Veteran pilot unfazed by airshow tricks (Young reporter experiences personal turbulence)

SOUTHPORT, Man. — It was just before noon Friday when 76-year-old Gord Price launched himself toward the sun in a single-seat Soviet Era airplane, a model that hasn’t been built since 1986.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/07/2018 (1678 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SOUTHPORT, Man. — It was just before noon Friday when 76-year-old Gord Price launched himself toward the sun in a single-seat Soviet Era airplane, a model that hasn’t been built since 1986.

With the engine growling, Price’s Yakovlev YAK-50 blasted off the runway. He started off with a half-loop before soaring 3,000 feet in the air for a series of rolls, flips, barrel rolls, and a lomcevak, a manoeuvre in which the plane flips end over end, a trick that inspires just as much shock as it does awe.

“All I do is tricks,” he laughed before climbing into the cockpit.

Gord Price, 76, stands in front of his Yakovlev YAK-50 aircraft before doing a test run for the Manitoba Airshow. (Ben Waldman / Winnipeg Free Press)

Price, whose energy defies his age, was in town for this year’s Manitoba Airshow. He was clad in a black jumpsuit adorned with the Royal Canadian Air Force wings he’d earned in 1962, long before he logged some 25,000 hours in flight as a nuclear strike pilot during the Cold War and a captain for Air Canada.

For Price, who lives in Meaford, Ont., his afternoon test run at the Southport Aerospace was a homecoming of sorts. Fifty-six years earlier, he’d stood in Portage la Prairie with a graduating class of about 30 future RCAF pilots. Most have stopped flying as they push 80, but Price hopes to be flying airshows for at least another decade.

Planes, port-a-potties and parking


The Manitoba Airshow was last held at Southport in 2016, and though those who attended remember the event for its aerobatic derring-do, many were disappointed with the event’s organization.  This year, the organization committee has made significant upgrades.


The Manitoba Airshow was last held at Southport in 2016, and though those who attended remember the event for its aerobatic derring-do, many were disappointed with the event’s organization.

That year, somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 spectators were expected, but when some 18,000 showed up, show organizers were thrown for a loop: the highways to the site were stricken by gridlock and construction, there wasn’t adequate parking or bathroom facilities, and many would-be guests demanded ticket refunds.

“We know that airshows’ success is about planes, port-a-potties and parking,” airshow co-chair Peggy May said Friday.

To avoid similar pitfalls, May, who also serves as the CEO of Southport Aerospace, said the organizing committee has made significant upgrades: the amount of entrances into the site has increased to three; there is space for about 10,000 vehicles to park; and 250 port-a-potties will be available all weekend.

May emphasized the site is accessible for people who use wheelchairs or have physical disabilities, and that there are accessible bathrooms on site.

The new parking and roadway system can accomodate up to 900 cars entering the site per hour, May said, which should hopefully ease any traffic hangups attendees faced two years ago. Airshow organizers devised the strategy with assistance from the Manitoba infrastructure and transportation departments.

In preparation for hot and humid weather, there will also be a misting station, although May encourages guests to wear hats and sunscreen and drink plenty of water.

The show, which is co-chaired by KF Aerospace, will also feature several food vendors, a craft beer garden, and planes on display for people to take pictures with. More than 450 volunteers from local charities and organizations are staffing the event, and the proceeds of ticket sales will go to a variety of military and civilian charities to fulfill Southport’s not-for-profit mandate.

Tickets for the show are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $15 for children, although purchasing tickets at the gate comes with an added $5 fee. Tickets are available online at the Manitoba Airshow’s website.

Gates open at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, while flying performances are scheduled to run between 12:15 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Southport Aerospace is located in Southport, Man., approximately three kilometres south of Portage la Prairie and 70 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

“Flying is my whole life,” he said. For more than 40 years, Price has frequented the North American airshow circuit, and is a seven-time Canadian national and open unlimited aerobatic champion. “When you get to be older, it’s the memories that you like to draw on. I’ve got plenty of them.”

Many people his age have to give up the keys to their sedans as their senses devolve, so Price is aware how fortunate he is to still suit up and perform for crowds across Canada.

Though he is set to be the oldest performer at the air show, Price isn’t the only act worth seeing. The Canadian Forces Snowbirds aerobatic crew, the Skyhawks parachute team, and several solo performers will be looking to dazzle spectators Saturday and Sunday.

Competitive aerobatics, an overarching term for all of the tricks and manoeuvres airshow pilots perform, is a physically demanding endeavour that requires accuracy, focus and preparation both mental and physical. “It’s no different than any competitive sport in that regard,” Price said.

Price routinely sits in silence for an hour before a performance, running through a mental checklist prior to taking off. He also makes sure to eat, which seems counterintuitive given the constant flipping, but which most pilots recommend.

G-force, a type of acceleration that makes one feel force opposite to the direction of acceleration, can leave passengers light-headed and dizzy, Price warned this reporter minutes before climbing in the back of a Super Decathlon aerobatic training plane.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS People attending the Manitoba Air Show wait in long lineups to use the port-a-potties in Southport near Portage Saturday.

Dan Reeves, 63, the chief flight instructor for Winnipeg Aviation, strapped the reporter into the two-seater aircraft before taxiing over to the runway.

Soon, the plane was 2,500 feet in the air, fluttering over the Assiniboine River.

Before beginning his tricks, Reeves gestured omnisciently at the barfbag tucked behind his seat.

The aircraft rolled from left to right, completing a perfect twist. That was the easy part.

Then, Reeves steered the plane skyward, swooping back under to finish a loop. When Reeves looked up, he saw the green grass rather than the sky, but it was nothing to him. “I usually go a lot faster and a lot higher,” he said.

Pilot Dan Reeves at Southport, Man. (Ben Waldman / Winnipeg Free Press)

After circling around for a few minutes, Reeves headed back to the tarmac, where he gently landed the plane. He emerged from the cockpit with perfect balance, while the reporter emerged dripping in sweat and savouring each moment on solid ground.

For the next two hours, the reporter could barely walk two minutes without having to sit down.

“A lot of people have that same reaction,” Reeves said in a calming voice.

“Have you?” the reporter asked.

“Not really,” the seasoned pilot replied.

Pilot Dan Reeves twists and turns in the air above Southport, Man., with a Free Press reporter in the backseat. (Ben Waldman/ Winnipeg Free Press)

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @benjwaldman

Dan Reeves flies upside-down. (Ben Waldman / Winnipeg Free Press)
Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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