Alberta skies

No fear of flying (for me)

The Piper Cherokee's nose, propeller front and centre. Photo by Raven.

The Piper Cherokee's nose, propeller front and centre. Photo by Raven.

December 11, 2016, OTTAWA — I've never been good with heights; ladders make me nervous, balconies jittery, and roller-coasters have seen me scream like the proverbial toddler in haunted house, while cursing like the equally proverbial marine drill-sergeant.

So, picture me some four or five winters ago, boarding a bloody toboggan outside Quebec City's Château Frontenac, settling in with my darling Raven snuggled before me between my thighs — then clutching my sweetie so hard it's a wonder I didn't crack one of her ribs, and blistering her ears so loud (along with with everyone else within about a half-kilometre's radius) it's more a wonder Raven still is my sweetie, after that physically painful and psychically scarring humiliation.

She, meanwhile, thought it was great fun and insisted we go again. And has since then developed a great fondness for tubing and other high-speed terrors. Me, I've adapted. I don't scream too much any more, but whimpering and bargaining with the fates are still to be heard.

Detail of photo of Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, courtesy of TripAdvisor

No fear of flying – but sliding? Hell yes! (This photo of Le Château Frontenac is courtesy of TripAdvisor - click it for the original.)

And yet, inexplicably, airplanes have never bothered me. In fact, I love flying. My first time was a flight aboard a Dash-8 turbo-prop in weather rough enough the pilot apologized once we landed at the Toronto Island airport. But after a brief moment of Will I/Won't I panic when the machine first began to taxi, I might as well have been on an elevator for all the fear I felt.

And by now, some half dozen airborne there-and-backs later, I am frankly blasé about the whole thing. I hardly bother to look out the window as we come in for a landing. (Okay, I still bother, because the whole heavier-than-air flight thing still seems kind of miraculous, but the childish thrill ain't what it used to be.)

But the morning of Saturday, November 26, I found myself facing a brand-new test ...

The Piper PA32 Cherokee 6

My cousin Mitch's Piper PA32 Cherokee 6 in her hangar. Believe it or not, room for six and plenty of luggage, too!

Raven and I had flown out to Calgary that week. She was there on business and I'd decided to take advantage of that (as well as a soon-to-expire Westjet credit we had for the four-day luggage delay during our Cuban sojourn last December) to visit stay with one of my favorite cousins, Mitch Drzymala, who offer us his guest suite(!) within minutes of my sending him an email saying I was thinking of coming to town.

Canada being the enormous country it is, my history with Mitch has been spotty. We first met as small children, about which I remember only that he was missing a finger-tip, lost to an argument with a car door. We didn't see each other again until we were 17, when I hitch-hiked across the country and washed up on the doorstep of my Aunt Emily and her brood. She welcomed me like the long-lost nephew I was, and Mitch and I took an immediate liking to one another, a friendship re-visited every few years (or more than few) since then, once even composing at least one song together.

It's true, despite his skills as a musician, Mitch is a bit of a black sheep in the family. He's shown a flair for business and entrepreneurship, and now heads Automated Aeronautics, a company devoted to detailed topographical mapping, using small aircraft and drones to take extremely detailed photographs. He's also the father of three, and lives with his equally-successful wife and his youngest daughter. (The latter took a real shine to me, and I to her, and I would love to post pictures and squee words of adoration, but I'm not about to put a nine-year-old's life on the interwebs.) Suffice it to say that Mitch and Carrie were consummate hosts, in the best of my family's tradition.

Mitch and I, uncomfortable as always. Photo by Raven.

It's true: my cousin and I are uncomfortable expressing affection. Photo by Raven.

Despite his embrace of mammon, Mitch is one my favorite people, no matter that we hadn't seen each other in a dozen years, probably twice that many since we've had a proper one-on-one. But despite that gap, little has changed between us. The fast bond we made when I first visited Calgary at the age of 17, remains. We might not be quite as physically affectionate now as we were then — and no wrestling match occurred — but the easy camaraderie, the quick rapport and near-constant laughter, they all remain.

Sometimes you just feel like you know someone. A rare and precious gift.

Mitch Drzymala smiles.

Mitch Drzymala, at his ease.

Anyway, Mitch is also a pilot, and the co-owner (with three others) of a six-seat, single-engine airplane (a a 1971 Piper PA32 Cherokee 6, for the aficionados among you).

In my greedy heart-of-hearts I had hoped he'd offer to take us up (I was too shy to ask for such a favour, more the idiot I), so when he did I didn't hesitate a second to say "Yes please!"

And so it was that, on Saturday, our last day in town, after Raven and I had driven out to Lake Louise to take a look and a bit of a hike into the snowy hills above it, and before his daughter's performance in a recital Saturday the afternoon, Raven and I found ourselves as passengers in Mitch's five year-old Prius, off to the small Springbank airfield.

Photo of the author, about to climb aboard Mitch Drzymala's, six-seat Piper PA32 single engine airplane, built in 1971. Photo courtesy of Raven.

The author prepares to climb aboard Mitch Drzymala's, six-seat Piper PA32 single engine airplane, built in 1971. Photo courtesy of Raven.

An airport like Springbank is a far cry from a commercial airport, all small quonset hut hangars and roads that feel almost as if you could drive right out onto a runway. I felt a bit like I'd traveled back in time.

And when Mitch opened the door to the hangar in which his airplane is parked, I knew I had traveled to an earlier time — surely to god we weren't going to go up into a windy sky in that!

Reader, a small plane is small! And an old small plane is, well, old. The flier's skin looked worn, scuffed and light scratches marred the dull, utilitarian paint-job, and rivets poked above the flat.

But Mitch was all business. He tugged the airplane out of the hangar ("You can give me a hand when we push it back in, later," he'd said to my offer of help), and I knew he had quite a lot of hours in the air, on business as well as pleasure. If my cousin thought it was safe, I was going to take his word for it. Or so I hoped.

The author stands near the tail of the Piper, inside its hangar.

Piper on the tarmac. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, by the time the airplane was ready for boarding and the hangar closed up and locked, seeing how small and flimsy-looking the old bird was, I couldn't help but remember the sheer terror I've felt in the very moment a roller-coaster starts to move.

Was I going to scream even before we took to the air?

Well, there was nothing for it but to try? Right?

Mitch walked us around the airplane, pointing out the secondary exit, location of fire-extinguisher and first aid kit, then told us it was time.

Entry to the cabin came via the wing (careful not to step on the flap at the edge!). Raven got on first, having gifted me with the "right seat" in the front of the airplane. Then Mitch climbed in and, with a few butterflies knocking about my innards, I followed him inside and pulled the door closed.

Detail of photo of interior starboard side of Piper Cherokee. Note the ashtray!

A product of its era. Detail of a photo of the starboard side of the 1971 Cherokee; not the ashtray(!) on the right end of the arm-rest. (Click on the image for the full-sized original.) Photo by Raven

If the exterior looked a little worn, the interior seemed absolutely ancient. The styling reminded the 1960s-vintage Ford Falcon that served as our family sedan during the early 1970s, all thinly-padded vinyl on the walls, and small, stainless-steel door-handles. Only the instrument panel and the dual controls made it obvious we weren't in some sort of weird-looking automobile.

Mitch instructed us on the use of the headsets, put himself (and us) through a detailed check-list and, also, made sure Raven and I understood it, in particular those details we would need to know in the case of an "inappropriate landing".

He finally fired up the engine, but we weren't going any where yet. There were more tests to run, verifying that various redundant systems were both working.

Mitch Drzymala goes through his safety check-list. Photo by the author.

Safety check. There are old pilots, goes the adage, and there are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.

But it was all done eventually and Mitch contacted the control tower for permission to proceed.

I won't give you the blow-by-blow of take-off, but note only that there is a lot of back-and-forth communication between airplane(s) and control. We moved a bit, waited a bit, moved a bit, much like one does in a big plane. There difference here was that I heard the conversation and that I could also see why. It turns out that even a small airfield is a busy place on a Saturday afternoon, and the sky is crowded with traffic taking off and landing elsewhere, too.

The Piper heads towards the runway. Photo by the author.

Starting to move at last. And yes, the black thing is one of the propeller blades.

By the time we actually started to gather speed for take-off, though, what nerves I'd had were gone. As the little airplane started to bounce, what I felt was exhilaration, not fear. I can't explain it, but the very real dangers of even a very small airplane don't phase me, though I'm sure a roller-coaster always will.

I was excited as a small boy finding inside a Christmas box not a hand-knit sweater from Grandpa, but shiny and slightly dangerous toy. As we rose into the sky, I glanced around (and below!) with glee, and the thought that — by god! — we are a wondrous animal, despite all.

The Lafarge cement plant in Exshaw, Alberta. Photo by the author.

The Lafarge cement plant in Exshaw, Alberta. Photo by the author. Click the image for a full-size photo.

Past the cement plant in Exshaw, we flew into the mountains, following Highway 1, the road Raven and I had driven the day before. Not over the mountains, mind you, but between them. I think Mitch said we were flying at around 7,000 feet.

Meanwhile, the communication kept on going, even beyond the control zone of the local tower; the skies above the Rocky Mountains aren't a busy urban highway, but they are far from empty. Above and below and around us were other private planes, helicopters and commercial traffic, all keeping the radio waves jumping with updates on positions, visibility and wind conditions.

It was actually quite reassuring, to get some sense of just how much control there is in air traffic control.

View of the mountains, pilot's side of the plane. Click the image for the original picture.

What can't be controlled, though, is weather. Visibility was good, but the wind was gusting strong, and as we approached, and then entered the mountains, roughly following Highway 1, we started to feel some pretty heavy turbulence. Nothing dangerous, Mitch said, but that little plane started to bounce up and down and side to side.

The sort of weather that no could be faulted for finding scary.

And yet, Gentle Reader, I loved it!

The author and his pilot. Photo by the author.

No fear of flying for me! Bearded Mitch Drzymala in the left seat, the author in the right.

The man who screamed like a terrified boy riding a toboggan in Quebec City was only thrilled by the view of the mountains, of sky and even of the ground below. That we can take such a tiny, flimsy craft, one that can be moved by a single man straining not too hard, and guide it into the face of the world seemed almost miraculous, a mechanical psalm to the human spirit.

If only Raven had felt the same way.

What thrilled me, terrified her.

The woman who loves toboggan runs and inner-tube slides that leave me hoarse for screaming, was holding on for dear life. She kept her own counsel as long as she could, but maybe a quarter hour into the mountains — past Canmore, not as far as Banff — she broke down and told us she was scared. I took her hand and she clutched mine. Her palm was damp with sweat. So was the top of it. Raven, a woman who seldom sweats at all.

Flying into the mountains. Click the image for the original picture.

"Do you want to go back?" Mitch asked her.

Apologetic as hell, she nodded Yes.

Worse still, she was getting motion sickness and had to make use of the air-sickness bag, a good 15 minutes before we were cleared to land.

And as it was with take-off, so with the landing. I watched the ground rise to meet us with delight, but no fear.

No, no fear, no nausea, only gratitude I'd had the opportunity to go up at all, and the certainty that, should the opportunity ever come again, I will fly, fly, fly ...

Thanks, Mitch; it was glorious. (For me. As for Raven, says she is glad for the experience, but won't be doing it again.)

Mitch and I push his Piper Cherokee back into her hangar. Photo by Raven.

Mitch and I return the Piper Cherokee to her hangar. Photo by Raven.

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OMG that looks like fun.

OMG that looks like fun. Terrifying fun, but fun nonetheless.

Dare I repeat myself? (I dare!)

Oh yeah, if you trust your pilot I highly recommend it. But next time, I want to go to Mars! :)

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