Ah, the romance of the bush pilot life. Floats rippling the smooth water of a pristine lake at dawn, the view of an Arctic watershed from a mile high, alone in a trusty fabric-and-tube wonder, propeller and pistons purring, and not another human soul for a hundred miles in any direction. The chance to do for a living what most people dream of doing for adventure and recreation. It is a good gig. It is!
And its flip side. Because everything has a flip side, doesn’t it? Motel room in Fort Nelson B.C., Mile 300 of the Alaska Highway. Day Three just beginning. The rain that has poured down all night is now forecast to change to snow. Low cloud and lively north winds. I am not scheduled to be in Yellowknife until Monday afternoon, for a charter to the ice strip at a tundra camp 200 miles north of there, and it is only Saturday. So I am long on time, and I am doing my best to be long on patience.
Patience is a virtue in this business. Waiting on weather is a mental game, familiar to all who hang it out there at the whim and power and unpredictability of sky, water, and wide expanses of wild country. Over the ten years we have been having our airplanes maintained at Fort Nelson I have developed a healthy respect for the 360 miles of low ridges and blank terrain that lie in the northeastern-most corner of B.C. and the southern district of the Territories, a straight lonely line between Fort Nelson and Yellowknife. I have spent some nerve-wracking moments aloft over that stretch, and I remember them on days like this.
One of the planes we operate is just emerging from a long saga of scheduled engine and prop overhaul, routine airframe inspections, all capped off by a very minor airframe repair that morphed into a 30-day delay. The common-sense-annihilating paper chase that is a bane of modern life is never so obvious and onerous as it is in aviation. No certified aircraft repair facility is going to weld a small patch on a minor tube of the secondary brace of the landing gear (appropriately enough the “drag brace”) without a document, a technical drawing, and a green light from every sub-clause of the Air Regs. At one point it seemed we were going to need a direct intervention from the Minister of Transportation in Ottawa to get the damned part fixed. ‘Nuff said on that. The plane is ready, a month later than we and several frustrated customers had all planned for, and now the phone calls, e-mails, questions, and near-outbursts (by me, the patient one…) can cease.
Yesterday we rolled her out, the crew at the hangar happy to see her go, and the ground test was done by one of the AME’s. Then I climbed in and strapped in and taxied out, a wary eye on gauges and dials. It is pretty simple stuff, really – it’s just a bush plane, not the Space Shuttle. Still, after any major overhaul or inspection it is always time for a careful test flight. I lifted off and stayed close to the airport, watching the temperatures and pressures of oil and manifold and cylinder heads and exhaust gas, little orange bars all magically displayed on the Graphic Engine Monitor. Orville and Wilbur would have been impressed. Thirty minutes of circling, changing power settings and rpm’s, noting that number five cylinder was running consistently warmer than its five partners, but not at any temperature close to worrisome. Circling just beneath the ceiling north of the airport in spitting rain and wisps of ragged cloud, the plane tossing around in gusty winds.
Back to the airport, land and taxi in, more paperwork to sign off, and a check of the weather map with an eye toward the Territories and Great Slave Lake. Rain, low cloud, gusty winds, fog and snow over higher terrain on the east flank of the northern Rockies. A truly massive low pressure centre squatting motionless over north-central Alberta. The weather briefer I spoke with at Flight Service (a.k.a. “Fright Service”) was not optimistic, and by the time I hung up the phone, neither was I.
I finished my chores, swapped gear out of the other plane, the one I will leave here with the crew, and which they will now inspect and put onto floats. When it is done and all the ice work up north on the tundra is done, I will come back to Fort Nelson again. Then, with the ice beginning to melt away from the mouth of the Hoarfrost River, I can go home on floats. Summer will begin.
Caught a ride back in to town and the Hideaway Motel, where I had checked out early in the morning in a fit of optimism. The cheapest place in town, but it is clean and tidy and as I joke with the lady at the front desk I assure her that I will be back. Patience, patience. Library? Swimming Pool? Some paperwork? A blog post? Here you go.