- BC Games
Cover story: A flight into the past
It’s an overcast day over Boundary Bay, but for Trevor Skillen, any day without rain is good for flying.
His World War 2-era Boeing Stearman biplane has an open canopy, exposing him to the elements.
“You’re going so fast the windshield blows it right over top of you,” he says. “The real problem with the rain is the visibility.”
That won’t be a problem on this day. Mount Baker looms in the distance as Skillen pilots his bright yellow warbird over the Semiahmoo Peninsula.
Flying a few hundred feet above White Rock Beach, he pitches the plane suddenly upwards before curling off and hurtling back towards the ground.
“A wingover,” he says, his voice crackling over the radio headset.
He points the plane skywards again, and then, like roller coaster reaching its apex, the plane evens out momentarily before plummeting towards the ocean below.
Skillen pulls back on the stick once more, and the plane climbs and climbs, until finally it can climb no more, and once again submits to gravity and returns to earth.
This time, however, the plane is upside down.
“An inside loop,” he says.
Below the residents of White Rock no doubt watch puzzled, as the 70-year-old biplane barnstorms above the beach on this Friday afternoon.
Having thoroughly impressed the onlookers below, he points the nose for home, and touches down softly on the manicured grass strip at the Delta Heritage Air Park.
Skillen hops out, a grin stretching from ear-to-ear.
“There’s no way to describe that feeling,” he says, beaming.
Skillen isn’t your typical recreational pilot. But then, the Delta Heritage Air Park isn’t your typical airport.
For more than 50 years, it has been home to some of the most impressive vintage aircraft in the Lower Mainland.
“We’re a well-kept secret out here,” he says. The idyllic grass strip is just five miles east of Boundary Bay Airport, but it might as well be in the middle of nowhere.
“There’s nothing like this in any major city in Canada,” says Skillen, who is also the chair of the Delta Heritage Airpark Operating Committee (DAPCOM).
The air strip is uncontrolled, and is actually part of the Metro Vancouver Regional Parks system. The slow pace suits Skillen just fine.
“You can come and go as you please,” he says. “You don’t have to talk to the tower, you don’t have to ask permission.”
The airpark is a living aviation museum, home to dozens of classic aircraft.
There is a Cold War-era Chinese trainer, Harvard trainers, a Pitts Special biplane, a handful of the legendary Piper Cub bush planes, Aeronca Champions, as well as the usual assortment of Cessnas, Cherokees, and Beechcrafts.
In the golden age of aviation, all you needed was a grass strip to get off the ground, and the pilots here still like to keep things just that simple. Some choose to fly without GPS, instead relying on maps sewn into the inside of their jackets to chart their course.
“You don’t even need a radio to fly out of here,” says Skillen.
Many of the hangars are converted old barns. While they’ve been renovated on the inside, Skillen says the airpark wants to keep them looking as old and rustic as possible, like patina on vintage furniture.
But the airpark isn’t a playground for the wealthy - far from it.
The airpark’s low user fees have attracted aviation enthusiasts of all tax brackets, many of whom have built or restored their own aircraft.
It’s just $35 per month to park a plane on Delta Heritage Air Park’s grass apron, and little more than $200 to rent a hangar.
“Less than what a parking spot would cost you downtown,” says Raymond Colley, the air park’s former chair. “Ideally, we want to run it like a public golf course, and be accessible to everyone.”
And just as every golf course has its clubhouse, the Delta Heritage Air Park has its coffee shop as its social hub.
The walls of the shop are festooned with maps, yellowed photos of airplanes, and all manner of aviation memorabilia. Here the pilots can help themselves to hot coffee behind the counter, provided they drop some change into the cup. There’s always great conversation to be had, and the pilots love to talk shop.
“Everyone here is here because they’re passionate about flying,” says Colley. “It’s not like other airports, where people are there to work. Everyone here is so enthusiastic.”
Colley has been flying nearly his entire life, and spent much of his career captaining 747-400s across to Hong Kong and back for Cathay Pacific. After retiring close to 10 years ago, he rediscovered the joys of light aircraft, and fell in love with flying all over again.
“It’s one extreme to the other,” he says of his airliner days. “Here, you’re a leaf in the air, compared to a Mack truck.”
Flying at Delta Heritage Airpark is back-to-basics, he says. And that’s what’s so appealing about it to many pilots.
“This is grassroots flying,” says Colley. “This is how it all started.”
The land the airpark occupies at the end of 104th Street was once a farm owned by Darmel Embree, who fell in love with flying later in life after taking flight with a friend.
Embree carved a grass landing strip out of his field and in 1960, began renting out tie-downs to other pilots. Due to overwhelming demand, he decided to build hangars a few years later.
“This was all before Boundary Bay Airport was reopened [in 1983], so there was nowhere to really fly in and out of Delta at the time,” says Skillen.
In 1995 the airpark was bought by the Greater Vancouver Regional District and is now part of the Boundary Bay Regional Park. The airpark has only one staff member, a janitor/custodian/groundskeeper, whose major responsibility is to cut the grass of the 800-metre runway and adjacent apron.
“Day to day it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything,” says Metro Vancouver parks manager Mitch Sokalski.
Once a month, the airpark holds a pancake breakfast at the coffee shop that’s open to the public. But the public is invited to use the facilities any time, and many cyclists and hikers using the Boundary Bay dike trail often pop in for a quick visit.
“It’s a great place to come and visit, even if you’re not a pilot,” says Sokalski.
Not surprisingly, the airpark is frequent stop for aviation buffs, and it’s hard not catch their infectious enthusiasm for flying.
Skillen caught the flying bug as a child growing up in Quebec, listening to his father’s tales of being an airman in the Second World War.
“You hear the stories around the dinner table, and it becomes a part of you,” he says.
Success in the software industry has allowed him to pursue his aviation hobby. In addition to his Stearman, he has a de Havilland Beaver, and is looking to acquire a Second World War-era North American Aviation Harvard.
But Skillen says he sees himself as a custodian of history, as opposed to a just an airplane owner.
“We get to take care of them for a while, and then we pass them on,” he says. “These planes were around before I was born, and hopefully they’ll be around long after I’m gone.”
So too is it his hope for the Delta Heritage Airpark.
“You would never be able to create something like this today,” he says. “It’s totally unique. That’s why it’s important we preserve it.”