The forever weekend: flying my Cheetah to Canada

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When our Grumman-American Cheetah left the runway of Pearson Field, Vancouver, Washington, on that Saturday morning, my wife and I anticipated a pleasant, scenic flying weekend. It turned out to be that and much more. But we had no idea that this takeoff was the beginning of a trip that would mark a milestone in our lives.

We were members of the American Yankee Association, the type club for owners of the American Aviation AA-1 Yankee and its progeny, the popular Grumman-American line of two-seat and four-seat airplanes. The Northwest Region of AYA sponsored periodic fly-ins, and this one piqued our interest. It was to be a weekend at Oliver, British Columbia, in the rural Okanagan Valley less than fifteen miles north of the international border. The schedule included tours of the local area, mini-seminars on the care and feeding of our airplanes, and best of all, conviviality with other pilots and airplane owners blessed with similar good taste in their choice of aircraft.

Flying over Okanagan Lake makes for a beautiful view out the window.

We headed northeast from Pearson Field to the “dry” side of the Cascade Range. From Wenatchee we followed the upper Columbia River upstream to its confluence with the Okanogan River, then turned north and followed the Okanogan to the Canadian border.

Though it was late in the summer, the narrow Okanogan Valley was lush and green, and we were cruising though clear, smooth air.

Over the middle of Osoyoos Lake, we crossed the unseen international border. The most noticeable effect of the crossing was that the name of the valley we were traversing—what was “Okanogan” on the south side of the line suddenly became “Okanagan” in Canada.

We overflew Oliver by another 17 nautical miles to Penticton, an Airport of Entry. We shut down the engine on the quiet Penticton ramp and opened the canopy. Nothing was moving other than a faint breeze. From my seat in the airplane I made a cell phone call to Canadian Customs to report our arrival. The voice on the other end of the call acknowledged the report, wished us a pleasant visit and bid us good day. That was the extent of the formality.

Our presence in the Dominion of Canada having been duly approved, I restarted the engine and we took off toward the south over Skaha Lake backtracking to Oliver.

Parked among friends at Oliver.

We landed on runway 36 at Oliver, and turned left onto the grass parking area. We shut down in a row of Grumman-American airplanes, plus a Piper Tri-Pacer, which for this weekend’s festivities had been deemed an honorary Grumman-American.

Presently a diminutive, red Grumman-American AA-1A taxied up and parked next to us. The canopy opened and the diminutive, red-haired pilot chucked a small plastic step-stool from the cockpit down to the ground behind the wing walk. One end of a rope was tied to the stool, the other end of the rope was secured inside the airplane. The pilot disembarked with graceful, confident steps from the wing to the step-stool to the ground, then returned the stool to its place in the baggage compartment. The pilot’s name, we would soon learn, was Liz Lane, and she was 81 years old.

Lodging for the AYA group was in a motel adjacent to the airport, just yards (metres?) from our parked airplanes. In the afternoon, some of the group took a tour of local wineries, while others lounged in the sunshine. After dinner were the obligatory hangar flying discussions about all things Grumman-American, and an opportunity to get to know each other.

We chatted at length with Liz Lane. Originally from London, England, she was now living in Victoria, BC. She regaled us all with stories of living through the Blitz in London, where she worked for the Royal College of Engineers and MI5, the British military intelligence agency. At the end of the war, she moved to Toronto, where she worked as an interior designer. To hear her describe it, though, these were all just prologue to her proudest moment, receiving her private pilot’s license at the age of 50.

Meeting new friends, like the utterly unique Liz Lane, is one of the great joys of general aviation.

Two years later, in 1972, she bought a factory new, two-seat Grumman-American AA-1A, the very one that was sitting out on the grass next to our Cheetah. In the decades thereafter, she flew that airplane solo all over Canada. One of those trips was when she was seventy years old, some 2,000 nautical miles from Victoria to Ontario, to receive her BA degree from the University of Waterloo.

The next morning, Sunday, we packed and prepared for the trip home. At breakfast, Liz made us an offer we could not refuse. If, instead of heading south immediately, we would fly our airplane west to the Victoria Airport and meet her there, she would be pleased to buy us lunch near the airport. Going to Victoria would take us far out of our direct route home, but it was a wonderful opportunity to see more of British Columbia, and to spend more time with Liz. It was a deal.

We boarded our Cheetah, as Liz stepped up onto her step-stool, up to the wing, and into the pilot’s seat of her little red airplane. She then pulled on the rope to haul the step-stool back into the cabin. And we were off.

We took a roundabout, two-and-a-half-hour route from Oliver to Victoria, by way of Kelowna, Vernon, Kamloops, and down the Frazer River Canyon. From Hope at the south end of the canyon we turned southwest toward the suburbs of Vancouver, BC (that other Vancouver, the one that borrowed the name from our hometown in Washington State), and across the Strait of Georgia to the Victoria Airport.

A detour on the way home? When the scenery is this good, it’s an obvious yes.

After lunch with Liz in a quaint café in the town of Sidney, BC, we said our good-byes and returned to the airport to begin the trip home. All that was necessary was a flight plan with the notation “ADCUS” (ADvise CUStoms) in the Remarks section, and a pre-takeoff phone call to US Customs at Boeing Field. We flew island-to-island the length of Puget Sound until reaching BFI, where our meeting on the ramp with the Customs officer was quick and easy.

From BFI it was the familiar route by way of Olympia and following I-5 south to Pearson Field.

As we neared our home field, it occurred to us that while no trip is perfect, this one was as close to perfect as any we could recall. The entire weekend had been trouble-free. The airplane performed flawlessly. We met charming and fascinating people, and we were blessed with glorious weather and scenery. Even the border crossings were a snap.

Moments like these we wish could last forever, though the weekend inexorably gives way to the work week, bringing unforeseen cares and trouble that would crowd these memories from our minds.

But let it be remembered that all was right with the world on that Sunday, the ninth day of September, 2001.

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