By Philip Backman

It must be over four years since I first heard Bluenose pilots talk about gliding to Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.). I never knew if those pilots seriously considered the voyage, but I began to think about it a lot. Measured in a straight line the distance is not that great; Stanley, Nova Scotia and Wood Islands, P.E.I. are separated by about 130 km of airspace. But as is usual when soaring cross country, reaching your destination involves flying much farther than the straight line distance separating the two points. Anyone attempting the trip would be committed to flying around one body of water - the Minas Basin - and gliding across another - the 22 kms of the Northumberland Strait.

The 28th of May, 1994, started with a thin overcast that cleared away as the sun began to rise, and shortly after 9 AM the clouds could be seen swirling and growing. I winched for a few hours in the morning, but at 10:00 slipped away and began to rig my sailplane, an Open Cirrus. As the weather evolved I became increasingly excited about trying the flight and was very happy when my partner in the Cirrus, Dick Vine, agreed to give me first crack at the day. Feeling shy about declaring a voyage to P.E.I., I lied and told Dick I was going to try for the Trenton airport - a stepping stone to P.E.I. located about 100 km to the east.

By noon the sky looked very promising with cu's growing to the east and also north over the Cobequid Mountains. Slowly, one at a time, the private ships began to appear in the launch queue. Realizing it was time to go, I moved the Cirrus in line behind the others and patiently waited my turn for a launch. Then, at fifteen minutes before 1:00 PM, the winch threw me into the air.

Immediately after release I turned east and began to look for that important first thermal. The pilot who launched before me landed back at the field just as I departed, a sure sign that getting away was not going to be easy. For the first minute or so I could find nothing, and as the altimeter approached circuit entry height, feared I would have to land. But, luckily, at 1100 feet I hit solid lift. Reaching 5,000 feet, I pointed east and started my journey.

Flying east turned out to be very easy. The lift was plentiful and strong under every cumulus. I thermalled often, more than needed, but since the wind was from the west I was making good time. I felt confident the day had the potential to carry me to P.E.I. I only had two hurdles to over come and the first was rapidly approaching: the jump north across the dreaded Blue hole

When I initially began to plan this flight I knew the first difficulty encountered would be crossing the famous Minas Basin Blue Hole. Located north of Stanley, the Minas Basin forms the eastern tip of the Bay of Fundy and separates us from the strong lift that forms on the Cobequid Mountains. The basin ends at Truro, a town 50km north-east of Stanley. Because it is generally down wind from the basin and located along the shore, the air over Truro rarely produces good lift - if cumulus is present elsewhere usually you can count on Truro being under a blue sky. The significance of the Blue Hole is the fact that it lies between Stanley and P.E.I. More than one Bluenose pilot has attempted to fly through the hole and found themselves prematurely on the ground. I knew if I was going to stay airborne flying around it was the only option.

Passing south of Truro I could see that the Blue Hole extended far to the east. Turning north now would guarantee a long glide before encountering lift on the Cobequids, so I continued farther east.

As I approached Middle Stewiacke I searched for the grass airstrip used by the skydivers. I had flown over the area a week before in a powered plane, so I had no problem finding their runway. I was listening to the Air Traffic Information Service on the radio along the way, so I knew to keep a sharp eye out for people falling from the sky. I saw their carrier plane heading north, but no parachutists.

Just after 2:00 PM I arrived at Eastville, which marked the end of the Stewiacke Valley. From this point on, as far east as I could see, there was nothing but trees. It was time to head north.

As I approached Eastville it became apparent that the Blue Hole was actually, on this particular day, a blue line that started at Truro and extended very far to the south east. Obviously, I thought, I couldn't get around it, but thankfully it had grown narrower; the jump from Eastville to the clouds over the Cobequid range was no more than 15 or 20 km. Because there was absolutely nothing landable in between I climbed as high as possible and at 6,900 feet headed north toward Trenton.

Crossing the line of blue cost me about 1500 feet of altitude, and great lift under the clouds to the north kept me aloft. I completed the ride to Trenton and flew over the airport. It was a pleasure to have that long paved strip below me and a relief to know that should I get low at this point there would be no worries about landing in unpredictable terrain.

Having circled near Trenton for close to half an hour I decided it was time to head up the coast toward Pictou, because it is near there that Nova Scotia is closest to P.E.I.

Over Pictou the air felt very calm as I sailed beneath an over developed sky, but with lots of altitude, I pressed on. I began to worry about the time; now almost 3:30, I was aware that soon the sea breeze would begin to push the lift away from the coast and force a longer final glide. I could clearly see the P.E.I. coast, but as I slipped below 4000 feet it looked very far away. Far beneath the over development there was no significant lift and I realized if I didn't do something soon the flight would be over. To the south west, over the mountains, I could see sun beams piercing through the clouds. As I raced for the sunny mountains I slipped below 3000 feet for the first time since I left Stanley and I began to pick out possible landing fields, but I was rewarded; the mountain air was working and a strong thermal boosted me to 6000 feet. I then turned back toward the coast, where the sky was extremely over developed, forming a dark street that ran for miles parallel to the coast. When I reached the street, a few hundred feet below it, I slammed into a blanket of lift. Without turning a single turn I climbed straight to cloud base, where I held the stick hard forward to keep clear of cloud. I was flying perpendicular to the street; dead ahead was the Northumberland Strait and beyond that - P.E.I.

I left cloud cover at 6400 feet and stepped out over water. According to earlier calculations the cirrus needs about 2000 feet to cross the 22 km strait-assuming no sink or strong wind. I felt that 6000 feet provided a good safety margin along with giving me the time and altitude to search for thermals and fields once I reached the Island. I trimmed the plane for best glide and stared out the window at P.E.I. and all that water in front of me. I carefully watched the altimeter, fearing heavy sink would force me to turn back. I kept looking over my shoulder at Nova Scotia; it was falling away but P.E.I. seemed to hold its distance.

Suddenly - I realized that P.E.I. was within reach. I relaxed and began to take some photographs and study my map of the island. I decided it would be a good idea to radio the club and tell them my location, but I couldn't get through to anyone on the ground or in the air. Below me I watched the ferries cross the strait.

Image: Looking south-west over eastern PEI from glider UIL. Point Prim is the prominent peninsula jutting into the water

Point Prim from Glider - by Phil Backman

I had never before been to P.E.I., but knew from seeing pictures, and from talking with friends, that there would be no problem finding a good landing spot. When I was at 6000 feet over Nova Scotia I clearly could see many fields on the Island's coast. By the time half the strait was behind me I could see what must have been hundreds of enormous fields in front of me, and coming from the bush country of Stanley, it looked incredible - I no longer felt nervous about landing.

The air got bumpy as soon as I hit the coast, allowing me to maintain 4000 feet, but promising cumulus grew farther inland, more than 2/3's the way across the island. I went for it. Solid lift under the cu lifted me to 5500 feet and with this altitude I head north west toward the Charlottetown International Airport.

But by now the day was getting late. It was past 4:00 pm and due to the west wind the few remaining cu's were out over water. As I headed for the airport lift became more elusive. I called the tower and told them I was headed their way. They didn't believe me first time and the controller ask me to reconfirm aircraft type and point of departure. For the first time that day I was fighting a head wind and progress was slow. After a long struggle I finally called the Tower and confessed that I was not going to make it. This was disappointing because I was so close; I could clearly see the runways ahead, no more than 7 or 8 miles away.

From a few miles back I picked out large rectangular field. Reaching it, I popped the drag chute and headed for the ground. The field was rough, but touch down was gentle and the hay was short.

After stopping I got out, retrieved the tie downs stored behind the seat, and anchored the glider to the ground. I then headed off in search of a phone. I eventually found a ride to the airport and Gerry Chesley, the Tower Controller, offered the use of his phone. To my surprise two of my Bluenose buddies offered to come and get me in the morning. Alan Gillis and Stewart Baker volunteered to get up at 2:30 in the morning and set out to catch the 6:00 AM ferry to the island.

While talking to Gerry I received a phone call from Andrew Costain, an Air Cadet Glider Instructor that lives on the island and that I have known for a few years. Turns out I landed a few miles from his garage. Before long I made some arrangements with Andrew; he found me a place to sleep for the night, treated me to dinner, and his mother gave me an hour tour of the local area.

Later that night I called the club again. Alan and Stewart had everything ready and assured me that they did not mind getting up in the middle of the night to come get me. The ferry crossing is about an hour long and I landed an hours drive from the terminal, so we all agreed to meet at Andrew's garage shortly after 8:00 am. With the technical stuff out of the way, I settled down and began to enjoy my first night on Prince Edward Island.

Morning came quickly, and a few minutes past eight the boys came rolling into the garage towing the cirrus's long white trailer. The three of us headed down the road to the cirrus. Alan and Stewart appeared cheerful and alert, considering their abbreviated nights sleep. On the ferry they had received several inquires as to the content of the trailer; Stewart promptly reeled out the old line about transporting alligators.

We derigged the glider in what seemed like record time thanks to help from the locals and Andrew, who arrived just when we needed him most. Andrew invited us to breakfast, but we figured we had to hurry to catch the next ferry home.

At the ferry terminal near Wood Islands I paid the $95 toll, a significant fee compared to the cost of crossing the Strait the day before. We arrived back at Stanley at 2:00 PM, ending the longest retrieve in the history of the Bluenose Soaring Club: 11 and 1/2 hours. I think soaring to P.E.I. every weekend is out!

Thanks Stewart, Alan, Andrew, and Mrs. Costain. It was a great flight!