Updated: Jan 14
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*Note - A version of this article was first posted in UPAC's Light Flight magazine and credits to Colin King for helping to write the article
Our school, Skyview Ultralights, with a few students planned a trip to explore Ontario in late summer of 2020 to break the COVID-19 fatigue (somewhat) safely. The trip ultimately ended up happening with 2 students, 1 instructor and 2 planes.
The plan was to leave on labor day Monday Sep 7th, 2020 but weather forecast dictated we leave a day earlier and also prompted a change of our route, which happened multiple times during this trip! We originally planned to fly from Burlington to North Bay for a break, and then continue on and spend the night in Timmins. However after getting a weather briefing and a NOTAM of a closed runway at Timmins, it would mean we would face 90 degree crosswind at 10G20 knots, with perhaps some light rain so we decided to pursue a more weather friendly destination. We instead made a stop in Edenvale, and decided to stay in North Bay for 2 nights to wait out the weather before continuing further north.
One thing we were thankful for was for having cancellable reservations and we were easily able to find last minute hotel rooms in North Bay as we scrambled to re-plan on short notice.
Getting ready to leave was bit of a challenge trying to weigh and arrange all our luggage and stay within C of G. Despite best efforts, the Flight Design CTLS felt tail heavy. Fortunately, we had an option to leave some items at Edenvale at a friend's hangar. Wee sacrificed some back-up equipment we were carrying. As part of planning a longer trip, we had backup up tires, tubes, fluids, tiedowns and, of course, plenty of PPE for COVID-19 safety. However, we had to cut back to save weight and have a better weight and balance situation.
As for the trip itself, it was a little unexpectedly bumpy from Burlington to Edenvale. From Edenvale to North Bay, I stayed around 4000 feet with Flight following. The other aircraft climbed up to 4500 feet and apparently had an incredibly smooth ride. Guess I should have gone higher as well. I was staying behind and below them. Since the CTLS is faster, I kept the throttle around 4800 RPM, and did not deploy negative flaps to keep the speed around 100 knots. Autopilot was on occasionally :).
Arriving in North Bay was fairly routine. North Bay radio was friendly and guided us to where we needed to tie down. We tied down the planes with our own gear and double and triple checked as a strong rain storm was expected to hit. We were a bit hesitant to park our planes outdoors but was the only option. The airport terminal was otherwise eerily closed and we were the only ones at the airport. Quite an odd sight but that was the new normal during the pandemic.
We spent 2 relaxing but soggy days in North Bay and then returned to the airport to find both planes pushed back in their tie down spot by the winds, but otherwise, thankfully in good shape. The planes did take in some water with the
amount of rain that we had. After drying that up, we were on our way to our next destination!
Plan for day 2 was to head to Moosonee from North Bay, but once again, the weather had other plans for us. After departing North Bay in still, smooth air, we made a quick stop at Earlton Airport (CYXR) for some fuel and a bathroom break. Very nice little airport with a friendly airport manager. Next stop was Cochrane Ontario. The leg from Earlton to Cochrane ended up being quite bumpy. After landing at Cochrane and getting an updated forecast, we had to fight our get-there-itis. We didn’t want to risk flying the leg from Cochrane to Moosonee and encounter gusty winds as per the forecast and not have another nearby option. As a result we didn’t reach our intended destination of the day again.
We likely could have made it if we aimed to land close to sunset but a number of marginal factors meant we had to find last minute accommodations in Cochrane and not test our luck. Fortunately we were successful in finding a motel in Cochrane and the owners recommended we have dinner at the best restaurant in town, which we did. Later on, walking around Cochrane, it looked like that was probably the only restaurant in town...
After a nice meal we crossed our fingers for good weather on Wednesday!
We did finally make it to Moosonee on September 10th, but had to wait till early afternoon to depart Cochrane. In hindsight, it was a good decision to not take a chance the day before and wait out the winds. Flying to Moosonee from Cochrane
was interesting and we had a chance to put our NemoScout tracking application to good use. I was following Alim and Chenlu and monitoring their position on the app. Since the CT is faster, I had to do some scenic S-turns and slow down so I didn’t inadvertently fly past them, though I was flying 500 feet or more lower than them during this leg. The landscape is not forgiving here so at times it is a bit uncomfortable. Landing in the trees next to the polar bear express railroad track would probably be the easiest way to be rescued in case of an engine failure.
The benefits of a dual listening radio also came into play during this leg. Chenlu and Alim tried to request Flight Following but it was not available at their low altitude. I heard this request (and denial) on the backup frequency and decided to stay on the enroute frequency. The controller was nice however and said they could monitor the frequency and he would advise of any known traffic. As we got closer to Moosonee, I switched my 2nd frequency early to monitor Timmins Radio (for Moosonee) and overhead a conversation between the commercial flights running between Cochrane and Moosonee. They were looking for us since they knew we were on the same route and were asking Timmins if they were in contact with us. Once I heard that, I switched over to Timmins Radio and gave them a position report. Since Alim/Chenlu hadn’t switched over yet, I was able to give a position report on them using Nemo Scout app and having visual on them as well. This allowed the commercial flight to go around and below us safely. Not a big surprise, but looks like Flight Following is next to impossible below 10000 feet so travelling with 2 planes and having Nemo to track each other is very comforting. After landing in Moosonee, the ground crew for one of the Cargo aircraft asked if we were interested to see the fuel tanks they were filling up to take to a mining camp somewhere. We got a chance to climb into a cargo plane for fun and take a few pics.
In Moosonee, though we had yet to see the Northern Lights, Alim really, really, really wanted to take a boat tour of James/Hudson Bay so that was our main entertainment. The town itself is small with no paved roads. The grocery store had plenty of Lysol wipes at lower prices than Toronto so we bought some of course. If we’d had space, we would have bought out the entire store! We were fortunate enough to hear from the Cochrane airport manager that 100LL fuel had run out at Moosonee where we were going to fuel up. Calling FSS confirmed the NOTAM that fuel is not available until Sep 30. We fueled up as much as we could in Cochrane expecting not to have fuel in Moosonee. In Moosonee, there is 1 Esso gas station in town so we ended up purchasing a few jerry cans and asked our motel owner to drive us to the airport for a fuel run. Only 87 Octane is available, but hopefully that is better than using 100LL in our engines. Though we didn’t need it, this just added peace of mind that we now had plenty of fuel for the next leg in case we faced a long deviation.
We had to plan and re-plan our return to Burlington a few times during our stay in Moosonee due to new NOTAMs coming to light (taxiway and runway closures at Timmins) and weather forecasts being unstable. Due to this we now planned to fly from Moosonee to Chapleau via Kapuskasing on Sep 12th, to Gore Bay (on Manitoulin Island) Sep 13th, and then on to Burlington Sep 14th, a day earlier than our original plan. As with the rest of the trip though, changing weather forecasts caused us again to modify our schedule. We ended up staying longer in Chapleau and not stopping in Gore Bay at all! Oh well, the old saying “time to spare – go by air” is very true, at least flying VFR in an ultralight! Overall, the trip was great. The airplanes performed well with no issues. We all learned a lot about weather, flight planning, and the importance of being flexible. To top it off, we saw a very beautiful part of the country and met some great people. In fact, we enjoyed it so much, we have planned to make an overnight school trip an annual event, but perhaps a little less adventurous!