If you do a search for 2020 memes, there is no shortage of graphic illustrations why this year has been FUBAR (look it up if you don’t understand) for travellers, especially those of us who prefer to journey by air. And yet, I managed to have my best flying season ever in 2020 while travel was restricted to my home province of Manitoba!
Ken Pierce of the Manitoba Flying Farmers invited me to join him in updating the 1978 map showing 242 private airstrips in the province at that time. This “Manitoba 150” project, in celebration of our province’s founding, was the catalyst that kicked off the most interesting and challenging flying experience I’ve ever had.
There were a number of obvious challenges to address when taking on this project. The contact information that I had was usually obsolete, as the phone numbers only had seven digits, cell phones had not yet been invented, and many pilots active 40+ years ago had moved, quit flying, or even died since then. The prospect of landing on completely unfamiliar airstrips without any prior knowledge of their exact location, runway orientation, obstacles, or condition had the potential to create all sorts of difficulties.
Google Earth was used to look for the original runways and gather preliminary data, including GPS coordinates, length, heading, and obvious obstacles. Eventually, I came up with a list of about 80 locations that looked like they still existed. At the time, I thought that was a rather appropriate, albeit discouraging, commentary on the state of general aviation.
The next step was to visit these airstrips and obtain updated information. Most mornings, I would head out with a list of eight or so prospects. Of those, I would usually pass on one or two that that had disappeared in the time since Google Earth had updated satellite images in that area or had been abandoned to the point that they were unsafe, as trees and bush had overtaken the runway. I would land on the other half dozen or so and try to connect with the owner.
When I would bring the conversation around to the project goal of putting together a database and map of the private airstrips in Manitoba, the endeavour transcended the ordinary and things took a dramatic turn. When they got over their astonishment at the unusual idea, frequently the response would be enthusiasm followed by, “there is a strip over in that direction… have you been there yet?” And so, though I started with a list of only 80 prospects from the 242 on the original map, each flight lengthened the list.
Flying into unfamiliar airstrips with no prior knowledge or experience other than satellite images required proficiency in skills many pilots never use after getting their license. Essential techniques included pre-flight planning, navigation, and airborne assessment of runway environments. This included approach/departure obstacles, wind direction, length and width, surface conditions, and obstacles on the runway. Since resources like wind socks were frequently not available, I had to use roadway dust, wave action, or waving grass and trees to assess the wind speed and direction.
Runways lengths were 700 to 5000 ft., with surfaces that ranged from concrete to unmowed grass. Some grass runways were smooth and cut short, and after landing on others, grass and weeds were hanging from the wing struts. Landing at one that was banana shaped, crossed a bridge, had power lines around it, and had numerous obstacles including rock piles and fences, even entitled me to a medal from the owner that was inscribed, “I survived landing at _____”!
Most had been there for a long time, but I saw a couple of brand new ones as well. Some had obviously not been used for many years, and on-runway obstacles that I encountered included farm machinery, sprinkler heads, solar panel installations, bales, drainage ditches, cattle and wildlife, fences, badger holes, and even a freezer. Of course, unmarked hydro lines and fences were always a concern.
Although much can be learned by studying a satellite image, in the absence of published information about a runway and its surroundings, each landing had to be approached with an abundance of caution. Everything I learned about precautionary approaches when I was a student pilot was put into practice this summer.
What were the aircraft requirements for a safe and efficient completion of the mission?
1. STOL: Runway lengths were varied, but were as short as 700 ft., and many had obstacles on approach/departure, as well as as on the runway itself. Additionally, about 15% were not mowed (some for many years). Sufficient prop clearance and sturdy landing gear able to handle widely varying surface conditions were a must.
2. Range: The average flight was around 2-3 hours, although the longest flight when covering sparsely populated areas was 5.5 hours airborne, with 10 landings/takeoffs.
3. Speed: The area covered by this project (the southern 250 miles of Manitoba) measured about 70,000 square miles. Setting speed records wasn’t necessary, but it was nice to cover ground comfortably at 130-140 mph
4. Visibility: When attempting to pinpoint the location of an unfamiliar airstrip, the ability to look down to both sides is very helpful. Additionally, having visibility over the nose when landing at unfamiliar locations makes avoiding obstacles on the runway much more likely.
5. Equipment: The utility of ForeFlight and a glass panel cannot be overstated. Setting up waypoints and heading bugs made navigation easier, receiving terrain and obstacle alerts in unfamiliar areas improved safety, and live airspace information when travelling in and around control zones reduced stress. Doing this with paper charts and steam guages would have been much more challenging. Having ADS-B out and a locator beacon allowed tracking and gave an additional measure of security, especially in remote areas.
Fortunately, the Bearhawk Patrol in my hangar checked all the boxes, and allowed me to visit all the strips safely and without incidents.
To sum up my 2020 Manitoba experience I’ll utilize a Biblical quote that sums it up well: “A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown” (Mark 6:4). So often we take things next door for granted, even though visitors from elsewhere find them breathtaking. I was continually amazed at what I saw while crisscrossing the province. Sights that would have been worth a diversion when on vacation, or at least an Instagram or Facebook post, appeared over and over.
The Red River Valley’s perfectly square fields of yellow canola, waving blue flax, or golden sunflowers were surrounded by rolling hills, meandering rivers, pasture, and lakes large and small. Flying alongside a train crossing a 1000 ft. trestle was something that I did not expect. Looking down at a golden Ukrainian Orthodox church dome while on final approach to a grass strip in the bush is a moment that most will never encounter. How about landing on a 1500 ft. grass strip sandwiched between bends in a river that’s lined with trees adorned with fall colours? Watching an aerial applicator or a harvest crew from above was memorable. Very few pilots have the privilege of a historic “prairie sentinel” grain elevator just off your wingtip before touchdown beside the railway track in a prairie town.
And then there are all the history lessons when flying into WWII-era Service Training Flying School airfields, with their signature triangular runway arrangements. A few of these are now used as regular airports, but many are slowly being reabsorbed into the prairie. Stopping in and imagining the sights, sounds, and activity as several thousand young European men learned how to fly at each one of these is something that will leave a lasting impact.
The best part of this project, by far, was the people I had the privilege to meet. Without exception, every person that I met at their airstrip this summer was accommodating, welcoming, and hospitable, even offering refreshments and tours of their hangars. They ranged from active pilots to people who kept the strip because they remembered Grandpa gave rides there, and everything in between. There were the aerial applicators with their turbines, and there were pilots that had Pietenpols. I saw a perfectly restored Pawnee and I saw aircraft that haven’t moved in 25 years rotting away in the trees.
One person flies aerobatics in an Extra 300 and another has a Stearman, even though he has no license and has to ask a pilot friend to give him rides in it. I met airline captains and I met pilots who had never flown more than 20 miles from home. Some people had never seen an airplane on their strip until I landed and another had six aircraft in the pattern. Some had a strip at the cottage, and others used theirs as a starting point to get to their work location. But despite all the differences, everybody was friendly, everyone had a story, and all had an interest in aviation.
I’ve often said that one of the primary reasons aviation is attractive is because it is a community with a positive attitude, and that was illustrated to me in spades this summer.
After 56 hours of flying time over 23 flights from June-August, the total came to 205 private strips located and safely landed on. The information collected will allow other pilots to make an informed decision on which airstrips would be within the capabilities of them and their aircraft. Resources now available to help other pilots exploring Manitoba in the future include a:
- Spreadsheet showing location and contact information, runway(s) length, surface, altitude, and pertinent notes.
- 41” x 36” map with the locations of the private strips marked on it to facilitate flight planning.
- ForeFlight waypoints file to overlay locations on its map page.
- A file of overhead pictures of each strip.
Ken’s brainchild provided the inspiration that moved the scale on 2020 from FUBAR to FABULOUS! I acquired a new appreciation for my home province, lots of flying, navigation, and takeoff/landing practice in all sorts of conditions, and best of all, 205 new friends in the aviation world.
Visit Manitoba with your airplane and check out what we have to offer. I’m looking forward to seeing you next summer!