Grizzly Bear Airways flies again

Grizzly Bear Airways flies again

I have an overdue confession to make. And it’s nothing to do with bear-viewing. On 1st Sept 2012 I crashed my new airplane.

I kept fairly quiet about it at the time, though some of you – especially those who have been at the ranch in the last couple of years – may already have heard the sorry story.

It began when I bought a home-built plane from a diminutive farmer in Oregon. He had constructed it himself, and a pretty slapdash job he had made of it.

There were spots of glue and red sealant all over the place, many of the screw holes didn’t line up, the wings were misaligned, and the interior metal work was covered in a flaking black powder coat.

The exterior – perhaps in an attempt to distract from its interior failings – was painted shiny black with red, yellow and orange flames on the wings, fuselage and nose.

The thing looked like an aerial version of the pimped-out car that John Travolta drove up and down a dry sewage canal in the classic 1978 musical romantic comedy Grease.

I knew immediately I saw the plane that buying it wasn’t a great idea. But my mind was already made up. I named the plane Ivor.

Two months later, after converting Ivor to a tail-dragger (two big wheels at the front and one small one at the back) and fixing a few bits and pieces, he was ready to fly.

I asked Thierry, the local flight instructor in Nelson, the nearest town, if he would come up with me for a couple of hours and sign off on my aerial competence, something required by the insurance company.

“But I have never even seen a plane like this before,” he protested. “And anyway I have no experience in a tail-dragger.”

“I have lots of experience,” I soothed. “Just sit back and enjoy the flight and sign the paperwork when we are done.”

It was true I did have a fair bit of experience in tail-draggers, but that was 15 years before, and on a very different airplane.

Ivor, it turned out, was a feisty little thing, fidgety and mercurial. No sooner had I lined him up at the end of the runway and pushed in full power than he began to skip, first left and then right, like a featherweight boxer. Thierry’s eyes widened. Then I lost all control.

Ten seconds later we were wrapped around a sturdy metal fencepost. I felt rather than heard a string of Gallic expletives from beside me. Sacre bleu. Mon Dieu.

The accident could have been a whole lot worse. Just the other side of the fence we hit – an obstacle that saved us both from a swim in the lake – a lady was walking a small and fussy dog. When she looked up and saw the little airplane barrelling towards her she began to scream.

Luckily just before we hit the fence the propeller blades stopped turning. Otherwise, rotating at 2,000 rpm and impacting a large metal pole, the plastic blades might have shredded all of us.

When the plane came to rest, Thierry and I just sat there dumbfounded for a few seconds. How on earth did that happen? I wondered. Then, as the piercing smell of gasoline hit our noses, we scrambled out and away as fast as we could.

The plane, thankfully, did not explode and burn. Instead it just sat there, battered and forlorn. I felt like a fool. How could I have been so cavalier?

And then an even more fearful thought entered my head. Being a fool was one thing, but having everyone know it was several degrees worse. A plane crash, even one this pathetic, would be a major news item in this small town. Even a council by-law on dog-walking dominate the front page for weeks.

I imagined the headlines. “New pilot brought down by hubris.” Or worse. And then all the knowing looks and whispers from people in the street I barely knew. I began to panic.

“I’ve got to get the plane out of here, Thierry. I don’t need a photograph.” He looked at me as if I was a madman.

“Please….” I whined.

In the end three of us managed to drag the broken airplane clear of the fence. It was, after all, only made of fabric and wood and weighed less than the average adult moose.

Ivor, before his accident.

Ivor, before his accident.

Then, determined that no camera was going to catch me with my proverbial pants down, I hopped inside, turned the key and set off down the runway. The fuselage may have been a bit battered but the engine was running fine.

But just as I thought I might be able to hide my sordid act, I looked up and saw a whole string of emergency vehicles – fire, police, ambulance and the hazardous materials team – snaking their way through town, lights flashing.

When they reached the airport they turned onto the end of the runway. I was heading the other way in my bent, little plane.

I has no intention of trying to flee the scene, but, I thought desperately, if I can just get the plane to the hangars perhaps there would be no incriminating photograph.

For a few moments we closed on each other. But there was no way I was going to stop now. Finally the emergency crews pulled over politely and let me pass.

Then they turned around and began to follow me down the runway. It must have looked like a small, parochial version of the OJ Simpson police chase through LA way back in the 1990s.

Eventually I got to the hangars and rolled to a halt. The uniformed emergency crews climbed out of their vehicles.

“Hello,” I tried with fake jollity. I was greeted with a wall of frowns. I felt like a schoolboy who has played a silly prank facing the punitive forces of moral probity.

“I hear there’s been a serious fuel spill,” the Hazmat man began.

“Oh, just a few drops,” I replied defensively.

“Well if it’s less than a litre, I don’t have to do report it….” he said uncertainly, eyeing me with suspicion.

Eventually he got back in his emergency truck and left. Then the ambulance men followed suit – there were, after all, no injuries. The fire engine left. There was no fire.

Finally only the police chief stood there looking at me thoughtfully. “Have you been drinking?” she asked. I hadn’t, I replied truthfully.

For a moment she hesitated and then she seemed to take pity on me.

“Well I guess I’ll just be going then…”

Four years on and Ivor the plane is ancient history. At least in my world. He ended up being rebuilt by a shifty mechanic down by the border who, two years later, presented me with an extortionate bill. I refused to pay and the matter ended up with lawyers. Eventually I just sold the plane to him, flames and all.

But the good news is that Ivor now has a successor. Grizzly Bear Airways flies again. I bought Ott the Airplane (pronounced Oit and named for a good friend of Kristin’s and mine) from an electrician in Prince George, a couple of day’s drive to the north.

And you’ll be pleased to know that I already have nearly 50 hours flying time in him, so far without a scrape.

I’ve checked out all the local mountain ranges, flown up and down the major lakes, and inspected all the nooks and crannies around the ranch. I even took the ariplane over to the BC Rockies for the day a week or so back.

Several friends have come for rides, and Kristin even came up one calm morning for a bit of gentle sight-seeing.

Of course, there is no such thing as risk-free flying where we live. Furthermore Ott, like his predecessor, is experimental, without the guarantees that come from buying a certified design.

If the engine ever quits I will almost certainly end up in the lake. If I screw up a landing I could yet make another ding in the fence at the local airport.

But so far so good. Ott is fast, sleek and aerobatic. He has more avionics than a Tupulev TU-154, the mainstay of Soviet civil aviation.

This coming week my plan is to take him over the Rockies to visit Charlie Russell, an old friend and fellow bear activist and aviator who lives in southern Alberta.

Charlie also had an experimental airplane until recently. He crashed his plane, not once but twice. It’s a record that I will try not to emulate.