This past August long weekend was the first time I’ve been in Quesnel for a SkyFest.
After arriving in March of 2018, it didn’t take long for someone to bring up what a loss it was not having the bi-annual airshow come to town the previous summer.
It was made quite clear how important the airshow was as a source of entertainment and pride.
To have some of the top aerobatics pilots on the continent perform death-defying stunts over the hills and rivers of the Cariboo as the whole town gazes in astonishment is an established tradition that was sorely missed that smoke-filled summer.
I had watched the odd airshow but always at a bit of distance, so upon realizing I would get to cover it up close and personal, I got quite excited.
That excitement turned to a touch of nerves when some whispers started spreading around the Observer office that the reporters might get to fly with an aerobatics pilot.
Naturally, I would never tell anyone I know I was nervous. In fact, I all but bragged to most people I know that it was a possibility.
Let’s call it an exercise in convincing myself it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Leading up to the show, the rumours were going both ways; maybe we’d fly, maybe we wouldn’t. There wasn’t any certainty.
I figured if I didn’t get to go up, I could always tell my buddies that I almost got that chance and totally would have taken it up if I did.
It turns out we didn’t find out until the morning of, at which point I didn’t have much time to give it much thought, and I was driving up to the airport before I knew it.
The pilot I was being sent up with was Kyle Fowler. He’s one of the younger pilots on the circuit. Clean-cut, confident smile, bright eyes.
While a part of me was worried that he might be inexperienced, I also considered his youth probably meant better reflexes, which seems important when hurtling through the air at speeds around the 200 km/hr mark.
It turns out, Kyle has been flying for over 10 years and comes from flying royalty.
His father, Ken Fowler, who many might have seen performing with Team Rocket, has been an airshow regular across North American skies for two decades.
At age 12, Kyle started announcing his father’s shows.
“We were at an air show in Mesa, Ariz., and the announcer, T.K. Harris, invited me up to the stand,” Kyle told me when we first met.
“‘Kyle, why don’t you come hang out with me for the day?’ I thought, ‘I can do that.’
“So, I went up and I was hanging out with T.K. for the show there and he was asking me questions and before I knew it, he started stuffing the mic in front of my face and asking me questions about my dad, and all of a sudden, I’m announcing my dad’s airshow.”
An already-ingrained love for flying further blossomed, and it wasn’t long before Kyle was flying alongside his father.
We were planning on flying in his own plane, a canary yellow 1986 Long EZ.
It’s an odd-looking bird that Kyle bought for the unique look.
“It’s literally built backwards,” Kyle said. “The engine is in the back and the tail’s kind of in the front.”
It wasn’t even designed for aerobatics.
“But anything will do a loop and a roll as long as you’re willing to try,” he pointed out.
That did little to dissuade my worry.
I asked him what I could expect from the ride.
“We’re going to go out and do a couple manoeuvres and see how you feel first. We’ll take off, make sure everything’s stable and good.”
Stable and good sounded excellent to me.
“We’ll do a nice slow roll, see how you feel after that.”
I was excited but still pretty nervous.
“And after that we’ll do a fast roll,”
“Maybe a point roll,”
“Maybe a loop or a half Cuban.”
My stomach was already sinking just thinking of it.
“It’s all dependent on how your stomach is feeling,”
How did he know?
“We’ve got the sick bags just in case.”
I honestly didn’t think it would be necessary, but it’s good to know.
As timing was an issue, I wasn’t able to go up with Kyle right away, so I went to grab a little lunch.
I was informed to be careful about how much I ate. Too much can be an issue, but so can not enough.
Playing it safe, I opted for a sandwich and an apple.
When it came time for the flight, I had done an OK job of psyching myself up. This was an insane opportunity and the wildest rush I was probably ever going to experience.
With Kyle’s help, I strapped myself into the parachute, which extends below the waist in the rear and acts as a seat.
As I climbed into the small plane, I spotted a small sign that Kyle’s wife, Melinda, had made for him.
“Fly safe handsome. Freaking love you.”
It gave me some reassurance that Kyle wouldn’t be trying anything too crazy.
I clambered into the back seat, which was tight but not ridiculously so, and after Kyle got in, we started rolling.
After a quick check at the beginning of the runway, we rocketed up into the sky.
There was a little turbulence going up, and being in such a small plane, I felt every bump.
The rush and the view from high above the Fraser River more than made up for any trepidation though.
You truly get a sense of peace and freedom when sitting thousands of feet up in the sky with little more than an inch or two of material between you and the abyss.
Once we were settled and at a decent enough height, Kyle asked if I was up for a slow roll.
Not wanting to sound cowardly, I said into my microphone that I was.
To do any aerobatic tricks, picking up speed is necessary, so he opened up the throttle and dived slightly before slowly manoeuvring us upside down and then right side up.
I’ve been on many a roller coaster, but this was a completely different experience altogether.
While it was certainly terrifying, the exhilaration of seeing the clouds and ground above your head while soaring through the air was electrifying.
We did a fast roll next.
If anything, it was a little less scary than the slow roll, and it was then I knew I wanted to experience it all.
Kyle performed a half Cuban, which is a little more than half a loop, followed by inverted flight and then a half barrel roll to right us up.
All I could do was yell, “Wooooo!!!!” at every new manoeuvre he was trying.
We also did a loop, and to finish it, Kyle took us nose down through a hole in the clouds before one last quick buzz of the runway.
Truth be told, I think he took it a little easy on me.
He had an unbroken streak of not having anyone get sick in his plane, and I’m sure he had no intention of a reporter from the Cariboo breaking it.
That being said, easy ride or not, my Instagram feed got a lot of attention from many acquaintances that weekend, and I can tell my kids and grandkids that I’ve flown in a tiny little quick plane and survived it.