Sask. farmers take flight of a lifetime as fundraiser

While some vacationers head to sandy beaches this winter, three Saskatchewan farmers are taking to the skies to raise money for charity.

Harold Fast of Spiritwood, Colin Rosengren of Midale and Woodrow Stewart of Rockglen are participating in the fundraising project Give Hope Wings, which kicks off Jan. 2.

That’s when two high performance experimental aircraft will depart Kelowna, B.C., on a trip around North and South America to raise money for Hope Air.

They will fly south through the United States, Mexico, Central America and South America before travelling north along the east coast of Argentina and Brazil, and over the Caribbean to Florida and back home to Canada.

“Only the two planes will be flying in formation and in sight of each other for 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometres), 57 takeoffs and landings, through 20 countries, over a period of 60 days,” said Bob Vance, one of the participants.

The planes are Vans RV homebuilt aircraft, which the Portland, Oregon, based company builds and sells in kits with final assembly being done by the owner.

“They can only fly two to four hours maximum. That’s why there’s so many takeoffs and landings,” said Vance.

The planes’ owners, Dave McElroy of Kelowna and Russ Airey of Windsor, Ont., who are both accomplished formation flyers, will pilot them.

Now in its 30th year, Hope Air is a national charity that arranges free non-emergency medical flights for low-income Canadians who must travel far from home to access health care.

The fundraiser hopes to raise at least $500,000 for the charity.

Organizers have divided the 32,000 km into eight segments, ranging from seven to 12 days of flight time.

With about 20 years of logging flights in his own plane, Fast will co-pilot Airey’s plane.

“When I heard about Russ and Dave wanting to fly around Central America, it sounded like a good challenge,” said Fast, who owns Fast Genetics.

“I’m quite looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great way to spend January-February as an alternative to Spiritwood,” he said.

Fast said rural Saskatchewan has stepped up and dug deep on several levels for the charitable effort.

“I’m pleased that we’ve got good ag representation partly on this trip with three participants, but also a lot of support from the ag community, which has stepped up really well and contributed a lot to that $500,000,” he said.

“I think that’s good because agriculture is sometimes on the back burner.”

Rosengren will be a newly licensed pilot by the time he joins the journey from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

For him, the trip is an opportunity to get some international flight time with seasoned pilots and learn about the possibilities for doing an excursion of his own some day.

“To have that time with those guys is a wealth of experience, especially as a new pilot,” he said.

“It’ll be a great experience — to enlighten us and open the door and let us know the possibilities of what we can actually do with a small plane and a pilot’s license.”

Rosengren, who is part owner of the Three Farmers food processing business and involved with CleanSeed, will be keeping a eye out for agricultural production while flying over Brazil and may even harvest some ideas to use back home.

“It will be interesting to see what it looks like,” he said.

“They’re producing a lot of crops now that 20 years ago they weren’t even on the radar in agricultural production. It’d be kind of neat to see that from the air and get that perspective of their production, of their infrastructure and see where things are at.”

Fast said they may see pedigreed seed being grown for Canada while flying over countries such as Chile. Canadian seed is often multiplied in the southern hemisphere over the winter, enabling seed companies to gain an extra season of production.

“It’s pretty standard, but it’s not something you think about when you’re sitting in small town Sask-atchewan in January that somebody’s out there making my hybrid canola,” he said.

The fundraiser is expected to garner a lot of media attention.

“Every 15 minutes you can go on Facebook or the website and you can find out where our planes are at any time,” Vance said.

“It’s going to be traceable.”

However, the journey is expected to include its share of curve balls, and participants may have to “wing it” at times.

“Because we’re stopping 57 times, we’ve got to go through customs in mainly Spanish speaking countries, and we’re going to have a lot of holdups and waits and problems with guys that are walking down the airstrip with submachine guns,” Vance said.

“It’s going to be an exciting time.”

For information about available seats during the flight, see givehopewings.ca/volunteer-flight-crew.

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