Crazy for Canada

Flying the Governor General's Cup International Air Rally

November 1, 2009

“This is not a tour, it’s a rally!” declares Aviation Connection’s International Air Rally President Catherine Tobenas in a sharp French accent. “Not a holiday, but a challenge, for true fliers!” The petite Canadian is addressing a group of weary yet exhilarated participants who have formed a close-knit family since coming together from all over the world to fly the great Cross-Canada Air Rally. Through every province and every territory the rally is ambitious and demanding, covering more than 6,000 nm in 16 days. Only a special anniversary could justify a commemoration such as this air rally on steroids. “It’s Canada’s Centennial of Flight,” Tobenas explains. “And there’s no better way to honor this historic celebration than with the first ever flight of this kind.”

You may think you’d need a Learjet to cover so much territory—and one was indeed in the rally—but the rest of the airplanes included Cessna 172s, a Piper Arrow, a Mooney, a Cirrus SR20, a Beech Musketeer, a sprinkling of Cherokee Sixes, a Diamond DA40, a Lake Amphibian, and more. Thirty airplanes started out on the rally, with 12 making it to the end. Mechanical problems, weather woes, personal issues, and personality conflicts sent many participants and their airplanes home early.

I left home, rally bound, in a Liberty XL2. With full authority digital engine control (FADEC) running the show, this state-of-the-art, low-carbon-footprint machine is touted as the world’s most advanced two-seat piston aircraft. Having instructed countless hours in one, I can tell you that its stick, push rods, and sexy sports-car appeal make it a joy to fly. My son agrees. So, with an invitation to join me on the rally—an event open to anyone—my 18-year-old private pilot son, RJ, aimed the airplane northwest from Greensboro, North Carolina. We headed for Winnipeg, the rally starting point, with enough navigation charts to crush a moose. Canada, here we come!

With high hopes but multiple weather fronts as constant companions, a planned two-day journey stretched into a four-day affair, with thunderstorms grounding us along the way—eventually delaying us so much we could not catch the rally’s start in Winnipeg; it was headed for the Yukon. Most other pilots had flown commercially into Winnipeg to rent airplanes and started the 6,000-nm rally fresh from there. My plan to travel 1,100 miles to the starting point in a 110-knot airplane in thunderstorm-loving July was not the best idea. What was I thinking? Supermom I am not. We went home.

Tobenas decided I should fly the airlines to meet the rally in Montreal for part two. (Part one had covered western and central Canada July 30 through August 8. Part two crossed eastern Canada and the Maritimes August 9 through 15.) With the Liberty and my son at home (RJ had to start back to school), I was assigned to ride as a volunteer CFI with 700-hour VFR pilot Martin Elder from Ottawa in his seasoned, faded, endearing Cherokee Six. “He’s a good pilot, but needs a bit of confidence building with an instrument instructor,” Tobenas told me.

Elder welcomed me warmly, gently mentioning that he’d never flown with a female flight instructor before. In the back of the airplane sat his love, Debbie Hines, and a traveling Englishman, Chris Gallant, a free spirit roaming the world sampling new adventures. Yes, the rally also was open to passengers who wanted to see the countryside.

I soon discovered fellow rally participants who came from places such as Australia, Switzerland, and France. A few were from the United States. Most were French Canadians like Elder. The participants brought with them a wide range of experience from first-time, student, and low-time VFR fliers, to world-record-breaking pilots with umpteen hours. A few volunteer CFIs came along to help some participants hone their skills while working on new ratings.

Each day presented a flight to a new destination. Most legs ran in the 300-nm range with a faster scout airplane flying ahead to check out weather conditions and relaying them back to the pack. After a briefing from the rally’s designated air boss, pilots filed their own VFR flight plans, then took off spread out in a very loose formation, as a group sharing position reports on a discrete frequency. “Group flying gives pilots the opportunity to fly places they’d never dream of going on their own,” Tobenas explains. “It instills confidence, a sense of adventure.”

As the organizer, along with husband Camil Dumont, of the nonprofit Aviation Connection—which connects pilots and raises funds for a pilot mentor program that matches volunteer flight instructors with students, enabling youth to live a unique flying adventure free of charge—Tobenas says her greatest satisfaction is seeing the rally participants happy. “I love hearing comments like, ‘Thank you for making my dream a reality.’” This is Tobenas’ ninth rally. It’s a family affair. Both of her teenage children fly, as does Dumont.

The rally had its share of challenges. On part one, poor weather and smoke from forest fires in British Columbia ambushed the tight schedule, forcing the group to fly double time to make up for lost time, covering more than 800 nm in a single day. That’s a lot of flying for a 172! On the Eastern Canada crossing, as Elder and I were making our approach (this is a VFR rally) into picture-perfect blue sky Havre St. Pierre, Quebec, a lone renegade patch of thick fog suddenly rolled in off the water and made a beeline for the runway. Elder expertly ducked the Cherokee Six under the ever-lowering cloud deck to make a safe landing at the last minute (I was positioned for the go-around). We went IMC on the rollout. A while later, after attempting several approaches, a brave rally Aussie Cessna 172 pilot finally managed a landing after the fog moved a hair. A harrowing experience to hear, yet not see, was the airplane barely above the runway in the fog. Prayers were whispered. Later the ceiling dropped to zero. The last of the rally pilots to make their approach immediately diverted to another airport at Sept-Iles.

The locals along our trek welcomed us to their hometowns. In Digby, Nova Scotia, they spoiled us with sautéed scallops at the airport. Lavish accommodations and an impressive reception awaited us at the Digby Pines Resort. In Mont-Jolie, hundreds of locals showed up at their seaside airport to admire our airplanes and thank us for dropping in. In Churchill, Manitoba, polar bear sightings were common, and whales made appearances on the Eastern crossing. In Montreal, Bombardier treated us to a stellar tour of its factory, showing off the world’s brightest new regional jets.

Valerie de Kalbernalten brought her 18- and 21-year-old sons to the rally from Switzerland for 16 days of immersion in learning to fly, their first time ever in a small airplane, with volunteer CFI Paul Kelly from Minnesota. “I wanted to give my boys a gift that would enable them to see the Earth from a different perspective. Being above it, they can be detached from all the problems and trappings of the planet, and know they can be free,” de Kalbernalten explains. Another inspiring rally team featured middle-aged, 2,000-hour Mooney pilot Don Berliner of New Jersey and his passenger, Dory Dickson. Dickson’s ancestors are the Piccards of balloon-record fame. She endured the arduous rally in spite of an accident that has left her with physical challenges that would keep most people grounded at home.

Other interesting fliers included a colorful Australian who flies rallies worldwide. “I’m addicted to flying,” confesses Mike Watson, a 5,600-hour CFI who brought his wife and 71-year-old mother-in-law along for the ride.

My rally family consisted of Elder, Hines, and Gallant. Hines offered great support, rubbing Elder’s shoulders from her back seat and feeding us snacks to keep us going. Gallant looked for traffic and helped decipher the Canadian nav charts. I kept Elder on his altitude while he steered Sweety, his pet name for the 43-year-old Piper, around Canada. Elder is easygoing, happy-go-lucky, and never in a rush. As an instructor, I respect this, knowing that rushing can make pilots forget things that lead to mishaps. Elder took his time. He took so much time, in fact, that I urged him to push his weary Cherokee Six to fly faster by throttling up a bit on our long journey. But he preferred to pamper the engine with conservative power settings. I soon adapted to his pace.

The surprising and very nice thing about the rally is that although the schedule was tight and hectic, the experience did not have to be, and it was not for us. We took our time. The rally is not a race. If you chose to, you could compete for the chance to win the 2009 International Air Rally’s trophy, the prestigious Governor General’s Cup, by answering questions, correctly estimating ETAs, and undergoing evaluation on air and ground skills. Having flown in a miserably cutthroat air race years ago, I had a negative taste in my mouth for any type of competitive flying. However, Elder cured me of that. He approached the competition on his own terms, making it a pleasure to share the cockpit with him. In fact, as a totally unexpected delight, we won the competition, the whole shebang, and were awarded the Governor General’s Cup. How neat is that?

Next year, the International Air Rally heads to Japan. “New York to Tokyo! An incredible adventure! Not a tour, but a rally, a challenge for true flyers,” Tobenas reminds us. Will Elder take his Cherokee Six? “I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead,” he says.

Want to fly the rally to Tokyo? Visit the Web site.

MayCay Beeler, AOPA 849322, is an Aviation Connection Mentor; Aviation Connection is the official trustee of the Governor General’s Cup. Beeler is a journalist, CFII, ATP, FAASTeam representative, and AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer in Greensboro, North Carolina.