In September of 2005 I flew with a friend from Montreal to Edmonton in my Challenger ultralight. What follows is an abridged version of that little adventure.
While Bruce Brown was busy putting the finishing touches on C-INUK in St. Lazare, I was sitting at home in Kugluktuk, having not seen my aeroplane since it was a collection of fabric and aluminum tubing sitting in Dave Griffith’s shop in North Hatley.
How to get my beauty home, from St. Lazare to Kugluktuk? I toyed with the idea of trucking it, but at ten thousand dollars just to get it to Yellowknife and probably another five-thousand to air-freight it the last 375 miles, this was just too rich for my blood. I could truck it myself, but that was almost as costly....and I already knew how to drive! Besides, there was no telling in what condition my pride and joy would arrive.
Bruce suggested flying it home. Flying it home? That’s 2,500 miles just to Edmonton and another 1,100 miles north from there to Kugluktuk! Could it be done? In an ultralight? "This is no ordinary ultralight", Bruce countered. "This is a Challenger!
"So it was that in September of 2005 I was at the St. Lazare airport watching Bruce take C-INUK for her maiden flight. We spent the next week getting the Transport Canada paperwork in order, gathering supplies and doing some flight planning. We packed and re-packed. Bruce found nooks and crannies in the aeroplane to store small items, but it was obvious that the belly bag would be indispensable.
Our route would take us up the Ottawa River, across central Ontario, north and west around Lake Superior to Fort Frances, north around Lake of the Woods and then west and northwest through Manitoba and Saskatchewan to St. Albert, just northwest of Edmonton where a cozy hangar awaited. This would be the 2005 leg of the trip home.
The morning of our anticipated departure is much too windy. Mission delayed for 24-hours. The next day it’s bright and sunny, but still very windy. Bruce’s weather intuition says that, despite the wind, we’re in for some good flying weather. "Maybe a little bumpy", he says.
Up the Ottawa River we fly, zooming past the parliament buildings at ....( "This GPS can’t be right!") 38-mph ground speed. Arnprior for fuel then quickly off again. The mechanical turbulence really peaks as the terrain gets more rugged, giving us some minor concern as we are heavily loaded. We land at a beautiful grass strip at Deep River. The owner is not at home, so we walk down the highway to a restaurant, have lunch, then hitch a ride back with some gasoline in a borrowed jerry can.
Off again to Mattawa, where we meet a kindly doctor/pilot at his private airstrip. He gives us a ride to the local gas station for some premium unleaded, then back to his strip, where we discover, and fix, a problem with our radio.We by-pass North Bay since I have visions of getting lost on their 10,000 foot concrete Space Shuttle-sized runway. Instead, we opt to fly on to Sudbury. However, by the time we get to Sturgeon Falls the daylight is already fading and we need a break..., and some fuel. Trouble is, the airstrip at Sturgeon Falls is officially "abandoned". We locate it and look it over. Not so hot! Wait a minute... there’s a gas station at the end of the strip... and a motel! Right there! Bruce is keen to check this out. Around again for another inspection, and it looks a little better this time. Bruce puts her down in the foot long grass.
We push the ‘plane under some large trees and secure her for the night. A local comes along, all excited, saying that ours is the first wheeled aeroplane to visit for about a decade. More hospitality - he gives us a ride to a little fishing lodge two minutes away, where we bunk down for our first night "on the road", exhausted.
The cold morning sees calm winds, fair skies and much dew all over the aeroplane. We spend an hour drying off the ‘plane, getting our shoes soaked in the process. The runway is marginal at best, with tall trees at one end and power lines at the other. We don’t need the extra drag from that wet grass. Suddenly a puff of wind comes up off Lake Nipissing and we rush to take advantage of it. A little finesse gets us airborne in short order and we are again on our way west, with yours truly doing the easy, (almost) straight and (nearly) level flying from the front seat. Briefly, we have a tail wind; 94-mph ground speed - that’s better! It lasts all of twenty minutes.
Elliot Lake is our next stop. A great little town full of friendly people. The airport manager helps find us a couple of jerry cans (one even had a cap!), and a pair of old-boys drive us around and show us the sights. It reminds me of Yellowknife - hills and lakes, stunted trees and friendly people.
After a fine lunch at the local diner, we're off again to our destination for the day, Sault Ste. Marie, where we land on a grass strip and are met by a group of friendly folks, mostly fellow Challenger owners, who make sure the ‘plane is safely parked. Their ring-leader, Don Primeau, drives us to the hotel and generally makes us feel at home. He agrees to be our flight-follower for the next portion of the trip, taking over from Bruce’s good wife Johanne.
The following morning we awake to wind and rain. No flying today. But there’s this great Bush Plane Heritage Museum in The Soo. It’s their 10th anniversary and therefore the obvious place to spend an afternoon with Don. Then ... where else? To the Legion for a little ale and much conversation - or was it much ale and a little conversation - I can’t remember!
Now for the tricky bit. Flying around Lake Superior, especially on wheels, is an exercise not to be taken lightly. Airports are some distance apart and the terrain is not exactly ideal for a forced landing. We follow the highway, which is mercifully free of heavy traffic in September, so we have a less-than-perfect emergency runway nearby at all times. From time-to-time the thermals and mechanical lift from the hills push us up at over 1,000 feet per minute. The scenery is as spectacular as the weather, with white beaches and emerald-green water like something out of a Caribbean vacation brochure. So much beauty right in our own country!
At Wawa I manage to make one of the worst landings in the history of aviation. I can blame it on the cross-winds, or watching too many "Three Stooges" movies, but it really boils down to being unfamiliar with my aeroplane. An ultralight is a lot less forgiving than a Cessna 150 in some respects. The pilot has to respond much more quickly than one would have to in a heavier aeroplane. At any rate, we manage to get safely on the ground and the Wawa airport still has the same number of runway lights when we taxi to the tie down as it did before we arrived.
For this 2005 leg of the journey, my Challenger is on "tundra" tires. It also has fibreglass landing gear legs, and this combination turns a bad landing into a non-event. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Marathon is the next stop, just long enough to find a jerry can, a taxi, a gas station and the little boys room, not necessarily in that order.
Terrace Bay is our haven for the night. The headwinds finally take a break and I manage a half-decent landing. We can’t figure out the big black skid-marks on the runway. It looks like 747's make regular use of the 5,000-foot strip. Then someone tells us that since there is so little air traffic the locals use the runway for drag racing! A friendly lady taxi driver finds us a jerry can, takes us to the gas station, shows us some bargain-basement real-estate deals and delivers us to the hotel. At three o’clock in the morning we are awakened by some loud drunks, partying on the balcony a few feet from our room. Desperate for a good nights sleep, I call the OPP, who very politely get them on their way.
It’s a long haul from Terrace Bay to Thunder Bay, for an ultra-light anyway. But, with 15-US gallons in the tank, we make it past Thunder Bay to Kakabeka Falls. Jerry can, taxi, lunch, gas up and on our way again, west to Atikokan, where we are met by a friendly young fellow who has followed us in his pick-up all the way from Thunder Bay. Turns out he owns an ultra-light himself and is intrigued about our cross-country adventure. He agrees to meet us in Fort Frances and he does. He follows us (or we follow him) along the highway. The headwinds are back again, but he politely drives within the speed limit so we will not be too embarrassed.
The weather is fine, except for the winds, but they are dying down now so we decide to press on north to Kenora. The flight over the eastern side of Lake of the Woods is breathtaking. What a beautiful part of the country! Made me wish that I had floats on my Challenger. One day!
At Kenora we get about eight gallons of gas from a massive Shell tanker truck. Not much money to be made from us! We have to pay landing fees, though. A nice town, but services here are a bit more expensive than what we have so far encountered.
The following morning brings even stronger westerly winds. I would have stayed on the ground, but Bruce’s attitude is "we may not get far, but we won’t get anywhere at all if we stay put". He’s right again. The flying may be slow but the turbulence settles down once the flat land of the great Canadian prairie comes into view. Steinbach for fuel, then on to Portage La Prairie, flying low - very low - for miles across the totally empty prairie. Zooming over the power lines, then back down to within ten feet of the ground, giving my feet some rudder-training by staying directly over the "centre-line" of the deserted gravel section roads. We accidentally spook a deer who is lazily grazing in the ditch and in his surprise he almost jumps through our left wing!
Portage has an impressive airport for a small town. An ex-British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base, it is very well maintained and the massive wartime hangar is home to a helicopter training school. A friendly technician lends us his diesel pick-up to go into town, have lunch and buy gas.
This is where we finally break with tradition. Up until now we have made use of borrowed gas cans. But it is taking valuable time to track them down, and we often end up with an ancient jug with the wrong caps, missing spouts and/or looking like something had died inside a very long time ago. We spring for a brand new jerry can at the local Ace hardware. Bruce resolves to carry it on his knee all the way to Alberta.
Somewhere west of Brandon, Bruce starts bitching about the gas being "too heavy". Our last fuel stop has not consumed the entire jug, and he wants to get rid of the last couple of gallons in the can. We are in the middle of nowhere (and that’s coming from someone who lives in Nunavut!) so we figure we’ll just put down on one of these totally empty back roads, Bruce will jump out, empty the jug into the tank, hop back in and we’ll be on our way. Sounds like a plan! That looks like a good spot ...touchdown, on the brakes, Bruce jumps out, starts filling the tank. Within seconds, a pick-up comes charging up to us, out of nowhere, dust flying. Out jumps a cowboy-type, all excited at seeing our little aeroplane land on the road. Wants to know all about the ‘plane, where we’re from, where we’re going. We have no time to chat. Gotta mosey along before the Queen’s horsemen show up!
We spend the night in Russel, Manitoba, a few miles from the Saskatchewan border. Five days it took us to cross Ontario and we’ve made it virtually across all of Manitoba in a single day. More hospitality from the local aircraft mechanic, who drives us to a motel, then meets us at the A&W next morning to take us, our gear and our gas to the airport.
From Russel, our next stop is Yorkton, Saskatchewan, where we are privileged to see Fokker Super Universal CF-AAM on its final flight from Calgary to the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg. Bruce and I get a tour inside this fine old aeroplane, but for all its size, I think my little Challenger looks more comfortable.
On to Quill Lake, where we can’t find the airstrip. We land in a rough field behind the only gas station and the owner tells us the airstrip is just a quarter-mile away. However, it is dis-used and blends into the surrounding fields. Bruce takes the ‘plane over and I catch a ride with the station owner after throwing the jug of gas in his pick-up. There is no wind-sock at the strip, just a rusty old gas pump (sans gas) and a falling-down hangar which is home to fifty pigeons and one very dejected-looking Cessna 172, covered in pigeon doo-doo.
Next, a long-haul to North Battleford, where we arrive late in the day, tired, hungry and grumpy. Another ex-BCATP base, but this one is falling into disrepair. The massive hangar is open and contains a couple of dozen light aircraft. We push NUK inside and into an empty stall. The terminal building is locked up tight as a drum. The telephone, of course, is inside the building. No sign advertises a local taxi company. Our cell ‘phones are finally working again, but we don’t know a ‘phone number to call. Now it’s getting dark. I’m starving! Bruce, ever the fitness nut, says "there’s the city .... see? Over there .... all those lights. We can walk it". "Yea, right! Bruce, that’s gotta be five miles. I ain’t walkin’ five miles!"
A guy comes along, alone in a four-door sedan. We flag him down, but he "doesn’t have room" to take us. My sermons to Bruce about the friendliness of westerners are called into question. My credibility is on the line. Another car... this guys got lots of room. That’s more like it! Off to the motel, clean sheets and a good nights rest.
From North Battleford, it’s an uneventful jaunt to Lloydminster, right on the Alberta border. From the air, you see the scope of the land in more detail and perspective than you would ever see from the highway. Hundreds of oil-wells stretch to the horizon. At the airport we fuel up with 100 LL and waste no time pushing on to Vegreville, where Bruce insists on trying out the local perogies. A good lunch at a rather seedy-looking downtown hotel with an overly-friendly young waitress, then buy some gas and head back to the airport with the same chain-smoking, 60's-something female cab-driver that suggested the perogy dive.
I call Bob Robertson from the Vegreville airport. He is surprised we have made it so far so soon. I had told him not to expect us until at least October 1. No worries, he is in the process of "cleaning out" the hangar and it will be ready for us when we arrive.
So it is that we make an approach over the trees and land at St. Albert later that afternoon. The wind and mechanical turbulence are back, but C-INUK is safely at her destination. She has brought the two of us some 2,500 miles in seven flying days totalling 44.5 hours. She has not a scratch on her, nor do we. Her Rotax 503 has not skipped a beat right across the country, we have been comfortable and have enjoyed the trip of a lifetime. Now it’s time to put my baby to bed.
Bruce spends a day with his brother’s family in Leduc before heading home to Montreal. Meanwhile yours truly does the chores. The engine is fogged, the entire aeroplane cleaned inside and out, the covers are put on and the fuel tank drained. During the coming winter, Bob Robertson will ensure that the ‘plane is in tip-top shape for the 2006 season. The tundra tires will come off and the Turbulence electric-retractable wheel-skis will be installed, ready for the next leg in April of 2006 when I will embark on one of the biggest adventures of my life. Alone this time, I will fly my little yellow ultra-light north, beyond the arctic circle where the sun shines 24-hours a day, to my home on the Coppermine River overlooking the Arctic Ocean at a little place called Kugluktuk.
Photo: Bruce and I congratulate each other after a safe arrival at the St. Albert airport, northeast of Edmonton, September 29, 2005.
Stay tuned for part two!