Members planning to purchase two-seat Cessna 150 as club plane
Unlike the sprawling steel and glass complexes found in the big cities, Maple Creek’s airport was not created to fill a need. Instead, Maple Creek has an airport entirely because of the passion of amateur aviation enthusiasts who wanted a place to fly.
The 48-year-old Maple Creek Airport was the brainchild of Maple Creek resident Bob Gilchrist and retired Fort Walsh rancher Ben Mitchell. Mitchell had plans to purchase a Cessna 180, and the two men petitioned the Ministry of Transport to construct an airfield in Maple Creek.
Gilchrist and Mitchell were told that they first needed to generate interest and start a flying club. The two men canvassed town for interested parties, and Mitchell graded a basic landing strip. In 1968 the first flight school was held, and a dozen Maple Creek residents took to the air as amateur aviators.
Soon the Maple Creek airport was bustling, often hosting fly-ins for local farmers which always seemed to culminate in lots of barbecue and a flour-bombing competition.
Today the Maple Creek Flying Club has about 16 members, but as club president Matt Udal explains, they are always trying to get more people off the ground. The club meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the Maple Creek Airport. New members are welcome, and membership fees are minimal.
“Once upon a time it was a really happening club,” Udal says. “We’re really trying to bring it back.”
“People talk about the cost of flying,” says Udal, “but it depends what you do.”
Udal uses his black and white 1965 Maule M-4 (nicknamed “Maggie” by the previous owner due to its resemblance to a magpie) to survey worksites for his company, Buckhorn Earth Moving, and often flies into Edmonton to take in Oilers games. The trip to Edmonton costs Udal just $108 in fuel, and takes two and a half hours rather than seven.
“If you use it enough, it makes it worth it,” he explains. “With my plane, it hasn’t cost me that much, but you’ve got to get out and do it.”
While Udal is able to use his plane in a work capacity, most members of the Maple Creek club fly only recreationally, although the airport is used regularly by air ambulances and travelling optomitrist Dr. Thienes, who flies in regularly to see his local patients.
One of the big advantages of the Maple Creek Airport is its proximity to the town itself. This enables out-of-town pilots to fly into the airport and spend time in Maple Creek without having to worry about organizing a vehicle.
“People fly in here for supper,” says Udal. “Guys come in to take in events in town. Cowboys get flown in for the rodeo.”
The airport also boasts a heated clubhouse with amenities for out of town pilots. Even more appealing is the absence of landing or tie-down fees. Aviation fuel is available, with club members on call to assist. The airport is open year-round (aircraft actually perform significantly better in the denser wintertime air), with the Town helping to clear snow when required.
Inside the clubhouse are two corkboards with multi-coloured scraps of fabric pinned to them. Udal explains that after a novice pilot’s first solo flight, the flying club clips off a piece of their shirt-tail to memorialize the occasion.
A recent addition to the clubhouse are two weather cameras installed by Transport Canada. When they come online, pilots will be able to access a live feed to monitor local weather, a huge boon to the amateur pilot.
“The public facilities are one of the great things about this airport,” says Udal proudly.
Currently, the airport has only one paved runway, with a grass strip for use in crosswinds or by taildragger-style aircraft which have two sets of landing gear towards the nose and one closer to the tail.
Udal is planning to create a short taxiway to allow easier access to the grass strip and “make our airport a little more user-friendly.”
The flying club would also like to construct more hangars to supplement the current four buildings. Unfortunately, modern hangar building codes require extensive fire-prevention measures, which would drive the construction costs much higher than that of the airplanes stored inside.
“We’re trying to work with the town on it right now,” says Udal, who hopes that more available storage space would encourage more residents to purchase planes.
The club would also like to replace their radio, which is typically used to direct air traffic during fly-ins and club events. “It’s not a great radio,” says Udal. “It’s pretty outdated.”
In a bid to get more Maple Creek residents into the air, the flying club is looking into purchasing a club plane, offsetting the expense by hosting flight schools. They already have a part-time instructor onboard, and several members signed up for lessons.
“You get your pilot’s license, and then what do you do?” asks Udal, who explains that a club plane would give members a chance to fly without the expense of airplane ownership, and “should be able to drastically reduce the cost of getting a pilot’s license and flying.”
Mechanical problems on light aircraft typically result from disuse rather than overuse, meaning that maintenance costs on a frequently-used club plane would be minimal, Udal explains.
“It’s a huge opportunity both for our flying club and the people around here,” Udal says.
The club is currently looking closely at a two-seater Cessna 150 built in the mid ’70s. Matt and cousin Mark Udal picked it up from the owner and flew it to the Maple Creek Airport so the club members could take a look before a final decision is made.
The Cessna is white with red accents, and even stationary on the tarmac looks light, sporty and aerobatic. The tiny fuselage is dwarfed by my Honda Civic, and Matt and Mark are able to push it effortlessly across the runway so that Matt has room to pull out his Maule.
Out on the tarmac Udal runs through his pre-flight checks, walking around “Maggie” in a slow circle, a yellowed checklist in hand. “They don’t want you to memorize the checks,” he explains. “That way you use the list and don’t forget anything.”
Then he swaps out his sports-style sunglasses for a pair of aviators (the thin wire arms fit better under the headphones) and we fold ourselves into the tight cockpit.
Moments later we’re rolling down the runway, picking up speed. Udal tips the yoke forward slightly to bring the rear wheel off the ground first, a unique feature of the traildragger configuration that is slightly jarring for the uninitiated. Soon all three wheels are off the ground and we’re gaining altitude, the Cypress Hills shrinking away below us.
At this point I have been involved in amateur aviation for less than an hour, but a subconscious part of my brain is already calculating costs, trying to find room in my budget for a couple of flying lessons.