Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/6/2015 (1988 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
STEINBACH — Harv’s Air is a family-run flight service based out of two locations: St. Andrews Airport and the company’s main headquarters, a privately owned hangar and airstrip four kilometres south of Steinbach.
The 43-year-old outfit functions primarily as a flight school. But during the summer months, adrenaline junkies from across North America travel to Manitoba to experience what the Harv’s Air website bills as "the flight of your life" — a thrill-a-second excursion during which trained pilots take customers up one at a time and perform a series of loops, rolls and figure eights in a specially designed plane hurtling through the sky at 300 kilometres per hour. (If you lose your lunch when the navigator flips the craft upside down, you can add that to the $250 price tag.)
"It’s a side thing we do that tends to get us a lot of attention, mostly because we’re the only place in Canada that offers that type of ride in that particular type of plane," says Adam Penner, eldest son of Harv’s Air founder Harv Penner.
Penner chuckles when a scribe brings up the D-word.
"I guess it sounds a bit dangerous, but what it really comes to is what you’re comfortable with. Take driving a car, for example. You’re comfortable with it, you’ve done it for years, but really, it’s an insane act. There you are, heading down a skinny highway while three feet over is a guy going 120 kilometres an hour in the opposite direction. He might be drunk, he might be texting... who knows? Yet you do it every day in rain, snow or fog and don’t think twice.
"But when you fly, you’re in full control of the situation. And let’s face it — the sky is big. Nobody’s ever going to run you off the side of the sky."
Penner’s father grew up on a farm a stone’s throw away from what is now commonly referred to as Steinbach South airport. In the late 1960s, Harv Penner worked as a flight instructor with the Winnipeg Flying Club. He eventually took a similar position in Fort Frances, Ont. before returning to the Steinbach area in 1972.
"People around here started asking dad if he could train them to fly, then if he could train their kids," says Penner, who could pilot a plane before he could drive a car. "The business started slowly, literally out of the trunk of his car, and developed from there."
After graduating from high school, Penner worked as a corporate pilot, transporting private clients back and forth across the country. He joined the family biz in 1997, around the same time "a little thing called the Internet" came along. Soon, Harv’s Air began fielding inquiries from all four corners of the globe.
Pilot Luke Penner flies the Pitts S2B aerobatic biplane inverted above Steinbach. MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Pilot Luke Penner flies the Pitts S2B aerobatic biplane above Steinbach. LUKE PENNER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
The Pitts S2B aerobatic biplane taxis at sunset on the Harv's Air Pilot Training Steinbach airstrip. MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Altitude, speed and G-force acceleration metres aboard the Pitts S2B aerobatic biplane. MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
"Our online presence is really what made us grow," Penner says, noting because of its "pool-table flat" terrain, Manitoba has been a favoured spot for flight training since the Second World War. "Now about half of our students are from overseas, from as far away as China, India, Indonesia and Taiwan. They spend nine months with us, on average, and we have accommodations right on the property so they don’t have to worry about finding an apartment or anything; they can just concentrate on flying."
Harv’s Air’s most famous alumnus is Pete McLeod, a professional aerobatic pilot who competes in the Red Bull Air Race series — a circuit that requires pilots to negotiate a set of towering, inflated cones that are set up slalom-style on land or water in exotic locales such as Abu Dhabi and Perth, Australia. McLeod, the first Canadian to compete in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, was still in high school when he made his way to Steinbach from Red Lake, Ont. to get his pilot’s licence.
"My family is in the hunting and fishing tourist business and I grew up flying," McLeod says over the phone from London, Ont., where he is preparing for a race in Budapest, Hungary, on July 4. "Because I had a lot of experience in the air already, I got into the aerobatics thing during my time at Harv’s. When I found out you could turn a plane upside down and do all sorts of wild stuff, well, that was pretty interesting to a 16-year-old.
"It might sound funny but I don’t classify myself as an adrenaline junkie," he goes on. "I just love being in the air and testing myself and my plane. I looked at a few options when I was getting my pilot’s licence, but because Harv’s offered not just your standard curriculum but also tail-wheel flying and aerobatics — and because it was a family-run business — that appealed to me and my family."
Harv’s Air began offering aerobatic flights about 15 years ago, not long after Penner’s dad picked up a Pitts S-2B — a craft Penner describes as "kind of your Formula 1 aerobatics airplane" — from a manufacturer in Wyoming. Not unlike kids asking their dad for the keys to the new car, Penner and his brothers Luke and Greg, both of whom are also involved in the business, argued over who would get to take ’er for a spin first.
"To us, it’s no longer hair-on-fire exciting, but to passengers, it is absolutely thrilling to see the horizon flip upside down," Penner says. "We start off mild and slowly raise the dial to what they’re comfortable with. We want them to get a thrill, for sure, but, more importantly, we want them to have fun."
If your idea of excitement is less daredevil-ish, Harv’s Air also runs sightseeing tours for about $200 an hour. Most of the planes in the Penners’ fleet have the ability to climb to about 3,000 metres. But when pilots are flying folks around to give them a bird’s-eye view of their everyday surroundings, they tend to level off at about one-third of that height, Penner explains, so people can snap pictures of their houses and backyards.
Penner’s father is still active in the business, but there is at least one air apparent waiting in the wings.
"I have a 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, and my son is already hooked on flying," Penner says, smiling. "Since I’m an instructor, he can fly a plane, so he already knows how to handle it and take care of it. There’s a good chance this will be a third-generation company one day."
View from the inside and upside down
At Harv’s Air, Free Press photographer Melissa Tait took to the skies, camera in hand, while a thrill-averse reporter kept his two feet on the ground:
I’m lucky enough to have a job that lets me climb into an aerobatic biplane for loops, rolls and hammerheads. So I figured I had better push it right to the limit. You know, for journalism.
I did, and I don’t regret it. But if we’d spent just one more minute in the air in that tiny plane above St. Andrews, I might have regretted everything.
Flying in the Pitts S-2B is both smoother and more jarring than I imagined.Turns and rolls by pilot Luke Penner were so precise that I was upside down before I realized what was happening, and right back up again with a shudder of G-force fighting my camera in the opposite direction.
I was strapped tightly to the seat (and parachute) in the front of the cockpit with hardly any room to move, a control stick between my legs that I nervously tried to avoid hitting with my knees.
The wind and propeller engine seemed loud until the plane swooped into a graceful barrel roll (a loop combined with a roll).
Everything seemed silent for a few seconds as we reached the apex of the roll — or maybe I was imagining all that because we were upside down.
Penner, a pilot and instructor at Harv’s Air Pilot Training based in Steinbach, reassured me over the radio in my headphones, warning me of the coming G-force before each manouevre and checking that everything was fine after each one.
The hammerhead was probably the most intense: Penner flew straight up vertically until the plane seemed about to lose upward momentum, then cartwheeled sideways to continue into a straight dive before pulling level.
At one point we flew upside down for an extended time. I have no idea how long, but it was enough for a major head rush, and the need for a break for my poor stomach.
I guess it’s as close as I can come to that cliché about "flying just like a bird."
But I don’t see any seagulls pulling hammerheads.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.