The Montebello

by Rob Mathers

COPA / Canadian Flight

It's 5:30 am on a cold January morning and I am snuggled up in bed next to my lovely wife. Then the alarm clock sounds! I jump out of bed and have a look out the window. It is pitch black outside but I can see the tree tops in the backyard are quietly still. This is not a routine work day. This is a special day that has been on the calendar for some time. ...

It is the start of my quest to Montebello Quebec for the 16th Annual Challenger Winter Rendezvous! In the darkness I make my way to the Windsor Airport, along the way finding time for a Tim Horton's coffee and bagel.

I keep my plane at the C.H.A.A. hangar (Canadian Historical Aircraft Association) next to a beautiful Stearman, two de Havilland Chipmunks, and old Piper Cub, as well as many GA planes and homebuilts. Usually the guy who has not flown in a while finds his plane buried at the back of the hangar but mine this morning is parked first in line next to the door.

It is a magical time of day at the airport with all the blue taxiway lights displayed and the wind sock visible in the darkness. I have a Bright Star strobe on top of my plane which after startup brings a flash of white light that bounces off the surrounding hangars. Very cool.

The sunrise in Windsor on that day is approximately 7:50 am. I want to have my run-up complete and be ready to launch 30 minutes prior to sunrise so as to wring out all the daylight I can.

I check A.T.I.S. The wind is not going to help, being 70 degrees off of the nose at around 10 knots, however the sky conditions are clear. A call is made to inform Windsor Ground of my intentions for the flight ahead. With 99 percent of my flights being local, it was a surprise to the controller in the tower that I was making such a trip in my ultralight. With many kind words and good wishes from the familiar voice in the tower I was cleared to taxi to runway 30.

I checked the mags, left o.k, right o.k, back to both. After a final full movement of the stick in all directions, setting of the trim and a switch to tower frequency, I was ready to go. It was now 7:20 am and there was a hint of daylight.

"Windsor Tower this is Challenger India Foxtrot Victor Tango holding short of runway three zero ready to go to London International Airport". London is about 170 kilometers away and is my first leg of the journey.

I move out onto the runway admiring all the lighting (it is not to often I am up that early), push the throttle forward, and seconds later I have conquered gravity.

The flight to London is a smooth one, one I have done before. I quickly fill my 10-gal tank to the top and soon depart. Every time in the past when I have left London, it was with a heading of southwest back to Windsor but today is the day to change all that.

My next stop is Guelph which is just 85 kilometers or so but I want to top off with fuel before my northern swing around the Toronto TCA. After another very quick fill up I depart with a GPS heading for the town of Aurora. This will keep me clear of the big boys landing and departing from Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

My next planned place to stop for fuel is Peterborough which is approximately 160 kilometers away. From here I will make the decision whether to call it a day (because my destination could be out of reach in daylight) or to keep going to make Montebello. To this point I have had a glass of water in London and a cereal bar en route.

After some calculations I come to the conclusion that, if I can keep the propeller swinging, I have a pretty good chance to see my first glimpse of Quebec and Montebello today. The hamburger deluxe with gravy on the fries and hot coffee will have to wait for another day.

From Peterborough it is off to Land o' Lakes / Tomvale Airpark, the last place to fill the tank before flying north around the Ottawa TCA to my destination. This leg will be about 120 kilometers. There are few things more reassuring when flying than a full tank of gas and knowing you can make it to your next.

The leg from Peterborough to Land O'Lakes / Tomvale is a fairly rugged one with very few places to land if forced down. I think they should rename it Land O' Hills And Trees. I set up for landing and notice this place looks pretty quiet. The only planes I see there are buried two feet in the snow and the gas pumps are deserted. I should have called ahead. With about four gallons left in my tank I have to resort to my jerry can on the back seat which also has four gallons for emergencies.

This in total brings me to 8 gallons which might leave me short on my 160 kilometers around the Ottawa TCA and then to Montebello. I quickly calculate that if I stop to refuel in, say, Gatineau, darkness will overtake me before I can make it all the way.

I continue to fly my heading until Ottawa and the beautiful Quebec Laurentien Mountains are in view. I hear someone on the radio speaking French so I know my GPS pointer has been telling the truth. A quick look at the fuel gauge takes away that once reassuring feeling I had when departing with full tanks.

Once clear of the Ottawa TCA I know I can follow the frozen Ottawa River to Montebello. Should the engine go on strike, I know that I can land her power off no problem because I have practiced it numerous times before.

With 30 kilometers to go, the fuel gauge needle takes a rest on the letter "E". I have a solution for this problem. I take off my glove and put it in front of the gauge so it is out of view and think to myself: "On to the next problem, daylight."

The GPS counts down the miles until the beautiful Chateau Montebello fills my windshield. The skis kiss the snow on the Ottawa River after 7 hours and 56 minutes in the air covering some 800 kilometers. The sun is setting as I taxi in to the sheltered harbor to tie C-IFVT down for the night.

Over the Christmas holidays, I was given a nice Cuban cigar which I kept for this occasion. Later that evening I put my coat on, made my way down to the plane, under the stars, I lit the cigar.

This was a special moment. I wanted to enjoy it a little longer, but it was minus eighteen outside and I was freezing my rear end off. I smoked half of the cigar and then ran back up the hill to the heat of the roaring fire in front of the lobby's six-sided fireplace.

The next morning more planes were arriving and a few of them I recognized from COPA Flight and the Challenger website ( There was Major Claude Roy, the organizer of the event and probably one of the most well known Challenger pilots around, Dr André Girard, Dr Conrad Watters and Gord Ekstrom. These were guys I have read much about and I wanted to meet them. I was warmly received.

Friday and Saturday were filled with lots of flying and absolutely perfect conditions. I spent most of the day on Saturday talking with people out on the ice and watching the planes buzzing by. Next time, I will bring my sunscreen because you could have got a tan that day.

The group was made up of Challenger pilots, Challenger builders soon to join the pilots, airplane enthusiasts, and people who made the trip there that were considering buying a Challenger.

I thought to myself that these people who were contemplating the purchase of a Challenger were witnessing these beautiful planes in an aerial display of flying low and slow over the Ottawa River and high and fast over the Laurentian Mountains, all on this picture perfect post card day. Boy if that doesn't do it for you then check your pulse because you might be dead.

Other guys I wanted to get to know were Dr Tom Reavell, Ian Coristine and Bryan Quickmire. I had met Bryan before in Barrie for a demo flight in the Challenger and I wanted to have a beer and a laugh or two with him in the lobby.

Many articles have been written by all these gentlemen about the joys and experiences they have had with their planes. The articles that Bryan and Ian have written I find so entertaining. The way they write and the descriptions that they use makes reading almost like being there.

I mentioned to Tom Reavell that not long after reading the article he wrote of having an unlatched door open in flight the same thing happened to me. I had dropped in on some ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair and after a short visit I departed. Seconds later the door flew open. Immediately I thought of the article Tom had written and proceeded to do the number one thing, FLY THE PLANE. I landed straight ahead without incident and closed the door on the ground. Later that evening, Tom invited me to join him for dinner with some of his old friends.

The Saturday banquet was a fun time filled with the enthusiasm of Major Claude Roy, the master of ceremonies. Almost every province in Canada was represented - there was even two people all the way from the North West Territories!

A surprising thing to me was the number (200!) and caliber of people in attendance - ranging from doctors to presidents of large companies many could afford to fly any airplane they wanted but turned turned out to be enthusiastic Challenger owners.

I again sat with Tom and my new fun loving friends Jim Donnelly, Keith and Gwen Robinson, Henry and Yvonne McKinlay, and Dave Scott.

The awards given and I was awarded the Farthest Flown. When my name was called out, my table erupted with applause to the point where I had to tell them to stop because they were embarrassing me. What a festive bunch!

To wrap up the banquet, Gord Ekstrom gave a slide show presentation of the trip that Claude and he had made to Lake Superior the previous summer. Earlier in the evening, Gord's beautiful Challenger was voted "Best Showplane". Every time a picture came up with his plane in it he would remind us that this was an award winning Challenger! I am sure he will have fun with this with his buddies for quite a while.

Sunday came along and so did freezing rain and IFR conditions. Claude and his wife Joan offered me a place to stay for the night at their home near Ottawa to wait for the weather to break. I gladly accepted.

Joan prepared a beautiful dinner for us, complete with wine, tea and cookies. After that, Claude and I disappeared to the library were he has a massive collection of what seemed like every book ever written about aviation. It was very impressive!

Later that night after reading about Chuck Yeager, it was time to turn in. When I went to the guest room I was surprised to find that Joan had turned the electric blanket on for me. Talk about roughing it!

The next day came and went with little change in the weather and the forecast wasn't looking much better. Having commitments back home, the decision was made to fly back commercially. Claude said he would look after the plane, so I departed.

The next day there was a break in the weather. Claude flew my plane alongside Conrad Watters' piloted by Gord Ekstrom from Montebello to Kingston, Conrad's home base. There is a nice hangar there. The following week I made my way to Kingston and flew C-IFVT back home to Windsor.

Reflecting back on the weekend, it is not just the flying or the beautiful scenery or wonderful hotel that stands out. It was awesome to put all that I have learned in ground school (weather, navigation and flight planning) to practical use. It was breath taking flying in the mountains. The Chateau was great. But it was the people, the faces and the new friends I have met that will be remembered most.

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