|That Sunday started with me waking before
the sun was up. It was the day, the day I had waited 40 years for. ...
I had always wanted to fly like they did in the old days, lots of stick and rudder, low and slow, with the smell of hay and cow poop in my nostrils. I had flown in airliners and Cessnas, but the idea of flying from airport to airport way above the ground had never been much of an attraction to me.
That memorable Sunday saw me arrive at Carleton Place Airport just west of Ottawa to meet with Claude Roy, one of Canada's foremost ultralight flyers and teachers. Claude has thousands of hours flying these aerial toys. When I first walked into his hanger and heard loud, hard rock music coming from his radio I knew we were going to hit it off.
Claude was a major in the CAF at the time but his real passion was teaching people like me how to fly. He introduced me to his mount, a Challenger II amphibious ultralight C-IROY. His plane was painted to resemble a CF-18 in CAF colors - very cool.
I was surprised at the size of this plane. Sitting up on the amphibs the Challenger was a lot bigger than I expected - my only other ultralight experience was to see a Lazair at a shopping centre several years ago and it was about one half the size of this winged wonder.
Claude did a pre-flight check, explaining to me all he was doing and pointing out all of the things he does before taking any neophyte into the sky. He explained emergency procedures and all of the things I could expect as our flight progressed. I couldn't wait.
After getting properly strapped in we taxied to the end of runway 35 and after a few minutes warm up we were off. The plane accelerated nicely and lifted off with Claude weighing in at 180 lbs and me a doughy 200. I thought this was all quite normal at the time being my first flight and all.
There was so much to absorb in the first few minutes and after we got to altitude Claude asked me how I was enjoying the flight so far. Words can not describe the thrill I was feeling at the time. He asked if I was up for a water landing and as I wanted to experience it all I said yeah go for it.
He chopped the throttle and we approached Mississippi Lake. Claude pointed out that landing into the wind is very important and explained how he could tell which way the wind was blowing by looking at flags on the shoreline and by reading the water.
As we got closer to the water I could see boats not too far away and the people on the boats were waving to us. Heck, I waved back as if I did this all the time. My thought at the time was, wow, are we cool or what, I bet those fishermen wish they were up here.
We got closer to the water and I was sure my butt was going to get wet, but finally the floats touched down. The spray started to fly as we splashed through the waves but Claude did not seem at all concerned. He applied full throttle for a touch and go and the plane was airborne again.
This was the point in time where I knew I had to belong to this lifestyle. This was definitely the most exciting thing I had done in my life and it was well worth the 40 year wait.
We returned to the airport and after a very smooth landing, I was shocked to find out we were airborne for forty minutes - it felt like ten. Claude again asked me how I enjoyed the flight. It was hard to talk through the permanent grin on my face. I said sign me up.
I feel very fortunate to have found Claude as an instructor because of his experience in the Challenger and his enthusiasm for teaching dedicated people how to fly. He only teaches six people a year so he can afford to be choosy in who he will bring under his wing. I think he saw in me someone who would not waste his time.
Lessons started the next weekend. I arrived at the airport early to learn a little about the plane. The first thing Claude had me do was to grab one end of the wing and give it a shake, which I did gingerly. He laughed and said to shake it hard, which I did. It looked like a dog shaking water off its body.
This was lesson number one. The Challenger has been around for 20 years and has not had any structural failures. It is built to take a lot of abuse and I would learn to trust in the strength of this little flying machine.
For lesson number two Claude showed me what to look for in the pre-flight check. I payed close attention, as from now on it would be my responsibility to do the pre-flight check before each lesson. He's kidding, right? What the heck do I know about doing a pre-flight.
I was so scared to miss something that my checks, with Claude close behind me, were very thorough and this taught me right from the start to always be as attentive as on that first day. As soon as you get complacent, that's when you could miss something important.
This was my first flight from the front seat and wow, what a difference! The visibility from the front is spectacular and I could see all of the gauges, which in the Challenger is not many. Airspeed, altitude and a few engine gauges are all that is needed. This was my kind of airplane - very simple, like the student.
Claude suggested an easy lesson for the first flight which would allow me to get used to actually flying the plane. We would fly to Smiths Falls Airport, about 20 miles away, and have a bite to eat there before flying back to Carleton Place. I had flown Microsoft flight simulator for years and had a pretty good sense of the theory of flight so I thought flying this toy would be a snap.
After takeoff, where I was in control (although I could feel Claude on the stick and rudder as well), I was all over the place. I worried that Claude was going to vomit due to my over controlling and self-inflicted turbulence. However he took it all in stride and after a few minutes things started to smooth out.
I wasn't over controlling as much and was starting to get a bit of a feel for the plane. Claude pointed over my shoulder which way to go so that's the way I headed., shakily. Approaching Smiths Falls I couldn't see the airport. When Claude pointed it out to me I was surprised to find it was right under our nose.
We entered the circuit with me nervous but in control. With Claude's directions we headed down toward the runway. I felt I was all over the sky and was anticipating the instructor taking over the controls. However Claude said to reduce my speed to 55 mph and set up a glide toward the numbers on the end of the runway.
It went so fast, I didn't have time to think and the next thing I knew we were on the ground with barely a bump. Did I do that? No way Jose. Claude assured me the whole approach and landing was mine with very minimal input from him. Well, hot dog, maybe I can do this after all.
Eating breakfast at the airport with all these pilots around, I started to feel as if I belonged. This is what I have wanted to belong to for so long. Looking around, I could see all of these old salts talking with their hands, telling each other stories that one day I would be telling to new pilots and to anyone else who will listen. Talk about walking on cloud nine.
After breakfast we returned uneventfully to Carleton Place. I felt much more comfortable on the return trip since the plane, for some reason, was much more stable - maybe it was our heavy state of fullness from breakfast. I had no trouble finding the airport and my approach was easier to accomplish.
Claude debriefed me on our lesson and pointed out a few areas I would need to study and prepare for the next flight. All in all I felt like I had accomplished something. The plane seemed to be an extension of my mind. I would think about what inputs were needed and the plane would do what I was thinking.
I spent the rest of the day and a very restless night reliving that morning. My mind would not shut down, but I didn't care. My dreams that night were all about flying. What could be better?
CAN IT REALLY BE THIS EASY?
I knew I could fly, since many pilots I had talked to over the years indicated flying is not hard. Using your head when things get hairy and not panicking when you do screw up is the real secret to being a competent and safe pilot.
Learning all of the rules and regs to become a pilot was going to be the tricky part for me since I was never the most attentive student in school. Growing up, school was not a priority for me - I tried my best to be a straight D student.
Sex and rock 'n roll were my priorities while growing up. I was typical of the times. I wanted to be a hippy, a hockey player and a rock 'n roll roadie, all at the same time. Too bad I wasn't very good at any of them. Like many teenagers, I had all of the answers to life and anyone older than 30 was not to be trusted.
I kind of fell into the rut of a boring and dead end job. After getting married and having a couple of kids this dead end job turned out to pay pretty well and provided me with the security I needed to raise my family.
I put a lot of my dreams on hold at this time just to try to make ends meet, but jeez, I still wanted to fly. The need festered inside of me for many years. I tried to take care of this need by reading anything I could get my hands on about flying and by playing video games that involved flying. I used to hang around the end of the runways at Ottawa International just to be close and hear the noise of the planes taking off and landing.
It was when Microsoft came out with the first Flight Simulator for the PC that I thought I could fill the void. I flew every version that came out, still wishing I could fly the real thing, but being satisfied up to a point.
This wonderful piece of software did more than provide me with hundreds of hours of entertainment, it actually taught me the rudiments and theories of flight. Years later I still think this is the one tool that was most valuable to me in picking up the real thing so quickly.
Anyway, the years passed, my marriage failed. Some time later the woman I was seeing was beyond tired of hearing me talk about how, someday, I was going to learn how to fly. As she put it to me:
"Someday never comes. Get up off your butt and do it already."
Ok, this was all the encouragement I needed. Could I really do this? Within days, I had found out about Claude and his school and away we went.
BACK IN THE COCKPIT
The next few lessons were comprised mostly of circuits, circuits and more circuits, with a few stalls and tight turns thrown in to keep things interesting. Stalls were fun as I loved the feeling of weightlessness as we came over the top. Tight turns were also fun because after a while I could keep my altitude and ride through my own wake turbulence. This to me was very satisfying since it gave you instant feedback on your progress.
After what felt like about two hundred circuits I was getting a really good feel for the way the plane handled. My circuits were textbook. I was getting comfortable with my abilities as a budding ultralight pilot. I knew Claude was getting bored in the back of the plane and I could not feel him on the controls at all anymore.
After 10.2 hours of instruction, a 24-hour ground school, countless circuits and a transition to skis, Claude sent me off solo. Holy cow, this was the day I have waited 40 years for - to take off from the ground and join a very exclusive club of people I have admired and worshipped all of my life. I was soon to become one of them.
I taxied to the end of the runway. My heart was beating so fast I was almost hyperventilating. I needed to relax and think this thing through to make sure I would do everything right and follow the procedures taught to me. Claude's only comment was to be prepared for the faster climb rate without him on board.
I advanced the throttle slowly as I was instructed and the plane accelerated quickly down the runway. Before I knew it the Challenger was off and climbing like Beelzebub was on its tail. I couldn't believe how much of a performance change there was without the weight of the instructor on board. I got to circuit height in about half the time it took with Claude in the back and settled down to do the best circuit possible.
When I reached downwind, I had a moment to savour my accomplishment. I tried to high-five myself, but it's hard to do with only one hand. My right hand had a death grip on the stick that even wild horses couldn't release. I screamed and yahooed my way to the base leg until it was time to concentrate my way to the ground.
I set up a good approach from well back on final and let the plane settle into a good glide slope with very little power adjustments or stick movements. I was remembering Claude's lessons on how a good approach lends itself to a good landing.
I missed his slap to the head to remind me to keep my speed pegged on 55, but the memory of this was enough to keep the speed right on the numbers. I crossed the threshold and noticed Claude in my peripheral vision keeping an eye on me.
I touched down without so much as a bump - at least that's what I remember. My speed bled off and I turned around to taxi back to Claude. He said to go and do three more.
I did three more perfect circuits and then Claude said to go fly around for a half hour and enjoy myself. I went over to Mississippi Lake and flew along the shoreline waving to people. I felt like a real pilot. I was so proud of myself.
After having a dream of flying for so long to finally be able to do it is an incredible accomplishment for me. I will always remember that day as one of the best in my life. Next to the birth of my kids, this is what I am most proud of.
A SEASONED PILOT
Five years later with about 300 hours under my belt I am a seasoned and dedicated ultralight pilot. This is the cure for any mid-life crisis!
I fly on amphibious floats in the summer and wheel/skis in the winter. I have no wish to fly anything bigger. For me flying is for fun. If I had to fly a plane that could only go from airport to airport I don't think I would want to continue.
I fly low over the water, a great runway, miles long. I love to wave to people in boats and in ice fishing shacks. I fly like they did in the old days, lots of stick and rudder, low and slow, with the smell of hay and cow poop in my nostrils. This has been absolutely the most positive thing to happen to me in my life.
I have met people who I will consider my friends forever. I fly regularly with a few guys with the same hours of experience. If they only knew how much I look forward to the days when we all go off somewhere, land on a lake or airport, and tell stories (some might even be true).
I have flown in formations of up to seven aircraft to fly-ins in my area. We are always welcomed warmly. I have remembered most of my instructor's lessons and have written a few new ones for myself.
Now when people come up and ask about my airplane and flying I see myself in some of them. I see the fire in their eyes. I recognize the desire.
I tell them to never give up on their dreams. Dreams can come true. Just look at me.