Fifteen-year-old Adrian James-Stagg has never driven a car, but he can describe how the yoke, or control wheel, of an Allegro 2000 Advanced Ultralight airplane feels in his hand.
"It’s pretty scary. You don’t have to move it that much when you’re making a turn," he said. "It’s just a little…"
He then mimed a slight turn of the yoke and motioned a flattened hand to show how the airplane would slice to one side. He explained the move patiently and confidently, as though he were an instructor himself. Of course he’s only ever flown once. He’s only been in an airplane once, for that matter.
James-Stagg is one of six students chosen for the second annual two-week program at Eagle’s Wings Flight School in Portage la Prairie. With the help of Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services, the program reached out to Indigenous youth across First Nations in Manitoba. Boys and girls from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and Roseau River, Long Plain, Dakota Tipi and Swan Lake First Nations comprise the would-be pilots.
James-Stagg, from Dakota Tipi First Nation, has been fascinated by airplanes ever since a field trip with his Grade 5 class to Southport Aerospace Centre just south of Portage la Prairie. He couldn’t have known then he’d one day zip down those very runways and soar above them with one hand on the throttle. When program co-founder Ashleigh Cordery discovered his passion in the application interview, she knew he was an ideal candidate.
But Ashleigh and her husband and co-founder Josh Cordery aren’t aiming to churn out pilots. The goal, they say, is to build confidence and practical life skills.
"When my wing gives up and stalls, the nose will fall and we’ll start to feel a sinking sensation. And it’s a pretty convincing sinking sensation," said Josh Cordery, one of three flight instructors, during the daily preflight brief. "Not to worry, because we don’t panic when we have problems. We just apply what we know."
In the course’s later days, they’ll practise pulling out of a stall. It’s a critical skill for pilots, even teenage ones — problems at 900 metres altitude demand cool heads and immediate correction.
Josh Cordery stood in front of a whiteboard marked with the elongated teardrop of a wing in profile and lines representing a plane’s pitch or its angle of attack. He questioned the students, who spread out on couches lining the borrowed drop-in centre’s basement, on flight procedures. The teens answered in quiet, hesitant voices, and their instructor never told them they were wrong, but instead explored what result their answer would receive before explaining proper protocol.
On this day, "preflight brief" was something of a misnomer. A smoky pall had settled over the region, making flight impossible. They held out hope through the morning, but with clouds and smoke forming a "low ceiling," the flight school was grounded.
Instead — after a military-grade meal consisting of two sandwiches (roast beef and turkey), an apple, digestive biscuits and a juice box — a woman from Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services, who did not have clearance from her organization to speak with the Free Press, taught beadwork to three of the teens. The others chose to shoot pool, play on their phones or play Mario Kart on a handheld Nintendo.
The rhinestone band supports the rest of the beading, said the woman, and it must be done with "love and patience."
Perhaps most enthralled was Josh Cordery, who leaned over the table, examining the woman’s deft hands as he demonstrated her beading.
"I could never do that," he said with admiration. "Not in a million years."
Early in the program, two Anishinaabe elders travelled to Portage la Prairie from Roseau River First Nation. They taught the students about Anishinaabe traditions, language and ceremonies. They delved into the stages of life in the Anishinaabe worldview.
For some of the teens, who don’t have elders in their lives, it was an opportunity to learn from knowledge keepers, said Ashleigh Cordery. But as a non-Indigenous woman, she was touched to be granted the opportunity to learn herself, she said.
"We are so thankful they would set aside the time to make the trip to come here and talk to this group," she said.
Ashleigh Cordery’s face brightened and beamed as she spoke about a Dakota elder from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.
From the elder, students and program organizers learned about harvesting traditional medicines. The elder brought pictures of wild plants and herbs that have grown "since the beginning of time" in the plains of Sioux Valley. "This is a wild turnip," she had said, holding up a picture to show how to identify it. She taught them how to cook it in a stew and how to serve it.
All this — flight lessons and other programming — has been a shot of confidence for Kaelynn Maud, who lives in Portage la Prairie but holds status with Swan Lake First Nation.
"I’ve started talking to people more," said the 18-year-old, sporting all black and a Korn T-shirt. "In high school, I didn’t talk much."
But the day after a flight in much lighter smoke, which was nonetheless "kind of scary," Maud seemed to be enjoying her newly learned skills. She was at least enjoying the admiration of her 13-year-old brother, who is a little scared of planes but still a little jealous, she said.
Josh Cordery said he still hears about some students from last year’s program. One kid, in particular, he said, came in looking miserable. He pulled his hood over his head and by day three of ground school (theoretical classwork before flying), it seemed like he was going to quit. Josh Cordery said they had a long chat, and the kid decided to stay. Turns out, it was a good decision.
"This guy had crazy talent flying — way more than I ever had," said the instructor and air force member. "And by the end he was talking, laughing; his hood never went back up over his hat. And I have since heard from people who do different events with him, you can tell. You can tell that he’s brimming with confidence."
In an empty hangar bay sat the Allegro 2000 Advanced Ultralight, a tiny thing, almost more a propeller-engine hang glider than an airplane. The engine and propellers kick-started the plane and powered it to the runway, but it was up to the students themselves to fly.
Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for The Times. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies.