My bags are packed, Iím ready to go. XSL is standing flat-footed on three skis, fueled and eager to launch. The back seat of the Challenger contains snowshoes, tent, sleeping bag, stove and food. Iíve left out the kitchen sink to make room for a steamer trunk full of clothes. And, of course, there's my laptop PC. The portages of the couriers du bois must have been arduous indeed, lugging backpacks full of spare batteries!
Itís the third Thursday in February and the Challenger Owners Association is holding its Seventh Annual Ski Fly-in this weekend near Montreal. The site is the Chateau Vaudreuil, a most civilized facility which requires none of the gear Iím carrying! However, this trip will extend for a week beyond the fly-in and years of devoted practice have made me an accomplished overpacker. ďTravel heavy!Ē is my motto.
The weather forecast for tomorrow and Saturday is horrendous. Every imaginable form of winter nastiness is on the agenda. Today though a large high pressure area stretches from where we are, Barrie, north of Toronto near Georgian Bay, to where we want to be, Montreal. Itís a balmy minus 7 under the brilliant sun.
The sky is that perfect winter blue, the ground a pure dazzling white. Oops! Houston, we have a problem! The ground isnít a pure dazzling white - itís shades of brown! Frozen dirt and dead grass extend as far as the eye can see. The snowís all gone! Was it stolen by mischievous elves? Weíre high and dry! Calls to points along the route confirm that theyíre pretty much in the same state.
What to do? What will we do? I rummage around the hangar, driven by dim memories of artifacts stashed in a corner when XSL was brand new. Letís see, they were black, round and, oh yes, made of rubber. It seems to me there were three of them.
Here they are! Wheels! Iíve only ever operated the Challenger on skis and amphibious floats, I wonder how these wheel things work? Rick from Zlin Aerospace holds up each wing in turn while I make the swap.
A half hour later XSL is standing round-footed on three tires, still fueled and still eager to launch. With the floor to ceiling baggage, the back is reminiscent of the cargo hold of a C-130 Hercules. Dave Allan has kindly offered to pick up the skis tomorrow night as he drives to Montreal in his truck. Hmm, maybe I could get the truck in the back seat!
The new plan is to fly the first three hundred miles today, finishing up at Cedars Airport on the western edge of Montreal. On Saturday morning Dave and I will slip the skis back on XSL for the final four miles to Chateau Vaudreuil and the fly-in.
A three hundred mile cross country in an ultralight should have the pilot thinking about refueling. On wheels in this neck of the woods that will best be done someplace with a runway. On skis or amphibs we have much more flexibility since we can land at airports plus anyplace white or anyplace wet. For example, on skis we could land in a snow-covered field near a gas station. On floats there are multitudinous marinas to choose from. Pit stops are also easier on floats or skis since we can alight virtually anytime the need arises.
The flight will track somewhat south of the great circle route. This will keep the wheels over relatively friendly terrain and put airports under us regularly for filling XSLís tank and emptying my own. The winds aloft forecast suggests one fuel stop which I pencil in for Kingston, the halfway mark.
Over the years Iíve tried to avoid target fixation. If the final destination is unattainable due to winds or weather then I like to view ending up elsewhere as an adventure rather than an inconvenience. Likewise, if things are going better than plan, Iíll bypass intermediate stops and keep on going.
At the crack of noon I advance the throttle and the Challenger leaps into the air. Hmm, we probably couldíve lifted Daveís truck! With the nose pointing just south of east we zoom on up and park at 5,500 feet. The GPS unveils a fifteen mile per hour tailwind component to boost our true air speed of eighty-something. None of the low and slow stuff today, weíre going high and fast. Variety is the spice of life!
The sunís behind us so thereís no greenhouse effect to warm the cabin. This is why heaterís were invented! I sit comfortably in my perch, coat open, gloves off. XSL floats motionless in the perfectly smooth air while the scenery slides by below at a hundred miles per hour.
The light gray ice of Lake Simcoe gives way to black farm fields bordered by bare trees. A layer of clouds slips between us and the monochrome world below. Peterborough peeks through the cracks then falls behind. We cross a river with a stripe of open water down the center, surgically cut by the fast current of the deep channel.
One hour and one hundred miles into the flight the tower at Trenton clears us to transit their control zone. A real C-130 is doing circuits, Iíll bet its pilots are enjoying themselves too! The winds aloft forecaster was pessimistic, miles are clicking by faster than expected. Clear of the militaryís airspace I key 126.7 into the radio. Kingston Flight Service kindly phones Brockville airport and confirms that theyíre open and have fuel. Thank you Kingston Radio, weíll stop in another day.
I nudge the nose to the left until itís just north of east. This will take the sharp point off the dogleg and bring our track closer to the great circle. Even with the unlimited visibility there is now not a single cloud perceptible. Near Gananoque Lake I realize I could count the Thousand Islands to the south. Better not, what if there were only nine hundred and ninety-nine and all the maps had to be changed!
Two hours and two hundred miles into the flight the runway at Brockville is dead ahead. XSL doesnít need fuel and my tank has space remaining. Weíre still at 5,500 feet and our friend the tailwind has obviously decided to travel to Montreal with us. My captainís lounge is very comfy and Iím deep in the Zen of cross country. Thereíll be no pit stop here either.
Brockville disappears behind and in a while is replaced by Iroquois. If this was July 5th XSL would be wearing amphibs and weíd be descending to land at the Summer Fly-in of the Challenger Owners Association. Itís still February though and Iím known for showing up late not early. We continue following the St. Lawrence River eastward.
The silhouette of Ottawaís downtown is easily visible 45 miles off the left wing. The snow covered peak of Whiteface Mountain looms 75 miles off to the right in the Adirondacks of New York. Cornwall comes into sight. This is the last chance for gas until Cedars. A few calculations, very careful calculations, determine distance and time to check against fuel remaining. Are my legs crossed yet? No! Letís go for it, Cedars here we come!
Three hours and three hundred miles into the flight the runway at Cedars is visible. I throttle back on the descent to conserve fuel, purchasing airspeed with altitude. Itíll be a straight-in entry to downwind. We reach circuit height exactly as we reach the circuit.
The left turn onto base is the first time Iíve actually moved the controls since leveling off at 5,500 feet three hours ago. The banks to change heading a few degrees at a time were effected with pressures rather than motions. With the airplane trimmed, little more than thought waves are required to remain straight and level.
The left turn onto final is the sixth and last turn of this flight. Many of my Challenger flights take place a mile lower than this one, XSL flitting left and darting right, taking in sight after sight, making five or ten or even twenty landings and takeoffs on snow or water. All just for the simple pleasure.
Touchdown at Montreal is three hours and five minutes after lifting off near Georgian Bay over three hundred miles ago. Three plus twenty after startup the engine falls silent. I remain in the cockpit for a long while, savoring the feeling. No earthling disrupts the reverie. The feeling of being very satisfied is, well, very satisfying. If I smoked, Iíd have a cigarette.
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