New Brunswick

Free airport event features 'best of the best' small aircraft

As many as 150 small aircraft will be on display this weekend during Airport Community Da, which happens to coincide with the annual convention of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association.

Over 100 small planes will be on display at Saint John Airport's annual community day

Danielle Francoeur, a small aircraft pilot for 5 years, flew from Montreal in her Cessna 172. Her husband, retired pilot Leo Berman, came along for the ride. Franceour is one of over 100 small aircraft enthusiasts in Saint John this weekend for the annual convention of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Many of us have, at one point, had a vivid dream about flying. 

Dreams about soaring through the clouds are supposed to represent freedom — an escape from the real world.

For more than 100 amateur pilots landing in Saint John this weekend, the fantasy has become a reality. 

The Saint John Airport is hosting a wide array of small aircraft — four-seat Cessnas, vintage 1940s Stinsons, and amphibious flying boats, among them — at the annual convention of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association.

One of the stars of the weekend is the DHC-2T Turbo Beaver, advertised as 'one of the most practical, versatile, rugged and reliable aircraft in the air today.' The Turbo Beaver can carry a load of about half a ton for nearly 1,000 kilometres. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"This is the best of the best in terms of general aviation," said Carter Mann, a spokesperson for the association. "It's airplanes of all shapes and sizes, all sorts of missions and capabilities and roles."

The general aviation association has 16,000 members from every province and territory.

This year is the first time its annual convention has been held in Saint John.

Members of the public have the opportunity to get a closer look and take part in other family-oriented activities at the airport's free annual community day on Saturday.

Big adventure

Leonard Sharp and his wife, Audrey Love, flew in from Saskatoon in their 1977 Cessna 182.

The flight took three days, which they broke up into six-hour flying days. 

Sharp, who owns a small trucking business in Saskatoon, "always wanted to fly," he said.

Leonard Sharp and Audrey Love flew from the prairies to Saint John for the COPA convention. It's a way bigger trip - a 15-hour flight from their home in Saskatoon - than last year's convention in Kelowna, BC, they said. (Julia Wright / CBC)

One day, he said, he heard an ad on the radio for flight training and went from there.

Flying to East Coast from the Prairies was no mean feat, Sharp said.

"This is definitely a bigger adventure."

'A dream come true'

For an avid sport fisherman like  Dan Oldridge of Ontario, a private plane is "dream come true."

He built his Just Aircraft Highlander from a kit — a labour of love that took three years of part-time work on the plane itself and an additional two years for the floats.

Now, he said, he can fish even the most remote lakes in northern Ontario.

Retired firefighter-turned amateur pilot Dan Oldridge flew in to Saint John from Ontario in a Just Aircraft Highland he built himself. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"When I was younger I used to portage in with a canoe into the back lakes," he said. "I really wanted to be able to get into these lakes as I was getting older."

"It really is amazing," he said. "I can leave my home airport and in an hour and a quarter I can be on the lake fishing."

'You could easily get into a small plane in the $20,000 to $30,000 range — so not that much different than a nice car. There are lots of boats around that are worth way more than that.'   - Carter Mann,  Canadian Owners and Pilots Association

His bright-red float plane is decked out in fire department logos — a nod to his 24-year career as a firefighter and deputy chief in London, Ont.

On the way to Saint John, he enjoyed cruising at 100 miles an hour  and looking down at the scenery, he said, singling out a stretch over Lake Huron, north of London.

"Manitoulin Island is absolutely gorgeous," he said. "There are times when the water there looks like the Caribbean: turquoise."

Saint John's small aircraft show

3 years ago
Over 100 small planes will be on display at Saint John Airport's annual Community Day. 0:45

'It's beautiful up there."

Measured risk-taking

Lee Coulman of Elmira, Ont., has been flying since 1965.

"I was an air traffic control systems engineer," he said. "For 25 years, I worked all over the world designing and installing radar systems."

The jam-packed cockpit of his Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey is stuffed with camping gear, extra fuel, flight plans, frequencies, airport layouts and checklists.

Lee Coulman lands at the Saint John Airport in his Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey, a two-seat, single-engine, amphibious flying boat. Coulman, a retired air traffic control systems engineer, says he likes the SeaRey's ability to land on either runways or water. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The amateur-built amphib boat has a 100 horsepower engine. And unlike a certified machine, Coulman said, he's able to customize it.

"Certified airplanes only takes this awful fuel — this 100 low lead that was banned from cars in the 1970s," he said.

His machine, by comparison, runs on premium car gas, which "burns very cleanly."

Flying isn't without some hair-raising moments.

Every centimetre of space counts in a small aircraft - like this Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey belonging to Lee Coulman of Elmira, ON. Coulman keeps everything from a tent to navigational equipment in the cockpit of his plane, which runs on premium car fuel. Since most airports don't support motor gas, he flies with 'Mr. Jerry' as a co-pilot. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"Yesterday we were going to take some people up for a flight and we noticed that Dan [Oldridge's] airplane had a problem — all the electrics died in the airplane," he said.

Thankfully, he was able to track his flying buddy's location using their onboard transmitters and maps, and Oldridge "landed without incident. This morning we were troubleshooting the problem … there was a problem with the connector.

"So we fixed that this morning, and here we are."

"Risk — it's all measurable to a certain degree," Coulman said.

Pilot Lee Coulman demonstrates the moving map that allows him to locate his flying buddy, Dan Oldridge, regardless of the conditions. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Less than some boats

Getting into flying is cheaper than people realize, Mann said.

If you're taking flight training, "it can actually be cheaper to buy your own airplane than to rent it through a flight school," he said.

"Depending on what you want to do with it, you could easily get into a small plane in the $20,000 to $30,000 range — so not that much different than a nice car. There are lots of boats around that are worth way more than that."

COPA communications director Carter Mann, a lifelong fan of flying, says convention represented the "best of the best in terms of general aviation." (Julia Wright / CBC)

Flying is "a unique hobby," Mann said.

"You get to see so many things that not a lot of people get to see," he said. "It's fun, and it's challenging."

With sunny skies in the forecast until Sunday, more than 100 planes are expected to land at the Saint John Airport ranging from vintage 1940s models, to cutting edge models. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The public can check out a static display of the aircraft at the Saint John Airport during the airport's community day on Saturday, the last day of the convention, from noon to 4 p.m.

The event will also include flight simulation demonstrations, live music, carnival games, a bouncy castle and other family activities.


Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is a born-and-raised Saint Johner, reporter, photographer, and the host of Information Morning Saint John on 91.3FM. She has been with the CBC since 2016.