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The Long Drive North

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The Long Drive North

Back when I began my aviation career doing roads trips looking for work was pretty normal amongst new pilots. Two years previous I had spent many days and weeks traversing the country seeking my first flying job, I eventually landed one up in Inuvik. Not long after arriving that airline was shut down by Transport Canada and I found myself moving south for a seasonal job flying out of Pemberton BC. The flying consisted mostly of scenic flights and charters all over the south coast, it didn’t pay well but put hours in the log book. After the summer season ended I returned home to the parents basement and took a job at a golf course. I think I made more money handing out range tokens over the winter than I had flying tourists during the summer.

This particular year it seemed I was back to square one in my career.  My boss had strung me along all winter telling me that the job was mine again come spring. Flying jobs were scarce, It was only a few years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and thousands of pilots where out of work. I looked for better jobs all winter.  I had just surpassed the 1000 hours mark and hoped I could find something more satisfying or better yet one that at least afforded me brand name mac n cheese. When nothing turned up I thought oh well at least I have a job flying. I called my boss up and asked when he wanted me up there to kick off the season. He told me that he wanted a whole new crew of pilots for the upcoming year and that I was not welcome back. I was caught completely off guard and was mad about it.

I didn’t get it I flew my bag off for him, attended time share presentations and sold countless flights. That fall there was a massive flood that hit the Pemberton and Squamish valleys.  I had even canoed out to the terminal and moved all the records and computers to higher ground, interviews on the news while he was on holiday.

Coastal Mountain Airs Cessna 172 C-FAVA and C207 C-GZXT during the Pemberton Flood of 2003

All this for only $50 a day pay,  I only recall one incident where he accused me of Scudrunning, when in fact I had just taken a different route than the valley he was driving in.  I came to realize as I progressed through my career that losing jobs and being laid off is the norm. When you’re starting out in this industry you need to fight to survive and take nothing for granted. It sounds cliché and its probably true for today’s new pilots but no one will hand you anything. If you get knocked down it is all about how fast you get up, and you better learn where those punches came from to return the favor when you can.

I didn’t have a choice other than to suck it up and move on, no time to lay on the matt it was time to get back up. The next day I called everyone I knew and turned up a few leads. In the meantime my brother was flying out of Whitehorse and had the opposite dilemma; he had two job offers and couldn’t decide between the two. I begged him to put in a good word for me with whichever one he didn’t want.  In the end he took a full time gig out of Fort Simpson and put me in touch with a seasonal job based out in the Yukon.

I called Eric the owner up and we chatted for a while, everything sounded positive until I received a call back the next day. Eric was a smart businessman and had called up my old company despite me leaving them off my reference list.

He started by asking “do you really have 1000 hours?” “Yes, I have 1007.3” I said with conviction as I had been starring at that number making resumes all day.  “Well I just spoke to your old boss, he says there is no way you have 1000 hours” replied Eric, I was stunned that’s exactly how many hours I had, probably had even more I forgot to log not to mention hours spent flying with my dad on weekends.

“well that’s how many hours I have, maybe he doesn’t realize I flew a little  over the winter” I heard myself reply. I was mad as hell, it was like someone just kicked me square in the junk and I had to stand there and take it. A season of flying was vanishing right in front of me.  Eric then said, “Forestry requires 1000 hours for fire patrol and I need a 1000 hour pilot for that reason”.  “Well I don’t know what to tell you but I have 1007.3 hours and I’ll show you my logbook as soon as I get up there” I replied.

It was like I was having an out of body experience and I was now focused like I never had been before. “Listen, I don’t know what he told you, but I can fly a plane and I have exactly 1007.3 hours in my logbook, I would love to come fly for you”. I heard myself say.

There was a pause on the phone it was probably only a few seconds but it seemed like an eternity “alright, when can you be here? But let me tell you it’s a long drive up here, but it’s an even longer drive back south if you can’t fly a plane” He replied sounding reserved. “I can fly a plane and I can be up there in two days” I said proudly not knowing where Haines Junction even was. “just be here for next Monday that will be fine, oh and can you do me a favour I need you to pick me up one of those stainless steel crab traps down in Stevenson I’ll pay you back when you get up here” he said like he was asking me to pick him up a case of beer.

“Sure I can pick one up” I replied.  I hung up the phone and then thought to myself; why the hell does someone in the Yukon need a crab trap?

What a week I thought as I loaded the last things in my truck that Friday morning, Monday I was told to take a hike, Tuesday shook off a hangover and made some calls, Friday I had a job, and one stainless steel crab trap and heading north.

As I drove the bitterness of that week faded with every mile, I thought about my career and what I wanted to do. Perhaps it was because I just took flying for granted, I didn’t have any aspiration to fly for an airline, I wanted to really fly and have adventure. Looking back now this was the best thing to ever happen to me, I was about to find exactly what I was seeking, the Yukon was calling.

When I arrived after a two day marathon of 18 hour per day driving and sleeping in the back of my truck, I had made the 2500 KM drive.

In desperate need of a shower and a good nights rest I drove into Haines Junction Monday morning. I looked around at the stunning snow covered mountains, the expansive valley to the north and Paint Mountain keeping a watchful eye just to the west. I was immediately struck with a sense that I had been here before, it felt almost like home. If you haven’t been to the Yukon, go, maybe it’s the rugged beauty of the place or the vast expanses of untouched wilderness that appealed to me but whatever it is I loved it.

Sifton Airs BN2A C-GVCJ on the ramp at CYHT Haines Junction

I got out of my truck and stretched my legs and breathed in the fresh air and looked around. Not a soul was around, it was eerily quiet. That time of year the Alaska highway is just locals and trucks taking supplies north to Alaska, one could hear any vehicle from a mile off.  I enjoyed the quiet as I walked out to the planes sitting on the ramp and quickly inspected them like a general eyeing his soldiers. Some movement caught my eye on the far side of the runway a bear was sauntering down the side of the runway, he didn’t seem to care I was there or even take note.

I heard a truck coming up the airport road it was gold Chevrolet truck with a sticker that said Sifton Air on the side. I walked over and greeted the driver. “You must be Eric, good to meet you” I liked him immediately no BS very casual and welcoming. He showed me around, I hadn’t been in town more than half an hour and he said “well you’re here, lets go see if you can fly”.

CYHT Haines Junction Airport Yukon Territory

I thought to myself “jesus, c’mon man I’m bagged I just drove 2500 km in two days sleeping in the back of my truck eating gross food and you want me to fly a plane I have never seen before? what the hell is a Cessna 205 anyway”

“Sounds great, lets go” I heard myself say.  I hopped in took a look around the cockpit and managed to stick the key in the right place, she fired up on the first attempt. A short run up later and we were heading down the runway. As we climbed out through about 500 feet he grabbed the throttle and pulled it closed.  I snapped it back around 180 degrees and brought her back in and greased it on. He must have thought it was a fluke.  He then said “lets make it a touch and go” back in the air we went, same drill same outcome. He then asked me to keep it under 500 feet and pointed to a lake on a map and said I need to go there.

Exhausted and a little cranky I fumbled the map around but managed to get my bearings quickly and headed to the lake, satisfied he said “lets follow the Alaska highway back”, just as I was settled in figuring mission accomplished his hand shot up and yanked back the throttle saying “its your lucky day we are over the one road for hundreds of miles make me proud!” Piece of cake, Ill line up on it and take her down to 100 feet then go around, closer and closer to the highway we descended, my hand on the throttle ready for his command to go around, any second now, wait I think he actually wants me to land on the highway?

“I have never landed on a highway”, I thought to myself. “Wait am I allowed to land on a highway?” “oh hell yes! this is awesome I’m going to land on a friggen highway!” down we went the trees seemed closer than when driving, touching down right on centre line then he says “well that enough lets get out of here” I advanced the throttle and took off heading back to base.

Shutting down, he looked over and said “well you got the job”

I flew for Eric over the next three season, I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure that job brought and in all honesty it was the best flying I have ever done.  Oh and the crab trap was for his boat down in Haines Alaska.

Fishing near Skagway Alaska

On one of the trips to his boat in Haines he said to me “you know I feel ripped off” ” huh what do you mean?” “Your old boss said you pushed weather scudrunning everywhere and would talk back to him” I paused then replied “Fuck you Eric, hows that?”  we laughed and drank a few more beer and fished.

I guess sometimes being labelled a Scudrunner is a good thing, and has a ring to it don’t you think?

By Neil M