A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

October 2006

Summer Flying on the Prairies

In the summer of 2006, the Alberta economy was booming.   Evidence of big money was everywhere.   Fuelled by the oil industry, the spin-offs spawned support companies, transportation, communications, big box retail stores in many little towns, and jobs for everyone.   There must be more big diesel powered pick-up trucks per capita than anywhere else in the country.   And most are parked at Tim Hortons.     

I took a job flying for a company enjoying the success of the boom.   For five months I flew into and out of many small-town airports.   Flying on the prairies bears very little similarity to coast and mountain flying, and it’s surprisingly similar in other ways.   VFR navigation is one of the big differences because landmarks such as mountains and lakes don’t exist.   When flying low and in the more remote areas, VOR and ADF signals are not reliable.   GPS is ideal, given the terrain is so flat and a straight line rarely runs through a hill or mountain.    Due to the nature of my work however, GPS wasn’t practical.   It was all done with local county maps and a compass.    This type of basic, primitive navigation is quite easy in fact, because every road runs north-south or east-west.

Radio transmissions travel awfully long distances on the prairies.   Too long sometimes.   123.2 is used as the ATF at most airports, and the frequency gets quite congested even though each airport has very little traffic.   You just hear so many.    Most of the users seem to be student pilots.   I don’t know what instructors are teaching these days, but they could sure lay off the phrase, “Any conflicting traffic please advise”.   Many pilots, not just students are using it, the most often heard, overused, and totally useless transmission on the radio today! There’s nothing in the Aeronautical Information Manual about the use of the phrase.   I wonder where it came from.  

 Having flown over 500 hours in the summer, I heard way more than I wanted to on the radio.  While many pilots motor on with drivel that means nothing and isn’t important to anyone, others neglect vital information in their radio calls on ATF’s.   They rarely broadcast their departure intentions prior to take-off.   If I’m   inbound to an airport and someone is about to depart, I want to be sure I’m not in the way he’s planning to fly.   That’s a vital piece of information stated simply something like, “A.B.C. is rolling 28, planning the left turnout, departing south”.

The way pilots use 126.7 seems to be changing.   Many are using it as an air-to-air frequency, while others make general broadcasts of their position, intentions, type, registration and so on, quite often followed by, “Any conflicting ... blah, blah, blah ...” again.   There is no calling up the nearest FSS to direct that information to where it may be useful in case of the aircraft going missing.   That’s what 126.7 was initially intended for.   An enroute   frequency to obtain updated weather and other pertinent information, give position reports and open and close flight plans, all with the nearest FSS or RCO.  

There’s a certain comfort while flying low across the prairies that I never have in the mountains or on the coast of B.C.   It’s all about places to land if a problem develops.   I’ve had one engine failure many years ago which fortunately happened over an airport.   With the flat, uninhabited prairie stretching to the horizon in all directions, it’s not a big deal to be motoring along at only 500 feet AGL.  Also, there are roads every couple of miles.   Long, straight roads.   In most of British Columbia, I want five thousand feet between the airplane and the trees and rocks.  

Prairie scenery can be interesting and awesome.

Having lived on the coast of British Columbia for many years, on an island actually, it was surprising to me to see up close and first hand the magnitude of the death of family farms on the prairies.   The vast patchwork quilt landscape is dotted with these tiny farmyards, each surrounded by trees.   They stand out like little islands.   Many of them are referred to as “dead farms”.   Some appear quite liveable, their occupants having left fairly recently.   Others are falling down, dilapidated, windblown, obviously abandoned for decades.   I recall a deep sadness as I flew over them, wondering what became of the families that made a home there, and why they left.   Folks in the stores and coffee shops of nearby little towns would talk about the small farms not being economically viable, about the drying up of the prairies, about the Hutterites buying up the land, and about government policies.   Whatever the reasons, I’ve witnessed the sad results of this shifting lifestyle.   There must be many stories.

If I wore a big cowboy hat, I’d be taking it off to the prairie folks, out of respect for their resilience.   Ranchers, farmers, oil patch workers, small business owners, truck drivers, spray plane pilots ... these people are tough.   Free-thinkers, entrepreneurs, moralistic, they probably contribute more than they receive from the rest of the country.   Up until the Conservatives came into power in Ottawa, Albertans rarely heard from or saw a Prime Minister in their midst.   The far-right thinking majority advocates reforms based on citizens’ initiatives.   Many would prefer to opt out of federal policies like tax collection, pensions and policing.   On a personal, close to home basis, they make the best of their lot in life.   At one time I   lived in Alberta, in fact I was born and educated there but threw in the towel many decades ago, and left.   Over time, I suppose I’ve forgotten about the hot, dry winds, the blowing dust of summer, and the awful cold and difficult conditions of winter.   Small town Alberta.   It was good to get see it.   Next summer, maybe I’ll look for a job in Quebec.   

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