Today we take an airline’s schedule for granted. We are surprised when a large snowstorm forces flight cancellations or when a line of thunderstorms causes delays. We regard the pilot’s job as routine, and that is the case much of the time.
It was not always so. In the early days airplanes could not vault over the Rockies as if the snow and granite weren’t there. They could not shrug ice off their heated wings. They could not follow programmed profiles in four dimensions. Pilots had to fly these airplanes.
Seventy-five years ago Canada’s national airline flew its first “transcontinental” mission: Montreal to Vancouver via Ottawa, North Bay, Kapuskasing, Winnipeg, Regina, and Lethbridge. The aircraft was a Lockheed 10A. I don’t have a 10A or the resources to fly it, but I do have a Beech Bonanza, a single-engine aircraft of similar performance. Her name is Arcadia, after the fictional airline in my novel. Together we are going to fly that route this year. Our mission is to do again what the pioneers did: fly through Canadian weather at low altitude, evaluating the real risk and flying when we can, flying by hand.
To remember and celebrate that achievement of 1939, yes. To observe and celebrate how far airline flying has come since then – yes, that too. But there is more. Between then and now is a story, a story that includes rough weather and anxious moments. These advances and adventures are not always smooth sailing. There is risk, danger, and hard work. That is where the real story lies.
Although much remains in official records and memoirs, in news stories and film, much of the history of Canada’s airlines has been lost. Many of the early pioneers have passed on, taking their stories with them. We could use their perspective now, as we face the coming shortage of fuel and pilots. Once again, there is rough weather ahead.
Flying is like living. Planning and good judgement are essential for survival. But once you’re off the ground or out of the childhood home, it is no longer a rehearsal. The red light is on. You’re live to air. Flying has been my trade now for forty-five years, and that live to airquality is still what gets my juices going.
Since young hotshot are not words which apply to me (I turn seventy this year), I have to make sure I am well prepared for this mission. I will be flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and sometimes in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) without an autopilot (the Bonanza does not have one) and without a co-pilot. That can get pretty busy. But I do have WAAS GPS, an electronic PFD, and an iPad.
For the last three years I have been training for this mission. Written exams. Instrument rating renewal. Re-introduction to flying light aircraft. Aerobatic instruction. Working steadily toward regaining my Class II Instructor rating after forty-some years. And practical experience, of course. I have recently flown two round trips in the Bonanza between Montreal and California.
Flying experience is measured in hours and in recent hours. These are handy because they are statistical, but they are not the whole story. Experience does not necessarily lead to competence. More important are real learning and practice. You can’t perform a maneuver you don’t know about, and you can’t do it well until you have practiced it.
I know this from my own experience. I retired from airline flying at age sixty and didn’t “touch a pole” for six and a half years. When I decided to come back to flying my performance was far from an acceptable standard, even with my 18,000 hours. With a valid instrument rating and my ATR, I was “qualified” to teach instrument and multi-engine flying, but lacked the recency, confidence, and knowledge to do it well. I had to go back to school.
Old dogs are reluctant to see the need for new tricks. Breaking through my crusty assumptions to teach me is not a job for the faint of heart. I have been fortunate to find teachers who will challenge me and move me along, almost against my will.
This burst of learning is a fragile thing. Old age is gaining on me. I know how the race ends. But Arcadia and I plan to fly the mission this fall of 2014, re-enacting the flight of 1939. Much of the detail of that flight has been lost, but we will re-create it by living it. It will be its own story, but it will have much in common with the lost story of 1939 – enough, I hope, to bring that story to life and bestow honour where honour is due.