Flight to the Frozen Ghost

by Stu Simpson

I could see the Beaver and the Chinook on the horizon about 2 miles east of where I was, and I got more excited as I readied my airplane to join them.

It was Todd and Don flying their airplanes from Indus to Thompson’s Ranch airfield, a place we simply called, the “Glider Strip”. I was going to hop over from my strip and meet them. From there, we would all takeoff together and head northwest to meet some friends of mine on the ice at Ghost Lake.

The weather for the trip was very good. The temperature was about 3 degrees, with a light west wind. The western sky displayed a prominent and well-defined chinook arch giving high cloud cover. But it was clear that any mountain wave activity was travelling well above the altitude where we would be flying.

I thought about all of this as I sat in my single Beaver while the motor warmed up. Finally, everything was ready, so I powered up and blasted off.

It was a five minute flight over to the Glider Strip. Todd and Don were eager to go, so they fired up and one by one we rolled down runway 25 and into the winter sky.

We headed northwest, in loose formation, to pick up the highway we would follow north. As we droned on in the smooth afternoon air, Don was flitting around the formation trying to get the hang of flying close to other airplanes. He hadn’t done any major formation flying before this day. But we were all having a ball. I called Todd on the radio and informed him that I was rating the day as 2-thumbs-up, so far. He readily agreed.

When we were about twelve miles south of Springbank airport, Todd suggested I call and advise the tower of our route and intentions. So, I flipped over to 118.2 and did just that. The controller told us to remain clear of the zone and advised me he would inform other traffic in the area about our presence. He also wanted us to call him when we were west of the airport. I agreed and then switched back to 123.3, the frequency our flight was using for the day.

Don was still jumping around the formation from spot to spot. Sometimes he would be off Todd’s right wing for a few minutes, and the next thing I knew Todd was saying the Chinook was at my six o’clock low, where I couldn’t see him. I sincerely hoped Don was enjoying the view of my behind.

Before long, we were crossing the Trans-Canada highway and I again called Springbank to tell them our position. After I switched back to our frequency, I noticed our ground speed had seriously declined. As we approached a large gas plant, Todd noticed steam from the plant showing the wind as north-west at about 15kts. We had kind of expected this, since the wind normally picks up in this region as it blows down the Bow Valley from the Rockies.

We continued on, with our destination only a few minutes away.

In about 5 more minutes, the Ghost dam and reservoir came into view and I began to mentally plot how we would land on the ice. We could soon see numerous ice boats zooming across the lake and we agreed that a low pass over the ice would definitely be in order. That way, we could get a better idea of the ice landing conditions, and, equally important, let everyone down there know we were here. I did not relish the thought of becoming an iceboat-kabob.

I volunteered to make the first low pass. As I approached the dam, I could feel the wind picking up to about 20kts at about 200 ft. off the surface. But it was still steady with only a few light gusts. The ice also looked good, with the snow drifts only inches deep. I decided to try a landing.

I made a right hand circuit and settled onto the ice with the greatest of ease. The only problem came in dodging a few large pieces of driftwood frozen into the surface. Hitting one of those would have meant changing the day’s rating to thumbs-down.

Todd and Don landed safely and soon we had a small crowd huddled around our planes asking questions about aircraft they had never seen before.

We spent an enjoyable 45 minutes on the ground chatting with friends and looking at ice boats. Ice boats look like a lot of fun – the kind of fun that doesn’t cost you mega-bucks. In that respect, ice boating is much like ultralight flying.

It soon came time to go so we headed back to our planes. We watched the crowd form again as they waited anxiously to see us take-off. I had a little trouble starting my engine, but I soon had it running smoothly.

Todd blasted off first, showing an impressive climb rate into the wind. Don was next, again with an impressive climb, and I followed last, making one final high fly-by before I headed home.

The headwind we’d bucked for the last few miles into the Ghost, was now at our backs and giving us a nice little boost as we headed southeast. I again called Springbank to let them know about us and we were cleared en-route.

I must say the weather was consistent for us, because we lost our tailwind at exactly the same point we had picked up the headwind earlier. Another example of how the Calgary weather can be so quirky.

The flight back to Black Diamond was smooth and uneventful. Even Don seemed content to hold a steady right echelon slot in the flight. As we flew on together, I couldn’t help thinking of how lucky we were to be there, buzzing along a few hundred feet over creation, enjoying a gift so few have experienced. We knew that soon we would have to land our planes, put them in hangars and leave the airfield. But right then, for a few brief moments, we were at the best place in heaven or earth. We were flying.

But daydreaming can’t last forever so as we got closer to the Glider Strip, I called Todd on the radio. I told him that I was going to divert south to go straight to my strip. He and Don were going to land at the Glider Strip and use the facilities before flying back to Indus. I thanked Todd and Don for making the trip in my direction and peeled off high to head home.

Todd and Don ended up landing down-wind at the Glider Strip (there’s no wind sock there in the winter), but managed a proper takeoff to head back to Indus. They made it home a short time later, having logged 3.6 hours. I had logged 2.5 hours for the day.

As I stood outside my hanger, my airplane tucked away until our next flight, I watched my buddies lift off and turn eastward. I reflected on the day and decided it had been a nice little adventure. I also decided that I could hardly wait for the next one.