Back in 1972, Vintage Wings of Canada founder Mike Potter was just beginning his life-long affair with flying and in particular, one aspect of flight – that of high performance aircraft. Long, long before he rose to acclaim for his business successes and philanthropy, the then twenty-something, long-haired and bearded young man in bell bottom jeans was simply a keen student of flight. And 35 years ago, it was flight in its most distilled form – gliding silently on slender outstretched wings, soaring on invisible currents and thermals and then swooping in across grassy airfields, having just swapped potential energy for joy. For an ex-navy man who loved to sail, this was sailing in three dimensions.
Mike did much of his early gliding at Pendleton, Ontario, a former British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), still today the site of active recreational flying and the Gatineau Gliding Club more than 60 years after wartime training ceased.
There are aircraft that are designed to be “forgiving”, easy to control, and safe for even the novice pilot to fly. They are, however, not as much fun to fly as those aircraft whose purposes were not so much to be easy as they were to be fast, or nimble or powerful. It was at the outset, that he learned that high performance aircraft like his Polish-built SZD Foka 4, a stunning standard class glider from the early 60s, could heighten the extreme joy of flight. This remarkable aircraft was owned in partnership with his friend Keith Ogilvie, son of Keith "Skeets" Ogilvie, Battle of Britain Spitfire ace and POW who went out through the tunnel in the Great Escape.
Talking to Potter about those early days of his flying career, it is clear that he recalls his lovely Foka sailplane with fondness. The sheer joy, simplicity, camaraderie and freedom of soaring the skies above the Ottawa Valley leaves his voice a tad nostalgic. “I still have fond memories of my years at the Gatineau Gliding Club" says Potter "and for the great folks who taught me how to fly 40 years ago.
"Since then I have been convinced that glider training is the very best entry point for a budding aviator. Start in a glider and you will never be confused about whether airspeed change on the approach is primarily a function of power or pitch.
"The Foka was one of the sweetest airplanes I have ever had the privilege to fly" he adds, " - an almost fully recumbent seating position, completely unobstructed view, feather light controls, massive dive breaks which would hold the aircraft below its 250 KM/hr red line in a vertical dive. It had a control stick all of 8 inches long and you could hold it in your finger tips doing loops all day long, losing maybe 100 feet or so per loop. It would enter and recover from a spin without raising a bead of sweat, although you recovered pretty well straight down, looking at God's green earth between your feet. Wonderful memories and this old photo brings them all flooding back.
"According to my log book, I first flew the Foka on May 9, 1971 after about 35 hours of total flying time. While a real performer, especially by the standards of the day, she was such a gentle airplane that, within a couple of flights she enabled me to play around in the springtime thermals for 3, 4 and even 5 hours at a time".
From the very beginning, Mike learned to love aircraft like the Foka that were designed to perform. Whether it was a single engine Piper Malibu he owned in the early 90s, a Dassault Falcon 20 or the Beech Staggerwing, his first vintage aircraft, high performance aircraft looked better, flew better and felt better.
About five years ago I stood on the 10th tee box at The Nation Golf and Country Club, which occupies land along the Nation River directly adjacent but lower than the former No. 10 EFTS at Pendleton. It was a lovely, hot afternoon in the dead of summer. I waggled my driver over the ball and looked up at the fairway – a par 5 dogleg right. I froze in mid-waggle. Rounding that dogleg about 400 yards down and 200 feet up was a Spitfire, sun dazzling off its banked wings, looking like it might have in East Anglia in the hot summer of 1940 and me a farmer bringing in the hay. With mouth agape I stood transfixed as the Spitfire rolled wings level coming out of the turn and descended steadily as it thundered down the fairway towards the tee-box, its immense propeller disc shimmering in the high sun. As the thunder of the Merlin and the magnificent sight of those big radiators and elliptical wings swept past a mere 70 feet overheard, I was jumping up and down like a madman.
Turning with the Spit I watched as Mike Potter disappeared over the rising ground and the perimeter fence that surrounds Pendleton, setting up for a low level beat-up of the airfield he flew gliders from nearly 40 years before. His old glider friends were waiting over the rise. I am sure back in ’72 he never thought that such a pleasure could be any man’s let alone his. Perhaps that is why he shares his gift with all who would care to listen and watch.
I duffed my drive.
At Classic Air Rallye 2007, Mike Potter shares the feeling with the thousands on hand for the festivities as he slices past at 300+ knots. Photo: Peter Handley