Dreams of flight are as old as winged angels. Listen to flyers. They talk about perspective, perception, power; about clarity and control; about slipping the bonds of sullen earth. They’re talking about the physical equivalent of the mental state to which men’s souls aspire.
Is that why, per capita, Canadians are the small-plane-flyingest people in the world? That, perhaps, and a Billy Bishop flying-ace tradition, and a flung-out, strung-out geography. There are 22,423 small aircraft in the country, including gliders, balloons and gyroplanes, which means that one out of
every 1,000 Canadians owns or leases a flying machine. Compare that with one in every 1,125 Americans. Currently, 40,283 Canadians, a growing proportion of them women, hold private pilot licences. They’re all kinds of Canadians: Calgary medical students, Saskatchewan farmers, Toronto bakery salesmen, Kingston penitentiary classification officers, New Brunswick mothers-ofthree. And, though gas prices for airplanes have risen 21 cents a gallon in the past year alone, and the dollar’s drop has boosted the price of planes, the skies are more crowded than ever.
There are more student licences in force now than there were total private licences in the energy-cheap 1960s. In
the past year, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) has swelled by 4,000 members to 19,000. North of Toronto, Buttonville general aviation airport (all traffic except military) handles more arrivals and departures than Calgary International. At any one time, there are 500 flying students enrolled at Buttonville, and more on a hefty
waiting list. Even on the grimmest days of winter, when snow has half-obliterated the roads and lakes by which visual-flight-rules pilots fly, when fuel lines freeze and ice glosses runways to treachery, Cessnas and Pipers still sail out of the airport, brave as banners, and as defiant. “Air’s nice, crisp and clear in December,” a Buttonville regular explains, shrugging.
COPA’s general manager, Bill Peppier, is worried about the elitist, sportingrich image of small-craft pilots, especially in these fuel-short times. He wants it made perfectly clear that the vast majority fly for utility, not pleasure. “Airplanes are a business tool, albeit an agreeable one,” he insists defensively.
But Peppier is not talking about weekend flyers, the students, salesmen and secretaries who plonk down $25 to $40 for a precious hour of rented air time; or the leather-helmeted opencockpit pilots of the Ontario Aviation Historical Society who, looking for all the world like Snoopy, hurl their machines madly into the Canada Dry Antique Air Race cross-country dash; or the flying women of the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots; or the pilots participating in the Ninety-Nines-sponsored poker runs (pick up one playing card at each of five airports—best poker hand at day’s end wins); or fly-in brunches.
These playful pilots are an elite. They’re clubby, cliquish. They share an esprit de corps and an arcane AlphaBravo-Charlie alphabet. They also share the experience of gazing down at the earthbound with pity, and their talk of “power” and “control” seems at times almost political. But so far, one still doesn’t have to be a millionaire to be an Übermensch. Toronto Centennial College receptionist Kathy MacRae, 18, is sure she can manage the $2,000 cost of learning and licence-acquiring “by paying in bits and pieces.” Nor is the cost of buying a plane sky-high—yet. Though a Piper Seneca II is priced at $122,850, one can buy a used Second World War trainer in need of repair, or the kit and materials for a home-built Mono Z, for less than the price of a new Toyota.
Private pilots aren’t even millionaires in the currency of health. After four years, Toronto’s Dan Matthews, monocular and partially deaf, has just won his private pilot licence and has logged 100 hours of flying time. Tom (the Eagle of Woodstock) Williams flew until his mid-80s. Now 94, he’s still addicted. “When I saw him this July at the Woodstock fly-in chicken barbecue,” remembers Ninety-Nines past chairman Shirley Allen, “they were stuffing him
into a Breezy—an open-cockpit, homebuilt—to take him for a ride.”
It’s not always possible to say where utility flying ends and pleasure flying begins. Perhaps it’s when a salesman, covering the Toronto-Montreal run in one-third the time and for the same gas that it would cost him to drive his van, is suddenly gripped, en route to business, by the whimsical notion to execute a perfect loop. Perhaps it’s when 18year-old Peter Voges, who hopes one day to try for his commercial pilot licence, practises one more sensational spin or heart-stopping stall over Buttonville than his instructor told him to. Perhaps it’s simply when Molly Ashworth, flying down from Plaster Rock to shop in Moncton, suddenly senses soaring euphoria as her plane penetrates space and silences.
Pleasure pilots are simply people with private planes who take advantage of the doors that are open to them. They travel an extra dimension. They don’t crawl across, but play with “down,” “up” and “through.” If they want to dance in three dimensions, they may join the hundred-plus members of Aerobatics Canada. Or they may take a course and study basic moves: loops (nose down, then swiftly up and over, backward); rolls (around the plane’s longitudinal axis); and snap rolls (one wing’s engine stalls and the plane rolls at the same time). “Snap rolls are violent,” grins Ninety-Nines aerobatic student Shirley Allen with mad zest. “The blood shoots to the brain.”
Private pilots have exclusive access to earthly pleasures too. In seven hours, geologist Neil Armstrong (no relation to the astronaut) and his family of flyers can hop from a Calgary winter to Mexico’s sun. On crowded summer weekends, private pilots can fish and camp by unnamed, unexplored lakes, or visit fly-in hunting camps or grand flyin lodges such as Gray Rocks at St. Jovite, Quebec. In winter they can helicopter to virgin slopes to ski. Even the utility-minded, responsibility-conscious Bill Peppier of COPA lyricizes over the unique geography lesson he gave his family last year. For $425 of gas and oil and a week of their time, he showed them the Pacific, the Rockies, the Athabasca tar sands, the Prairie badlands, the herds of bison in Wood Buffalo National Park. “Then I flew them up the Mackenzie River to Tuktoyaktuk so we could say we’d put our feet in the Arctic Ocean ... What a panorama! I felt like Pierre Berton!”
Perhaps sensing that their access to the skies may soon be limited by rising prices, or by the envy and waste-consciousness of the public, private pilots are at pains to defend their pleasures. “We’re not just boring holes in the sky,” insists Betty Innes, housewife, mother,
and chairman of the first Canadian chapter of the Ninety-Nines. She and her sky-sisters Shirley Allen and Heather Sifton, along with other members of four Ninety-Nines chapters, fly Skywatch, a volunteer pollution-photographing and -monitoring program, in co-operation with the Ontario ministry of the environment. At Christmas they take Big Brothers adoptees over Toronto to see the holiday lights. They give joyrides to disabled children and run update seminars for pilots. But even Innes can’t disguise her real motivations: “Freedom! Openness! Sensations you can’t experience on the ground! Flying is a pure, soaring pleasure.”
Canadian celebrities agree. Singer Murray McLauchlan recently returned from a week of island-hopping in the Bahamas with a Piper Aztec and five friends. TV personality Paul Soles, who flies a 40-year-old Fleet, says that, for him, flying is like sex (“There’s the anticipation, the doing and the remembering”) and like a bond of brotherhood with all the other flyers and dreamers of flight in history. Author and broadcaster Patrick Watson’s Twin Commanche is his business tool; yet it’s also, he admits, “an extension of my body. I can feel the wings growing from my shoulders. I sense the wing tips . . . exquisitely.”
But Icarus of Greek myth flew too close to the sun and fell. Inevitably, as the number of people holding pilot’s licences increases, so will the likelihood of there being the drunken, the incompetent and the cruelly unlucky among them. The names of those who have died in small planes are hauntingly familiar: baseball’s Thurman Munson, heavyweight Rocky Marciano, Walter Reuther, Otis Redding, Will Rogers . . . The American Federal Aviation Administration was so horrified by small-plane crash statistics that it considered stringent new regulations this fall. Canadian aviation accident figures aren’t that much higher this year (623 as of Oct. 1) than last (596 total) but they helped prompt Ottawa to launch an air-safety inquiry in November.
So far, neither death nor taxes has been able to keep a growing number of ordinary people from taking that extraordinary leap into the sky. To borrow a hangar-talk term, it’s the very unforgiving nature of the sport they’re obsessed with that attracts and challenges them, that compels the totality of their attention. “Soon,” mourns Hugh Whittington, editor of Canadian Aviation, “sport flying will indeed be the preserve of the rich.” The youngest and newest pilots, secretaries and students, hope he’s wrong. As they slide their planes’ smug-nosed shadows over the earth, they’re laughing in the face of rising costs, accident stats — and gravity itself.
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