No Time For Fear: Lessons From a Lifetime in Aviation

My passion for aviation began early in my childhood but strangely I can’t ever recall wanting to be an airforce or airline pilot. I enjoyed tinkering with model airplanes and exploring novel designs, but as a child I think I was somewhat dissuaded from a career in aviation as being the oldest son my father did his best to involve me into the family business.

However sensing my interest in flight, together with the fact that he did his national service in the airforce and loved it, my father hoped that I too would join, “to make a man of me,” then return to the fold to help run the business. I had no desire to follow in my father’s footsteps but I was fortunate that he gave me the opportunity to learn to fly.

Earning my Private Pilot’s License as a seventeen year old gave me a huge boost in confidence that stayed with me throughout my early adult life. After this early start, times became tough economically, so flying a powered aircraft on a regular basis was beyond my means. I did, however, take to hang gliding and gliding and that’s where I really learnt to fly.

I was thirty-eight years old when I came to Canada to start a new life and took the gamble to become a commercial pilot. I still didn’t see myself as an airline pilot but was drawn to the idea of bush flying as it dovetailed with my love of the outdoors. Inevitably, things didn’t go to plan, but there was no lack of drama and adventure, which culminated in a few seasons of bush flying in the Yukon.

To get there I spent many hours teaching others to fly, building and testing experimental aircraft, and a short but successful period of aerial photography before the advent of drones. I tinkered and experimented – not always successfully – and most importantly, learnt a lot about what makes a good pilot. Through exposure to tragedy, I also figured out that some personality types just don’t make good pilots.

I also learned the hard way, that off-airport operations are by their very nature high risk, and that bush flying is a life of risk management and tough decisions under extraordinary pressure. I takes a very special person to make this a lifetime career, but there is no doubt in my mind that bush experience is valuable to anyone pursuing a life in aviation.

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Bush Flying – A Pilots Dream Or Dangerous Nightmare?

This year has been marred by many tragic plane and helicopter crashes in remoter areas of Canada, the most notable being First Air’s 737 in Resolute which killed twelve and injured three, and Arctic Sunwest’s Twin Otter Float-plane that crashed in the centre of Yellowknife killing its crew of two and injuring seven passengers.

These are just two of several fatal accidents that reached national headlines but of course there have been others, some less serious, including my own, which occurred as I was flying workers and supplies into a remote mining strip. Although my passengers and I were badly shaken, there were no serious injuries and we were all able to walk away from the crumpled and partially submerged wreck of the small, fixed-wing plane. It was a humbling and life changing experience.

Later, my employer calmly told me that my accident was actually “the fourteenth wreck at that particular airstrip.” He knew exactly what conflicting emotions I was feeling, but “stuff happens” and like many well seasoned bush pilots (and I consider him one of the very best) he had “been there – done that.” Given the fact that this rather nasty airstrip is currently in the epicentre of a rather frantic new gold rush, it may be only a matter of time before wreck number fifteen occurs and its victims may not be as lucky.

What drives pilots to work in such dangerous environments? In the bush plane world it is definitely not the high salary since this type of flying often pays no more than an average blue-collar trade in Canada (although helicopter pilots usually fare better).

In the very long days of the very short northern summer, pilots can find themselves on duty for 14 hours a day, often in far less than ideal conditions. Much of a pilot’s time is not spent in the air – they are usually loading and unloading aircraft, cleaning and refuelling them and at the end of the day they will spend what can be several hours completing what seems like volumes of mandatory paperwork. Fitting in a healthy meal and getting 8 hours sleep are real challenges.

Yet, there are career bush pilots who thrive in these conditions. They find the challenges, the risk management, the camaraderie and self-sufficiency are exciting and enjoyable. These people are the true professionals and the backbone of the industry, but even so, few of them are immune to lapses in judgement when subjected to strong commercial pressures. They are only human after all.

Young, aspiring airline pilots are often lured into the bush with memories of heroic bush pilot adventures they have read and the promise of those invaluable flying hours they will need to land a job in the more lucrative and safer right seat of a 737. They find themselves on a very steep learning curve requiring close mentorship and many leave to fly more complex aircraft as soon as the opportunity arises. I know that, when I fly as a commercial passenger, I would much rather be sitting in that 737 knowing that the pilot at the controls had served his time in the bush, rather than someone straight out of aviation college.

I enjoy working in the bush. It allows me to experience parts of the world others seldom see. Wilderness flying is pure adventure and I do it because I love it. The fact that, in the course of this work I also meet some wonderful, interesting people, is a bonus.

Unfortunately, there are operational realities that make this one of the most hazardous occupations in North America. To start with, bush strips are often miles from the nearest road. It takes little more than a chain saw and a bulldozer and then you are open for business. There is no safety net of air-traffic controllers or emergency vehicles with crews waiting to roar down the runway and cover crashed air planes with fire suppressing foam. Often, in the mad rush to stake claims and mobilise crews, these small airstrips gradually become surrounded by oceans of fuel drums, supplies and make-shift camps, as well as the usual inquisitive and unwelcome wildlife – all creating serious hazards to arriving and departing aircraft.

Weather is frequently a factor in accidents. In Northern Canada, weather reporting facilities are scarce and, in truth, many experienced pilots quite rightly pay less attention to forecasts and rely more on personal observations and interpretations.

As long as we continue to extract resources from remote areas, bush pilots will be needed. Wilderness flying will never be as safe as scheduled air transportation. Most people willing to go into the bush, whether as pilot or passenger, know that it is an adventure and as such has risks and benefits. Everyone involved should be well aware of those risks and weigh them carefully.

Bush operations could, and should, be made safer. Satellite tracking technology – which effectively narrows a search for a missing aircraft down to a small area – is now affordable even for small charter companies and it seems just common sense that aircraft operating in remote areas should be fitted with these devices. Perhaps it’s time to make them mandatory. Canadian pilots are allowed to work much longer hours than pilots in the US or Europe and fatigue undoubtedly contributes to some accidents. So why do we allow such long hours? Why are dangerous environmental conditions allowed to develop at busy bush airstrips?

Flight safety is a collective responsibility with the pilot at the “sharp end.” Only when all stakeholders – pilots, operators, clients, passengers and regulators stop to consider why we do things the way we do and start tackling some of the issues will these risks diminish.

So remember, the next time you hear the term “pilot error” quoted as the “cause” of an aviation accident, be aware that the pilot was probably just the final link in a very long and over-stretched chain of decisions, over-expectations, necessities and under-regulated work environments.

Barrels and parked aircraft line the edge of this busy mountain strip, creating a serious hazard.

Copyright David Skelhon, 2011