A view from the top

Students with a taste for the sky take flight in one of the most extreme and expensive hobbies in Kingston

People can book sightseeing trips with Kingston Flying Club members, helping pilots like Christopher Drax, MBA ‘13, with the costs of taking planes up. Flights pass above the Queen’s campus.
People can book sightseeing trips with Kingston Flying Club members, helping pilots like Christopher Drax, MBA ‘13, with the costs of taking planes up. Flights pass above the Queen’s campus.
Photo: 
Photo: 
Started in 1929, the Kingston Flying Club currently has roughly 125 members that regularly take flight.
Started in 1929, the Kingston Flying Club currently has roughly 125 members that regularly take flight.
Photo: 

From high above, Kingston and surrounding area appear surprisingly quaint and pastoral.

I’d seen the view before when I had flown over the area in a helicopter, but as I flew over again last weekend even I found the sight of the landscape — dominated by trees, waterways and fields — to be unexpected.

Even in the cold, early spring the view is impressive, if slightly bleak. Snow and ice half cover the lakes and rivers, toy-like houses line grey roads, and dead trees speckle the countryside. As we fly over campus, the cartoon colours of Tindall field scream for attention amidst all the grey.

Though I was stunned, it’s a sight that Christopher Drax, MBA ’13, has grown accustomed to.

Drax, my pilot for a one-hour sightseeing trip, has been a member of the Kingston Flying Club since enrolling at Queen’s this past summer. He takes a plane out every two weeks or so, often flying east over the world-famous Thousand Islands.

As our flight begins, myself and the other passengers — a Journal photographer and videographer — sit in silence as we take in the sights.

Early on in the flight, our peace is interrupted when our videographer asks whether a falling bolt he saw was part of the plane. We’re temporarily forced to acknowledge that we’re soaring hundreds of feet above ground in a machine that could fit in the average basement.

The feeling lasts only seconds before Drax assures us the bolt was from our video equipment, mounted to the side of the plane.

I put my faith in Drax’s reassurance, but prior to 2007, he was nearly as unfamiliar with piloting and small aircraft as I am now.

He received training in his home country of Germany, where he took lessons while obtaining an undergraduate degree in Aviation Management.

“I always wanted to fly. I always had that dream, [so] that’s why I started it and it was ideal conditions because there was an airfield just close to the University,” he said.

The first time Drax went up for a flying lesson, it made him sick.

Determined to get over the feeling, he went up a couple more times before avoiding illness. After around 20 hours flying time with an instructor, he made his first solo trip.

“It was not planned before. [My instructor] just stepped out and said ‘Okay, now you’re good to go and you will never forget this,’” Drax said. “This is a very strange feeling, when you actually take off and then you realize … there’s no one who can help you or whatever now; you’ve got to do it on your own.”

Southeastern Ont. may not compete with Europe for breath-taking views, but Drax still enjoys taking out sightseeing groups like ours.

“I always bring people because per hour it’s $160 and … when you go on your own it’s not affordable, so I think it’s a win-win when you take people,” he said. “I like to show people around. I like to show people the passion I have for flying.”

It’s a passion that he shares with roughly 125 members of the Kingston Flying Club, an organization chartered in 1929 that’s been training pilots ever since.

In addition to offering lessons, the club allows members like Drax to pay a small fee for the privilege of signing out one of their Cessna 172s — a four-seat, single-engine craft.

Adrien Belage is also a member at the Club; like Drax, he tries to take a plane up at least once every two weeks.

After taking an introductory flight in his hometown of Calgary several years ago, his interest was piqued even further, but the hefty costs nearly stopped him.

At Kingston’s Ontario Fun Flyers, training for a recreational permit — which allows flying within Canada with one passenger — comes with a minimum price tag of $5,665. A private pilot licence, meanwhile, can be achieved for a minimum of $11,400.

In Alberta, Belage was quoted a fee of around $20,000. About six months later, Belage said his dad offered to let him begin lessons.

“He [said], ‘well, you’ve been doing pretty well in school, so you can go for it,’” he said.

Belage was 18 when he obtained his licence. He knows of three other licenced pilots at Queen’s in the class of 2015 alone.

He said the problem he most often sees with young, new pilots is a tendency to panic when things appear to be going wrong.

On a flight to Edmonton where he was a friend’s co-pilot, Belage realized upon preparing to land that the city centre airport would be closed, a fact his friend should have known in his preparations. Belage, who was responsible for landing the plane, had to touch down at Edmonton’s international airport — on the tail of a British Airways Boeing 747.

Due to a phenomenon known as wake turbulence that occurs with larger aircrafts, an improper landing on Belage’s part could’ve resulted in his plane flipping over. He was able to recall instruction from his ground training, and landed the plane safely.

The incident didn’t faze him. Instead, he counts it as a positive, educational experience.

What stress he does experience is often assuaged by his time in the air, a place where he can look down on the world of his problems and distance himself — quite literally — from them.

“When you’re up there, you’re thinking things that you’d never think down here. You feel some things that, up there mean nothing, and down here mean a lot. And when I come down, I think ‘Yeah, that put things in perspective.’” It’s a feeling I can relate to. As our plane ventures back into town at the end of our flight, familiar landmarks began reappearing and the ambiguous rows of buildings turn into shops and services I’ve frequented.

The plane lands smoothly despite the heavy winds. I know where I am again, but the sense of perspective remains, and I can’t help but see the trees and buildings and fields a little bit differently.

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