Montebello - Ski Plane Heaven


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There are all kinds of aviators in this world. And most of them I wouldn't hesitate to call big sissies compared to the Canadian ultra-light pilot in the dead of a Québec winter. And don't try to convince me otherwise.

Let's compare toughness why don't we. Your steely-eyed and square-jawed fighter pilots contain their egos in tight-fitting Nomex flight suits festooned with marshal patches, tactical clips and pockets - all conveniently and anthropometrically located for ultimate coolness. They think of themselves as the epitome of tactical style and manly fashion. Wankers!  The Canadian ultra-light pilot must endure the crippling bulk of double snowsuits, long underwear, layered sweatshirts, toques and winter boots. He cannot strut his stuff like a hero, but considers himself lucky if he can wedge his padded bulk into his tiny seat and still get his safety harness done up. The fighter pilot can look himself in the mirror and say to himself, "Man I look good. Chicks dig me".  The Canadian ultra-light pilot can't get to the mirror, but will say to himself - "I hope I don't freeze to death today". Through his delicate Nomex gloves, a fighter pilot can feel a dime in his pocket, or twiddle a knob like a watchmaker. The ultra-light pilot will be lucky if he can feel his legs at the end of an hour's flight and must hold his mitt in his teeth if he wants to use his radio.

Starched and pressed airline pilots will exude Sullenberger-coolness and speak with a Yeager-esque Virginian drawl on the radio even if they are from Winnipeg. Posers!  In the ultra-light world, radios are optional, but when they talk on the radio, you know from their joe-hockey accents that they are from Trois-Rivières or Carleton Place or Newfoundland - anywhere but Virginia.

No cruising along comfortably in the jet stream like a Cadillac Coupe de Ville on the 401. For the ultra-light pilot, it's down where the air is frisky, the hilltops are above you and the cars are all passing you. So low that the only thing that looks like ants are... ants. Except of course that ants can't survive outside in a Québec January. It takes a real hard-ass to take to the skies cheerfully in the icy chasm of a Canadian winter with nothing but 1/32 of an inch of fabric between him and a howling slipstream that has been likened to a subzero blowtorch. It takes a Canadian ultra-light pilot.

You may have 16,000 hours of airliner time - of heated, shirt-sleeved, roomy, sheep-skin padded airliner time with a flight attendant to bring you café-au-lait and chateaubriand. Try just three hours with your butt stuck to a frozen slab of Naugahyde the size of a weight bench with your co-pilot's snowy, rubber encased feet wrapped around you from behind, while you nibble at a frozen Hot-Rod and if you still love aviation, then you are probably a winter ultra-light pilot. Try flying with no left-over room in your cockpit to wedge a balogna sandwich, no cabin heat for hours, nor relief tube, and a sleeping bag-sized, down-filled mitt to muffle your legendary "soft hands" on the stick. Try kicking just a touch of rudder with two garage-sized boots at the end of your legs.  Boots with two-inch thick, rigid soles that negate any possibility of "rudder feel".  If your seating is side-by-side, you don't mind being squeezed shoulder to shoulder with your 250 pound farmer buddy in the snowmobile suit and a sloshing jerry can of fuel behind your seat. You don't mind because you love to fly. You are an ultra-light pilot. You love to wave to families in cars. You will delay your journey to do a 360 over an ice fisherman, just to give the man a break from his monotony. You skirt cities and "control zones" like they're leper colonies. You de-ice with a broom. You fix your own engine. Hell, you build your own airplanes.

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A little hot coffee to warm the innards before taking off for flight on the perfect flying day. Photo: Peter Handley

While hot shot military pilots have delicate egos, ultra-light pilots have thick skins - better to deflect the looks of derision and contempt from the great ones. "When are you going to get a real airplane" is the common barb from cooler pilots who fly with a stick between their knees, rudder pedals, wings, tandem seating and an engine in the rear. Oh, wait.. so do ultra-light pilots - and they pay to do it too.

And while airline and military pilots walk the earth feeling that others envy them, ultra-light pilots bear their anonymity like a trophy.  Line up six snow plow drivers and an ultra-light pilot and you won't be able to pick him out of the crowd. They may dress and walk like regular people, but they talk like any pilots - about airplanes, engines and weather.  And they need to be around other pilots with the same love of flying. So, once a year for the past 19 years, these men and women gather like ravens in winter along the banks of the Ottawa River 60 miles downstream from Ottawa at a place called Montebello. They come for the Annual Montebello Winter Weekend Rendezvous Ski-plane Fly-in - a legendary event in the Great White North.

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Winter Weekend Rendezvous organizer Claude Roy (Right) shares a laugh with fellow organizer and ultra-light pilot Maurice Prud'homme as they walk the path from the frozen Ottawa River to the warmth of the magnificent Chateau Montebello. Claude, president of the Canadian Challenger Owners Association was at the first Ski-plane Fly-in event, started by another Challenger Ultra-light luminary, Ian Coristine, on a Québec lake nearly two decades ago.  A big time flying adventurer, Claude has led ultra-light floatplane expeditions to James Bay, Oshkosh, Gaspé and the North Shore almost to Labrador. Claude is very active in the ultra-light (micro-light) community, lobbying for change in legislation governing ultra-light operations. With thousands of hours of flight time, Claude is the quintessential Canadian aviator. In addition to the Winter Rendezvous, Claude also organizes a summer event at his home field at Carleton Place, Ontario. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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Flying operations down on the surface of the Ottawa River can be downright Kelvin. Here a Bellanca Citabria lets loose with a blast of ice crystal-laden air at a compatriot who was assisting the pilot to free its skis from the deep snow. When you have to go... you have to go. Here in Canada, everyone knows that minus 20 degree temperatures can be doubly miserable with just a 5 knot wind.  Here the ground crewman takes 60 knots and a blast of exfoliating ice to the face. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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The one and only Fairmont Chateau Montebello on the banks of the mighty Ottawa River from 1,000 feet. Montebello is the world's largest log structure with 4 spectacular wings of luxurious rooms. The Winter Weekend Rendezvous has become such a success, that one full wing of the hotel is booked for the entire weekend. Aircraft occupy slips in the marina to the right. The prepared runway runs parallel to the shore. Photo J.P. Bonin

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Montebello is the quintessential Canadian hotel experience that must be seen to be believed. It is a true 4-season hotel, but there is something special about this magnificent property in the dead of a Canadian winter that can keep you warm no matter what you choose to do. Photo Pierre Langlois

The first Rendezvous was organized by Ian Coristine at a friend's cottage on Lac Manitou in the Laurentians. Weathered out on the chosen weekend, just three Challengers attended. Claude and Ian flew in and another Challenger owned by Maurice Patton was based there.

For the next six or eight years, Coristine arm-twisted and cajoled people to come and when it outgrew Patton's place after year three, it was switched it to Montebello and then alternately with the Chateau Vaudreuil further downstream. Claude was always a participant, but only really took over the task organization by about year eight when his enthusiasm and Ian's feeling that it was best for the event not to be seen as a commercial promotion (he was a Challenger dealer) suggested that it would be best to hand off and take a lower roll.

Claude Roy is an ultra-light pilot, instructor, enthusiast, lobbyist and head of the The Canadian Challenger Owners Association. Claude works throughout the year to bring together this ever-growing number of ultra-light enthusiasts and his event has become, short of an-all out nuclear raid by the Russian air force over the Pole, the largest and best organized winter flying event anywhere in the world. I wouldn't know the numbers, but I would hazard a guess that no more than ten percent of general aviation aircraft are ski-equipped in a Canadian winter. But if you did a survey of the ultra-light community, you would find perhaps 75 percent are utilizing this most Canadian of landing gear systems. Given their short take-off and landing requirements and the fact that the entire countryside is paved in deep white runway material, winter becomes the flying season of choice for ultra-lighters.

The two-day celebration of all things ultra-light includes not just flying and hanging out in the minus 20º weather (and what could be more fun than socializing in a deep freeze?), but presentations, a small trade show and a gala dinner where awards and and presentations are made. This year the theme of the Rendezvous was 100 Years of UltraLight Flying in celebration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada. It is no stretch of the imagination to claim that ultra-light flying has been around for the entire 36,500 days since Douglas McCurdy took the Silver Dart off the frozen surface of Bras d'Or Lake on Cape Breton Island. Canada's first powered airplane met the weight criteria that would have it classified 100 years later as an ultra light.  Like the boys on the surface of the Ottawa River, McCurdy chose ice as Canada's first runway. Like the ultra-light pilots at Montebello, McCurdy and his compatriots Casey Baldwin and Alexander Bell made their aircraft themselves. Ultra-light pilots - they made them tough back then, and they are still just as tough today.

The weather at Montebello on Friday was below minimums and this prevented many pilots from bringing their airplanes from distant airfields and cut the numbers of incoming aircraft substantially. Even the toughest pilots in the world are not risk takers. But Saturday dawned bright and crisp and for a hundred miles in every direction, pilots girded for the adventure to Montebello. After shovelling and chipping ice from their frozen hangar doors, they slipped on trap-door Stanfield's (Long Underwear), wool socks, snowsuits, scarves, balaclavas, down-filled mitts and 20 pounds of footwear and wedged their overstuffed frames into Canada's smallest cockpits. Some had battery problems after a week or so cold-soaking in the hangar, but all starts were eventually successful and through the fog of their breath, they scanned the instruments to see that all was normal. Time for some fun. And that is what ultra-light aviation is all about. Not competition, not commuting or commerce or weapons delivery or timetables - just fun.

From all points of the compass on a fantastically beautiful February morning deep in a Canadian winter, they converged on Montebello. En route they came together in twos and threes, arriving as boys to a summer baseball game - chatting and kibitzing and eager to talk ultra-light with old friends. Knowing that many discerning eyes would be watching their landings, each pilot executed the perfect landing on skis, touching down at "show centre" without a single bounce and just enough momentum to make it to the parking area. One even landed perfectly with just one ski.

Some ultra-light airplanes are equipped with low-output and ineffective cabin heat, and many are simply heated by the bodies that they contain. So when pilots climb stiffly out of their cramped cockpits, they unwind like a contortionist emerging from a steamer trunk. A few minutes of arm-flapping, foot stamping and cheek rubbing eventually gets the circulation coursing again. Throughout the ordeal, the pilots smile and laugh and talk - in both official languages. This camaraderie continues both on the ice and in the welcome warmth of Montebello's massive rustic lobby throughout the day and well into the evening.

But everyone just wants to be down on the ice with the wind and the snow. They love to deal with dead batteries, skis frozen solid in the slush, snow build-up on the wings and lowering ceilings - all the nasty little environmental variables that separate them from lesser pilots. The word ultra-light may apply to the frisky, lightly wing-loaded, fabric covered craft that they fly, but it does not in any way describe the toughness and good nature of these men and women. In an era of web-based social networking that substitutes for friendship and fellowship, the ultra-light community is one that operates the old fashioned way - by hanging out together and sharing time, stories, distance and even tools. 

They are a unique group in the flying world.

I remember an event back in the 1990s that seated forever in my mind the idea that ultra-light pilots are the toughest of all Canadian flyers. It was at the 1995 National Capital Air Show held at the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa. On the last day of the show, the winds picked up and changed direction giving nearly 90º crosswinds on the showline that tested the best pilots. The ceiling had lowered, the winds gusted to 40 knots and much of the "big stuff" was cancelled. A US Navy F-14 demo pilot not only wouldn't go up, but beat feet for home from the other runway without so much as a courtesy flypast for the showless crowd. We were proud that the Canadian CF-18 demo pilot elected to do his low show. It was wonderfully executed, but the crosswinds played havoc with his loops and he drifted towards the crowd with every manoeuvre.  If his 16-ton, computer assisted, twin-engine beast with 17,000 lbs of thrust had difficulty, what possible chance did a 500-pound Quad-City Challenger II have?  The pilot, a major of the Canadian Air Force, looked up at the sky, smiled and said something to the effect of "If I don't go up, I won't have any fun." 

So, on a day when there was virtually no show for spectators to enjoy, the pilot took his tiny aircraft aloft and proceeded to blow away the crowd with a technically perfect and visually beautiful show - never more than 200 feet over the runway and dead centre over the showline, never once drifting towards the crowd.  He executed extreme climbs, chandelles, wing-overs and ended with his signature manoeuvre - switching his engine off at 200 feet, executing a wing over and turn into wind, he dropped that little bird onto the grass in front of the crowd rolling out on just one wheel until the last possible second. He dropped his high wing down, touched the other gear and came to a complete stop.

Watching from the VIP tent that day was the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) MGen. Maurice Baril. He smiled proudly through the CF-18 demo, but when the Air Force Major took to the sky in the diminutive ultra-light, he ran to the fence and watched in awe and excitement, waving to him as he restarted his engine and taxied by. He turned back to the tent at the end of the show and smiling widely, said.. "Now, that's a pilot."  The pilot was in fact his flying instructor. The pilot was Claude Roy.

by Dave O'Malley

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Though the weather outside is frightful, the fire inside is delightful - the stunningly beautiful and traditionally comfortable lobby of the Chateau Montebello.

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An Ultravia Pelican sits at a marina slip with the Chateau Montebello above. The Pelican ultra-light was manufactured just down the Ottawa River at Gatineau. The Pelican factory, now closed down, was just down the street from Vintage Wings of Canada. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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A Quad-City Challenger ultra-light taxies through deep snow.  When it's this deep, it's best to keep moving forward. Originally, the Rendezvous was created for Challenger owners to share the aviation experience and their knowledge in the winter environment, but today, all comers are welcome including helicopters, classic general aviation and other types of ultra-lights. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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Three Quad-City Challengers and a yellow Kitfox lay buried in fresh snow in front of the Montebello boathouse. In the lee of the marina, it's quite comfortable, but out on the wind-swept river, it's like a frozen blow torch of ice. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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If you don't have skis, the going is a hard slog. Piper, the author's Border collie, struggles through deep snow out on the Ottawa River. Photo: Peter Handley

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There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. If you want to go ultra-light flying in the winter in these parts, it's best to dress for it. And it helps to have an airplane one can spot in the snow, should a rescue be required. Photo: Peter Handley

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A Fleet 80 Canuck pounds through belly-high snow as she gets moving out to the runway. Despite the deep snow and the weight, ski-equipped aircraft move surprisingly well in dry snow - it's another matter all together if the skis get wet running through slush. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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Captured at the moment of touchdown on the frozen river, a Fleet 80 Canuck floats just an inch from landing. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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A Canadian Ultralight Chinook Plus 2 lands, not on the prepared runway parallel to the shore, but into the wind and in the deeper snow. This Chinook operates on water (both the solid and the liquid types) on its Full Lotus inflatable float kit. The pilot keeps the power on high to overcome the drag caused by the floats on the deep snow. Landing on snow is possible, like we see in the picture, but the airplane is extremely difficult to steer around on the ground.  Only brute force will get you to turn in a general direction. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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Oh-Oh. A beautiful 1946 Stinson arrives from nearby Pendleton (a former British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base) with a problem - a very serious problem. Her left ski has broken one of its restraint cables and the ski has flipped inverted in the slipstream. The pilot informs the welcoming committee and sets up for a tricky landing. Photo J.P. Bonin

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Touching down on just the right ski, the pilot deftly holds the wounded leg out of the snow until the last possible second. A superb display of airmanship. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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As the left ski boot drops into the snow, all onlookers hold their breath. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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Once the wounded ski cuts into the snow, the aircraft slews to the left, goes off the runway and comes to a quick and surprisingly gentle stop. The passenger seems somewhat unconcerned in the right seat - all in a day's flying. Photo: Peter Handley

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Friends and onlookers rush to the aid of the pilot pulling down on the right wing so that the ski can be flipped around for taxi. Photo: Peter Handley

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In last year's event, a gorgeous little Denny Kitfox overflies the crowd of photographers waiting on the snow below. The Kitfox has a basic two-stroke Rotax motor like most ultra-lights, but the little black bulges on the engine cowl purposely give the impression that it has a miniature radial for power.  The "wheel-skis" with tires protruding through skis, allow the Kitfox to land on cleared runways and snow.   Photo: J.P. Bonin

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Some pilots in the background walk to the hotel, but If flying is not their thing, guests at Montebello can always use the oldest form of Canadian transport - the dog sled.  Photo: JP. Bonin

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Even fling-wings are welcome. In this photo from last year's event, a helicopter stirs up a hurricane of swirling snow. Photo: J.P. Bonin

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When it's time to go flying, just get out the car brush and give those wings a sweep, kick the ice and slush from the skis and you are set to go. Photo: Peter Handley

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A Challenger en route to Montebello. Photographers like J. P. Bonin have been attending major aviation events for decades, covering  the aircraft for a hobby and for posterity. It shows that the Rendezvous has become a major flying event during a season when they are few and far between, that Bonin and other photographers make the journey from Montreal and even farther - to freeze on the ice. Photo: J.P. Bonin


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