They whipped around the bend in the river, flying low, banking steeply, two of them coming at a steady pace. It was difficult to see them clearly because it was snowing lightly, a remnant of a fierce winter storm the night before. Visibility was 4 miles at best, but improving.
Flying in loose formation, the follower bobbled in an invisible but gentle wake from the leader, both birds trading altitude like playful kids in a bunkhouse; nothing odd about their movements, but they were intriguing to look at.
People ice fishing on the Ottawa River, bantering and just enjoying the day, turned their heads skyward, eyeing the flyers with curiosity. Restauranteurs inside the nearby Château Montebello interrupted their cozy meals to watch them.
These airborne anomalies had huge wingspans that dominated their profiles, carrying magnificent beaks and taloned feet that gave them a balanced appearance. Circling, they were about to land.
On closer inspection these weren't birds at all. They were aircraft, somewhat diminutive but fully robust in their own right. These were Challengers - an appropriate name for flying machines with such panache.
Their beaks resembled fighter-plane nose cones that contributed to a streamlined and utilitarian silhouette. Their clawed feet were in fact skis that added stability and versatility needed in a sometimes harsh and variable flying environment.
The snow was very deep on the Ottawa that day. The river's edge afforded some ease of mobility for overland travelers - sheltered by a treed skyline north of the river - but it was still tough slogging for most who ventured outside.
A dog team was stopped in its tracks due to the deep snow. Cross-country skiers slowed their march along the bank, tired from breaking trail. Snowmobile riders throttled up constantly, finding their machines sinking in the deep accumulation.
But the snow didn't deter the aircraft. These adaptable enclosed-cockpit planes were on final approach to touchdown on a thick blanket of fluffy powder. They were the first to arrive and inaugurate a runway.
The audience, no doubt, was watching to see how the planes would fare in making a landing strip out of knee-deep snow.
The lead Challenger skimmed the surface, a wing's length above the river. It's engine was running a half throttle, enough to maintain a cruising momentum. The second aircraft was not too far behind.
People on the ground could see firsthand that the landing surface was hazardous; after all, they themselves were in the thick of it, plowing through the overnight build-up that bogged down their forward progress.
Surely the pilots of these airplanes knew better than to land in such conditions.
Blasts of engine power thrust the planes up at a steep angle, a wise move considering the detrimental nature of the off-airport landing strip they chose. The Challengers winged away, allowing the observers to once more concentrate on their previous activities.
The two aircraft engines sounded out of synchrony, eventually dissipating into a fading, congruent hum.
The sled dogs sensed something first. Uncommanded they halted on shore, staring into the snow-laden sky, blinking to fend off the flakes that gently brushed their eyes. A shadow passed overhead. The aircraft was steady, determined and coasting in a well practiced glide.
Another followed soon after. The ultralights had returned. The lead plane was breathtaking. From nose to tail, it was fit for flight.
Its skis had a slight upward tilt, wide and reassuring, prepared to cushion the plane in its transition from air to ground. Its wings rocked a little with gentle inputs from the pilot. Its flaps and ailerons moved as one unit on the trailing edge of each wing, deflecting the air to stabilize roll.
Its pusher propeller idly windmilled, a resting heartbeat ready to power up and feed lift in an instant, should the landing be balked. But this pilot was sure and determined, the rudder and elevator moving harmoniously in noticeable deflections akin to a jet landing on a carrier.
Onlookers paused again and held their breaths; two feet of freshly fallen snow on the ice provided virtually no support for even the best snow-machines.
The pilot held the airplane off for a moment, floating on a cushion of air. Sliding on an invisible laminar layer in ground effect, he leveled the plane to skim the surface - not a blip from the engine or a change in aircraft attitude - not one indication of nervous airmanship.
The Challenger settled ever so slightly in its powdery world and taxied with ease - marked by a snowy rooster tail in defiance of the elements - administered by healthy doses of authoritative rudder inputs and judicious applications of throttle.
The trailing plane landed in much the same fashion, reinforcing a footprint on the river that beckoned all to join in the fun. A runway was forming.
People gathered on the ice to welcome the aviators when everyone noticed an advancing flock in the distance, rolling in, sweeping around the bend in the river. There was no mistaking their identity this time.
They flew as close to nature as aircraft could; respecting the airspace they cherished; recognizing the sanctity of flight; adapting - after all, they were Challengers.
Webmaster's Words: This short aviation adventure story of Paul's is inspired by an actual event - the annual Challenger Owners Association Winter Rendezvous.
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