CASARA invites columnist and guest along for a flight over P.E.I.
Sunday was the perfect day to fly, despite being -10 C.
“There are a lot of fair-weather flyers on P.E.I.,” said Doug MacDonald, the provincial director of CASARA P.E.I. and our pilot for the day, “so we’ll probably have the Island to ourselves.”
CASARA, or the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, is a group of volunteers that offers air search assistance to organizations, such as the Royal Canadian Air Force and the RCMP. The organization is funded through the Department of National Defence, and there are units in every province, including on the Island.
The group on P.E.I. is small and includes pilots, navigators and spotters who go on regular training operations to prepare for the worst-case scenario: a missing person. My friend and I were invited along on one of these training missions and to learn more about the association.
Now, I wouldn’t say I have an obsession with the story of Peter Pan, but my pets are called Nanna and Peter and I frequently have dreams about flying. It didn’t take much to convince me to take on this assignment.
When we arrived at the hangar, MacDonald was preparing our aircraft for the day: a 1968 Piper Cherokee 180. Among the crew would be Corey Tremere, who is the CASARA co-director on P.E.I. and our navigator for the flight.
Once the plane was ready, we pushed it out of the hangar, the tires leaving marks in the fresh snow. Then we piled into plane, my friend and I sitting in the red, leatherback seats. We put on headphones to hear what everyone was saying, as well air traffic control. Tremere and MacDonald went through a checklist to ensure everything was working properly.
Then, it was time for takeoff. We rolled down runway to gain enough space. The cold weather may have made for a chilly ride, but the denser air was easier for takeoff. Within a few moments, we were in the air. There is a beautiful hanging moment when you feel the wind shift under your wings and you take flight. It wasn’t until we reached 1,000 feet that the plane settled out, the window defrosted and we were able to see down below.
“It’s awfully quiet back there,” MacDonald said from the front seat. “You two have me worried.”
I think my friend and I were paying too much attention to what we were seeing from above. The Charlottetown Harbour was a white spill that met with the edges of Victoria Park. Before long, we were out over Brookvale Provincial Ski Park and watching tiny skiers carve their way down the hill.
Spotters have one of the most important jobs with CASARA because they are the eyes looking for the missing individual or clues. It could be trying to spot a vehicle or kayak in an odd place or rescue signals such as flares, fires and signal mirrors.
Next, we flew over the Confederation Bridge, which is now a restricted fly zone within a certain distance, and then to the North Shore. Cape Tryon is one of my favourite locations, and we saw the red cliffs jutting into the sea from overhead. Finally, I waved down to my parents’ house in Stanhope and the woods where I used to explore.
MacDonald signed up for flight school in 1991 and has stuck with it ever since. He said CASARA gives him more opportunities to see beautiful sights, such as we saw during our flight, but it’s also filling an important role with the community.
“Most people don’t know what we do here with CASARA,” said MacDonald. “But we keep up on our training, in case we’re ever needed.”
Finally, we were back in Charlottetown, landing safely on the snow-covered runway. The wind nipped at our feet as we stepped out of the plane, onto the wing and back on the ground. Into the wind I sung Peter Pan under my breath.
You can fly, Julia!
At a glance
What: CASARA or the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association
Where: In all 13 provinces
More information: Casara.ca
Julia Cook is a writer and content creator based in Charlottetown, P.E.I.. You can follow more of her outdoors adventures on instagram.com/theislandjae and on her website at theislandjae.weebly.com. Email her at Julia.Cook@theguardian.pe.ca.