It starts as a small sputter, like the gentle comforting rumble of distant thunder and the 75-year-old propeller starts to move. Then, there is silence. I’m strapped into my seat, cozy with a helmet and goggles on.
It’s an early Sunday morning, about 9:00 a.m., and though the crisp fall breeze stings my cheeks, the sun is shining, making the cement tarmac sparkle. He turns the ignition again and the aged engine springs to life, roaring like an angry lion that has just been awoken from a deep slumber.
We make our way out onto the deserted, dewy runway with the vintage biplane shifting and bouncing like an unruly racehorse being led to the starting gate. At the top of the runway, the wind gets stronger and he lets the harnessed beast go. It swerves and cuts its way into the clear blue sky. Suddenly, I’m flying high above Canada’s beautiful capital!
The wind whispers and circles around me as I take in amazing views of the city and of the majestic, rolling Ottawa River from 1,500-feet. Bundled in my scarf, I admire the beauty of the fall season’s changing leaves, which even from more than a thousand feet are a riot of exuberant reds, yellows and oranges.
As my hair flies around wildly and the engine keeps up its constant complaining roar, I imagine what it would have been like to be a flying ace during the Second World War, diving and swerving my way over enemy lines as machine gun fire rages on below. As I look to my right, I see the Canadian Museum of History with its famous domed roofs and beautifully architectured stone wall curves. An eerie mist also rises from the Ottawa River, where the cauldron-like Chaudière Falls rush past downtown Ottawa. Then, the historic Parliament Buildings emerge, being easily recognised from above thanks to the vast green lawn space that lies before them. The Peace Tower flag waves violently in the wind. But from here, the towering 92.2-metre (302-foot) structure looks dainty and toy-like. Below me an entire city is waking up on a lazy Sunday morning, completely oblivious that I am watching its every move.
After snapping a few pictures of Parliament Hill, the biplane dips and turns to return to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
The wind seems to get stronger as we head back down towards the runway, making my face burn from the cold. The cement tarmac still shines like diamonds as it rises up to welcome us back.
Then ever so slowly, the tamed beast touches down. It rolls along gently before dropping its heavy tail and coming to a full stop in front of the museum’s gigantic hangar-like door. The roaring lion is now silent, falling back into its restful sleep.
If you’re looking for a truly unique Ottawa experience you won’t forget, then a ride in a vintage 1939 WACO UPF-7 open cockpit biplane is for you!
Flying out of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, located just east of Ottawa’s downtown core, Alberta-based Ottawa Biplane Adventures offers five different tours in this open cockpit aircraft. Ranging from $65 CDN to $160 CDN per flight, visitors can go on a “First Flight” experience or can take an aerial tour of iconic Ottawa sites such as Parliament Hill or Gatineau Park.
Greg Reynolds, who has piloted the biplane for Ottawa Biplane Adventures for about seven years in Ottawa, says the most popular experience among visitors is the Parliament Hill Tour. “It’s a really unique perspective of downtown Ottawa and Parliament Hill,” Reynolds said. “It’s nice to do that ride for the visitors from out of town because of all the rivers that converge and all the green space. It’s a beautiful ride.”
The black and orange WACO UPF-7 came into Ottawa Biplane Adventures’ possession just over 10 years ago. But long before that, it was used as a trainer plane by the United States Military during the Second World War. Only 625 of these biplanes were made!
Reynolds says that today, the plane’s most unique aspect and the biggest draw for visitors is that the WACO is an “open cockpit” biplane. “It’s like being in a convertible car, but you’re up in the air. It’s a very surreal, unique experience,” Reynolds said, adding the WACO flight is only available in Ottawa and out west, in Wetaskiwin, Alberta.
Biplane rides are available from early May to mid-October and according to Reynolds, the best time to fly is early in the morning as the air is stable and smooth. “There are no bumps,” he said.
On average, Reynolds noted that he’ll go up for about 25 to 30 biplane flights per day. On particularly busy days, he said a second WACO UPF-7, which is also parked at the museum, will be brought out. “We have another pilot here,” he said. “He flies for us when we need him.”
Reynolds himself is a veteran pilot, who’s been flying commercially for more than 30 years. He enjoys flying in general, but says that flying the biplane around the city on Canada Day (July 1) is a particularly unique experience.
“It’s just the vibe,” he said. “Everybody’s having a good time. It’s really busy. We have both planes going all day and it’s a lot of fun.”
Ottawa is the place to be on Canada Day as it is where the country’s biggest birthday celebration takes place. Each July, downtown Ottawa becomes home to hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors who partake in free music performances as well as various Canada-themed activities. Then the night comes to a close with a big fireworks show. The biplane is a great way to see the city and to observe the vast seas of revelers!
Though Reynolds loves to fly the priceless vintage biplane, he says the best part of the job is to see his passengers’ reactions.
He noted that some people are apprehensive about getting in the biplane at first, but then they are so happy they went for the flight.
“I had a husband and wife show up one day and the wife was actually so mad at her husband [for booking the flight],” Reynolds said. “We finally got her calmed down enough to go in the airplane and when she came back, she was so happy with her husband. It was a complete reversal of what she felt like before she went.”
If you decide to embark on a biplane ride like I did, you won’t regret it. There is something strangely freeing about soaring high above the city with the wind blowing through your hair.
And the best part is that if you’re unsure about going on this adventure, you won’t have to go on your own. The biplane seats two passengers along with a very experienced pilot!