Montebello Captures the Magic of Winter Flying

The annual ski fly-in draws pilots from all over Canada.

Montebello 2020
The lineup at Montebello 2020 takes advantage of a break in the weather.Jean-Pierre Bonin

No one embraces the winter quite like those of us from northern climes—and those who live topside of the US-Canada border perhaps most of all. Rather than cursing the snow and short days, certain pilots revel instead in the transformation that snow makes, turning a lake or river into a runway, and eliciting engine performance and visibilities one only dreams of in the summer time. Many of those pilots flock each year to the Montebello Fly-In, in the village of Montebello, Quebec, where skis aren’t optional—and neither is a warm hat.

The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA)-sponsored event this year was held on January 24 to 26, and reports back show another successful gathering, with a short window of weather and temps cold enough for a good landing surface on the frozen Ottawa River—but not so bitter as to require extra pre-heating.

Originally, the event began as the Challenger Fly-In, celebrating the ultralight aircraft of that name. “Three years ago, the organizer (a COPA member) was getting a little tired of carrying the whole thing, reached out to me to see if COPA wanted to take over the concept,” said Bernard Gervais, president and CEO of COPA. “I gladly accepted and we first started accompanying them in 2018, taking over completely in 2019 and this year, 2020.” Last year’s event attracted 23 aircraft and 130 COPA members and participants. Rain preceding a snowfall created a landing surface that was only suitable for ski-equipped aircraft, which can handle snow that’s less-than-smooth.

Montebello 2020
Landing at Montebello 2020 and the local ground transportation.Hélène Lavigne

“It is a natural thing for us to promote and celebrate winter flying, as it is one of the best times to practice our passion,” said Gervais. “With the millions of lakes and rivers in Canada, it would be sad not to exploit this period of the year, able to land almost anywhere in the country, on skis (and floats in summer).”

This year, the participants had a really tight window in which to fly in to Montebello: A snow-laden system was predicted to arrive at 1 pm on Saturday, and kept its promise. “A good number of planes came in to high five but had to turn and burn in order to get back out,” said YouTube pilot and documentarian Steve Thorne, of Flight Chops, who attended this year. According to Gervais, “We had 22 aircraft show up, in that window after breakfast and incoming freezing rain at lunch time, which was followed by a storm of massive snowflakes with zero visibility for the rest of the day. Weather had been calling for worse weather, which probably stopped a few from coming in. About 50 people drove in, just to be at the venue in a relaxing, cozy atmosphere.”

A cadre of aviation experts shared their experiences with the group, with a series of talks during the day on Saturday, and a fireside social later in the evening. One presentation, given in English and again in French, was on transitioning between different types of aircraft, while another one covered aviation medicine. And one featured Thorne, who started with a Q&A to the group, asking the pilots “What does ‘being current’ mean?” Is it 1 or 2 hours a month? From that point, Thorne transitioned into asking what was the debrief, if any, for those flights last flown? There’s value for that debrief in general aviation—Thorne said that’s what Flight Chops is all about: showing the learning moment within any given flight.

Montebello 2020
A serene view of the river before the snow began.Jill Stewart

Those pilots who chose to stick around could seek accommodation at the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello hotel, which is considered the largest log cabin in the world. “The lobby always smells like a wood-burning fireplace,” said Thorne, echoing the theme.

Thorne did squeeze in a flight in one special airplane, which he plans to feature in an upcoming segment of “Flight Chops.” Owner Patrick Gilligan put skis on his Van’s Aircraft RV-8 because of how much flying he does in winter—he thought it would be safer that way, according to Thorne, making them himself in order to handle the winter flying. One operational change he made: He put mirrors on the leading edges of the wings to inspect both skis after takeoff, in order to check the wires that hold the skis in alignment. Part of the preflight oral briefing consisted of how to land if one ski was out of position. The landing? According to Thorne, “the skis made it feel a lot like a floatplane on the powdery snow. Rollout was longer because of the lack of braking, of course.”

Up next for COPA? “The Montebello Fly-in is always the last week-end of January, so that falls on January 29 to 31 in 2021,” said Gervais. The general location is the same as the coordinates for the CSB6 Water Aérodrome at Montebello. “There are other fly-ins during the course of the year; our next big one is in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (airport code: CYJN) on June 25 to 27. It is also our annual convention and trade show. Everyone is welcome.”