By John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal
It’s often said that if you want to get somewhere by airplane then you’d better drive, because sometimes it seems that everything conspires against you to conduct a flight that’s supposed to save you valuable time getting to where you want to go. However, it’s also true that if you take the time to get to where you’re going, you’ll see things that other people miss when they are in too much of a hurry to reach their destination. That’s what I like about long cross-county flights — that you’re awakened to the merits of the voyage over the initial end goal of arriving. This is, in part, the main reason why people set off to fly around the world. Your destination may be for where you set off, but the real destination is unlocked from your soul along the way. I have yet to fly all the way around the world, but it’s on the bucket list (more on that with Mack and Zara below).
I first got the bug for real cross-country flying when I took my homebuilt MiniCab two-seater to Pembroke in 1987 to visit up with friends I’d made from the Air Cadets when I learned to fly there. It wasn’t a long trip, but when you’re young and free from constraints, able to just blast off, somewhere relatively nearby can seem like a whole new world. Dad had just finished fixing the airplane with a major repair to its landing gear that had been unglued from its spar cap during a hard landing from its previous owner. He had worked hard on it all winter long, under tarps on the back porch, barely protected from the cold and snow, with heat lamps providing the heat to cure the glue! Yes, I was a spoiled kid. I hung around and watched and did some scraping (carefully peeling away varnish and cleaning up joints to re-glue) and a bit of woodwork, too.
When it was ready to fly, I got checked out in it from an Air Canada pilot who had let me build time in his Aeronca Champ. I set out on the trip, crossing familiar ground that I had flown over in the past season. It was an amazing flight where the cool autumn air and the fall colors lent an aura to the vastness of the country that you could only experience traveling by air. I remarked how limited it seemed that most people were forced to track a cement line to get where they wanted to go, whereas I was free to set a course by compass and just point to where I wanted to go. This blew me away. No speed traps (I was a bit of a speed junkie on a motorcycle), no lights, no traffic congestion, just aim and go! I never went much above a thousand feet above ground on that trip because I was so buzzed by just watching the odd truck on Hwy 417 get left behind, realizing, that even with a headwind, I was many miles an hour faster than them (at least, it felt faster!), in part, by cutting the corner of the Ottawa Valley, north of the city on the Quebec side of the Ottawa river towards Pembroke. It was a very modest trip compared to what I’d now define as a long cross-country — but back then, it really made an impression.
This was my first aircraft that set me on many wondrous flights across eastern Canada, gaining valuable experience in cross-country flying and basic aerobatics. Built of wood and fabric, it had good performance and desirable flying qualities powered by an “armstrong” Continental A65-8. (Being unfamiliar with the term, I asked, and learned that an armstrong engine basically means that it’s hand propped, so it needs strong arms. – Ed.)
Ever since that cross-country and many others, I have never lost that thrill of flying small aircraft across our lands. This is one of the reasons why I like to fly to places like Oshkosh and SUN ‘n FUN — that the trip is almost better than the destination. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll see that may or may not be different from the time before. Some great places are just arbitrarily discovered, where you take note of a restaurant or landing strip that you’ll have to visit again the next time you’re through that way. Killarney, Ontario, is a fine example. Best fish n’ chips in the world!
You can just imagine how excited (and envious) I was to meet Mack Rutherford, 16, from Belgium, who recently earned the title of being the youngest person ever to fly around the world in a single-engine piston aircraft. Not only did Mack earn this record, but his sister, Zara, also holds the record for the youngest woman, at 19, to do the same thing! They come from a family of fliers whose dad, Sam, specializes in ferrying aircraft across the Atlantic and to distant remote parts like Africa. I had the chance of meeting all three of them on different occasions over the past two summers when both Zara and Mack flew their Shark aircraft, solo, through Montreal on their journeys. My partner, Sandrine, volunteered as their handling agent for their short stays. Each youngster did their flights under the watchful eyes of their parents, entirely on their own with their only “guidance” as a form of remote dispatch. Talk about miles travelled and places and sights seen — at such a young stage in their lives! I remarked at times to others and openly asked how they’d eventually re-adjust to normal life after such a trip? How they’d feel sitting in a class at university and stay interested in what the professor was lecturing? I, for one, would be addicted to the open road (or airways in this case), very less travelled and would have a really hard time sticking to a program after seeing so much.
Cross-country flying offers much more than you’d think. It’s a confidence builder. Imagine how confident Mack and Zara now feel after conquering the world! When you’re away from the nest, you’re on your own. You’re left to your own devices. You have to plan ahead, how you’ll get to and from the airport, where you’ll sleep, how you’ll get fuel and food for the next leg, etc. It requires a lot of planning on the go. It’s one of the elements that’s removed from my job as an airline pilot, and for good reason. If you had to do all of this planning you’d soon burn out from all the calls and paperwork. That’s what dispatch and crew scheduling is for. It takes a lot of time and effort to plan any trip, especially so once you cross a frontier into another country. Procedures change, but the basics remain the same — fuel, food, and rest, pretty much in that order. However, when you’re traveling on your own and limited to your own measures for planning the flight, you’re forced to make it happen, literally, on the fly. I remember one particularly funny moment ferrying an Aeronca Champ from Edmonton to Montreal (I was on a really tight schedule), yelling into a cell phone above the din of the Champ’s engine trying to get the “fuel man” to come out to the airport in Kamsack, Saskatchewan. Over and over I repeated “Fuel, I need fuel!” only to give up and hope for the best that he showed up. He did, and lent us some jerrycans to go get the fuel at a local gas station. He turned out to be the mayor of this very small town who seldom ever saw anyone come through the airport. The airport was in such a state of disrepair (The “shack” there changed how I logged the destination in the logbook from Kamsack to Kamshack) — that it’s doubtful very many aircraft considered it as an airport with any services at all. Weeds abounded across the fractured asphalt tarmac. Mice were rampant in the shack where we mapped out the next leg of the trip with real maps spread out on the floor — real flight planning! It might have been a mess, but it certainly didn’t lack character. The people were friendly and offered up a helping hand. I initially picked it as a fuel stop because it was immediately adjacent to the town — a must when you have doubts about a getting a lift. Anything over a mile on foot is a mile too many when you’re pressed to get to the next airport or dying for something to eat!
At the same time it’s taxing, it’s also rewarding to get to where you’re going with the least amount of delay and hassle. That requires you to think ahead and get the information to make informed decisions. Today, that’s easier than ever with the internet and applications on your phone, for instance, like My Radar which allows you to immediately get a glimpse of the weather that lies ahead. A moving picture beats a weather map any day. Although I am not a techno geek like most, I do find these tools really save valuable time — most of which is now wasted on the phone waiting for a flight service specialist to answer. The wait times seem to be longer now. If you hear “You are currently the third caller on the line, please wait for the next available specialist,” you might as well hang up, swing the prop, and get going before the weather arrives! Sometimes the weather fronts move fast and it’s up to you to get around them or on the ground quickly and (if possible) in a hangar or if that’s not an option, just stay on the ground and let the bad stuff pass.
Sandrine recently took the Cessna 140 to Florida for the winter months. She did the trip from Montreal in two days, which was really good time considering Hurricane Ian was lurking to the south of the peninsula, threatening to wreak havoc on either coast. In the end, both coasts were really pummeled, but she was fortunate enough to have the airplane under cover in central Florida just before the hurricane hit! This is often the case with hurricanes, that just before or after they hit, the weather surrounding them is CAVOK (Ceiling and Visibility OK). It seems that most of the surrounding weather gets sucked up into the low-pressure system, allowing the highs nearby to drift in. So on her trip down, she had the benefit of clear skies and a tailwind for most of the way. East to west (or vice versa) is a different kettle of fish, for the predominant westerlies move the fronts across your route. It’s all basic stuff, but you’ll only really experience weather if you make the effort to go somewhere that’s off your local path. That’s a big part of the learning curve to long-distance flying. Weather changes; your route is altered. Years ago (again, in the MiniCab) I was forced to put the airplane down in a farmer’s field near Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, (Three Rivers) when I got low on fuel and encountered lower ceilings and visibility with the approach of a warm front. I was a novice and it didn’t help at the time that my compass ran afoul by me putting the headset up against it on the dash while crossing the federal protected park (Parc des Laurentides) — its speaker magnets threw it way off course, putting me tens of miles south of where I expected to exit the park. I didn’t notice the swing because I was just relieved to have it off; it was uncomfortable and the change in noise was hardly noticeable. It was only there for about 20 minutes, but that’s more than enough time to really lose your bearings. I was also flying low. Suffice to say, the hard lesson learned is to always keep your headset away from the compass (if you take it off) and fly high enough over rough terrain to correctly map your way. Map reading at low altitude is an art that’s really compromised if you are too low, by not seeing far enough over the next hill to recognize the difference between a lake or river that’s hidden behind it. This is where bush pilots excel, due mostly to revisiting the land time and again to and from the outpost that they frequent. Your eyes get used to picking out the landmarks even in the most adverse weather. It also helps to keep a watchful eye on your current position with a finger tracing your progress on the map. Lose it, and you’ll have a rough time regaining your bearings to your next anticipated crossing point. Don’t be shy to make those marks on the map. Make it a point to have one as a back-up to your fancy iPad with moving map. Batteries do die, chargers fail. Give it a try the next time you’re over rough terrain and force yourself not to rely solely on the GPS, which may give up the ghost one day when the signal is lost.
I referred to it earlier that I still hope to fly around the world. I am planning on doing the trip in a Piper Twin Comanche that left the factory on the day I was born! Hopefully the cost of fuel won’t hinder the dream. There are ways around that, sponsors being an option. I’ll have to plaster the airplane with stickers and at least get the fuel subsidized. In the meantime, I’ll keep burning my own avgas to stay sharp. It’ll be several years anyway before the airplane is up for the challenge. If you are up to it, give some long flights a try (though not necessarily around the world). Get out there and get the cobwebs off the airplane and go somewhere! You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn along the way.
John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal, is a self-proclaimed airport bum. When he isn’t in the saddle at the airline, he can be found out at the airfield doing any number of things. He likes to fly gliders, practice aerobatics, work on airplanes, and fix stuff.