Getting Paid to fly
It was the spring of 2002, the economy was volatile after the September 11th attacks. A number of airlines such as Canada 3000 had gone under, all pilot hiring seamed to have stopped. Out of work pilots with thousands of hours flooded the job market. This was the situation I found myself as a new pilot seeking the all important first flying job.
As I finished my pilots licences I worked the ramp at Pacific Coastal Airlines a small regional airline that operated the iconic Shorts 360 up and down the west coast of Canada. Chucking bags and towing airplanes was a fun job while getting your licences, however I wanted to fly, not load the planes.
The previous spring I had obtained my Commercial Pilot Licence and set off on a road trip seeking work. Every door I knocked on seamed to have their crews set. A flying job didn’t seam to be in the cards for me that year so my plan became
“Next year, ill be the first guy through the door”. So with that as a goal I used the summer to build more flying time. I wanted to fly up north and trace the same routes as Canada’s bush pilot pioneers. Just like any good pilot I had a backup plan, I would get my Instructor Rating in case things didn’t go as planned. My flight test was scheduled for September 14, my plan was to instruct and get some more time before heading north in the spring.
The morning of September 11th I was woken up by my father around 6:30am, Dad heard news of the attacks on the radio. I was annoyed he bothered to wake me up as I had just finished a 4 day stretch of 12 hour shifts the day prior, after work some of us went out for beers and I wasn’t in the best shape. Shaking the cobwebs out and trying to comprehend what I was watching I had no idea how this would effect my coming career.
A I had a final mock exam scheduled that afternoon in preparation for my test with Transport Canada on the 14th. The next day I received notice that it would be postponed as the airspace would remain closed. Boundary Bay Airport had a telephone line you could check the ATIS, so out of curiosity I called and on it I heard ” SCATANA rules where in effect”. I had read this rule before but always thought of it as useless knowledge for Trivial Pursuit , after all closing the airspace was meant for when the Soviets attacked.
It wasn’t until October that I was able to reschedule my test, uncertainty had already set into the job market. Those laid off from the seasonal flying jobs made the odds that fall much more grim. My job was steady 4 days on 4 off for the winter at Pacific Coastal. In January I started mailing resumes and as February closed out, I walked into my bosses office and handed in my resignation. I thought of the line from The Hunt for Red October, where the captain explains when Cortez reached the new world he ordered his ships burned to motivate his men. Time to get motivated and get a flying job.
Loading up my worldly possessions I set out on my quest. This road trip took me as far east as Sioux Lookout Ontario, hitting all the “hotspots” on the way like Thompson MB, Fort McMurray and even up to Yellowknife. By the time I left Fort Simpson heading south to Fort Nelson the road was beginning to take its toll on me. In the fading afternoon light I drifted a little far to the edge of snow covered road. My steering wheel began pulling hard right as I jammed on the brakes, snow flew over the window and then nothing, silence no crunch or impact. I put it in reverse to hear the wheels spin. Fuck, i’m stuck in the middle of nowhere and I haven’t seen another soul in hours.
I began digging my way out, dig dig dig, try to back out and repeat. A momentary lack of attention caused this in the worst possible spot miles from nowhere, perhaps a fitting lesson for my career to come. As my back ached and cursing drew quieter a truck came by and stopped to help. It could have been ten minutes if it was not an hour. His truck yanked the mighty Chev S10 Blazer out and I was back in action, no damage as I glanced over the truck. I thought I was lucky that nothing other than my pride was hurt that day.
My older brother had wrapped up his commercial licence about the same time I was finishing my Instructor Rating. That February his plan was to head straight north all the way to Inuvik seeking his first flying job. He set off just before I did and as luck would have it he hit the jackpot. He landed a job flying a Cessna 207 for Arctic Wings.
When I set out, I couldn’t help being jealous but I figured if he could find something, ill have no trouble this year. I never thought I would still be driving without a job at this point. I had heard “No” so many times my prospects looked bleak.
Pulling into Fort Nelson I began to lose hope of even a job on the ramp. Nothing had panned out, I spoken with countless Chief Pilots and Owners of big and small operations, it was the same stories, either they weren’t hiring anyone new that year or had even laid off their junior pilots.
For most of the trip I had been sleeping in the back of the Blazer at airports to save money, its surprising how quiet they are. Ample parking with plug ins as a luxory. Most “Terminals” you could access with gate codes of 1215 or the ATF frequency, I kept an old CFS for reference. Proper bathrooms and and a sink to brush your teeth then hit the sack in the back of the Blazer.
Pulling into Fort Nelson after my crash into the snow I went to plug the Blazer into an outlet of the airport parking lot to keep the engine warm. The forecast said it was going down to -20c overnight. Looking down at my bumper it revealed there was some damage, my block heater plug had been torn off in the crash. Aw Fuck what next I thought.
Setting my watch to wake me every few hours I crawled into the back to sleep. Staring at the ceiling I got my phone out and called my brother seeking advice. I asked him if it was worth my time and money to head up to the Yukon, the answer was no. There I lay in the back of my Blazer contemplating if becoming a pilot was worth it at all.
A few days later I pulled into my parents driveway in the burbs of Vancouver after 4 weeks on the road. I chucked my clothes in their washing machine and caught a whiff of the stench emanating from my bag. “No wonder I didn’t get a job, I must have stunk something awful.” I thought.
I called everyone I had spoken with on my road trip to see if anything had changed, nothing was moving. It was now April and I resigned myself to another summer of not flying. I had just returned from handing out resumes at YVR and speaking with my old boss. He was non committal as they hired a crew for the summer while I was on my road trip.
“Fucking Sean Connery” I thought, “stupid movie dam I’m dumb and why was a Scotsman captain of a Soviet Submarine anyway?”
Beer in hand I sat down to watch the Vancouver Canucks lose again, then the phone rang. “Dude! get your ass up here a guy just quit” it was my brother calling from Inuvik. “I spoke with the Chief said if you can get up there ASAP you could work the ramp and drive the van”
Everything went back in the Blazer and I set off the very next morning. I drove 13 hours to Chetwynn BC the first day some 1000km. The next day I made it to Whitehorse Yukon another 1500 KM and then it was onward to Inuvik an additional 1200 KM.
I did the drive in 3 days, pulling into Inuvik somewhere around midnight I didn’t know where to go in my haste to get up there I hadn’t written down the address of the crash pad my brother told me about. I drove out to the airport to find it deserted, I parked right by the Arctic Wings hangar and went to bed.
The next morning I was woken up to someone kicking my truck, Garry greeted me with a “fuck you look like shit man” opening the door I was swarmed by mosquitoes the size of small birds.
The Chief Pilot tossed the Cessna 207 Pilot Operating Handbook at me and said “read this, we will go flying in a few days”. With “training” completed and minimal time on the Cessna 207 I was eager to begin my career. My first flight was to take one passenger and a ton of gear up the Mackenzie Delta to the village of Tuktoyuktuk.
Since this was my first paid flight as a real pilot, the boss decided to send a guy named Chris along to make sure I didn’t screw up. Chris was a big guy who was only about a month older than I was, but he had a real pilot voice on the radio and at least a season or two of experience more than I did.
We jammed all the heaviest stuff in the nose compartment between the firewall and the cockpit and piled the rest in the back. As we took off heading for Tuktoyuktuk, the weather was overcast with a layer at about 800 feet and the visibility variable 1-3 miles. We flew over the Mackenzie Delta, I stayed just beneath the overcast cloud layer. Chris asked me “Why are you so high?” I explained my rationale that if my engine quit, I would have more time to find a landing spot. He looked at me and then out then window, and said “it doesn’t matter how much time you have when there’s only muskeg and mosquitoes down there”. He then told me drop down to 500 feet. I did as he instructed and immediately understood exactly why. My visibility was much greater, I could now see a lot further forward, giving me the ability to plot my route around the lower scud much easier.
The flight was uneventful – we unloaded the passenger and sent him on his way. As we began walking back to the plane we heard a voice yell “Hey wait!” Turning around we saw a man who had heard us fly in and asked us for a lift back to Inuvik.
I was just about to say, “Let me call dispatch to find out how much the charge was” when Chris blurted out “Sure we will take you, 200 bucks!” The guy whipped out two brown bills and said “Great! Let me grab my bag”.
I was thinking that 200 dollars didn’t sound right for a charter flight, but I had to focus and get this thing heading in the right direction. Chris shut off the GPS and made me map-read the whole way home. About half way home now comfortable with my ability to navigate I said to Chris, “Don’t you think 200 bucks is a little off the charter rate? Won’t Carl be mad?”
Chris looked at me like a second head had grown out of my neck and said chuckling. “Jesus, you are new, ain’t ya?
Lesson one: get paid when you can!” He looked over his shoulder to see that the passenger sleeping and then he then slipped me one crisp brown bill.
Getting paid to fly felt great.