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Bessy comes home (Part III of a Trilogy)

By N. Kent Beckham

An automated machine answered my wife’s cell phone explaining how the customer was unavailable. This was good news. Not that I didn’t want to talk with her, but it meant that she had turned off her cell because she had finally made it onto a flight from L.A. as a standby passenger.

She and my youngest and another, had been visiting my eldest. It would probably take ‘til supper, but she would be home that night to feed Orville, our pooch. I wouldn’t be there. I hung up the payphone in the terminal and proceeded to security screening for my flight out of London connecting through Toronto (why does everything have to connect through this place?) to Thunder Bay.

The safety briefing card said that it was a “Bombardier” Dash 8 100. When I used to Captain this very plane it was a de Havilland Dash 8. Some corporation was usurping an aircraft that was built at Downsview by de Havilland employees. What an industry.

Transferring in T.O. was going to be tough. There was plenty of connection time, but the flight was full and I was traveling standby – an aerial sort of hitchhiking.

The Jazz pilots were kind enough to accept me in the jump seat on the flight deck. These were my kind of guys. Although there were many mergers, myself having been a former Canadian Partner/Time Air/Canadian Regional/Canadian/Air Canada guy and Jim (the Captain) having been with the CAF before Air Nova and Ben (the First Officer) a new hire from Flightexec on his first day of Line Indoctrination - we were all brethren – Pilots.

Arriving Thunder Bay at the warmest time of the day (if you can call -15°c warm) I was eager to prep Bessy for her daybreak journey tomorrow.

The cold required her tail oleo to be serviced again. The good folks at Bearskin Airlines did the trick. The Esso FBO where she was tied down informed me that the media had gotten a hold of her, having been built in 1952 in this very city, and several articles would be appearing. As promised, there was no charge for the tie down and the offer of a free overnight in a heated hangar was once again extended. How could I refuse?

Enough muscle power was amassed to push her 3 ton bulk inside for most likely the first time since being in the RCAF. Starting tomorrow off with a warm soaked airplane would save me a lot of effort.

I was at the hotel’s restaurant doors reading a book standing up under a pot light when they opened for business. In short time I was at the Esso FBO’s Nav Canada kiosk, flight planning in the diminishing darkness, delighted to find that the day I had guessed would be suitable was exceeding my expectations. Tomorrow could be a very different story, but today I was ahead of the weather.

Departing Thunder Bay at sunrise I proceed north of Lake Superior. The southern shore was socked in with lake effect snow caused by the northwesterlies. This same wind gave me an incredible push at 9,500 feet.

Noorduyn had built an excellent bush plane in the Norseman. The same power plant was utilized by Canadian Car & Foundry when they bought the company in 1946 and later built Bessy. I was cruising at twice the groundspeed of her ancestry in what felt like the fastest bush plane ever built. Every frozen lake was a possible runway, so was the Trans-Canada.

North of Superior is truly the land that God created – then forgot about it. An ice age scraped everything away right down to the Precambrian rock. Eventually some soil blew in and some vegetation took root preventing further erosion.

The soil is so thin that it can only support the root structure of the spindliest evergreens. They look as though you wouldn’t need an axe, but could merely push them over for wood.

Unlike Lake of the Woods where ice fishers and snowmobilers waved at me flying by, nobody was out here in the winter. I couldn’t even raise a soul on the RCO (Strange).

Approaching Sault Ste Marie I required next to maximum volume to hear the ATIS and Tower. A quick turn saw me full of gas, oil and an empty bladder as the radial engine chugged to life.

All I could think was that things were going too good to be true. I was idling in near perfect weather waiting for temps, as I noticed what appeared to be dark raindrops impacting the windscreen. That’s exactly what it was – something that appeared to be dark raindrops – it was in fact engine oil – I’d sprung a leak.

No choice but to pull the plug and shut her down right here. Was this how it was going to end; broke down one leg short of home with an approaching storm?

A further investigation revealed that the oil was coming from the newly overhauled propeller Little Giant O-ring seal on the prop piston. These were a mod to replace the old leather seals of yesteryear which frequently blew in the extreme cold.

You can never tell how something will react to the cold, which is why companies like General Motors and even Airbus Industries perform actual cold weather testing in the Canadian north winters.

My prop seal had been warm in a heated hangar overnight and had just flown for hours in cruise. I was starting to think that there was nothing wrong with it but the cold. I stole some avgas out of the tank quick drain and poured it on the prop piston washing out the congealed oil and any contaminates.

After wiping down the plane I restarted the engine and as suspected the problem no longer existed. A full power run up and numerous prop cycles could not make it leak a drop. I was satisfied, the final leg awaited. I called tower.

I called tower again. Turning up the squelch had no effect. I checked breakers, switched headsets and eventually succumbed to the conclusion that I was Nordo. Even the intercom and ADF audio were gone. I visualized how trip number 3 would end with Bessy parked in the Soo, even if the radio was repaired, darkness would prevent me from proceeding any further today and by tomorrow she would be part of a snow bank.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out my cell phone and called Soo Flight Service. They in turn gave me Tower’s number. Thirty seconds later, I was short of runway 30 getting the steady green light. I was gone.

I learned to fly on a Nordo cub and didn’t require a radio to land in my back yard. My flight plan was opened and once again E was under the compass lubber line.

I recalled how the prior owner, Tony Swain, had told me that the funny looking adaptor for the headset was required as it was plumbed into the old RCAF tube radio an ICA 67 with 16 – yes 16 whole frequencies. At 150 #s he had removed this radio when the specs tightened and it was no longer legal.

My brain had mulled this over long enough. What if he had wired the new solid state (meaning built in my lifetime) radio through the old audio amplifier? I broke the safety wire on the ancient dust encrusted guarded switch and selected “Emergency Radio.” Squelch noise faintly filled my David Clarks. London radio reported me as faint, but, I was communicating again.

With my house in sight I closed the flight plan. I flew over the local area and practiced some aeros in Bessy over my field. Landing, I taxied into my backyard and shut her down. The trip was over in my mind – only four cases of oil later. (Round engines don’t leak – they just mark their territory).

I still had to deliver her to the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association in Tillsonburg, but they weren’t open today. Slowly friends and relatives came out of the woodwork. My youngest described the feeling of sitting in calculus class and hearing that Pratt & Whitney radial roaring-by overhead. His concentration was ruined for the day.

Imagine his reaction after getting off the school bus and climbing the 1,300 feet winding gravel drive through the bush to find the Bessy sitting in the backyard.

Saturday came much too quickly for my liking, but not soon enough for my wife, Jill. Einstein was right – time is relative.

I was expected to arrive at Tilly at 11:30. No one knew that I was coming from just 9 minutes to the north. They all thought that I was coming from Thunder Bay. Parking at home meant more work, but it was worth it.

Another night preheating, this time with two heaters with independent sources of power, hot water in 5 gallon pails for deice and trails blown through the snow to the runway including 1,200 feet down the centerline. This would suffice in the cold with a weight reduced ship.

I had just enough cleared length to return if required. The only thing I couldn’t control was the crosswind. With the residual snow and ice on the ground I had to perform a crabbing takeoff like a ski plane until the flight controls became effective and I could straighten her out.

Gradually lifting the tail to prevent rapid precession of the prop (it behaves like a gyroscope yawing the plane) and starting with full aileron until one feels the upwing oleo compress, I transitioned to flight keeping the nose straight with opposite rudder. You don’t rotate a taildragger – they just sort of levitate when the time is right and you experience the magic of committing aviation.

Like Tony, I too had my last flight with Bessy. The adventure had come to conclusion. It was my turn to give her away. The 9 minute flight took 40 minutes as I had to let everyone know in Woodstock, Beachville, Ingersoll, Thamesford, London, Dorchester, and eventually Tillsonburg that Bessy was home.

Now that most of the fuel was burnt off and the cold, clear, winter skies had opened up, Bessie was ready to perform. What a difference compared to doing air shows in the summer heat waves. I had traded my flight suit for a parka and mukluks, but it was still fun.

What a great surprise ending when I finally arrived - a massive CHAA wintertime crowd and Bar-B poured out of the hangar just to beat winter cabin fever and see the new arrival. For them it was Hello; for me Good-bye ol' girl.

If you see a fish on the nose of a Harvard this summer, stop and talk to the pilot. He/She is a volunteer member ($50/year) flying Bessy. You could be too! We’ve extended an invitation to Tony and The Mary (we don’t really care if he ever flies Bessy again), we simply miss her cooking. I truly hope they take us up on the offer.

I wonder where Harvard number 7 is going to be from?!