|It started with a dream... or was it the video?
I can't quite recall. It doesn't matter anyway since both the dream and
the reality of a Challenger are so interwoven. All I wanted was a ride.
I never actually wanted to buy one. After all, I'm a real pilot commanding
a real airplane - a Cessna 172.
I book a demo flight with Mr. Challenger himself - Bryan Quickmire
of National Ultralight Inc.
After the usual formalities and walkaround I strap myself in the back. The seating is a bit tight but cozy. Once airborne however the wraparound windows provide a wide open feeling. Suddenly the seating doesn't matter as I feel more like an eagle than a passenger, able to see stunning vistas on three sides of the aircraft.
The warmup and taxi are non-eventful, as can be expected. But the takeoff - now that is remarkably short. We may have even been at circuit altitude by the end of the runway! It's very comforting knowing of this plane's capability of extremely short takeoffs and landings.
We proceed to the north country, away from metropolitan Barrie. We then drop down to what seems like just a few hundred feet agl. "Check out the wildlife", Bryan tells me. There they are - deer, turkeys, bears and tigers. Well, deer and turkeys anyway. We circle low and slow in some of the most beautiful countryside, spotting the animals grazing in the grass below. "Can this be for real?", I find myself uttering.
On the way to Wasaga Beach, Bryan demonstrates some of the capabilities of this little winged warrior. "Pick a point on the ground and watch us circle around it". I stare at some crossroads and am amazed at the tightness as we spin around on a dime - in total control. This capability could come in handy one day.
Next, a full power stall. Bryan throttles up and raises the nose
- higher, higher - slower, slower.
Over Georgian Bay we spiral down to about 30 feet above the water and cruise just offshore along Wasaga's white sandy beach. It is the off-season so only the residents are out walking their dogs, smiling and excitedly waving at us in envy at the fun we were having. "Hey Bryan, think of all the young ladies out here in their skimpy bikinis in a couple months!" He replies: "We're still having more fun." He's right.
Back over land and down low we approach a wooded area. My tour guide asks what I think would happen if he cuts the throttle. "Trees approaching and you think this is a good idea, eh?" He pulls back the lever and raises his hands so I can see there's no stick handling here. Incredibly, the nose lifts and we rise above the thicket. Clearly, the nuances of a pusher prop and high thrust line need be mastered to take full advantage of this plane's capabilities.
Enough for one day, we head back. But before we do, one more item: soaring. Bryan finds a thermal, cuts right into it, power to idle and we ride it up, breaking out just under a cloud several thousand feet up. Engine virtually off, we glide all the way back to the airport for a perfect landing! I'm speechless.
This plane is truly remarkable. It is extremely well behaved, very forgiving and a sheer pleasure to fly. It seems to have a life of its own and instinctively seems to know what to do. My dream is fuelled.
Another flight some months later takes us on amphibs for water landings. We depart the airpark and head over to Barrie's Little Lake. Our landing is smooth as glass. Taking off, the Challenger effortlessly exceeds any demands put on it. Two grown men, a tank of gas plus floats and this machine once again reaches for the sky in a bid to do as its pilot asks.
Without even the slightest hesitation, we climb out, then shortly thereafter, drop again to maybe flight level 100 feet over the water, to view the magnificent lakefront homes on Lake Simcoe. Bryan scouts around to find the wind direction, sets up and puts the Challenger down in another silky smooth touchdown on the water. I can get used to this. Too soon time's up and we head back to the airport.
Clearly, this is not your family C-172 or any other 'real' airplane, for that matter. In fact, the Challenger is simply awesome, a word I use very sparingly.
Fast forward….. by the time you read this, it will have been about a year and a half that I will have owned my very own, brand new Challenger II.
The Challenger comes as a kit but I had no inclination to piece it together. "Not a problem", Bryan tells me. He recommends Steve Busby and his company, Aerolite Flight Services near Smiths Falls. We meet, strike up the terms and soon enough, C-ILEX, named after my kids, is born. Steve built my plane with the utmost skill, care and professionalism; a perfect plane, to be sure.
I then have one minor concern. Up till now, all my experience has been with tractors - planes with the engines out front. The Challenger turns out to be everything claimed but I still need instructions on how to pilot this baby without bending anything. Hence, I am introduced to a man who has logged thousands of hours on Challengers: Claude Roy.
After only one day with me at the helm, Claude and I take off from Runway 24 in Smiths Falls, to bring this young bird home to her new nest in St. Catharines. We leave Steve the builder waving goodbye as his latest pride and joy heads west.
My Challenger and I have since become best of friends. Oh, we've had our moments to be sure but we have a mutual respect for each other. I maintain her impeccably and she brings me countless hours of pure joy.
Give me an hour and you'll find me cruising along Niagara's world renowned vineyards, listening on my mp3 to great flying tunes like Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings'. I meander up the mighty Niagara River with Seals and Crofts' 'Hummingbird' filling my ears. 'Breezin' by George Benson is the perfect accompaniment to dance with the sailboats on Lake Erie on a warm summer's day! Ahhh… Life is good!
Perhaps even more rewarding is seeing the smiles on the faces of my passengers, like my 15 year old daughter Lexi, as we fly over a wonder of the world - Niagara Falls'. This too, is another moment I've relived a thousand times!
But remember - I never wanted to buy a Challenger. If the truth be known, it bought me. There are occasions I'd like to fly somewhere far and wide and a faster plane would get me there, well, faster. But for pure flying pleasure in a most docile, affordable aircraft, the Challenger is the definitive answer.
All that said, they really ought to put a label on that video: "WARNING: This video is addictive and may transform dreams of flight into reality. Side effects include…" See you on Cloud 9!