An Airshow Adventure

by Stu Simpson

When was the last time you had an honest-to-goodness adventure? Something that, when you tell someone about it, they say: “Boy, that sounds exciting.” And have you ever felt that maybe you are living in the wrong era – that maybe your spirit belongs to a time 60 years ago when barnstormers roamed the skies at the whim of the wind?

I know some guys who feel like that. And together, we were lucky to find one of those true-life adventures not too long ago. Let me tell you about it.

For weeks we had been planning a weekend trip to the Red Deer International Airshow. Todd, Ron and I agreed to meet at Indus airport to fly out at 1800 hrs. So, after I hopped over from my strip at Black Diamond, about 25 miles west, the three of us set out heading north.

Todd in his two-seat Beaver on floats, and me in my 40hp single Beaver, flew in an echelon right the whole way. Ron, flying his one-of-a-kind Crusader, initially flew on ahead of us but returned and joined the formation to make a V in the sky.

The first half of the flight was punctuated by moderate thermal activity until we reached the Beiseker Highway. Suddenly, as if by divine order, the thermals ended and the air became rock steady. So, feeling ever so much like barnstormers from the 30’s, we continued northward and on to adventure.

Our first stop was at Olds/Didsbury, an airport situated between the two towns whose name it bears. The landing was uneventful and we spent time checking our machines and using the amenities while we waited for my wife to arrive with extra gas for my plane. She arrived a short time later, and after refueling we again took off and continued north. Red Deer, this weekend’s aviation Mecca, was less than an hour away.

Over Olds, Todd contacted Red Deer tower and told them of our impending arrival. The controller told us to continue inbound and contact him when were over Innisfail, about seven miles south of his airport.

We droned on, Todd and I in perfect formation and Ron out front, sometimes hard to see in the distance. Every now and then Todd would turn his body around and hold his hand up to his face. For a minute, I thought he was wiping bugs out of his eyes. Then I realized he had a camera and was taking my picture.

Meanwhile, the air had gotten a little cooler and smoother as the sun reached down to find the Rockies. The trees, only a few hundred feet below, were casting the long cool shadows they do every summer evening. And the smells of the canola and wheat fields were reaching up to tickle our senses. In short, our world just couldn’t have been any better.

At Innisfail, Todd called Red Deer and we were cleared into the zone. Soon we could see the airport in the distance and my excitement grew. We were on the doorstep of participating in our first airshow.

We were eventually cleared to the left-hand downwind for runway 16. As we joined the circuit, still in close formation to impress those on the ground, I glanced down and saw Red Deer’s ramp cluttered with all manner of flying devices. There were two A-10’s, some CT-33’s, a CF-18, a C-130, the Snowbirds, an old blue Cessna 195, and even a CF-104. There were dozens more aircraft as well, all in the same airshow we were to be part of. I thought this could well be what heaven is like.

The controller brought me back to reality as I listened to him clear us to land. Ron had just turned final as Todd peeled off to join base. I continued on for about another 15 seconds to properly space my arrival, then made a steep, graceful turn onto base, then final.

The landing was good and I followed Todd onto the taxiway. The airport even had those little “Follow Me’ vehicles to guide us in. We taxied, under the curious gaze of onlookers, to our assigned display/parking areas and shut down.

The ultralights had arrived.

We wheeled our planes into a hangar for the night and set out to find the pilot’s registration tent. Once there, we each received an envelope with copious information on the city and the airshow. But the most important article in the envelope was our performer’s pass.

That little pin allowed us virtually free run of the entire airport for the whole weekend. We could get in any gate, anytime. We were allowed onto the flight line when everyone else wasn’t. It even allowed us to park at the terminal, which was the best parking available that weekend. It was like being given the keys to the toy store, which is exactly what an airshow is to any self-respecting pilot. We were beginning to enjoy the V.I.P treatment.

The next morning we had a pancake breakfast and headed off to the pilot’s briefing. We learned about the airshow schedule (the ultralights were third after a banner tow and the waterbombers), the minimum distance from the crowd, safe bailout areas, and general safety information.

It was great to see the airshow organizers treated us on a par with the other performers. General aviation has been slow to take the ultralight community seriously. But the Red Deer Airshow people, from the ground crews who helped us immeasurably, to the controllers and show organizers, treated us like royalty.

After the briefing, excited as schoolboys, we headed back to get our machines ready for the show.

At 0955we wheeled our planes out past the crowd lines and began our warm up. There would be four of us: Bev, in his Merlin, along with Todd, me, and Ron. We would take-off on the taxiway nearest the crowd. Then we were to fly abbreviated circuits, always having someone well within sight of the crowd. On one pass, Bev would dive his Merlin and make a sharp pull-up to show the plane’s climb capabilities.

While all these shenanigans were going on, Paul Hemingson, president of the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club, would be on the microphone explaining how ultralights are no longer kites with chainsaw motors – and just look how far we’ve come, thank you very much.

The waterbomber was on its last pass last pass whent he tower cleared us for take-off, cautioning us about possible turbulence fromt he bombers. One by one we firewalled the throttles and blasted off into airshowdom. The show went off as planned and we even got a little extra air time becauise the waterbombers had finished early. At one point during the performance, an inbound P-51 Mustang called and asked for clearance to the airport. The controller told him there was an airshow in progress and he would have to wait.

Imagine, a famous P-51 Mustang waiting because the ultralights were showing off. I loved it.

We spent the rest of the day sitting with our planes answering questions, and watching the airshow. I heard a lot of comments like “You’d never get me up in that thing!”. But for the most part people enjoyed seeing our planes and learning a bit more about them. One man, examining my right wingtip, asked his wife: “Hey, honey, have you ever seen an airplane with zippers before?”.

We were able to watch the show from inside the cordons around our planes and in the shade of the wings. I felt sorry for rest of the crowd who had to sit packed together on the scorching tarmac.