By Dave O’Malley
The Ottawa Airport Authority just the other day announced that they were closing a long-standing airplane spotter’s perch close to the threshold of YOW’s Runway 32, a place where folks, families and aero geeks have been coming for as long as Runway 32 has existed. The closure was due to other less scrupulous people abusing the place by throwing litter, dumping garbage bags and other trash under the approach to this wonderful spot. Jerks. The YOW people had no option but to close it down for safety reasons with strong winds often blowing FOD high into the glide path. Others were off-roading under the approach, leaving furniture and dumping chemicals. Jerks.
These nincompoops, these knuckleheaded abusers, managed, as nincompoops always do, to ruin it for everyone else—people who loved to spend an hour or so out in the sun and the fresh air watching airplanes; families who could entertain excited kids for no cost at all.
A number of years ago, I had posted a story about this very spot on these pages, a place I have always called “The Ashram”. A place of extreme noise and inner peace for me and my friend Albert. In memory of a lost nexus of aviation joy and wonder, I would like to reprise it.
For some, the noise of thundering airliners, roaring thrust reversers, and shrieking jets are anathema. For others, these sounds are a way of seeking inner peace.
When my work as a creative director for a graphic design company seems to be spinning out of control; when ideas are in short supply and co-workers problems are shared like the flu; when the accumulated little household tasks seem like one big insurmountable spirit-breaker of a mountain with nowhere to get a toehold, I do what anyone with gumption would do—I hide.
I don’t hide in some darkened closet rocking back and forth. I don’t hide in neither the consoling words of encouragement from a therapist nor the fragrant silence of a church and I don’t hide alone. My safe house where all my woes can be forgotten smells like refined kerosene and keens with the shrill turbines of transport.
Every few weeks or so and sometimes more often, the influx gets too much, the variables too numerous and without warning—“Bang!”, a fuse is blown in the soul, a circuit breaker pops way down deep and the system shuts down. Time to visit “The Ashram”.
I call my best friend Albert whom I have known for 50 years and who has been joining me at The Ashram for at least 40. “Feel like smelling some jet fuel?” I will say. And Albert’s gravelly, whispering voice, fresh from a bout with insomnia, will answer in two simple drawn out words, “Oh yeah.” “Five Minutes” I say and hang up the phone.
I start the car, and swing round to Albert’s apartment which is just on the other side of Bank Street where I always find him waiting, bush hat crushed upon his head, sensible boots and an irrepressible smile. Albert always smiles when we are heading to “The Ashram”. That makes me happy.
Now, “The Ashram” moniker is just a humorous dig at some of our close friends who found their spiritual renaissance at the feet of a Himalayan swami. For us, the source of peace and oneness with the universe is to be found where volatile jet fuel is transformed into noise—the end of the runways of Ottawa’s International Airport. It is there that Albert and I have spent countless hundreds of hours in a state of bliss, chatting like Buddhist monks, sometimes motionless, our arms hanging from the chain-link fence by the fingertips like two kids watching batting practice at Yankee Stadium; sometimes animated, arms flailing in expressive excitement, eyes squinting into the low horizon as a twinkling landing light is spotted.
Depending on the prevailing winds, there are two great meditation spots at our Ashram. The first is at the hold position for aircraft wishing to take off from Runway 25 heading essentially west into those steady winds that swing from west to north most of the time in the Ottawa Valley. Here we can get our bodies right up to the fence and taxiing aircraft line up, with the first not 100 feet from our ears. If we are lucky there will be several aircraft lined up and several aircraft in the landing pattern. Then it becomes a mad minute—aircraft with low, whining engine sounds swooping onto the runway, followed by a trundling giant squeezing itself into the interval between two arriving aircraft and pouring on the coals. The world takes on a strangely surreal, almost Castaneda-like quality where thundering jet engines and satanic propellers combine with billows of heated jet stench to create a transcendental moment for us. We lean forward to get closer to the fumes, we never, ever cover our ears and we feel the power right in our rib cages. At the right time this trance can be extended for almost an hour. At other times, like a quiet Saturday afternoon, we are happy to just kick at the dust and the litter and warm ourselves in the heat of a summer’s day hoping to catch an ancient DC-3 come growling in, or watch as some pilot trainee battles to get his little Cessna on to the runway despite the thermals which rise from the heat-blasted landscape.
Then there is the spot under the approach path for Runway 32. Here, as dump trucks hurtle by raising dust on the Leitrim Road, we sit on the hood of my car and wait for “incoming”. We can see the far-off glint of light as an airliner banks to make the base leg of his circuit some ten miles distant. Albert and I have trained ourselves to see and identify aircraft literally minutes before first-timers can even see them. As we stand facing the oncoming aircraft, its lights get bigger and bigger and soon we can hear the pilot make power corrections as he fights to keep it on the glide path on a windy day. At the last few seconds it seems that the aircraft will crash straight into us, but instead it shrieks above our heads blocking out the sun and everything else. For several seconds the decibel levels reach the permanent damage zone, followed by a sweeping roar as the aircraft moves past. Ten seconds later we can hear the ripping tornado sounds of the wingtip vortices as they follow far behind and disappear into the wind.
On a sunny day in 1977, my friend Albert Prisner and my then girlfriend Janis Jones sit on the trunk of “Little Blue Jay” my first car and watch the DC-8s, Dakotas and T-33s rolling in. Photo: Dave O’Malley
Then for a while, calm comes over the end of the runway. There is naught but the sound of the wind in the fence line and the far-off whine of a commuter aircraft warming up. During this time we talk of our problems, our upcoming adventures and more often than not about a fantasy world where our minds are free to think the wildest ideas and anything can happen. Such is the fuel for graphic designers.
We have been there in rain and sun, biting cold and blistering heat. We enjoy both the chaos of the 4 to 6 o’clock rush and the silence and remoteness of a quiet Sunday morning when soaring vultures are more plentiful than airplanes. We have seen the “regulars” and the first-timers with their kids standing on the car hoods, the Tilley-hatted Brits with scanners and sensible Germans bent on recording registrations; we have seen crazy windy days where every landing is an adventure and calm sweet evenings when every aircraft seems to glide through liquid air on muffled wings.
After each session, we become refreshed, rejuvenated and we are rewarded with shirts that smell like jet fuel. We have only one rule, and that is that we cannot leave while there is still an aircraft in the sky with intentions to land. We wait. We laugh how silly and puerile this all seems. We are ready to return to the real world.