“I’d rather be a bird in the air than an ant on the ground” says lifelong aviation enthusiast, John Howroyd as we soar at a little less than 1,500 feet over the Cowichan Valley in his 1964 Cessna 172E, also known as “the Chevy of the air”.
There have been over 55,000 of these aircraft built and they are still in production today with state of the art upgrades that make them a go-to training craft for air force and airline pilots around the world.
The landscape and coastline are beautifully lit by the early evening sun and the four-seater aircraft, which hums quietly enough for mid-flight conversation without headsets, affords us a unique and awe-inspiring outlook on the local geography. To my great surprise and following some succinct instruction, John hands me the wheel. “The aircraft is yours” he says, officially. Suddenly, I’m flying the plane and in that exhilarating moment I understand John’s love of aviation.
Howroyd has been flying for as long as he can remember – and even before then. Raised on a daffodil farm in Saanich, both Howroyd’s mother and father flew light aircraft, so it’s no surprise that their son’s first solo flight was at the age of 16. In later years, as developments on their co-owned farm land encroached on the family’s flying field, he began to look for a new location for his hobby.
In 1999 his search landed him at a picturesque lakeside section out on Stamps Road in Cowichan. “With the long, narrow strip of land and easy slope toward the Quamichan, it really couldn’t be more idyllic for take-off and landing” says John with a gleam in his eye.
Of course, Howroyd was required to go through a rigorous agricultural land use approval process which, at that time, was administered at a federal level. Approval was eventually granted for recreational (non commercial) flight use and after countless hours spent “plowing, discing, harrowing and picking rocks” John had found a new place to spread his wings.
On first approach, you wouldn’t guess that Raven Field – named in homage of the First Nations territory upon which it is seated – is home to a private runway. Indeed, it looks more like a hay field than an airfield. If not for the “Caution: Aircraft Landing” signage at the gate and a meticulously groomed grassy strip that runs the length of the property, you would think it’s just one of several picturesque acreages on the rural road. But all is revealed upon entering the hangar Howroyd built to house his many planes, the majority of which he built or refurbished and painted bright yellow – daffodil yellow.
Just how many planes Howroyd has in his collection, I’m not able to report. John, whose working life was spent teaching at Willows School in Victoria, would rather share stories of how aviation enabled him to connect with and impact countless young people than he would boast about how many planes he owns. Indeed, he’s the antithesis of the elitist, eccentric millionaire one might assume would be inclined to collect aircraft. For John, the joy lies in sharing his passion and knowledge.
“It was important that my students didn’t just see me as an authoritarian, but as a regular person with interests and passions” recalls Howyard. “If a teacher could tinker around building and flying planes, then the sky was the limit for these kids” To this day, Howroyd runs into students from his teaching days (now grown with careers and families of their own) who can still recite by memory the poem High Flight, by WWII fighter pilot and poet, John Gillespie Magee Jr. – an assignment that they gladly completed in their youth for a chance to go flying with their favourite teacher.
Although he’s now retired, his penchant for teaching has not diminished and he enthralls me with detailed accounts of the make, model, building specifications and historical significance of each of his aircraft. While the many of the mechanical intricacies are lost on me, I feel an equal sense of excitement and reverence in the presence of so much history and innovation.
As our conversation comes to a reluctant end, nearly four hours after it began, I’m left with the words of John’s favourite poem…
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.”
Alec Wheeler was raised in Sointula and travelled extensively overseas before returning to the Island and settling in North Cowichan. She has an extensive background in arts and culture and is passionate about sharing community stories.