Airplane Camping — I Liked It!

By Scott Knowlton, EAA 413379, EAA Canadian Council – Advocacy

I have loaded up our family airplane on a few occasions for the big trip to AirVenture and truly loved the experience of waking up early on a misty summer morning at Wittman Airport under my wing on a field populated by like-minded individuals. What cathartic holidays those were, and the camping gear I had acquired for these trips to that point served a single purpose — the gear needed to support my Oshkosh trips. The camping part was simply a necessary evil of the trip. Beam ahead a few years and after the completion of my little Pietenpol Aircamper I made the decision to dip my toe into the world of airplane camping! After all, camping is right in the name of the airplane and my vision over the many years of building it focused on giving discovery flights, flying out to breakfast and  — maybe giving camping a try.  

I have to say that 13 weeks of basic officer training in my early 20s clearly took recreational camping off the table for me. Sleeping bags were smelly, old, heavy, down-filled carcasses. Camps were muddy affairs and don’t get me started on the latrine. For this reason, any form of camping was an activity I chose to avoid in my adult life, and hotels, motels, and cottages were my preferred method of “roughing it.” My wife was especially surprised at the sudden claim her 57-year-old husband made when I announced I was planning an “airplane camping trip” with some like-minded friends. I rummaged through my old Oshkosh gear and located my tent, sleeping bag, mattress, chair, and backpack. Up at the airfield I went through the process of evaluating where each item would be packed in the airplane. I silently congratulated myself on the attention to storage I focused on in the build of the Piet as a remarkable amount of gear disappeared into the wing compartment and oversized helmet box of the airplane. Because I would be solo on this trip, I still had room in the front cockpit to strap in my backpack like a willing obedient and silent passenger. The last item I arranged was a lightweight tent fly that I could secure to the wing, which would serve double duty as a cockpit cover protecting the wood and leather Piet from dew and rain overnight and also act as a sun shade in the middle of the day.  A quick weight and balance proved I could manage to depart with my full 87 litres of fuel and still be well under my gross weight. Now that’s an Aircamper!

Our mission was a simple three-day trip with overnight stays at two idyllic grass fields in southern Ontario. We departed four ship (two Pietenpols, a P-70 Acey Deucy, and a Piper PA-12) and met up with an orbiting Piper PA-11 en route. Off we flew into a late afternoon sun for a lovely 55 minutes of flying and friendly chatter on 123.45, each of us settling onto the soft recently cut grass of our host’s runway who had extended us the camping invitation. Within a few minutes we unpacked our gear, set up our tents, and joined our host at a nice little campfire with a BBQ grill. 

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We brought with us enough burgers and drinks to fill our stomachs, with plenty left for our host and his wife. With the sun setting, three of us felt the urge to enjoy it from the air and launched back up to fly the north shore of Lake Erie at 500 feet, waving back at the late sun worshippers and beach walkers who seemed to enjoy our silhouettes puttering along the shoreline. The calm, warm summer air was lovely at 500 feet but the temperature dropped noticeably on short final and I actually had a little shiver of cold taxiing back in to my camping spot. Sitting by the fire that evening we shared great flying stories from our varied pasts and before long the events of the day caught up to us. “What a splendid evening,” I thought to myself as I zipped up my tent.  “I could get used to this. Who’d have thought?”

I am typically an early riser and the next morning was no exception. Climbing out of my tent I could see the first light of dawn to the east. Assessing the weather and morning light, I decided a dawn patrol was a definite requirement. Strapping in to my little Piet I held on to the excitement of how the bark of my engine would rouse my fellow campers from their slumber. I hit the starter, fired up the engine, and didn’t look back. A brisk taxi down the dark runway put us in takeoff position and with the oil warmed up, I advanced to full throttle and roared past the campers. What a thrill! A few moments ago I was snoring in my tent, next I was aloft in my Pietenpol savoring the first light of the day. The climb-out brought me out of the damp cool air from the airfield and back in to the soothing warm air I had descended from the evening before.  This is something that only can be experienced in an open cockpit airplane. A bright light to my right caught my attention and there, peeking from the horizon, was the morning sun just starting its rise from the east. Magnificent! Soaring around aimlessly for 25 minutes over country fields and farms was a terrific way to start the morning. Watching the sun make its slow climb was an added bonus to the experience. I touched down and taxied in to see my grumbling friends who I think would have preferred more sleep without the excitement of my departure.

After coffee and sincere thanks to our host for having us, we packed up our camping gear and left as a five-ship headed north. Over the course of the day we flew to Tillsonburg for breakfast, Goderich for lunch, and dropped in to visit friends in Brussels for the afternoon and an early dinner. Each stop was a new adventure, chance to meet new people, and also enhance the camaraderie of our little five pilot/airplane group. As life and busy schedules go, one participant in our little air tour departed after Tillsonburg and a second after Brussels.

Brussels airport. One of the smoothest and well kept grass fields in Southern Ontario

With original plans to spend a second evening in Brussels, a quick look at the weather suggested the overnight could make for a wet return the following day. We had a quick discussion and decided an evening flight back to our home field would be the better call. With three hours of flying under our belt already, we climbed back in our birds for the “last leg home” eastbound with the sun at our backs and lovely calm July air under our wings. Dust rose from fields where oats were being harvested and hot air balloons launched to our right from a farmer’s field near London. Unlike the first leg the day before, most of the trip home was radio silence. In a loose half-mile spaced formation, each of us seemed to be in our own world, playing over the multitude of experiences of the day and thinking about how incredibly smooth the air was and just enjoying the experience. 

Arrival into Goderich airport

We touched down with plenty of daylight to spare and after unloading our machines and securing them in their respective hangars, met up for a well-deserved beer and happy banter over two successful days of safe flying and airplane camping. It was then that I realized that I am a convert. Camping no longer means webbing, weapon, rucksack, and sleeping bag to this aviator; camping is midday thermals, sunsets and sunrises, campfires, dawn patrols, and like-minded aviators. I have since updated the quality of my Therm-A-Rest mattress, found a great cooler, and a backpack more worthy of the job of airplane camping. I hope to do many more of these incredible trips and also plan to camp my way to AirVenture 2022!

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