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Challenger Owners Winter Fly-in: Growing Fast!
Text By Claude Roy, Director, ICOA Canada
Photographs By Bryan Quickmire,
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The February 2004 issue of COPA Flight had on the cover page in bold letters "Canadian Ultralights Number One Again". On the weekend of 31st January - 1st February 2004, the 14th Annual Challenger Winter Rendez-Vous showed why ultralights represent the fastest growth segment of Canadian Aviation. Over 200 Challenger enthusiasts joined in a festive mood at Chateau Montebello mid-way between Ottawa and Montreal. In addition to the large crowd from across Canada (including Newfoundland!) the event also drew delegates from the United States.
What makes this particularly remarkable is that the venue for the event is a hotel situated well away from major population centers, thus requiring a special effort on the part of those wishing to attend. And this in the middle of Canadian winter! The Chateau is a great destination as well as an unusual place to serve as a fly-in destination as there is no airport anywhere nearby. However Challenger pilots don't store their planes for the winter - they put them on skis and fly them! The Ottawa River becomes a miles long runway and the Chateau's naturally protected harbor a perfect tie-down spot.
This event so eloquently states the type of flying experience enjoyed by Challenger owners. It is completely removed from the stifling regimentation of control towers and runways! It takes aircraft ownership to a higher plane (pun intended!) and is a goal to dream of, and to realize. Organized annually by ICOA Canada, the Canadian Branch of the International Challenger Owners Association, this premiere winter event is held at the largest log structure in the world, the Chateau Montebello. The Chateau has an abundance of charm and a casual "après-ski" atmosphere. Guests are usually found outside milling around the airplanes or inside congregating in the circular lobby, chatting around the 60 foot high, six-sided stone fireplace. It is no wonder why ICOA Canada, one of the biggest and most active flying groups in this country, has adopted Chateau Montebello as its Winter Headquarters.
A couple of trends have developed at the Montebello event. One is that it's not just a guy's weekend anymore. This year, the vast majority of flyers, male or female, were with a partner and some had their whole family in tow. In addition to the Challenger excitement, the Chateau offers a full range of winter activities - everything from cross-country skiing to dog sledding to swimming. (Yes, swimming - in the indoor Olympic size pool!) Not to mention the world-class spa facilities.
The other trend is the number of repeat flyers returning to Montebello each year to pass on their valuable wisdom to newer owners and hopefuls. The experienced owners have a true sense of community and the newer ones benefit from this "big brother" support. Many owners first come to Montebello as Challenger wannabes, and then they show up the next year as Challenger builders. The crowning achievement for many is to fly their own Challenger to Montebello. What a thrill! Of course even better is the ultimate step: to lead a flock of Challengers to this "Mecca" of winter flying!
This year the weather, although problematic for long distance flyers, did eventually cooperate for the Ottawa-Montreal locals. It started with occasional snow, strong winds and marginal visibility on Friday but was followed by gradual clearing on Saturday and finished up with a postcard-perfect day on Sunday. In total some 22 Challengers on skis made their way to the Chateau's docking facilities in the sheltered marina. A number of non-Challengers also came calling bringing the total number of aircraft to around 30.
Every year the Rendez-Vous has a focusing theme. This year it was " What's your adventure? " and, judging by the stories heard throughout the weekend, there are many adventures to be had in a four-season plane like the Challenger.
This 14th edition had 3 top-notch forums on the agenda. In keeping with "What's your Adventure?", Dr. André Girard from Ottawa, ON, wanted to attend last spring's annual Sun 'n' Fun Fly-in in Lakeland, Florida. So he did - he flew his Challenger there and back! In an excellent multi-media presentation André described the pleasures of planning and flying an over 3,000 mile trip in an "ultralight" - from winter to summer and back again to the Canadian winter. He also showed the people in attendance through his beautiful photography, the wonders of flying low and slow over long distances.
An equally entertaining session was given by Dr. Jay Mercer, also from Ottawa, ON. As a Certified Aviation Medical Examiner (CAME), Jay discussed Human Factors, concentrating on the theme of the day: flying ultralights in winter. Jay went a step beyond simply talking: he made the session interactive. He used a volunteer from the floor to demonstrate how easy you can overload one's brain when many factors combine at once. Jay's presentation demonstrated the importance of preparing for flight and using the well-known "I'M SAFE" personal checklist (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Emotions).
After a pause-café and some meandering amongst the ultralight-oriented displays along the hotel's mezzanine, the third session was a discussion panel including comments and questions from the crowd. Panelists were representatives from the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), the Ultralight Pilots Association of Canada (UPAC) and Transport Canada.
Frank Hofmann of COPA and the International Council of Aircraft and Owners Associations (IAOPA) gave his perspective on where Canadian recreational aviation fits into the global picture. He focused on three main subjects (1) general trends in Canada and around the world; (2) the new concept of Threat and Error Management; and (3) ultralight maintenance by their owners. Frank emphasized safety, but also responsibility from aircraft owners, no matter what the size and capabilities of their own aircraft.
Kathy Lubitz, President of UPAC, emphasized the promotion of ultralight safety through the dissemination of information via UPAC's series of how-to manuals, monthly newsletters and solid web presence.
Arlo Speer, the national Director of Recreational Aviation and Special Flight Operations at Transport Canada, covered ultralight passenger carrying and the overall improving safety record of ultralights in Canada.
Arlo recognized the Challenger Rendez-Vous as a safety-enhancing event by announcing that attendance fulfilled the requirements for Transport Canada's Recurrent Training Program thereby renewing the attendees' pilot licenses for a further two years. The qualification is based on broad-range and balanced coverage of flight planning, human factors, and weather, plus rules and regulations.
Present with display booths at Montebello were Aviation Récréative du Québec, National Ultralight's Challenger dealer for Quebec, as well as Turbulence Aviation, producers of Challenger accessories, and DATUM Inc, which manufactures retractable wheel/skis for Challengers. The COPA booth distributed copies of COPA's monthly Canadian Flight publication. Garth Wallace from Happy Landings, a long-time aviation author and publisher, took pleasure in presenting his new book "If Clouds Could Talk", an irreverent and humorous look at corporate aviation. New this year was Kett Enterprises, with Karen and Greg Kett offering Challenger-related clothing, mainly toques and long-sleeve T-shirts bearing a distinctive Montebello Winter Fly-in logo. Completing the round of commercial displays was ROTAX engines and their main Eastern Canada representatives, Daniel Sasseville and Julien Mauroy.
In contrast with the afternoon's more serious tone, the evening banquet is a perfect blend of gala and relaxation. The Chateau's chefs outdid themselves with a most delicious buffet. In keeping with the weekend's theme of " What's your adventure? ", people were encouraged to engage with each other and team up into voyages that extend their own personal flying boundaries. Whether big or small, these "expand your envelope" adventures are designed to make people explore new venues and increase their flying knowledge and experience, making you a better pilot in the long run.
As was repeated by many, this particular event is the very best opportunity for Challenger enthusiasts to gather information and acquire or renew friendships. Challenger owners present ranged from those who had never flown at all before acquiring their Challengers to many with thousands of hours logged in everything from light aircraft to airliners and even supersonic fighters. These owners mingled freely with the many non-owners who were there to discover. The idea of a banquet with big round tables and no reserved seating certainly encourages newcomers to meet and hear from the more experienced flyers, fostering this idea of a community gathering amongst flyers.
Following the superb meal, Bryan Quickmire and Ian Coristine, co-owners of National Ultralight, presented an overview of the business side of the Challenger. To date over 3,000 Challengers have been manufactured! In Canada alone in the last six months sales totaled 33 complete new Challenger kits as well as 15 tail/wings starter packages for those going the kit-by-section route. These 48 new Challenger owners bring the Canadian total to around 500, which clearly makes the design the most popular by far in our country. With both the US and Canadian economies on an upward swing and with the upsurge of the Canadian dollar, sales are so strong now that the factory backlog is 14 to 16 weeks. National Ultralight does have a limited number of earlier deliveries available which are sold on a first come first served basis.
The awards ceremony started with recognition of the 22 Challenger owners who flew in to the event. Then there was the presentation of ICOA trophies to convey accolades to especially worthy owners from their peers. As there were several pilots from essentially equal distances, the winner of the "Farthest Flown" Award was given to Dr. André Girard whose marvelous 4,000 km flight from Ottawa to Florida last March proved the decisive tie breaker. The "Best Show Plane" Award went by popular vote to Ron Johnson, an Air Canada Airbus Captain who spends his days off flying for fun in his beautiful "Eagle" - a 2000 Challenger II.
ICOA Canada's most prestigious Award is the "Maurice Vinet Memorial Award". This Award honours a Challenger pilot who exemplifies the passion for flight of the late Maurice Vinet whose company PuddleJumper Floats opened up new realms of pleasure for Challenger owners worldwide. Patrick Vinet, Maurice's son and operator of PuddleJumper Floats Inc., presented the award to Doug and Denise Gagnon of Nanoose Bay, BC. . Denise and Doug exemplify the ICOA theme "What's Your Adventure?" and together they have discovered the special passion for flight of Maurice Vinet.
Doug and Denise are the middle of three generations of flying Gagnon's. Doug has 28,000 hours of air force and airline time and is presently a Boeing 777 captain. Denise has 28 hours! For decades she was a pilot's wife, a pilot's mother, even a pilot's daughter-in-law but never was motivated to learn to fly herself. The Challenger changed all that and she's now working on her Ultralight Pilot Permit!
The Gagnon's started their Challenger careers in June 2003 in Barrie, ON. In short order they were flying all over Southern Ontario together. When they purchased a home on Vancouver Island the question arose: "What are you going to do about your Challenger?" Their answer was instantaneous: "We'll fly it out there!"
In September the two of them took off together on a second honeymoon in their Challenger - from Barrie, Ontario a grand 4,000 km trip to Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. They flew along the north shore of Lake Superior, across the prairies, through the Rockies, and over the Strait of Georgia. Their ground speed across windy Saskatchewan was 29 mph! They sent back some great pictures of the Challenger in the Rockies at 9,300 feet and still surrounded by granite! What did Doug and Denise do enroute during weather delays? Remember it was a honeymoon!
The banquet attendees were left inspired to have such adventures themselves! Opportunities will arise this coming summer on the Challenger float tour to the Quebec North Shore. With beautiful, rugged geography, the St-Lawrence estuary expands into the Gulf of St-Lawrence. As soon as you pass the mouth of the Saguenay River, you are confronted with some of the best ultralight bush flying you can imagine. The flight will proceed past Baie-Comeau, Sept-Iles, until the paved road ends near Natashquan, QC. Flyers will be visiting Havre-St-Pierre, the Mingan Archipelago and Anticosti Island, Canada's best deer preserve.
How can we best sum up this 14th edition of the Winter Weekend Rendez-Vous? First of all, this event continues to grow in leaps and bounds. There is a definite desire in the Challenger community to get together in the middle of the winter and Montebello is filling this need perfectly. On the other hand, the organization now faces the beautiful dilemma of having reached the Chateau's maximum group limit. Unfortunately, some who had not pre-booked for the banquet had to be turned away. It has become that popular!
The ICOA Winter Rendez-Vous is not just unique as being Canada's only single make winter ski fly-in, in a season when most planes sit idle, but it is undoubtedly the best attended winter event in the country. The high quality of the aircraft and owners attending (many are very senior pilots from general, commercial and military aviation), the presentations and the relaxed atmosphere go hand-in-hand with the quality of the venue. If you are thinking of coming to join the fun at Montebello 2005, here is a word to the wise: book your hotel reservations and your banquet tickets early!
Refresh your memory with pictures and narratives from Rendezvous past:
Montebello Montage |
2002: The Full Montebello
1998: Montebello Meet Magnificent
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