By Doug Martin, EAA 657164, with J. Davis, EAA 588164
As the owner of a 1958 Cessna 172, the opportunity to do a long cross-country flight in a homebuilt appealed to me. In 2014, I flew from Ontario to Nanaimo with the Century Flight group and joined them again for a flight to Whitehorse in 2016. That doesn’t make me an expert on cross-country or mountain flying, but it gave me some good insight as to the variety of conditions you can expect when traversing such a vast country.
My friend J. Davis and I scheduled a mid-September flight to take his Zenith CH 750 to his new home in Victoria, British Columbia.
We were hoping for lingering summer weather and hoping we wouldn’t experience smoke or smog from the forest fires that had been affecting the western provinces. The CH 750 is well-known for its STOL capabilities, but its cruise speed is sedate so we weren’t expecting to get this trip done in less than a week.
We prepared for departure on the morning of Sunday, September 10. It was cool and sunny at Burlington Executive Airport (CZBA) as we cleared heavy dew from the plane. The long-range forecasts looked fantastic for the week and the forecast for departure day was excellent. After a thorough preflight and packing the plane to keep essentials at hand (iPads and chocolate), we committed to flight at 1230 Zulu. Once clear of Toronto’s control zone, we climbed to 4,500 feet, then later to 6,500 feet as we passed over Wiarton, Ontario, in preparation for the water crossing to Manitoulin Island and on to Elliot Lake Municipal Airport (CYEL). On the ground at CYEL, we realized that we had done a poor job of checking the Canada Flight Supplement for fuel availability on Sunday, so we paid the call-out fee and made a note to not make that mistake twice. Fortunately, the fuel attendant responded quickly and was extremely friendly.
We were airborne again by 1630 Zulu en route to Marathon, Ontario.
There is a lot of forest between Elliot Lake and Marathon, so it was comforting to hear the Jabiru engine ticking over smoothly hour after hour. In gusty crosswinds, J. set us down at Marathon around 1915 Zulu. Marathon Aerodrome has a nice terminal accessible from airside and 24-hour fuel, so we were fueled and departed at 2010 Zulu heading to Thunder Bay for the night. The flight across the north shore of Superior is spectacular, although it would be more comforting if there were a couple of airports along the way.
We arrived at Thunder Bar International Airport (CYQT) at 2235 Zulu with nine hours flying to enter in the logs. A good first day’s progress for sure.
The next morning, low ceilings forced us to wait until 1800 Zulu for departure. With significant headwind, we had to choose between bumps down low or slow ground speed at 4,500 feet, but at least the weather had cleared all the way to Atikokan, Ontario. I don’t think we hit it off all that well with the fuel attendant, arriving only 15 minutes before the CFS said the pumps closed for the day. Anyway, we were happy to have fuel and were off for Fort Frances Municipal Airport (CYAG).
The people at Fort Frances were great hosts! They fueled our airplane on arrival and offered up their pilot lounge for our overnight stay, allowing us to plan an early start the next morning. The manager’s wife even dropped by and offered a ride into town, which we gratefully accepted! To top off our stay, J. ran into some Zenith builders/flyers and gave them our tracking URL to follow the flight.
We departed CYAG at 1240 Zulu but returned to the field immediately when we had indication of higher than normal fuel flow rates. After a thorough check of all systems, we were comfortable to head off for Steinbach near Winnipeg. This route takes you over myriad lakes and islands — beautiful to see, but not the friendliest for emergency landings, so we climbed to 8,500 feet and suffered the 68 mph ground speed for the additional glide range it gave us. It felt much more comfortable to see the forest give way to the prairies as we left Ontario. At Steinbach, a short walk got us to the Village Green restaurant at the golf course and a fine lunch. By 1800 Zulu, we were airborne again, aiming for Brandon. With a one-hour turn around, we were off to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, our overnight stop for the night. Three days in and 1,150 nm covered — we were doing okay!
Weyburn was a treat. We fueled up at the Cardlock fueling site then called around for a hotel. The hotel manager drove out to the airport to pick us up and took us to the beer store and Subway for some sustenance on the way to the hotel. At breakfast, he came looking for us to offer a ride back to the airport. Great support from the Circle 6!
The long-range forecasts were advising that we were heading for a front with associated rain. We planned to fly west as close to the front as possible then sit it out for a day or two while the front passed over. We left Weyburn for Swift Current. It was clear that the prairies we crossed had been suffering from lack of rain. Things were brown everywhere, a stark contrast to my last crossing in 2014 when floods were the problem. Back then everything was green. At this point, we were getting into heavy forest fire smoke from the Rockies, and visibility was between six and 10 miles. That makes for tiring flying, but there sure are lots of places to land out there.
At Swift Current Airport, the winds were 16 mph gusting to 25, but we had two runways to choose from so J. made a typical “no surprises” landing. Swift Current has a beautiful new terminal building, which we enjoyed while fueling and discussing flying with one of the locals. We left Swift Current by 1600 Zulu. We were planning to make Medicine Hat Regional Airport for the night and rolled in there around 1900 Zulu.
After fueling, we tied down for the night. The local FBO provided a courtesy car for us to buy supplies so that J. could do an oil change. One of the local homebuilders offered up his tools and hangar. What a great community we belong to!
The forecast was accurate, so we sat out a day in Medicine Hat watching the weather roll through. We had spoken at length with flight service for advice on the best route through the Rockies, given the amount of smoke in the vicinity. At first we planned to head west from Banff, but as we got closer to the actual date to cross, the southern route (Crow’s Nest Pass) became more favourable, so we selected that.
We were able to get moving again on Thursday and get to Lethbridge, our launch point for the trip through the Rockies.
We filed our flight plan for the VFR route and launched early Friday morning, with temperature down around 5°C. It never gets dull approaching the Rockies at 10,000 feet! J. just couldn’t stop smiling.
Our euphoria was soon extinguished as we approached Fernie, British Columbia. Smoke or fog was obscuring the valley, so we decided to abort our plan and went back to Pincher Creek to evaluate our options. While there, we talked to a helicopter pilot who had just flown in direct from Cranbrook and advised that the direct route was clear, with 10 to 15 miles visibility. We confirmed that information with flight service and filed for direct to Castlegar. That worked out well, and three hours later we were touching down in the beautifully located West Kootenay Regional Airport for fuel and a visit with the airport cat.
Not wanting to dawdle when there was favourable weather, we flight-planned for Penticton direct. Again, we experienced visibility of around 10 miles for the whole flight. Downward visibility was excellent for evaluating potential landing spots. We never did need any of those landing spots as the Jabiru just kept singing. We were comfortable with the visibility that we had and knowing that we were clearing the peaks by 2,000 feet. We landed at Penticton Regional Airport around 2345 Zulu on a warm afternoon, watching kitesurfers on the lake as we slid down final. However, with the sun setting to the west, visibility in the smoke was going to get more difficult, so we decided to wait until morning before carrying on.
Wheels up out of Penticton at 7 a.m. local time, and we were off to Chilliwack. Penticton tower wanted us to clearly state that we would climb to at least 5,000 feet before starting west. With the climb rate of the CH 750, we had no problems complying.
At this point, our final destination was so close we could taste it, but first we had to stop to sample Chilliwack’s famous pies. We only had one more leg to make en route to Victoria, but the weather gods were not playing as nicely as possible. It looked like rain was going to make the crossing to the island a problem, but discussions with flight service indicated that we could beat the rain by at least an hour if we were airborne promptly.
That was an easy decision, and we were airborne promptly after studying the recommended arrival patterns into Victoria. The airspace is fairly busy so I recommend studying the maps, getting transponder codes, and listening in to ATIS and tower, then communicating at the appropriate time. Although ATIS advised that VFR traffic could expect delays, we were handled with no delay and, after a scenic crossing to the island, arrived to a warm welcoming committee of J.’s family. It started raining as we tied down outside the hangar, which was full of the contents of the moving van from Ontario. Had we spent another 15 minutes en route, we would probably have had to hunker down in Chilliwack. But as it turned out, after seven days and 1,925 nm from leaving Burlington, we had safely delivered Poppy to her new home on the island.