It seems as though I’ve waited all summer for a day like this: a warm August afternoon cooled by a brisk breeze bringing lines of neatly formed cumulus clouds marching across the royal blue heavens.
The clouds, each one both alike and unique, advance roughly southeastward. The vanguard of the formation, a loose gaggle of ragged patches, has only just drifted over the field at Rockcliffe as I roll my biplane out of the shade of the hangar. Ten minutes later, we are threading our way northwest through the tip of the main column and climbing quickly behind the eager tug of the Lycoming engine.
We stop the climb at our usual 1,700 feet and, from our new vantage point inside a cloudless trough, spy a long cloud front stretching across the horizon before us. It appears as though a massive, snow-covered mountain has been turned onto its peak so that its low, rolling foothills loom over us like a giant shelf at great altitude. It is as if a great hand wielding the sharpest and most precise of razors has cleaved the edge of the front to form the straightest of lines for many miles. From there, my goggled eyes trace the flanks of the colossus down to a point far in the distance where it vanishes behind the green mounds of the Gatineau Hills.
My mind is quiet when I fly. Normally, it’s a chaotic mess — even though my exterior rarely betrays it. I wasn’t always like this. Years ago that stillness and peace was easier to find, and I could hold onto it longer. It happens to all of us — that noise. It is the echo of all our triumphs and failures, our discoveries and losses. Here, aloft, those voices are silenced.
I used to be a day dreamer. I’m not anymore. Life moves too quickly with work and family and obligations to permit the mind to wander. In an airplane, it’s equally frowned upon. Flying, after all, is serious business. Still, we’re alone up here — the biplane and me. No co-pilot looks at me sideways; I’ve no passenger to fret over. It’s such a lovely afternoon that it would sinful to waste this opportunity for silence and peace.
Small groups of white cumulus, having detached themselves from the main body of the cloud front, begin to influence our path, forcing us to circumvent them to the east or west. As one presents itself just below the nose and a shade to our right, I pressure the control column slightly aft, and we bound over the top and into a slight right turn. And then, the strangest thing happens. Nature conspires to assemble the perfect set of circumstances — a cloud below, the sun high above and behind us — so that we see our shadow for the first time.
Initially, I wonder what it is, that dark smudge on the cloud’s crest ringed in concentric halos of orange, yellow, red, pink, green, and blue. As my eyes blink behind my goggles, I bring the vision into focus. There we are — albeit much larger — complete with twin wings, rounded tail, and the circular shade of the whirling propeller. My other senses dulled, I gaze upon our shadow with the same wonder as one who has seen their reflection for the first time. Instinctively, with the cloud sliding away, I bank the wings and roll into a turn to prolong the apparition but unwittingly upset the balance. The image fades.
We fly on. The solid wave of cloud remains distant ahead. The seaplane base at Chelsea drifts by. A trio of float planes, gaily colored in yellow, orange and eggshell blue, bob contently at the dock. A canoe is working its way south, leaving a feathery wake on the otherwise placid surface of the river. Up here, the wind seems stronger, hastening the journey of the clouds drifting our way while hampering our progress up the river.
The cloud bank creeps closer now. I raise the nose and inch the throttle forward, adding power to begin a climb. The advantage, after all, is in height. The plane eagerly soars up toward the promise of cooler air. A quick glance at her instruments: the speed stands at ninety miles per hour, the vertical speed announces itself at an optimistic two thousand feet per minute, engine gauges normal, fuel on and sufficient, and switches in their proper places. We are ready.
I push the throttle forward to the stop and pull the plane into a climbing left-hand turn. It bleeds energy quickly as we drift sideways over the top, wings banked vertically, and slide earthward again. With the sun at our back, our first target swims into view between the cabane struts. I feel tension rising in the plane as speed and energy return. I draw a deep breath and depress the trigger on the stick.
The quick burst is ineffectual. Too far away. We close rapidly, the target quivering behind the grey wisp of the racing propeller. The edges of my vision draw away. It is just us and this hapless, little cloud.
Another burst. Whitish-grey threads are pulled away and spin off into oblivion. Right stick, right rudder — just the deftest adjustment and the target flashes past our left shoulder. We claw for altitude again as I turn my head this way and that, searching for the next aggressor or opportunity.
We roll out of the turn with the nose pointed between twin clouds at a third just above and beyond. The plane roars approval as we descend in a shallow dive towards the first two. This pass must be executed with surgical precision as there will not be another chance.
A stab of left rudder, a brief pause . . . steady. The plane trembles as we unleash a short burst. Now, before the opportunity has passed, a boot of right rudder and a longer burst at his companion. The torn cloud rolls away.
I ease the plane’s nose up and target the leader. My gloved finger depresses the trigger.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
We’ve played at dogfighting with clouds too long. So long, in fact that either my imagination is entirely devoid of shells or my fantasy Vickers machine gun has jammed. I use the extra speed to rise gently above our would-be target and waggle the wings in salute.
The timbre of the Lycoming’s growl changes, tearing the reverie apart. The throttle is a little loose and tends to creep forward. As a result, the engine has picked up about a hundred RPM. It’s more an idiosyncrasy than an issue, and given I too have my quirks, I don’t see a real need for it to be “fixed.” To do so would steal a shred of personality from this little biplane.
The cloud bank we’ve been chasing now stretches from horizon to horizon. It is darker but not particularly menacing. Its colour is owed more to how tightly the clouds are ordered rather than any perils that lurk within. As it crawls towards us, I draw in a deep breath. The air up here, measured more or less precisely by our altimeter as 2,750 feet, is violently pure. It nearly burns as you bring it in, and if you hold it for any length of time, it rushes to your head and sets off an electric tingle that crackles and buzzes down your spine to your fingers, toes, the tips of your hair. Today, there is a weight to the atmosphere, which is odd, as density typically decreases with altitude.
The cloud bank has grown closer, darker and now more menacing. Somewhere near Wakefield, we turn east and follow its billowing edge for a few miles. Every so often, we dip a wing so as to tentatively peek behind the curtain, curious to see what lies beyond. What are we looking for? Something to pursue? A reason to enter a crevasse or fjord carved into this mighty face? Or do we search for inspiration to return home?
We turn west, placing the approaching cloud front on our opposite shoulder. The high flanks of the front have now choked out the sun and dropped the temperature a few degrees. While my biplane seems content to stay aloft and fuel is plentiful, I bank the wings and pick up the river that will lead us home. A feeling of familiarity washes over me. I’ve flown these skies for a long time. This is home. Soon, the field at Rockcliffe will greet me as an old friend.
I give the rudder pedals a playful kick. It’s an old custom of mine, something of a nervous tick. The nose wags eagerly in response. In jockeying the pedals, I’m reminding my feet of their true purpose in the impending landing. As graceful a flier and as cute an airplane as she may be, this biplane can make her displeasure known when returning to earth. I approach every landing expecting a kick in the ass.
Before long, the old air force base at Rockcliffe is beyond the plane’s long nose. I know that this was my dad’s vantage point for all his flights. This is where he once was, where I am now, and where, perhaps, at the intersection of the two, we may meet again. There must be such a place: a field just beyond the cobalt horizon where the skies are always blue and the wind is always gentle, where fuel tanks never run dry and hot coffee is never in short supply. At the end of this field, I’ll find the spirit of a westward-gone aviator and the spectre of his sprightly mount.
A squeak, a shimmy, and I’m prodded back to reality by the trundling of rubber on runway. Given that her short length predisposes her to swapping ends, my feet work furiously to keep the biplane rolling straight ahead. As we taxi off the runway at the end, we make two left turns and proceed down the taxiway towards the fuel pumps. We roll slowly past an empty tie down: the familiar plot of land where my dad’s plane resided almost thirty years ago.I gaze at the grass swaying ever so delicately in the early evening breeze. I swear I hear the engine of his absent plane humming, a decades-old, ghostly echo.