A wintry Sunday evening in Fort Nelson B.C., just over 500 miles southwest of the Hoarfrost River. My day began there, at home at the Hoarfrost, in the dark at 6 a.m., with a grumpy glance at the clock and another grumpy glance at a thermometer reading 40 below zero. I stoked the fire, made a cup of coffee, attained semi-consciousness, and donned enough layers of clothing for a moonwalk. Headlamp strapped to forehead, and out the door to tug the generator and cords and heaters into position alongside the five-seat Bush Hawk parked on the lake ice. Yanked the generator to life, plugged in three electric heaters, and set them in place to begin their task of warming the engine and cockpit for a flight. This is a four-hour process at that temperature. A ritual familiar to hundreds of northern bush-plane and helicopter pilots, who fly out from bases not connected to that big juicy “grid” of abundantly flowing electrons by which all of modern society seems to live, breathe, work, play, and die.
Daylight is coming earlier and earlier, and by the time I next walked to the plane about 8 o’clock, it was light out. What a cheerful change that is from January! At just before 11, Kristen and I took off, flew south ten miles to the dot on the map called Reliance, where we picked up our nearest neighbor and his dog. Richard is off to town for some dental work – he has been in pain and was trying to tough it out, but he’s had enough of that. Kristen has some town chores and visiting to do now, too, having not been into town since just after Christmas.
I carried on southwest from Yellowknife, alone, at about 1 p.m. A fast and smooth flight at 8,500 feet, 330 nautical miles straight to the airport here at Fort Nelson, in just over two and a half hours. Put the plane to bed in front of the hangar, its engine heaters tapped into the aforementioned big juicy power grid, called a sleepy taxi driver, and came into town. I write tonight from a familiar room at the Blue Bell Inn, motel plus gas station plus convenience store on the Alaska Highway which forms the main street of Fort Nelson. I have become a regular here in the past year, having now sampled every low-end motel in town over the past 33 years of driving up to Alaska for sled dog races, and since 2006 coming to Fort Nelson for airplane maintenance. The Blue Bell is clean, cheap, and a little old and tired. The managers are friendly enough, and – how to say it? – this place will never be even remotely in the running for five stars.
My flight southwest from Yellowknife, on a Sunday, is all about due diligence. The plane has a minor oil leak, and I have been monitoring it over the course of about fifty hours of wildlife survey flying that I just completed. Nothing to panic about, and I am not in a panic, but after every three or four hour flight I lie on my back under the plane and wipe up a little dribble of oil, drooling back from somewhere high and forward in the engine compartment and splattering the clean white metal of the lower cowling’s inner surface. I have spoken with my maintenance people, and they are not alarmed. A seal, maybe affected by the cold. We could have a look, they say. What’s the worst case scenario, I ask. Long pause on the phone. Well, it’s probably just a seal, and nothing major. There are other things it could be. Not likely. We could have a look.
This is the edge of one of those grey areas in the flying business. It is a place common to a lot of professional pursuits, where you have to find your own level of comfort and follow your instincts, and consider extra expenses, your responsibility to customers, and do the due diligence. There are no hard and fast rules in this grey realm. Vague mechanical nuisances with airplanes — along with vague nuisances like strong crosswinds, unimproved airstrips, and all manner of marginal weather — go past the textbooks and rule books and bring a pilot into the realm of gut feelings and instinct. You have to decide what you are comfortable with, just as I’m sure a doctor does, a teacher does, mountain guides and mechanics do, ship’s captains, accountants, police officers, and on and on. But – and here’s the big but again – these are flying machines. Gravity is calling them home, as in right now, should something happen forward of the firewall, while out counting moose at 400 feet above the ground, or just slipping the surly bonds of earth enroute to somewhere.
In a bigger aviation company, like one I used to fly for in Yellowknife, dealing with an aircraft maintenance concern is a more cut and dried process. The pilot writes up the snag in the airplane’s log book, the maintenance manager notices the write-up at the start of the next shift, someone qualified is tasked with looking into it, and after the assessment the plane is either returned to service or taken out of service for repair. If the machine is taken off line, another plane is substituted for it, usually no trips are cancelled, and life goes on. Hardly ever does anyone wake at night mulling over the prospect of an unpaid roundtrip flight to a warm hangar and a familiar engineer five hundred miles from home base… tossing and turning about if and whether and how and why, and so on, to finally decide and wake in the morning and go heat up the plane and file a plan for the flight.
In 1975, when I was a freshman at the University of Montana — back when “blog” sounded like something Jacques Cousteau had just dredged up from the depths of the South Pacific — a friend of mine had a poster in his dorm room. I remember it still: a black and white photo showed a 1920’s era biplane twisted and awkwardly perched in the upper branches of a leafless tree, somewhere out on the prairies. The quotation beneath the photo read:
“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” — Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. 1930’s.
I am sure Captain Lamplugh is long gone, but he would be happy to know how many people have read and pondered those grammatically awkward words of his. The kicker for me is “To an even greater degree than the sea…” For anyone who has ever been scared in a vessel out on big water far from shore, that is a pretty dramatic statement, yet it holds up, when one is strapped into a little chair behind a spinning propeller thousands of feet above terra firma.
We go along, in the small-time-operator world of bushplane charter companies, trying to make the right decisions. Maintenance and precaution are expensive. And there is the lore and the long shadow of the old-time bush pilots and their trials and triumphs, the oil leaks spattering their goggles, their engines coughing and snorting, their machines plowing ahead through all imaginable weather, guided only by a jittery compass…
The “Aviation Industry” gets personal when you scale it down. People walk up to your flying machines, these odd little planes on skis or floats or tundra tires. People with young families, people in the midst of busy careers that include many hours of flying time: prospectors, biologists, game wardens, tourists. You greet them and they climb in and you take them somewhere or help them do their aerial work, and when it is all done you send them an invoice. An exorbitant invoice, some (who have never run a flying business) would say…
Then when you have an unexplained minor oil leak in the engine compartment, and you cannot tell quite where the oil is coming from, and the heated hangar run by the people that are familiar with that engine and that airplane and your own standards for maintenance are 500 miles from your home base… you go there. You wait for Monday morning, when they will bring it in from the deep cold, wash the engine down, run it up, find and assess the problem, talk to you about it, and do something to fix it.
I suppose that if I had known, all those years ago in Missoula, how my life path would lead me, I would have dropped out and gone to aviation mechanic’s training. Then again, looking around our homestead at the contraptions that I do maintain, and keep running, and keep not replacing because if you twitch this and wire that and so on, the outboard or generator or chainsaw still — sorta, kinda, — runs… well, it is better for everyone that the rules require me to have all my aircraft maintenance done and signed off by licensed professionals who are not overly concerned about our company’s bank account.
To cover my bets I have bought myself an airline ticket out of Fort Nelson for day after tomorrow. It is one of the more expensive tickets around, because it allows me to cancel right up to two hours before flight time, or to change the date at no extra charge. That is in case I have to leave the plane here and return home without it. I am hoping not to use that ticket this time around, and instead just go back to Yellowknife, pick up Kristen and Richard sometime on Tuesday, and fly home to continue the work that awaits me there. I hope I can just tuck that unused ticket away for another time. There will surely be another time, if we stay in the business, and keep doing the diligence.