Oshkosh welcomes first ultralight of 2000

by Michael Flahault

In January 2000, Claude Roy, head of the International Challenger Owners Association, invited interested parties to join him on an ultralight flight (from Montreal/Ottawa) to AirVenture 2000, the EAA fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisc. I thought about it for a while before putting the idea to Nadia, my wife. It seemed like a good adventure to have together. I proposed it as a team effort with Nadia as ground crew. She is not yet a pilot and space would be needed in the airplane for fuel, etc.
Claude’s idea was that this trip would be a good millennium project. He applied for permission for the Challenger ultralights to make the voyage into the United States on a one-time basis from the Federal Aviation Administration. His initiative was so well received that it set in motion a process involving the FAA, Transport Canada, COPA and the EAA that eventually saw major changes to the regulations regarding cross-border flights by a certain class of ultralights. But rather than a quick special approval it became apparent that the blanket rule change was not going to be quick thing. Six months later, just two weeks before our scheduled departure, the changes came through and last minute preparations got underway.
Claude proposed two routes: One north of the Great Lakes for Challengers on amphibious floats, and a southern route for those aircraft on wheels, this route having more airports, and fields for landings. By departure date, there was Claude and Jean-Marc Coté in their aircraft on the northern route, accompanied by Joan, Claude’s wife, as their ground crew and Nadia and me following the southern route.
The route I planned was from Montreal, passing north of the Toronto control zone to Port Huron, Mich. to cross the border. From there, southwest across Michigan, west across Indiana and Illinois to just southwest of the Chicago control zone and Lake Michigan, then straight north to Oshkosh, Wisc. A total of 12 stops along the way were planned. The Challenger, with 10 gallons on board, has a range of about two and a half hours. The route was also calculated to put the maximum number of alternate airports as near as possible, in case of weather or some other need to put down.






Wednesday, July 19

The day dawned cloudy and cool, as Nadia and I set out for St. Lazare Airport, west of Montreal, where C-GESF is based. I followed my usual routine of going flying, plus I secured two five-gallon cans of fuel in the back seat along with tie-down kit, flight bag and refueling funnel. I also loaded the GPS, maps, a Canada Flight Supplement, some candies and a book to read while waiting for Nadia at the next airport put into the storage box below the instrument panel. A kiss goodbye and a "See you in Brockville!" later, the engine fired up and I lined up on Runway 20 and took off into the dawn.
Aside from being a little cold in the cockpit (it showed 13 C in there) this first leg was just like any other flight, except that I listened to the engine a little more carefully. It started to sink in that I would be doing just about 1,000 miles in this aircraft in the next four days, weather permitting. That excitement was a pleasant sensation.
The countryside looked very peaceful in these early hours: the St. Lawrence River was beautiful as I passed over Upper Canada Village.
Brockville showed up 1.6 hours from engine start. I taxied in, shut down, and went into the clubhouse to wait for Nadia. The airport was being manned that morning by an air ambulance pilot based at the field, and we chatted briefly. It didn’t take Nadia long to show up, something that became a regular feature along the route, provided the airport was near a main highway. ESF was refueled. Now I felt I was really on the trip, as we were not headed back to St. Lazare as would happen on a usual flying day.
It was still cloudy as I passed the Thousand Islands and north of the Kingston control zone. Lake Ontario looked immense. There was almost no turbulence, so aside from the usual monitoring of GPS, map, instruments and airspace around me, it was a pleasure to sit back and admire the view as it slid slowly past beneath me. My GPS has no map display, was primarily useful in making sure I was on track, indicating headwind speed and in showing the time and distance remaining.
Approaching Belleville, Ont., our next destination, I could hear a couple of other aircraft on the radio. I slotted in as number two behind a Cessna 150 and in front of an amphibious ultralight. I landed and taxied in.
Nadia appeared down the airport drive. We had a picnic lunch by the clubhouse.
Before the trip we had installed a handheld aircraft radio in the car for en route communication, and we each had a cell phone. It turned out that I could hear Nadia on the hand-held very well, but not the other way around, except for a few minutes into the flight. She could hear me make blips with the transmit button, however, so it quickly evolved that she would talk to me, tell me where she was and things of interest that she saw, and if I heard her I would blip three times.
The next stop was Peterborough, Ont., where we would stay overnight. On takeoff from Belleville I contacted the Trenton tower to ask if I could transit through their zone. The controllers very courteously allowed me through. I had worried about some areas of the route not having adequate forced-landing opportunities, including the Belleville-Peterborough leg, but as I found throughout the trip this was not really a factor anywhere.
After 4.1 hours of flying that day, I was happy to tie down ESF for the night. The people at the airport were very helpful. The airport manager was nice enough to let us tie down for free.

Thursday, July 20

We were back at the airport at 6 a.m. to find it lightly misted. ESF was absolutely saturated with dew. The windows were completely fogged. Knowing the tendency for Lexan to scratch and not having a soft cloth , I opted to open the doors, turn on a fan I have in the cockpit and let it dry out normally.
The next stop was Brampton, west of Toronto. This meant avoiding the Toronto control zone, flying under one of the layers, but the route was almost straight, with just a bend at the end to the airport. The visibility en route was breathtaking, and I had the perfect view of Toronto as I passed slowly by.
Brampton was very busy and the ramp there is not perfectly horizontal. You sort of descend a small incline from the taxiway to the parking area. I had disconnected the brakes a long time ago, as they are not particularly effective nor needed in 99 per cent of circumstances. However, here I had a light wind and an incline, and so when the lineman showed me where to stop, I just waved and sailed slowly by into another parking spot further on. I will be ordering the new brake-handle system and re-connecting the brakes in the future. The lineman was very understanding.
Brampton has a very nice airport building, with all the comforts for student, pilot and visitor. The people were very friendly and efficient. Despite all the ground traffic is was not a problem for Nadia to bring the car onto the ramp in order to get the fuel to the airplane.
The day was sunny and warm, and getting a little humid. Taking off for Stratford, Ont., it was clear that the rest of the day would be bumpy flying. Visibility was still superb. The countryside looked particularly pretty on this leg, and was confirmed by Nadia who kept up a running commentary on the radio.
We had called ahead to all the airports on the route to ask for directions on how to get there by car. This proved very useful for Nadia.
Stratford showed up 1.2 hours after leaving Brampton, and I joined in the circuit behind a Cessna 150.
The next leg, which would take us over the border and into the United States, was to St. Clair County Airport in Michigan, which services Port Huron (the other side of the river from Sarnia, Ont.). I checked that I had my copy of the Special Flight Authorization, downloaded from the FAA Web site, plus the U.S. Customs decal application form. Checking that I had my passport on board, plus receipts for the expensive stuff on board (radio, GPS, transponder, camera, etc.), I took off and headed for Port Huron.
The day by this time was very bumpy, and in the hour or so a considerable headwind had come up. I had opened my flight plan with London FSS and had given U.S. Customs my ETA. I now found that I was going to be late due to the headwind. So I poured on the power and tried to make the most efficient track, all the while bouncing around in the thermals. This leg took 1.6 hours, and was very tiring. Lake Huron was beautiful out the right window as I came up to the border. I crossed the border at 3:50 p.m. on July 20, passing over the major industries of the area and making my inbound calls to St. Clair County Airport.
Landing was uneventful, despite all the business jets and turboprops in the area (I let everyone know my approach speed was 55 mph, so I wouldn’t be run over or get in their way too much), and taxied over to the Customs building. I was five minutes late and had been warned not to get out of the aircraft until told to do so by a Customs officer. Around me were two Falcon 20 jets, a Fouga Magistere, and some other expensive aircraft. I felt quite amused to be in their company; quite a bit different than those of St. Lazare!
The Customs officer opened the door to the building, stuck his head out, and motioned for me to come inside. Once inside everything was very routine. I felt I could have landed a flying saucer without attracting attention, much less an ultralight. It took awhile as there were more forms to fill out (including the same one you fill out on regular commercial flights). At one point, to make conversation, I indicated that this was one of the first Canadian ultralights to legally cross into the United States.
I could see him looking over my shoulder from time to time, out the window of the office, but didn’t think anything of it until I stood up to leave. I suddenly saw that there was a crowd around ESF. There followed a nice long chat with the locals, invitations to see their aircraft, and questions about the Challenger and the trip. This went a long way to making my adventure extremely enjoyable.
I then went over to the FBO to make arrangements for the overnight tie-down. All of $4 for the night, this was not going to drain our funds. I had a long wait for Nadia, who had to cross the border as well. She also had a problem with a faulty fuel pump at the gas station. It overflowed the fuel can while still reading less than five gallons. This was something we found in one form or another in every state we went through, and so we took to looking at the marks on the fuel container to gauge quantities, rather than the pump readings. The readings are important if you are trying to do accurate fuel to oil mixture ratios, as is necessary in two-stroke engines.

Friday, July 21

The next morning, rested, excited to be in the United States with ESF, we headed to the airport at 6 a.m., prepared the airplane, and headed off with our respective mounts to Livingston County Airport, in Howell, Michigan. A brief stop there to refuel the airplane, and then it was off to Branch County Airport in Coldwater, Michigan. By this time the sky was now cloudy, with rain showers, but nothing too threatening, indeed I could see sunlight on the horizon.
I had not prepared my map too well for this leg, thinking I could fold it properly en route. Well, I was three miles out when the GPS sent up the message to "Power down and check unit." I turned it off, and then back on. It came back up very quickly, but had erased Branch completely from its memory bank. I briefly tried to sort out the GPS and then the map before I got lost, but it was just too cumbersome. Rather than fiddle around with my head in the cockpit, I elected to return to Livingston and sort things out quietly there. Nadia was still within radio range, so I told her my plans and headed back.
Once on the ground it was just a matter of making sure the GPS was otherwise OK, putting in the Branch coordinates manually and properly folding the map. Then it was off again before Nadia even made it made it back to the airport. It was getting windy at this point, so I cruised along at 2,000 feet in this beautiful area between dark clouds and dark countryside. I was sitting there when something caught my eye ­ it was a glider, one of the streamlined composite ones, about 1,000 feet higher than me and off to my left, doing aerobatics under the dark cloud ceiling. It was surreal to see and very pretty, the glider doing loops with it’s belly seeming to brush the bottom of the clouds, and wing-overs above the dark fields.
I eventually came out from under the clouds into beautiful sunshine. Coldwater came slowly up. I looked to avoid the prison until I realized I was directly over it. I made my radio calls, and then proceeded to let down into some severe wind and mechanical turbulence, thankfully forewarned by another pilot in the area. As I called downwind, base and finals, I could see someone come out of the office to look at the landing. I could see he had on a white shirt, tie and epaulettes of a corporate pilot.
As I lined up with the runway, I realized this was going to be the crosswind of a lifetime. It felt like the wings were pointing straight up and down as I kept ESF lined up, and as I approached some gusting started that was quite something.
The brochure for the Challenger says it will handle a 15-knot crosswind. I know now that it is not a lie. Close to the runway, I leveled out and touched down.
I taxied around for quite a while to find a calm spot, as the hangars and things were causing all sorts of turbulence. I didn’t want to get out of the plane and have it leave without me. Just outside the office was a good spot. I got out and tied down.
In the office, a good natured lady behind the desk informed me with a grin that the airport manager had heard my calls on the radio while he was busy on the phone. He only heard the word "Challenger", and had come out of his office saying "Quick! We have another jet coming in!"

Saturday, July 22

I arrived at Starke County Airport in Knox, Indiana long before the airport opened, and as it turned out, long before Nadia. I elected to land on their turf runway, which was a mistake as on the Challenger’s small wheels it felt like a plowed field. After having jumped and bumped my way to the apron I settled down to wait. Nadia eventually arrived, after much cell phoning. The signs for the airport had all been knocked down at some point and the airport is not exactly on the main highway.
We refueled and I took off for Morris County Airport, Illinois. After the usual farmland, signs of industrial civilization began to be more frequent as ESF neared the Chicago area. Morris Airport is on the southwest limit of the Chicago control zone. It is a skydiving centre.
During my approach, I kept an eye out for the skydivers coming into the middle of the field and their Twin Otter making frequent takeoffs and landing. There were quite a few aircraft in the circuit. I announced my approach speed just so other faster aircraft would know. I touched down without problem, and taxied to the ramp. Given the number of aircraft moving around, I asked the ramp attendant if I could tie down in a quieter area to avoid prop blast problems and he said to go ahead.
I had about an hour to wait for Nadia, which gave ample time to get into conversation with the many locals who were congregating outside the clubhouse. As we chatted, all sorts of beautiful aircraft came in, on their way to Oshkosh. Stearmans, Fairchilds, a De Havilland Beaver, Ercoupes and many others came and went in that time. The people were very curious about ESF and the trip, and took pictures of the airplane. Red Baron, the airport cat, also came out to have a sniff at the rudder and explore the trunk of the car. Nadia and I had lunch, and then it was time to decide whether to proceed to Lake Lawn Airport, Wisconsin, and then on the Oshkosh on a fourth leg, or go to Beloit, Wisconsin for the night and then to Oshkosh the next morning. Beloit won out and off we went.
The flight to Beloit was bumpy, but I had fantastic visibility. For the first time I saw Chicago and Lake Michigan. The individual buildings of downtown were clearly visible, illuminated by the low afternoon sun. The route was a bit of a dog-leg to avoid the western edge of Chicago’s control zone plus others in the vicinity. Despite being a high traffic area and keeping my eyes open, I saw very few aircraft.
Beloit turned out to be a small airport nestled in rolling farmland. It was just about five p.m. when I landed on its gently sloping runway. The airport closed at five. The clubhouse was locked. I waited outside on an uncomfortable bench for the hour or more with no water or bathroom until Nadia found the airport. By then I was pretty tired from four days of flying. It was good to get to the hotel. Nadia was her usual angel self, bringing the fuel and driving us to the hotel. She is the perfect teammate.

The big day

As the direct track to Oshkosh was a little long, and I didn’t know what kind of traffic I would find once there (even though it was the Sunday before the Wednesday opening), I opted to do a short stop in East Troy to top up the fuel. That short 40 minute flight was one of the most beautiful of the entire trip. Ahead I could see the sun rising over Lake Michigan, painting it a liquid gold. Off in the distance were the silhouettes of Chicago and Milwaukee. Below in the dawn were little pockets of mist in the shadowed valleys. The air was perfectly calm and there were no cars on the highway below.
ESF touched down in East Troy just as the owners were arriving. As at all the U.S. airports, we had a great conversation and coffee while waiting for Nadia. We talked about the history of the airport and the story behind all the photos on the wall.
It was time for the last leg of the voyage. It was still very early when I took off. I knew the Oshkosh NOTAM stated that the airfield closed to ultralights at nine a.m. The Wisconsin farmland sliding slowly by. Approaching Oshkosh, I set myself up for the ultralight approach to the area. I contacted Oshkosh tower to see if there was a frequency for the ultralight runway. They indicated there was not. They said that if I wanted to I could land on the main runway if I preferred. I declined, figuring it might be better to land on the ultralight runway right away, rather than to have to perhaps taxi for miles afterward.
I was down from 2,000 feet to the ultralight circuit’s 300 agl circuit, and made my way around until lined up just past the last trees with the grass runway. I thumped the landing, as the runway is not exactly flat nor level, but ESF did just fine. I taxied to the opening in the fence where a gentleman rode up on a John Deere six-wheeled green vehicle. He asked me to shut down, and then said "Congratulations! You’re the first ultralight of the Millennium! Give me your logbook, I’ll sign it."
The entry says: "First ultralight of the millennium, Larry Fancher, Air Boss." We had arrived. It was 8:30 am, July 23, 2000. Nadia showed up a short time later. We had done it ­ Montreal to Oshkosh by Challenger (and Nissan).
We thought that Claude and Jean-Marc would not be far away, and so when the field re-opened for ultralights that evening we waited under ESF’s wing to see whether they would show up. Sure enough, in the evening light, there they were, two float-equipped Challengers in the circuit, turning through the circuit to land gently on the grass runway. Nadia and I ran up and as the doors opened we shook the hands of Claude and Jean-Marc. Now the entire team was together, along with Joan who appeared almost immediately on her Harley with the trailer, having beaten the Challengers to Oshkosh by a few minutes.

A few minutes of fame

Oshkosh was everything we had heard about. More aircraft in more varieties than you can imagine, lots of people, crowded camping, but all well organized. As the first group of Canadian ultralights, we had our few minutes of fame, which was fun. We were interviewed and photographed for the AirVenture Today newspaper. There was a press conference at the Transport Canada pavilion, in the company of Arlo Speer (Transport Canada), Mike Henry (EAA), Randy Hansen (EAA) and Herb Cunningham (COPA), among others, for which Claude had made T-shirts commemorating the event. Claude was presented with a well-deserved award from COPA. We were interviewed by Mary Jones, editor of the EAA Experimenter magazine (and were able to meet Paul Poberezny in the process). We were filmed and interviewed for the EAA video pool.
Jane Garvey, head of the FAA, and other EAA notables came by briefly to see us in the ultralight park. We had our pictures taken with Garvey.
Eventually, on Tuesday, just as Oshkosh was closing down, flight service said there was a passage through the murky weather. I sprinted back to the airplane and took off, leaving Nadia to pack the tent, etc. Incidentally, at the FSS I found myself looking at the weather map with Robert "Hoot" Gibson, the former space shuttle pilot.
The return flight to Montreal was much like the trip down, with the exception of spending one extra night in Knox, Indiana (Starke County Airport), due to some thunderstorms in the vicinity ahead. On the way to Sarnia from Livingston at about 3,000 feet, a little blue and white biplane passed about 1,000 feet above me. About half a mile ahead it suddenly flipped upside down, flew along that way for a few seconds, then snapped back upright; all for show.
On landing in Sarnia, I closed the flight plan by calling London FSS on the cell phone, and called customs who simply gave me an administrative number and said I could go. We stayed overnight, then on to Stratford and Brampton and the next night in Peterborough. Then it was Belleville, Brockville and finally the familiar sight of St. Lazare once again through the windows, and of putting ESF to bed for a well-deserved rest. Nadia arrived about 45 minutes after that, and everyone present gave her a round of applause as she drove in, a nice moment, well deserved, both for all her hard work over the past two and a half weeks and surely for putting up with me.
The figures: 995.5 nm going; 981.6 coming back (according to the GPS); 17.9 hours flying to get there; 16.9 coming back. We made 12 stops going, 11 coming back. The only mechanical glitch of the entire trip was a broken exhaust spring.
It was a great adventure and a wonderful experience. A big "Thank you" to everyone who helped open the regulatory door that we stepped through.

Who’s next? AirVenture 2001, July 24-30.

(Editor’s note: Challenger owner and COPA member Michael Flahault is a professional aviation artist who has won awards for his work.)