Cheetah running across Canada
Air Facts Journal

If there is one thing that i enjoy about aircraft it is the hunt for a bargain airframe for sale. I consider it part chair flying and part fantasy.  Being an owner I always think of what it would be like to own a different airplane

I spend a lot of my time when I am on the ground looking at and comparing pricing for aircraft for sale in Canada, my home country, and across the border in the USA.  I sometimes think i should become a consultant for people looking for good aircraft to buy.  Since 2016, I’ve connected four people with aircraft to buy or sell and I have bought two and sold one myself.

One of my more memorable aircraft hunting experiences was last spring, 2023. I have a friend, Paul, that owed a Piper Tomahawk that he purchased to learn to fly in.  He expressed to me an interest in finding a more suitable airplane for travel.  His mission had changed from doing circuits and short local flights to wanting to go further and use his plane for leisure travel.  He was looking for larger useful load, longer range, more speed and ideally four seats.

We discussed his needs and his budget.  I then had a pretty good idea of what he was looking for in a plane. I had suggested he look for a good Cessna 182 which is the airframe I own for its all round comfort, size, speed and  suitability for his mission.  Also I am biased because I still think the 182 is the best of all of the above requirements.  Unfortunately the market had put a premium on 182s and Paul’s budget didn’t work with what we found available in Canada.  With a lot of back and forth, I persuaded him to consider the Grumman AA5 airframe – a solid performer with a dependable engine and a fixed pitch prop.

airplane on ramp

It’s a nice sleek airplane.

The AA5 checks a lot of Paul’s wants with its speed, range, useful load, four seats and most importantly, its good looks. It took a bit of convincing him that this might be a good fit for him over just owing another trainer with four seats.  C172s and Cherokees were available, but seemed overpriced and  not an ideal cross country airplane for him. They had most of what he was looking for but the Cheetah had them for speed.  Plus, it has a cool sliding canopy and a ton of ramp appeal.

He seemed to be interested in the prospect and the search began. Quite quickly using my “special powers” of search we found one of a few for sale almost completely across the country in Alberta. It was not listed on any of the large plane seller sites just a “local” online buy and sell. Paul contacted the owner and he started to make arrangements to acquire this airplane. It had a powerflow exhaust, a mid-time upgraded 160 hp engine and a beautiful paint job and had always been hangared.  The two owners cared for and had huge pride of ownership. It was a good deal on a solid airplane.

Pretty soon after the decision to purchase came the question of how to get this airplane home.  This was my time to suggest that we do it ourselves.  I had flown this route in 2020 when I brought my 182 home from British Columbia and again in 2022 after a summer trip.  I’ve written about both experiences here on Air Facts. I love a mission and a long cross country is my happy place. Both times I flew it took four days and three overnights along the way.

Feeling pretty experienced, I told Paul it would be a quick couple of days and we’d be home, barring any mechanical or weather issues. I was confident that this would be an easy trip. This would be my third trip using almost the identical route back to Nova Scotia.

Paul would be PIC in his new airplane and I was along for the ride offering help and assistance where I could.  This was to be his longest trip in a general aviation airplane and what a way to break in his new winged chariot.

One way tickets were purchased and a hotel booked as we set off on our adventure.  The deal was done, inspection was completed and a training flight with an instructor for Paul to get checked out was completed. We were ready to head east. Looking back, we should have departed that same day.  It was late morning, and even if we would have got a couple of hours enroute, we might have had a different trip.

airplane with cowl open

With inspections complete, we were ready to head east.

The following day’s weather kept us in Calgary with thunderstorms and rain.  This was going to be a problem as we could have been ahead of this system, but we ended up catching up to it as we moved east over a series of days. We set out the next day with the two owners watching us depart.  It was a bittersweet moment for them watching their baby fly away to its new home.  It was a bit unnerving for me to be sitting right seat not flying, but we settled in for our first planned stop in Saskatchewan.

As with any VFR flight, the weather was always a consideration.  We had extensive preflight planning and followed up with a call to Nav Canada for a weather briefing.   The briefer was helpful and thorough.  He told us of convective activity and other cloud and ceiling concerns.  What he was unable to see on the radar was going to be the bane of our trip-wildfire smoke. As there was no moisture in the smoke, it really didn’t show up on their weather radar.

airplane on ramp

Departure day in the Cheetah.

The departure weather just north of Calgary was clear and sunny. We were expecting an overcast layer a few hours ahead at 7,000 feet.  What we didn’t know is that the smoke from wildfires north of our track was being contained by the 7,000’ ceiling.  The visibility got worse and worse. It was  not what we expected and not what Paul was at all comfortable with.  To top it off, the ceiling was lowering as we flew east.

We were tooling along at 7,500 feet making good time when we had to drop to 5,500 feet after an hour just at the Alberta Saskatchewan border.  The haze was getting worse and we decided to find a place to put it down.  Again, we had to descend to 3,500 feet.  We found a small uncontrolled airfield and made our first diversion of the trip to Provost Alberta (CHE6).  The population was 1,800 plus two more now.  We put fuel in the airplane and happened to come across a few local pilots who informed us there was not anywhere really to eat or lodge in town.  According to the locals, the weather was only going to get more convective and hazy as the day went on with more on the way tomorrow.

What looked a lot less than three miles visibility in the air, looked perfectly clear if a bit yellow from the ground.  We made a decision to fill our tanks, call for another briefing, and plan on Diefenbaker Airport in Saskatoon (CYXE). The haze was still present but we had mostly good visibility.  And with the clouds keeping us low, it helped maintain our visual contact with the ground. It was to be our first overnight stop.  Not as far east as we had planned, but that’s VFR flight. While I had planned  to be about an hour further east for our first fuel stop, we figured we’d make it up the next day.

airplane in hangar

Tiny airplane in a big hangar at our stop.

We landed and found the FBO, Kreos Aviation, who were excellent. They found us some hangar space and lent us a crew car to go for food. They then gave us a ride to our motel that they helped find for us as well. We made the best of it by going for pizza at a local restaurant, Sardinia, and meeting some friendly locals including the owner of the restaurant who toasted us and out adventure with some free drinks!

The next day, to keep our timetable, we were aiming for somewhere in western Ontario.  Dryden or Thunder Bay was the goal for our next overnight.  On our first leg we planned on a fuel stop in Steinbeck Manitoba (CJB3) which was a four hour, 430 nm leg.  The weather was clear with some cumulus clouds and the haze was ever present.  After landing and fueling up, we called for our next weather briefing.  We had an idea what was in store for us from what we saw in the air – towering cumulus and thunderstorms to the east.  That kept us on the ground for another night.

Fortunately for us, the local president of the flying club happened to drop by to check out our arrival.  He graciously offered to help us find a room for the night and suggested a great BBQ place in town, Bigg Smoak BBQ.  As always, aviation allows me to meet the best kind of people ready to help me out whenever I seem to need it.  We were treated that night to a great lightning show with some extreme hail reported a few miles away. Thankfully, the airplane was spared.

We were now two nights into the trip and not near as far east as we expected.  Not only that, at our unexpected stops we had no real knowledge of accommodations or availability of services other than fuel.  Foreflight is a great resource with comments on FBO’s , fuel prices, and phone numbers for accommodation and car rentals.  I don’t know if anyone could do a trip like this without it.

smoke

We didn’t want to run into this in the smoke and haze.

The next morning we set out with a sinking feeling from the briefing we received.  It was calling for fire smoke with rain along the north shore of Lake Superior so we decided to change our route to the north and make our way across northern Ontario. A 380nm leg to get fuel in Geraldton Ontario (CYGQ) was a nice trip over some remote forests and lakes. We flew through some light rain before we landed and made a quick turn with a destination of North Bay or Sudbury.

On this leg the visibility started rapidly dropping in the smoke haze and we were getting worried.  The ceilings were lower than forecast too. We could hear fire operators flying and communicating on the enroute VFR frequency 126.7mhz.  We were making position reports frequently as well.  We were basically out of flight following range and hoped we didnât meet a huge yellow CL-215 water bomber appearing out of the haze coming the other way.

We were getting lower and lower to maintain visibility and needed to get out of the smoke that was getting thicker and thicker by the minute.  Thankfully we had a airfield, Chapleau Ont (CYLD ), just a few miles south our route of flight.  Aftert some tense moments, we were on the ground safe and sound.  Direct to on Foreflight saved us in that instant.  I was calling out compass directions and distance while watching outside and let Paul concentrate on flying the airplane. At this point, Paul and I had quite enough flying for the day.

smoke haze

An oragne cloud of smoke haze.

This small airfield we found out was an operational aerial firefighting base and even they were shutting operations down due to the lack of visibility.  Safe and sound on the ground, we couldn’t go on that day.  With minimal cell coverage, I managed to reach my wife at home to google somewhere that we could stay.  We found out the airfield was quite far from the town and there were no local cabs or cars to rent.  The owners of the hotel we called sent an employee to pick us up. Finding the only open restaurant at 5 pm on a Sunday was a challenge. This would be another night in an unplanned location. We had now exceeded the total time that I had palnned for the entire trip and we weren’t even half way home.

Day four dawned with low ceilings and fire smoke.  We made our way back to the airport hoping that we’d get a break in the weather and be able to find a way around the fires that seemed to be popping up everywhere. Southern Ontario was a mess of IFR due to the smoke.  We were constantly watching weather on the iPad.  The flight follower had let us onto the wifi and the fire base personnel gave us updates on where and how bad the smoke and visibility was.  We were both not sure if we’d get anywhere that day.

A pair of pilots moving west from Sudbury landed early in the day and gave us  the news that it was pretty much IFR anywhere southeast of us which is were we planing on going. They were grounded like us the day before and were hoping to find some VFR as they moved west.  We thought there may be a window later in the day if we stayed north to somewhere in Quebec.  We managed to launch at 4:30 pm to Val-dâOr Quebec (CYVO) which was a 240 nm leg in a straight line east.  There were several active fires and lots of water bomber chatter on the frequency.

Landing in northern Quebec really tested my high school french.  Our lack of fluent French made for some interesting pantomime. We got our point across with that and simple words that I could recall.  The FBO staff at Hangar Q60 helped us tie down and fuel up.  They asked one of their staff to drive us into the only motel I could book using Expedia.  This was a mistake there was no room available for us when we arrived.  As we were leaving, we held the door and helped two women enter with large bags of laundry.  It was the owner and her mother.  They took pity on us hearing the staff tell them what happened.  The owner told us to wait in the lobby and she would be back in a half hour.  She ended up making up a room that was under renovation to give us a place to sleep.  Another great person met along the way.

Paul and I decided to go to the local brewpub Le Prospecteur for a late dinner.  It turned into a late evening where we met a fellow pilot who was also grounded from the smoke.  After somewhere around 1:30am I think Paul had learned to speak fluent French and had made a few friends.

We ended up on the ground in Val-dâ’Or for three more days to wait and watch the news of the smoke blanketing Ontario, Quebec and most all of the eastern seaboard of the USA.  The sky every day was more orange than blue with a twilight feel to it.  We rented a car to have some mobility and took some day trips while watching the weather every half hour.  By now we were getting anxious to be home, sick of sharing a room and mostly sick of restaurant food.

The weather and fire smoke finally gave us a chance and we hoped we could be home in a day with a fuel stop planned for Saguenay Quebec (CYRC) 293 nm away.  Off we set into a fairly hazy day with a low 4,000 foot overcast ceiling.  We had to plan our route more northerly due to abysmal conditions to the south of us.  The weather was mostly cooperative and we got more views of trees and lakes from 3,500 feet.  We were quite happy to be moving and hoped we’d see home late that day.

pilots on flight deck

After 3 days, we were happy to be on the move again.

Unfortunately this trip was not done and we would end up spending two nights in the town of Saguenay. Finally, after almost 36 hours staring at the walls of a hotel room, we departed for our home base of Debert (CCQ3) which was 380 tantalizing miles away.  It was a flight that had us dodging cloud and the ever present haze of fire smoke.  We managed to land safe and sound on June 11.  2020 nautical miles or so covered and it took us nine days.

pilots outside of cheetah

Back Home safe and sound.

The Grumman Cheetah never once let us down and delivered us safely home.  It was a comfortable ride and had a good combination of speed and range.  For an aircraft that neither one of us had flown before, purchased across a continent, we had an amazing journey filled with some great sights, some lousy weather, and incredible natural spectacle of thousands of acres on fire.

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