sense of camaraderie, achievement and adventure from group flying is unparalleled.

Group flying is also a fabulous way to learn. After a while, flying alone can get a bit dull and the learning curve tends to flatten out. But flying with other guys, especially in close proximity to them, is always challenging. It forces you to heighten your situational awareness, be sharp on the stick and fly your airplane that much better. It’s very rewarding and provides a strong sense of accomplishment when you do it well.

Group flights sometimes involve more than just pilots, too. For the CUFC’s annual Air Adventure Tours, which last four or five days in the summer, we bring along a ground crew. It’s composed of family members and other CUFC members who don’t own airplanes yet but who definitely want in on the adventure. We’ve traveled from Calgary into the Rockies as far as Castlegar; traversed Alberta and B.C. to places as far away as Cold Lake and Dawson Creek; and made hundreds of closer, local flights together.

The main thrust of this article is aimed at larger groups of planes, four or more, and longer duration flights. However, all of the principles apply equally to local flights to your favourite pie and coffee place. After all, each leg of a long trip is often about as long as a leg you might fly in your own neck of the woods.

Planning: The First Step

The CUFC has learned that planning is an absolutely crucial factor for successful group flights. If you have a good plan to begin with, AND everyone knows the plan, it can make up for a lot of shortcomings and problems later on. It’s important to keep everyone informed.

We usually start planning our Air Adventure Tour in January or February. It’s not essential to start that early, but it gives participants a good long time to book holidays and plan around other events. We decide on a route, bashing out the pros and cons of various suggestions. We get input from those who might have any particular knowledge of the route such as problem terrain or appealing features. Bring to these sessions a lot of maps, some stick pins, and a plotter.

Picking the route is fun. For instance, is there a particular destination in mind, a place on which to focus the trip? There needn’t be just a single destination; there can be many. There might be an historical point at one stop, a neat museum or airshow at the next. Perhaps there’s a route you want to fly because of the unique scenery, or simply just because it’s there.

For ultralights, our experience shows routes with legs of 1 to 1.5 hours duration are best. Two hours is the maximum. This is because ULs often don’t have much more range than two hours in optimum conditions. Nor are they as comfortable for pilots as conventional aircraft. Open cockpits, which are often found on ULs and homebuilts, may warrant special consideration, too.

Pick your stops at airports that suit your aircraft AND the size of your group. For example, in the summer of 2002 we made a stop at an ultralight field near Grande Prairie, Alberta. Being an ultralight strip, it was perfect for our planes and had our kind of people welcoming us. But we had 13 airplanes to land there, which taxed the ramp space to the absolute limit. We had a Starduster Too and a C-182 flying with us on the trip that couldn’t land because of the strip’s short length.

Consider other features of the airports along the route. If you have conventional aircraft along, will the strip have fuel for them? Will the runways be long enough and smooth enough? Be cautious and check carefully before landing at unknown strips that aren’t on the map or in the Canada Flight Supplement. The owner may say the field is fine, but what are his standards? Fields listed on the map or in the CFS will rarely be unsuitable.

Try to pick airports near towns where you can acquire a wider variety of supplies and services that might be needed, either expectedly or unexpectedly. If your trip involves overnight stays, pick centres as large as possible for the same reasons. You’ll also likely find better accommodations and restaurants.

Be aware that the route you choose may limit the number and type of aircraft that participate in the flight. Mountainous terrain scares off a lot of ultralight pilots and large bodies of water will likely dissuade those without floats.

Plan to fly the trip between Monday and Friday to avoid business and service closures along the way. It’s incredibly frustrating to need that one little thing you can’t get because it’s Saturday in a small town. It’ll also ease the pressure to get back home by Sunday for folks who work on Monday. Mid-week flying makes the whole trip much more enjoyable.

When it comes to scheduling your trip, pick a date and stick to it. Plenty of people will come to you later and ask you to change things by a day or two, or a week or two. But doing so will throw the whole thing into a tail-spin, especially for those who initially planned on the original dates.

Pool your group’s resources. Make use of the equipment and expertise among your club or group members. One of our guys has a slip tank to carry fuel for the planes. It goes into the back of someone’s pick-up truck. Another of our members is an electronics whiz. He rigged antennas for the ground vehicles so the ground crew can stay in touch with the aircraft. Still another member, an accountant by profession, keeps track of financial matters for the trip.

Make sure participants, especially aircrews, understand there are minimum equipment requirements. I can’t recommend strongly enough that all aircraft flying on the trip be required to depart with a functioning 2-way VHF radio. Aircraft should have a useful range of 2 hours, plus a 30 minute reserve, and be able to cruise at a given airspeed. This speed depends on the other aircraft in the group. For instance, on the CUFC’s last trip to Dawson Creek we had three groups of aircraft. One flight of five cruised at about 60 mph, the second at 70, and the third flight of three planes at 80 – 85 mph. It’s fine to have different speed ranges, but it’s safest and more fun to have others to fly with in that range.

We’ve discovered the ground crew works best when as many as possible have CB or FRS radios. It’s crucial that at least one ground vehicle have a VHF radio (an external antenna is a must) to stay in touch with the aircraft. All this communication ability adds tremendously to the ground crew’s effectiveness and enjoyment on the trip.

Other important gear includes maps, CFS, GPS, cell phones, batteries, cameras, survival and safety gear, spare parts and tools. Naturally, some of this stuff will be too heavy to carry in ultralight aircraft, so it’ll have to go by ground vehicle.

Leadership & Procedures

Leadership of your group flight is another critical element. Before departure on each leg it’s important to hold a pre-flight briefing for everyone, including ground crew. This is especially important for the opening leg of the trip. The briefing is where everyone learns the plan, so don’t rush it. Encourage questions, keep an open mind to better, safer ideas, but don’t be afraid to politely reject an idea that’s just not going to work. Have someone who’s well able acquire and present the weather.

If the group is big enough break it up into flights of four or five aircraft at most. Use call-signs rather than registration idents for air-to-air and air-to-ground communications. The CUFC uses the call-sign Dragonfly. We’ve found that calling “Dragonfly 1”, or whatever, is much quicker, safer and easier to remember than an alphabet soup of aircraft ident letters. It also lends an air of professionalism and a unique identity to the whole adventure.

A note or two about radio procedure. When starting up for each leg, do your group radio check-ins on a discrete frequency to avoid clogging the local ATF or MF. After switching to a new frequency each flight member should check-in so lead knows they’re there and serviceable. Also, once clear of the ATF or MF switch to a pre-arranged, unused enroute/chatter frequency. This adds an immense amount of fun to the entire adventure. The designated ultralight frequency in Canada is 123.4 MHz, and the chatter channel is 122.75, but we find these are often quite busy and make our enroute communication tougher. Establish a “home frequency” so that if anyone gets lost on the radio, they can go to the home frequency and someone will meet them there to tell them the correct channel. These procedures have worked exceptionally well for the Dragonflies.

When departing for each leg have the faster flights leave first. This avoids congestion at the next stop. Otherwise, quicker planes can catch up to the slower ones and cause over-crowding in the landing circuit at the next airport.

Have a plan for how the aircraft will fly together. Many of the CUFC members enjoy formation flying, but tight formation over long distances is quite tiring. Plan looser formations so that each member of the flight is clearly visible to at least one other flight member. A pilot may have a comm failure enroute, but if someone else can easily see them they’re still pretty safe. A “V” formation works best for this.

Each flight of aircraft should have a designated leader for each leg, and a back-up in the event of a radio failure or other problem. Establish these procedures before leaving the ground. When approaching an airport the CUFC’s procedure is for the leader to request his flight to go into line astern (trail) formation about 8 miles back. The flight leader makes the radio calls for the group while approaching the field and onto the downwind. Once in the circuit each flight member then calls his own circuit positions on the radio. If you’re going to have more than one aircraft on the runway at once, be sure to add that it’s a formation landing or takeoff.

Establish emergency procedures and ensure each flight and ground crew member knows them well. The ground crew will be a very important link in the event of an emergency such as an engine failure and forced landing.

Much of what’s discussed above applies equally to the ground crew members. They should have a designated leader for each leg and communication for them is just as important. The CUFC has learned that a good ground crew is as precious on these trips as the air we breathe.

Stick To The Plan

The best way to carry out a group flight of either short or long duration is to have a good plan and to stick to it. If everyone knows the plan and knows what’s expected of them, they won’t wonder and they’ll do their best to achieve the goal. Of course, any good plan has flexibility and contingencies built into it.

Never forget that groups flights, especially larger ones, are a tremendous opportunity to promote recreational aviation. At nearly every airport we landed at on our 2002 Tour we garnered a tremendous amount of attention from both the general and aviation public, and sometimes from the news media. We learned it’s pretty impressive to see fifteen airplanes blow into town like an old-fashioned flying circus. For the 2003 Tour we’re planning to bring a number of brochures or circulars highlighting ultralight aviation.


The group flights the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club have conducted, both near and far, large and small, have been unforgettable, and and because of it there‘s a special bond between those who were there. When these flights are planned and flown with a strong emphasis on professionalism, safety and fun they become magnificent adventures that give us terrific memories and a wealth of proudly earned flying experience. And isn’t that why we got into this game in the first place?