BC Trip 2005

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We are not exactly sure who came up with this bright idea, a 3-plane flight to the west coast. So the idea began to gather momentum, the route, the logistics, the financials and all that goes along. The time building phase of the commercial flight training has been described by a few instructors as being the most fun. This trip would prove that view correct.

The Crew

Our crew consisted of all pilots, 7 in total. Lorne Hughes (me) just another commercial student and Sathish Andi one of India’s finest (and my trusty copilot for a few legs). Next we have Malik Al-Habsi another commercial pilot and all around character from Oman. It seems that everyone along was pretty colourful in character so these introductions don’t seem to do justice. John Ross (aka JJ) is our Native Canadian buddy and added a lot of humour to our trip; his is a very steady pilot and is also working on his commercial. Robel Demissie was along for the ride as he is finished his commercial (he is from Ethiopia). Also finished his commercial is our other buddy from India, Mudassar Khan. Last but not least is our trusty instructor friend Daniel Haines, he is a very capable instructor and was a great asset on a trip like this.

Day One

From the start the weather was not to be our friend, we had hoped to be up and enroute at dawn. The forecast looked like a potentential scrub the prior night with 25 to 30 knot winds from the west clear to Calgary. The outlook did show an ameliorating trend so we decided to just check again in the morning. I am new to southern Manitoba and had been getting used to the predictably light winds all winter. Before noon we decided to pack the planes and head out as the forecast was showing an improvement. Time building was the goal so an extra hour here or there due to headwinds wasn’t the end of the world. After all the packing, photos, flight plans, and walk arounds we began our backtrack to our grass strip 25. It was nice to all be airborne and enroute, we closed in and got our first taste of flying in a loose formation. I must say that this is an enjoyable way to fly, not only do you have the terrain to look at but 2 other aircraft. Once at our altitude and cruising along we all switched to our company frequency. It sure is fun to banter on the radio with your friends as you motor along. In Winnipeg terminal airspace we got a great top view of a DH water bomber crossing beneath heading south. Our ground speed was reading 70 at best during this leg so we had plenty of time to think about the upcoming flight. For myself it was a nice change to fly over terrain free of snow. The bulk of my private training took place during winter where the whole world is just a white sheet showing only a few features here and there. Soon we were spacing out for our first touch and go. Runway 31 in Portage was soon behind us so we dialed Brandon in to our trusty GPS (following along on our VNC also …of course). Our landing in Brandon was pretty wild, close to a 20k crosswind as 90 degrees. We came in second behind the Warrior and I can still see the steep crosswind correction they were holding. We got our plane down without worry and in time to see JJ perform a pretty slick crab approach. Brandon was a ghost town just like my other visits to that airport. The flight service chap gave us the standard Brandon thoroughness during our time there. They were fast and friendly with the fuel and our break was short and sweet, the sun was well on its way west so we were soon on our way. The terrain between Brandon and Regina isn’t the most inspiring but there were plenty of interesting things to scope. I will have to do some further research into the old airbases dotting the landscape. It seems every few minutes we passed an old triangle network of runways, remnants of the BCATP I gather. Ground speed still holding around 70, not much faster than driving but still more fun. Regina finally slid into view and we eagerly awaited a chance to stretch the legs and eat. Regina is a pretty city to fly into and it looked much greener than the Winnipeg area. We pulled our fleet up to the Shell and quickly grabbed the phone to get some pizza heading our way. In the meantime we hung out with a metro crew that was shortly leaving. They let us sit at the controls and described their aircraft to us. In our favour the weather was clear but no chance of the winds helping us anytime soon. We called ahead to our destination of Three Hills Alberta (a small town 45 mins north east of Calgary) to advise them of our ETA. The sun was down and colored evening sky lay ahead for our long leg to Alberta. Now it was my turn at the controls, this flight would be solo as my night rating was still a work in progress. Loose formation at night is pretty cool in my opinion (keeping lots of distance); we tried various altitudes looking for some improvement but had to content ourselves with 6500 ft. The barren daytime prairie landscape proves to be well marked by lights at night. At long last we were in the Three Hills circuit (4.1 hour flight), it’s a good thing we called ahead as I guess the ARCAL was on the fritz. After another crosswind landing it was nice to hear that prop tick to a stop. The hour was now late and our fatigue now became evident. A representative of the local flying club gave us a briefing on the necessity of bringing our own chalks. Guess you can’t bring everything!! We were able to negotiate a couple pieces of 2×4 for out needs. Daniel’s brother resides in Three Hills and ferried us to a little hotel, we had some snacks and the inevitable snoring contest. It looks like JJ was the clear champ of snoring that night. I made due on the floor but had to keep waking up to kick his bed. Oh well, perhaps sleep is over-rated as some like to say. We all know each other pretty well so being couped up in a single room wasn’t too bad, lots of laughs and jokes, there would be more to come in the following days.

Day Two

On day two we awoke to a chilly and dull Alberta day. Out for a quick bite and back to the friendly local airport. I guess the self-serve gas setup is easy to use (once you’ve done it a few times), it took us a while! In hindsight we could have made Calgary but headwinds and unfamiliarity made us add some fuel. The forecast over the mountains was a no go for that day so we chose to hit Calgary. If we were going to fly all this way we didn’t want to sit and watch the cloud shadows drift in some one horse town. My father soloed in a Super Cruiser (CF-MWI) on that runway back in the 60’s so I know he’d get a kick. We did a solid job of taxing down to the shell in formation. Landing lights turned off on cue for the Harv’s Air demonstration team. If you want to see a posh FBO stop in Calgary sometime, they were good to us…. all the hot chocolate you can drink. To the hotel and some relaxation, time to let the weather make up its mind. Our time in Calgary was maximized needless to say. It was great for our international friends to see a real city (no offence Steinbach!). One thing can be said for certain about this trip, our diets were first class. I got to see some old friends and we all made some new ones too.

Day Three

With the latest weather in hand it was back to the planes, time to head west. The forecast was calling for scatter cloud for about 30 miles west and then clear skies all the way to Vancouver. A friend of mine (Colby) from Calgary was a brave sole in deciding to cross the mountains with us. She had never been in a small plane before so this would be a good intro (I guess). We all struggled to climb above the scattered cloud; our plane (HXS) was really labouring and didn’t seem to have much more than 9500’ASL in her that day. Skirting along in the cloud valleys, as we tried to climb, the jagged white peaks grew closer and closer. Due to the performance advantage of the Piper we were having trouble keeping each other in sight. Remaining clear of cloud was becoming an issue, as we just couldn’t climb. We had decided on departure to divert and go to Edmonton if things didn’t look promising. I know that prospect was pretty disappointing for all of us. The decision was thus made to divert to Olds-Didsbury and figure out a plan. Pretty nice little airfield and the old codgers there treated us like gold. We relaxed and let the weather have an hour, in the meantime we packed the warrior with our bags and switched airplanes. After assuring our passenger of our commitment to her survival we headed off again. Up and up the climb progressed much better, at 12,500 we were pretty much in the clear with only the occasional cloud to dodge around. Jagged white peaks as far as the eye could see, a feeling of awe, stress and exhilaration set in. As the minutes ticked past the sky became clear and we were comfortably in loose formation and taking in the vista. Crossing the Rockies in a single engine is something to do once I suppose, there is added comfort having other planes near you. The air was smooth as silk and it seemed like just a short hop to Kamloops. A quick stop for gas and we were off, now a little more relaxed being only an hour and a half from Vancouver. The cameras were getting some heavy use on the way out of Kamloops. The fine chap on the MF in Kamloops was a little rusty in his familiarity with multiple aircraft flight plans. We gave him a few pointers and headed on. At attitude and enroute to Vancouver the view was nothing short of spectacular. A glance right or left and one beheld the sight of endless ranges of mountains. The odd valley or highway was a comforting sight in case our Lycomings became cranky. All of a sudden, the coast appeared with a far off glint of ocean. The last few miles the mountains seemed to part and ahead stretched the lower mainland. Our destination airport of Pitt Meadows was very close and we had a steep descent to a right base leg. Glad to have made it!! BC at last! After some hand shakes and photos it was back to the logistics of our land travel. We met a nice Asian couple that operate a flight school at Pitt Meadows. There were no rental cars past 5 o’clock so it looked like transit was our only option. The couple offered to drive us to the local bus stop. For the low, low price of five dollars they were willing to stuff all 8 of us plus luggage into a Volvo station wagon?? Needless to say we made two trips.

Day Four

The ride to my sister’s place via bus and Skytrain was long but we were pretty keyed up and had a fun time. You know you have good sisters when they offer to put up 7 strangers for 2 nights! We ordered in some Greek food and hit the sack. It seems that snoring paid off for JJ as he was given the only room (so the rest of us could sleep in the living room). Robel and allegedly I were the intermittent snore people that night (I don’t believe them…..I don’t snore!!!!). Then next day was spent driving around Vancouver taking in such sights as Stanley Park and the beaches. Everyone was very impressed and taken with the beauty of the city and the coast. JJ got his long awaited chance to dip his feet in the Pacific (his first time in an ocean!). Not a lot of time to relax on a schedule like this, we were soon back at our planes with my sister and husband in tow. A short evening tour of the lower mainland was spectacular, and it was great to take some family up on a long promised ride! The time had passed too fast on the west coast but I feel we squeezed in as much fun as we could. Our despair over the weather was now gone as we were treated to another warm clear day. We were soon banking away heading east, climbing out for yet another close look at those mountains. 15 minutes in Daniel reported high oil temp in the Warrior (or the ” Harrier” as we call it??), divert to Chiliwack. Down we go again to see what we can find. I think some would have preferred to stay on the west coast..perhaps engine trouble would keep us ??? No chance of that, we removed the improvised oil cooler winter-kit and we were ready to try again. A quick test flight proved the Harrier was all in the green.

Heading Back

Up at altitude and with Kelowna dialled in we made good progress as the afternoon wore on. Another quick descent into Kelowna for an exciting landing. The southern route from Vancouver to Kelowna proved a little less intimidating due to smaller mountains and higher population. The Shell in Kelowna was great and I highly recommend. They have large leather chairs with the massage feature, a bedroom and very courteous staff. We had two separate flight plans this time to Calgary as I had to drop Colby off at the international airport. The plan was to meet the other aircraft in Airdrie (just north of Calgary). Mudassar and I succeeded in beating the others airborne (out of Kelowna), we had taxied to the end while the others opted for an intersection take off. The tower gave us our clearance first and we waived as we passed them in ground effect. As the evening wore on and light began to fade we still had half hour to Calgary (and some of the highest peaks yet to clear). There was semi ominous visibility ahead so we asked all we could from our 172s. Reading 14, 500 on the dial we kept a close watch on the plane, and what we were doing. The Warrior was pulling ahead and unbeknownst to us was caught in a downdraft. I guess they had a moment or two of tension till it passed. We all altered south a bit to give a little more clearance and breathing room. Soon the weight was lifted and we could breathe easy again as we let down into Calgary. We all opted to land at the international again and stay together. A quick coffee and good-bye to our brave friend and we were off again heading east. Now at nighttime I was flying solo again, the stress level was much lower now, as we knew the hardest part was now behind us. On the way to Regina we had lots of time to talk on the radio while some got some shut-eye. You guessed…another headwind, you just can’t win sometimes. The winds were not that bad and we made good time to Regina. I must say it was a pretty quiet night over the prairies coming home, nothing but the odd comment on the radio and the steady whir of the engine. In Regina at midnight we were anxious to keep on the move. We got a little bogged down but that’s another story.

Regina to Winnipeg

Regina to Winnipeg was some of the best flying I have done. As the slow glow of the sky increased the blinking lights of the Piper soon became a graceful silhouette. We had a nice view of a train and some rolling river fog. We decided that the only way to end our trip would be to do a formation touch and go in Winnipeg. A nice ground effect inspired climb out of WPG and back in to good old Steinbach. The school was just opening as our tired bodies climbed out of our planes. We were all elated and tired, both glad and disappointed to be back. We had done it. We had crossed the Rockies and flown the equivalent of Canada wide. We had hardly sat down for breakfast before we began discussing our next trip…….east. Having family at both ends of the country pays off at times. In summing up, we all had the time of our lives and gained valuable experience. What a way to sharpen your flying skills. We would all recommend such a trip to anyone building time, make the most of it. Again, doing something like this with good friends is the way to go; I know we will all be talking about this for years. Lorne Hughes

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