Monday, March 22, 2010

Bush pilot Day 1

This morning real early my feet were cold sitting at the computer so I went to get my slippers, it was far too early to get dressed. They're the old moose hide low cut, front beaded, fur trimmed ones that anyone going to souvenir shop, at least in western Canada, has seen a million times hanging on the wall. Mine didn't come from the souvenir shop, I didn't pay retail for them at all. In fact I got them for free (if there seems to be a theme on my blog so far, yes I'm thrifty, sometimes some calls me cheap, but I prefer thrifty or economical, or prudent or frugal but not cheap, that's something that falls apart too readily or doesn't get the job done, like a cheap tool that breaks before the job is done).

My first real flying job, after instructing flying, was as a bush pilot in the Canadian north, well it didn't seem too far north to me at the time as I had gone to high school about 200 miles south of there, as the crow flies, but it did take me into the North West Territories on a regular basis. Fort Nelson was a gas stop on the Al-Can (Alaska Highway) that had turned into a small hub of transportation, planes, trains and automobiles. An old WW2 hangar stood at the east end of the airfield as tribute to the many who had passed through town by air en-route to defend Alaska and the northern Pacific operations, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway was end lined at Fort Nelson and of course the famous highway, Ft Nelson being "Mile 300".

I landed, not literally, in Fort Nelson as a flight instructor for a small flying school and had a wonderful summer teaching students and meeting a couple of old high school buddies who were in town as well, it didn't feel too removed from where I had lived just a few years back.

In fact, my best buddy from first year college, he took a year off the two year aviation program for personal reasons, had gotten a plumb job (not instructing) at the local charter operator, flying as co-pilot on the most incredible aircraft you are likely to see, a Britten-Norman TRIslander,(

I lived in the aforementioned hangar, it had a small living quarters, suited me fine for the summer, and I had a couple of neighbors. The mechanics for the charter operator had a similar living quarters on the other side of the hangar.

I instructed a fellow, R., that owned a logging operation out of town and the reason he wanted to learn to fly was so he could come and go as he pleased from camp instead of waiting for the charter plane to come and get him.

He was quite successful in his logging but found aviation a bit too much of a challenge, about half way through his flying lessons he decided that I should become his personal pilot and he would buy a larger (he already had purchased a fairly new two seater) "brand new" Cessna 185. Expensive airplane!! He decided that although he could fly, it was a lot more involved than he had thought and business was business and his was good. I didn't commit to being his pilot, the thought of spending all that time in camp waiting for him didn't seem my cup of tea and the romance of flying the bigger twin engined aircraft was still in my dreams.

The new aircraft arrived directly from the factory in Wichita and I was assigned to take delivery as R. was down south that week on business. It was shiny and new and perfect and red and white, and the factory pilot took me for the obligatory test flight and check out on the new plane before he turned the keys over and hopped on the 737 "southbound".

Here's where my college buddy comes in. We decided, as R. had said to get used to the plane and "fly it around a lot" while he was away, where the logging camp he has, is located by an old WW2 emergency landing strip and it is not paved, it's not even really gravel and it's really just a track on the high ground of the muskeg of northern BC.

Buddy and I decide it would be a great trip to go the Trout Lake, (never heard that name for a lake before) and go fishing one evening, get some off pavement landings in on the gravel strip and do some lake trout fishing. We took his uncle and set off. Arrived in Trout Lake to be met by the official meeting party of any aircraft that lands on the strip. This included all the kids in town, most of the men, some of the women and of course the mayor (who sells fishing licenses, fortunately for us) and the single RCMP constable stationed there.

We got our fishing licenses and rented a boat (the mayor gave us a deal and only sold us two fishing licenses for the three us as we were renting a boat off his son, single day fishing license were a bargain, one dollar less than the annual license. Due to the lack of official forms the annual ones were not available and single day licenses did not require any paperwork, hmmm?) In about an hour and a half we returned to the dock with a boat load of fish In those days there was fairly large limit on lake trout, lets say 6 a day per person and at that time no limit on northern pike, we call them Jackfish or "gators", they are bottom feeders, have a flattened mouth, hence the "gator" nick name and at the risk of offending every fisher south of 55 degrees latitude, are considered terrible to eat, far too boney and the flavor is flat. We had so many fish I couldn't believe it, this was before I had ever heard of catch and release and barbless hooks, so we gave almost all the "gators" to the locals, they said they wouldn't eat it but it would be good dog food for the quintessential dog pack that roams most northern communities. They are not pets but cared for by everyone in town because they keep the predators, bears and wolves, away,

We loaded the plane and headed back home, en-route my college buddy lamented that he was not happy as a co-pilot on the Trislander, that he didn't get along with the boss and he was planning on moving on. I told him about the job for R. and he seemed to perk up, it would be a good fit for him as his family was in the logging business down south and he enjoyed camps and logging.

Karma. Within in a couple of days college buddy is asked if he would like to be promoted to pilot on the Cessna 185 which the charter operator had several of and he said yes. Then we sat down and had the famous beer, when all was said and done, and by totally mutual agreement, we had swapped 185 jobs. He worked for R. flying into camp and loving it and I had quit instructing and hired on at the charter operator as the new 185 bush pilot. Joe Walsh had a song out about then called "Life's Good to Me So Far", the lyrics ("My Maserati does 185") were always blaring from my eight track whenever I drove to town, (still living in the hangar).

The big day. My first day as a bush pilot. I am checked out again on the 185, by the company pilot for insurance reasons and assigned a trip to Ft Liard, about 50 mile east of Trout Lake nestled in the corner of BC, Yukon and the NWT. It is a private charter to haul groceries and an older couple of locals home after a shopping trip in Ft Nelson. I carefully load the boxes, keeping track of the weight and balance- it's really important for airplanes to be properly balanced and not to exceed the max weight. As I recall the trip is right around an hour each way in the 185, about half way the older gent beside me (probably younger than I am now, but it is a hard life in the small northern communities) turns to me and says in heavily accented english-"Pilot, you leave the box with the liquor in it in the plane until the RCMP go away."

I was choked, my first trip as a bush pilot and I would be going to jail for taking liquor into a dry town, what to do? I called my dispatcher on the HF radio, a long range radio that cracks and hisses from the airplane and asked what the deal was and he said that the down was not dry and that it was normal ops. to just drop off what we had and it would be fine. I was still concerned but hey, they are adults and I was not the moral police.

We landed in Ft Liard and the same type of meeting party greeted our arrival as had happened in Trout Lake, almost everyone is interested in who is coming in to town when a plane lands at the strip just on the edge of town. Dogs, kids, adults and of course the local constable were all present as we taxied up to the loading ramp. I was greeted by the constable, he said he had never seen me before and I told him this was my first trip to Ft Liard, I didn't tell him this was my very first trip as a bush pilot but the shine on my new boots and coat probably gave me away.
I unloaded all but one box, it had two bottles of whiskey and some cereal in it, the rest was loaded in the back of a pick-up and as quickly as they had appeared, every one disappeared.
I hung around and waited about 15 minutes the cautiously unloaded the box of, not really, contraband.

I set the box by a shed and headed back to the aircraft. From out of the bush came the passenger running towards me waving, his wife running behind carrying an old beaten up cardboard suitcase held closed with an old leather belt. I was quite concerned and only stopped when I got to the plane inspite of his hollering and waving at me. He approached me, I didn't know what was going to happen next. He said something to his wife in the local native dialect and she threw the suitcase on the ground and opened it up, pulled out a furry brown thing and gave it to him, he passed it to me and said "Thank you pilot" and they turned and left, nothing esle being said.

The brown item was a handmade pair of moose hide slippers, beaded and trimmed in fur. The smell of the tanning was overpowering, (it took a whole winter on the porch before I was allowed to bring them into the trailer I shared with my new girlfriend, I was "evicted" from the hangar as it was being reno'd by the owner shortly after I got this new job and fortunately the new girl friend was keen on having me stay at her trailer, well except for my slippers).

So that is how I got my slippers that I am wearing this morning, they no longer smell but I often am reminded of my first trip as a bush pilot when I put them on and the return trip from Ft Liard was even more exciting, but I will save that for latter.

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