Happy Endings – “Aboot” Those Canadians

Flying cross-country in an old, slow airplane guarantees adventure. We have learned to be flexible, and, when weather or mechanical problems change our plans, to relax and appreciate where we are. Many flying stories are worth sharing, and our favorites affirm our motto: Fly often, stay open, allow fate to redesign the trip, and welcome any opportunity to improve on the original plan.

My husband Tom and I were on a month-long trip from California to Maine and back in our 1946 Cessna 140. After a week at EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, we flew north, crossed the Straits of Mackinac, and landed at the first airport of entry in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. As usual, Canadian customs was pleasant and quick to clear us for our flight east.

We got a weather briefing, filed a flight plan, then taxied out for the run-up. Check the magnetos. The 200 RPM drop on the right mag is mostly likely carbon build-up. Lean the mixture, run it hot to burn it off. Still a 200 RPM drop. We radio Sault Ste. Marie ground control to request taxi back to terminal. It’s Saturday (a 3-day national holiday, we soon learn) and no FBOs are open.

However, Tom finds someone in the provincial (government) hangar willing to loan him a spark plug wrench. We park our toy airplane next to an overshadowing firefighting tanker and a turbine-powered Beaver on floats.

As we open the cowling, provincial mechanics Jerry and Butch stroll over to give advice. Jerry says they can’t touch our airplane, with liability potential and all, but he can’t resist taking a peek at the magnetos, p-leads and spark plugs. After some wrong guesses and a few trial run-ups, the faulty spark plug is finally identified. It’s been three hours since the initial RPM drop, and we’re back in business.

By now, it’s late afternoon. A thick cloud layer has filled the sky to the west, and it’s moving toward us. Any destination beyond an hour’s flight time isn’t acceptable. Also, a popular destination that might not have rooms to rent on a holiday weekend is also undesirable. Less than an hour east is Elliot Lake, which Butch says is a nice town.

Landing under a darkening sky, Elliot Lake Airport terminal is closed up tight. No public telephone, nor sign of life. Tom had spotted an open hangar door on downwind, so he walked in that direction, hoping to get some information. There he found a big shirtless ‘woolly’ guy working on a Cessna 150 who used his cell phone to call us a taxi for the seven-mile ride into town.

The taxi driver was outside the gate before we had time to remove our bags from the airplane. The former uranium mineworker suggested the Fireside Inn where there’s also a good restaurant. We learned about the uranium mines, dug almost a half-a-mile underground, which produced most of the world’s uranium for 40 years. The last mine was closed in 1996. A savvy chamber of commerce decided to market Elliot Lake as a haven for senior citizens, and the economy returned to normalcy as retirees flowed in to take advantage of the affordable housing, organized social activities, and surrounding beauty.

The next morning the hotel owner, an airplane enthusiast whose brother is an Air Canada pilot, offered to drive us to the Elliot Lake Airport. There, behind the desk, stood Bert Ragg, the ‘big woolly guy’ in the hangar, neatly shaven and dressed for his role as airport manager. We watched as he released a red weather balloon into the air and timed its ascent into the clouds for a ‘fairly accurate’ report on the ceiling. ‘The balloon often finds whatever hole is up there, so sometimes I have to guess where it should have disappeared,’ he said.

At a table in the terminal, empty except for Bert, I planned our route while Tom preflighted the 140, tied down between the only two other aircraft on the field, a Lake and a Piper Cherokee. I was mulling over the charts when a couple came in to chat with Bert. They asked about us and our airplane and then showed me a photo of their homebuilt Lancair on display in the terminal. I learned about the Taylorcraft they were restoring and the Cessna 180 they’d owned for years.

I called Tom to come in to meet Harold and Ivy Fisher before they left. While they talked, I phoned flight service for a weather briefing. The forecast was for towering cumulus, light rain showers with ceilings of 2,000 ft. to 4,000 ft., and possible thunderstorms in our direction of flight. We might have a chance to fly as far as Sudbury, 86 miles east, even perhaps to North Bay, another 68 miles. Then we learned that Sudbury was a $30 one-way taxi ride from the airport and an air show at North Bay wouldn’t end until 5:30 p.m. local time.

While I stared at the charts in the way bewildered pilots do when they realize they’re stuck, Harold and Ivy invited us to spend the night with them at their house on a lake 15 miles north of the airport. Slightly embarrassed, since we’d met only 20 minutes ago, Tom and I decided to accept their generous offer. While we gathered our things, we learned that Ivy had phoned their friends to ask if they would include us in a dinner party planned for that evening. Soon we found ourselves sharing cocktails and an elegant turkey and dressing dinner with Barb and Ralph Regan who have built and restored airplanes alongside the Fishers for 30 years.

From Harold and Ivy’s deck the next morning, we watched as white caps formed on the lake, while Harold correctly forecast high winds that would keep the Cessna 140 on the ground. We spent three nights with the Fishers. Ivy cooked and brewed pot after pot of coffee while we talked about flying experiences and the idiosyncrasies of floatplanes and tailwheel planes. They graciously included us in their social plans and made us feel at home. One afternoon, as the wind softened, Harold took each of us up for a scenic flight in his 1947 Aeronca Chief floatplane. The following morning we said a reluctant good-bye to our new friends and took off into clear blue skies toward the green mountains of Vermont.

Like so many other times, there seemed to be certain logic in the steps that brought us to Elliot Lake: we accepted the cabby’s suggestion to stay at the Fireside Inn and the owner’s offer to drive us to the airport at just the right time, so that we would meet the Fishers, and they would invite us to their home where we would wait out the weather for three days, fly in the Chief, and learn oodles about airplanes and the new places they can take us.

We would also affirm our motto, and add to that the chance to experience the generosity and trust of people who share our love of flying and airplanes. Three years later, we still keep in touch with Harold and Ivy Fisher, and we eagerly await their arrival in Truckee one day, so that we can give back a little of what they gave to us.