Sexsmith pilots offer kids chance to fly

Exeter resident Ron Helm flies out of Sexsmith airfield, northwest of Exeter on McDonald Road, just east of Airport Line. The pilots based at Sexsmith will offer free flights to children aged 8 to 17 the morning of June 28 (NOTE: weather delayed until September 13, 2008); pre-registration is recommended by calling Wayne Steeper at 519-235-2441.

As told to Casey Lessard

I grew up during the war in Yorkshire, England, and there was a Canadian bomber base airfield nearby. They used to fly convert Halifax and Lancasters. There were Spitfires and all kinds of other things there, too.
Also in that little town was an aircraft factory that made gliders, and occasionally they had openings for apprentices in the engineering office. I was lucky enough to get one, which was great. The company sponsored me to learn to fly gliders; it cost us a quarter a launch in those days.
I flew from the Yorkshire Gliding Club a little bit, and I used to go on test flights because I was the engineer.
Then I worked for Blackburn, and was a member of the Royal Observer Corps, which is a part-time affiliation with the RAF, so I used to scrounge rides occasionally with those guys.
I came over from the UK in 1967 to work for Canadair – which is now Bombardier – in their engineering department. I worked on vertical takeoff airplanes. They got into difficulties so I came down here from Montreal in 1971. Bell Aerospace was just opening up their plant in Grand Bend, and I used to fly hovercraft for them. I was director of product support and engineering. I was there 16 years before they collapsed, and Sexsmith became part of my life.
I came on the Sexsmith airfield in 1971. I was just interested in airplanes at the time and eventually bought an airplane, which was the Taylorcraft BC-12D (seen in the photo). It’s a 65 horsepower Continental engine, it cruises about 95 miles an hour, and it’s got a rather big wingspan of 36’ because in those days there wasn’t a lot of horsepower and they made up for it by making it light wing loaded. If you go flying in my airplane, you feel the bumps. If you get a strong headwind, your ground speed can be pretty slow sometimes.
You have to hand crank it to start it – it doesn’t have any electrics. It has a radio, but I run that off a motorcycle battery. It’s fairly inexpensive to run: it burns about four gallons of fuel per hour. If you get up to 115 horsepower engines (like Mike Ash’s on opposite page), you’re looking at about six to eight gallons per hour.

Life at Sexsmith
The airfield belonged to a farmer called Leonard Greb. He was a bachelor all his life, and he had a Vagabond airplane that he flew with a great deal of panache. Very opinionated and he would cause an argument just for the heck of doing it. But it was all part of the atmosphere here.
We all had light airplanes like mine and Piper J3s. We used to just enjoy flying around. We’d go off on an evening or breakfast flying on the weekends, maybe to Goderich or Hanover where they had good restaurants. Or we’d go to other guys’ fields where there would always be coffee and donuts to be had. We had a great time.
We used to fly in the winter a lot at that time, too. Most of us had skis so we could go flying in the winter. That was a lot of fun because you could land anywhere.
Ron Riley taught me to fly at Grand Bend. Ron is a bush pilot. Bush pilots need different kinds of skills than airline pilots. Ron had lots of skills that he would teach you that weren’t in the curriculum, like how to get down on a field in difficult circumstances, engine failures, and things like that. Ron was absolutely first class because he had all the real life experience. Everything we did was with a map, a scale rule and a stopwatch. No GPS, and no radios. When you came out of his school, you were a pretty confident pilot. If you weren’t allowed to go solo, you can rest assured you weren’t ready.

A permanent home
Eventually Leonard died. He would spend a lot of time in Florida and we would take care of the field. He left the farm to his brother Wesley, who used to like to spend the summers here. He couldn’t handle the farming, and he said, if you want the airfield, you’d better buy the farm. I’ll make you a deal.
We thought, where are we going to get the money to buy a farm? It’s a lot of money. So we all got together in 2000 and 24 of us decided that we’d put up enough money to buy the farm, and that’s exactly what we did. That was when Sexsmith Pilots Limited was born.
Then people started buying better airplanes. They’re mostly all Cessnas and Pipers now. The biggest airplane on the field is a Saratoga, owned by Gib Dow, who owns the Ironwood Golf Club.
Originally if you wanted to fly, you had to have either a private or commercial pilot’s license. Now they have two more categories: a recreational pilot’s license, which is not as onerous as a private license and costs about half the price; and then there is the microlight pilot’s license.
Beyond the license, you get endorsements for higher performance airplanes, like the one young Gib flies because it flies significantly different from mine. You can get instrument, night flying rating, and then you can go for commercial. I just like recreational flying; that’s what I’m interested in.
It’s nice here; it’s quiet. The company’s always good. It creates nice friendships. They’re just a good group of people. They come from all walks of life and meld into a happy family. Everyone pitches in to keep the airfield the way it is.

The next generation
Young Eagles was started by the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. They realized that we have to get young people interested in aviation; most people won’t make the effort because they just see big dollar signs to get in. But if you can give a kid a ride and it doesn’t cost anything, you might just generate some interest. That’s how the Young Eagles program started. They take a half-hour ride, and get a certificate that the pilot signs and their name goes on an international register.
The other way to get kids interested is through the air cadet corps. They start with gliders and there are limited scholarships to get into power flying. Other than that, you have to dig into your pocket to go to flight school. That, of course, is a big problem because it costs a lot of money. You’re lucky to get a private license for $7,000.

We would love to get other people on the field. The problem is we’re getting older. Once you lose something like this, you can never recreate it. The problem is, kids don’t have the money to fly anymore. I don’t know whether us old guys are the last of a breed or not.