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Backcountry Flying — in Manitoba?

By Curtis Penner, EAA 1103560, via EAA’s Canadian Newsletter,  Bits and Pieces

“Backcountry flying” usually means mountains. However, it is possible to challenge yourself with off-airport operations in the prairies as well. The pandemic shut down options for all of us; no fly-ins, pancake breakfasts, long-distance flights, or “bucket list” trips. The frustrating prospect of an entire summer’s flying being restricted to my home base provided the incentive to come up with a mission for 2020: landing at locations not shown on any sectional chart. There is nothing like flying into places that you have never been to before to heighten senses and sharpen skills.

Here are some of my logbook entries:

May 29, MB 143, 1600′ grass. Hydro lines at one end and a fence at the other. Picturesque hangar with exterior 1920s décor housing a Pietenpol.

June 5, MB 189, Aircraft salvage yard with a grass strip ending at Buffalo Creek. Interesting place.

June 16, MB 222, 1100′ unmowed grass with on-runway obstacles, including a solar panel array, farm machinery, and round bales. Directional control vital. Landed, stopped, and took off without needing to backtrack. 🙂

June 16, MB 214, 1400′ grass beside windmill farm. Did a (slow) formation flight with Zenith down the Pembina River valley over Swan and Rock lakes. 🙂

June 18, MB 127, Beautiful approach over the gold dome of the church to a nice grass strip in the bush.

June 23, MB 148, 1000′ with bush/hydro at the end. Good approach = good landing. 🙂 MB 116, Banana-shaped, over a bridge, rough, beside rock piles. Wow!

July 6, MB 145, Beautiful approach over riverfront recreational properties. MB 146, Approach beside grain elevator, landing beside rail line. Cool!

July 10, MB 191, Unmowed … and tall! Cleaned grass and weeds off the struts after landing!

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Not all private airstrips are regularly maintained. Grass and weeds hang from struts after this landing.

MB 144, Decommissioned island strip. Tricky crosswinds here. MB 210, Hunting cabin at south end of Lake St. Martin. Beautiful Super Cub. MB 215, Freezer in tall grass at midpoint of strip. Saw it during pre-landing overhead pass … no problems. 🙂

July 20, MB 124, Spectacular Immaculate Conception Cooks Creek church nearby. The “MB 150” corn maze east of Winnipeg is great!

July 21, MB 160, Base leg alongside train crossing a bridge, landed on a beautiful farm grass strip surrounded by bright yellow canola.

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Another exclusive view available to pilots.

July 27, MB 258, Flew alongside a train on a 1000′ trestle! In Manitoba! Wow! Many fields in bloom en route — yellow (canola/sunflowers) and blue (flax).

Aug 14, MB 110, The Airliner! Had the 747 burger. MB 102, Followed Winnipeg River 30-plus miles from Seven Sisters to Lake Winnipeg. Very scenic — dams, boats, floatplanes, cottage country.

Sept 5, MB 243, Most scenic yet! 1500′ strip crosses Assiniboine River oxbow.

Sept 11, MB 213, Great wind indicator aircraft with rotating propeller. Landed on a field being harvested by Hutterite colony. Operators and (many) kids, very friendly and curious. Memorable for them and me!

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Unique wind indicator.

Sept 12, MB 247, WWII CNS (Central Navigation School) No. 1. Huge hangar, runways, barracks … all abandoned. Complete town … abandoned. Amazing! Would not believe it if I hadn’t seen it.

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At the World War II training base.
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Parked at WWII-era training airport.
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The stories these walls could tell! Inside a hangar built for WWII aircraft.

Sept 29, MB 106, RV park with its own grass strip next to Lake Winnipeg. Hopped over to Hecla Island and flew over the lighthouse and golf course.

Oct 8, Sandbars! Assiniboine River sandbars. What a great afternoon! Six safe and successful landings/takeoffs. Bonfire/picnic on island bar.

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Landing on sandbars.
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What fun with friends!
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Exploring river sandbars with friends.

Nov 18, Rock Lake. First ice landing of the season. Ice smooth, 2” snow cover.

Nov 22, Rock Lake T/O and landing on ice, great flight along local lakes and river valleys. Couple of other planes flew by, one dropped in for a landing. 🙂

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Fly-in ice fishing success.

What a great flying season! The unexpected bonus was the new perspective on what I thought I knew well … Manitoba. Sights and experiences that would have been worth a diversion when on vacation, or at least an Instagram or Facebook post, appeared over and over. The Red River Valley’s perfectly square fields of yellow canola, waving blue flax, or golden sunflowers were surrounded by rolling hills and meandering rivers. Lake Winnipeg’s 24,500 km2 size made my aircraft seem insignificant. Flying alongside a train crossing a 1,000-foot trestle was an unexpected experience in the prairies. Looking down at golden Ukrainian Orthodox church dome while on final approach to a grass strip in the bush is a moment that most will never encounter. A 1,500-foot grass strip across an oxbow in a river lined with fall colours was simply spectacular. Watching an aerial applicator or a harvest crew is always memorable.

Very few pilots have the privilege of a historic “prairie sentinel” grain elevator just off

your wingtip before touchdown beside the railway track in a prairie town. How about landing at a restaurant’s private runway and ordering a huge 747 burger, an Avro Arrow, or the Ultralight vegetarian meal? Each day brought an unexpected treat.

And then there are all the history lessons when flying into WWII-era Service Training Flying School airfields with their signature triangular runway arrangements. A few of these are now used as regular airports, but many are slowly being reabsorbed into the prairie. Stopping in and imagining the sights, sounds, and activity as several thousand young European men learned how to fly at each one of these is something that will leave a lasting impact.

For someone with an appreciation for weathered patina and any photographic abilities, the possibilities of amazing shots are endless. Finally, the best part of this summer was the people I had the privilege to meet. Without exception, every person I met at their airstrip this summer was accommodating, welcoming, and hospitable. They ranged from active pilots to others who kept the strip because “Grandpa gave me rides there.” There were the aerial applicators with their turbines, and pilots that had Pietenpols. I saw a perfectly restored Pawnee, and aircraft that haven’t moved in 25 years rotting away in the trees or old barns.

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This airplane hasn’t moved in many years — note the fence!

One person flies aerobatics in an Extra 300, and another has a Stearman even though he has no license and has to ask a pilot friend to give him rides in it. I met airline captains and pilots who had never flown more than 20 miles from home. Some people had never seen an airplane on their strip until I landed, and another had six aircraft in the pattern. Some had a strip at the cottage, and others used theirs as a starting point to get to their work location. But despite all the differences, everybody was friendly and everyone had a story. I’ve often said that one of the primary reasons aviation is attractive is because it is a community with a positive attitude, and that was illustrated in spades this summer. An afternoon of Assiniboine River sandbar flying is exponentially better (and safer) when doing it with friends.

Nothing beats having a lunch beside a fire with good friends in the middle of a river! I acquired a new appreciation for the Keystone Province, lots of flying, navigation, and takeoff/landing practice in all sorts of conditions, and best of all, 213 new friends in the aviation world.

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Facilities provided by a creative airstrip owner.

I encourage you to take a look for amazing things in your own backyard with the eye of a visitor. If you can meet new friends while doing so, that’s a bonus that you can’t put a value on. When the borders open up again, come and visit the Keystone Province. After all, our license plate logo is “Friendly Manitoba”!

A video of what I saw is available on YouTube.

I’d like to acknowledge Rick Hiebert for some great photography. His shots of the Assiniboine flying, the wind indicator, and several others are excellent. You can see more of Rick’s photography at ActionPlusPhoto.com.


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