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Butterflies

Merlyn Carter, Northern Bush Pilot. Photo, Dean Carter.

Born and raised in northern Canada, I felt a great deal of excitement last week upon reading that the Hay River (Northwest Territories) Airport has been renamed Merlyn Carter Airport. It was Merlyn (1934-2005), of Carter Air Services, a small float plane company in my hometown. who inspired my love of flying as well as an almost two-decade aviation career in the north.  This is our story.

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I come from a commercial fishing family on Great Slave Lake and grew up watching Merlyn fly his float planes into the Moraine Point fishing station to drop off mail, groceries and people. Then he was off again with another passenger or a load of fish.  I always wondered at the freedom one must feel when they are up there away from everything down here. I was a quiet, shy kid and always longed for something like that.

My first time flying was with Merlyn when I was a young boy in the late sixties. Early one summer, a few members of my family and I flew out to Moraine Point for the summer.  I felt butterflies in my stomach sitting in the co-pilot seat during that flight and inhaling all the freedom, joy and wonder of flight. It was unforgettable seeing my beloved Great Slave Lake from way up high for the first time. But I had no idea how small my world at that time would become later.

It was on one of those flights home from Moraine Point in a Cessna 185 float plane when I was probably 9 or 10 years old that I fell in love with flying.  With Merlyn in control, and the back seat filled with boxes of fish, and me once again with butterflies in my stomach, we had just taken off from Moraine Point and leveled off at a couple thousand feet. When he had trimmed the controls so it required no hands, he took one of his headphones off, looked at me, smiled and shouted, “You wanna fly?”

Fire Tower Construction, 1980, north of Fort Providence, NT

Hooking a lanyard from the cupola to the belly of a helicopter before slinging it to the top of the fire tower.

When I turned 18, I became a helitack firefighter with forestry, based in Hay River. I learned how to fight fire with helicopters and airplanes. I remember getting those butterflies in my stomach again on my first helicopter flight. I was quite young and the older pilots took me under their wing, so to speak, and when no one was looking, they taught me how to fly helicopters. Four years later, I became an Air Attack Officer – the person in charge of directing air attack (water bombers and helicopters) on forest fires. Again, the pilots there taught me how to fly airplanes.  At 22, I was supervising pilots who were sometimes two and three times my age. But they knew I was eager to learn everything about flying so they were easy on me.

As part of the national air attack fleet, we would work from Ontario to Vancouver Island to the Arctic coast and from the US to Mexico. We fought fires high in the Rockies in British Columbia, on the tundra north of Inuvik, near the pyramids on the Yucatan Peninsula and even protected a radio tower from burning near downtown Acapulco. We fought to protect communities from fire all over this country. We fought to contain the spread of lightning-caused fires, tractor trailer fires, sawmill fires, house and cabin fires and campfires. We participated in air search and rescue and downed aircraft operations. And in all of my career, through the hundreds of flight operations we performed, I am happy to say that no one under my supervision has ever lost a life. At the end of the day, I can take that home with me.

And although I never became an actual pilot (I was always proud to be a forest firefighter who specialized in air attack), I have always loved flying in all of its various forms, challenges, environments and theaters. It was and is an exciting job for a younger person who wants to push the envelope of their physical, psychological and mental capabilities. It can build character at an amazing rate. But as I got older and the learning curve began  to drop off, I left the job and went into the fledgling computer multimedia design business. I am now involved in writing and filmmaking.

I still have a great deal of respect and admiration for those men and women who continue to fight fire from the air. Everyone should – no matter where you come

Supervising the 450th Squadron, Inuvik, NT, 1987

from. It can be very difficult and quite dangerous at times, probably a lot like bush flying in Merlyn’s day. But flying has also been such a big part of my personal growth. It has done wonders for my character, self-esteem and -confidence and has taught me how to assert myself and how to calculate risk when I am about to do something significant. It has taught me how to overcome loss and fear in their many forms. And it has provided me a sense of freedom, friendship and camaraderie that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. In fact, it is because flight is only accomplished in defiance of anything earthly that these relationships are forged in a special way. After many years, I think I finally know about what it is like to be up there away from everything down here. Few people in life get to be so fortunate and for that, I am thankful.

When I think about it now, I could have shook my head and said, “No, thanks!” to Merlyn back then. As I said, I was a small, shy, introverted kid at the time. But I think he may have sensed something else in me. Maybe he recognized that awe and wonder in those young eyes as his own. Or maybe a long time ago, someone else, someone much older had said to him, “You wanna fly?”

Directing Air Attack Operations from the bird dog airplane.

At any rate, sometime in the early 90s, in the waning years of my forestry career, we were on a long flight back to Hay River from Inuvik in the bird dog airplane. There was a shy, young aircraft dispatcher in the back seat who was along for the ride. No one said anything for the first half of the flight. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I turned her and said, “You wanna fly?”

After a fair bit of apprehension on her part, my pilot and I were finally able to convince her to switch seats with me.  Now, I can’t say we had anything to do with it, but shortly thereafter, I’d heard she became a commercial pilot in the north. These days, she is a First Officer on Air Canada’s Airbus 320 series. I am very proud of this brilliant young woman as I hope Merlyn would be of me. I would be honoured to know that she was in the Captain’s seat of any airplane I was on board.

So, thank you, Merlyn, for trusting a very young aboriginal kid to take control of something so much larger than himself and at a time when kids feel they have control of nothing in their lives. I can promise you that it has made all the difference these many years later. Because every now and then, I will turn to the smallest, youngest, shyest of my high school film students on the set and say, “You wanna direct?”

I hope they get butterflies in their stomach when they hear those words.

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“Fearless” Frederick Lepine
(formerly Birddog 117, 450th Squadron)
Flying Colors Design
Vancouver Island

Last Flight

Ted Smith Aerostar bird dog. (Photo by BC AAO Ben Moerkoert)

Through the control column, I could almost feel the chill in the September boreal air as it whipped through the wings and over the fuselage of our small, twin-engined bird dog airplane. We had just crossed high over the Athabasca River in northeastern Alberta en route to Hay River in the Northwest Territories. It was 1991 and we had just finished a stint in northern Ontario. With two of our water bombers far behind in tow, we were finally going home after a long and difficult forest fire fighting season. All of my crew of seven were mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted.

I knew this was going to be the last flight of the season and began to recall the events of this past summer – the places we had been, the people we had met and worked with and the fires we had all fought together. It would all be put together in a final year end report when I was back in my office. Until then, I was going to enjoy this last flight.

I was not a licensed pilot but I did know how to fly. I was an Air Attack Officer – the forestry supervisor of contract helicopter and water bomber pilots.  I did receive flight training from the pilots I worked with and had flown many types of helicopters and airplanes over the years when I was given the opportunity. My actual training was in directing aircraft in forest fire attack and over the last fifteen years, that was what I had done.  I was fully-trained in forest fire behavior and firefighting attack strategy as well as aircraft flight characteristics, capabilities and limitations. This was all done from the right seat of my bird dog airplane. In the left seat was my bird dog pilot.

Keeping aircraft from bumping into one another over a forest fire while trying to drop water and fire retardant and not hurting any ground firefighters in the process can be extremely mentally and physically challenging even at the best of times. It can takes years and hundreds of thousands of training dollars before your trainer would allow you to solo as an Air Attack Officer. It is just that complex and difficult a job.

There are inherent dangers and risks in fighting forest fires and those increase exponentially when you add aircraft to the mix. But it all comes down to taking calculated risks. Since 1971, when several firefighting staff had been killed in various aircraft accidents in the north, the rules of engagement began to be defined in a way that saw the casualty rate begin to diminish to the point where it was now rare to experience an aircraft accident. But they did happen. Over the years, I have lost a number of friends and co-workers to these risks. You were always fighting the odds of something going wrong.

The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for fighting fire were refined in the late 70s and 80s and were becoming standardized not only in Canada but in the United States as well. As a result, we could now easily share aircraft and personnel between the provinces and states as needed. So, although we were based in the north and worked for the territorial government, we could expect to work in other provinces, like Ontario, where we had been for the past two weeks.

I looked over at my pilot who was sleeping in the left seat. Al and I had worked together as a good team this summer. We had had each other’s backs and he was a good bird dog pilot. He could maneuver the airplane into position over the fire so that I could have the best view of any part of the operation. At times, we could get into trouble facing challenges such as flying near high flames and through heavy smoke, near power lines, in descending air, over steep terrain, around other aircraft and obstacles like birds and tall tree snags that seem to pop up out of nowhere. But Al was always a step ahead of the game with a backup plan. And a backup plan for his backup plan. He was a good pilot who reduced the odds of something going wrong.

This trip from Dryden, Ontario, to Hay River was long, dreary and monotonous . Along the way, through Manitoba and Saskatchewan, I had slept off part of my exhaustion. So, Al was now taking his turn. He had only asked me to take over flying while he had a ten minute snooze. But it was already past a half hour since he folded his arms and turned his lights out. I knew he needed the sleep so I didn’t wake him.

We were now crossing the south shore of Lake Athabasca at two hundred knots and at an altitude of four thousand feet above ground.  I could see numerous flocks of Canada Geese, Mallards, Black Ducks and Trumpeter Swans pass far below us, all heading south for the winter. They would stop to rest and feed at Lake Athabasca after passing through Great Slave Lake. Most of these birds flew at lower levels so there was little danger in hitting a bird with the airplane. But we did have to keep a watch for Grey and Snow Geese which flew at much higher altitudes and sometimes in flocks of hundreds and even thousands. They were the last to come out of the north because they summered in the high Arctic islands. The odds of running into a flock of geese at this altitude at this time of the year was extremely high so I was very wary.

This was also the flight path of the extremely rare and endangered Whooping Crane which nests in marshes on the Alberta/Northwest Territories border and winters in Texas. There were less than 15 of these birds left on the planet in the 1940s and now, through careful protection, preservation and nurturing, that number had slowly grown to almost 140. So rare are these birds, in fact, that very few human beings have ever seen them in their nesting grounds.  “Whoopers” are the tallest of all birds in North America. An adult male stands at 1.5 meters and weighs as much as 7.5 kilograms. It has a wingspan up to 2.5 meters. These cranes fly at about 45 kilometers per hour.

Their habitat in the north is so well-protected that I’d never even met anyone who has seen a Whooping Crane. I had only heard stories. So, seeing one in my regular work day was obviously impossible.

We had had a “bird strike” earlier that summer while fighting a fire south of Hay River. As  the airplane was in a sharp turn and I was describing our run on the radio to the water bomber pilot overhead, a Peregrine Falcon had strayed into our path and we took it on the windshield. It was such a loud bang for such a small bird but we were doing around a hundred and twenty knots just above the trees and the entire airplane shook wildly. The bird left its entrails and we now had the problem of not being able to see where we were going. We had to request a replacement bird dog team while we went back home to scrub down the airplane. But I will never forget the huge impact of that little bird on my airplane.

Bird strikes account for a number of aircraft crashes and deaths every year when aircraft are flying close to the ground, especially during take offs and landings. The closer you are to the ground the higher the risk of an accident.  When you are higher up, you have more time to react to an inflight emergency. That’s one of the reasons why, on long trips like this, we fly at a higher altitude.

Crossing over Lake Athabasca, I leaned forward and changed the radio frequencies to hear if anyone else was flying in the area. All was quiet on the Athabasca front. I had just turned to check up on my sleeping pilot when something caught my eye on the horizon ahead. It was difficult to see because it was directly on the horizon and it was not moving. My flight training immediately told me that if you see an unmoving object anywhere in your field of vision, you are likely on a collision course with that object. I kept my eye on that object until I could determine that it  not another aircraft.

It was a bird. It was a huge bird and it was heading directly at us!  I immediately pulled the airplane up and to the right slowly and steadily so as not to wake up my pilot.

The bird, too, rolled sharply to its right and swerved down at the last moment it saw us. It was a close call. Then, as it passed under the left wing, I saw the red crown on its forehead and the black wing tips. It was a Whooping Crane! My heart began to dance wildly because I was now one of that small group of humans who has ever seen one of these magnificent birds in its nesting ground.

I looked down again at my pilot who was now snoring heavily into his microphone. A cold wave of reality washed over me as I began to wonder: After all that we had gone through this past summer, what are the odds of getting killed in your sleep by a Whooping Crane during the last flight of the season?

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November 2011, Cairnsmore.