Flirting with Fate

Most aspiring pilots face the daunting task of building flight time required for those golden airline careers. Usually, this entails pilots paying their dues at small bottom-feeder companies whose reputations can sometimes be dubious and whose procedures may raise eyebrows. Like most pilots pining for that illustrious flying job, I decided to leave my cushy federal posting as a meteorologist and jump ship to fly Navajos at a small air courier operation based in Halifax, Nova Scotia (east coast of Canada). I soon realized it was nothing but “bush flying”in Eastern Canada. With the planes barely IFR equipped, the weather took top priority on the list of challenges.

            The company had three runs departing in the wee hours of the morning. One five-leg route entailed flying from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Moncton, N.B (New Brunswick) to Chatham, N.B (blessed with a 10,000-foot runway abandoned by the military), then further north to Bathurst, N.B, and Bonaventure, Quebec. The last leg had us resting in sleeping bags at the back of a flight service station in Charlo, N.B., for the day, then backtracking the same route in the evening.

Bathurst only offered an NDB (Non-Directional Beacon) approach, i.e., a non-precision cloud-breaking procedure. Thus, its high break-out limits meant a successful landing in low crappy weather wasn’t going to happen. Besides, time was crucial in the courier business, so flying a “straight-in scud run approach” proved faster and far more productive than a full-procedure NDB approach. (I can see the smiles of many pilots reading this as they too have been there). The procedure to get into Bathurst when dubious weather prevailed entailed a request for special VFR out of Chatham. After takeoff, we would head north, flying low to catch sight of the railway tracks leading us into Bathurst. IFR meant “I Follow Railroads” – classic “scud running.”

On a side note, the pilots flying for the American Post Office during the early 1920s navigated back and forth between airfields by following railway tracks, deemed the “iron compass.”

When flying this route in VFR conditions during my first officer days, I noticed that a new highway originated from Chatham and appeared to head to Bathurst. I decided that when I was captain, I would fly low to follow the highway instead of using the tried and tested railroad technique, which made more sense…so I thought.

Getting my captain’s seat came fast, and sure enough, the weather came down in New Brunswick during the first week after having my fourth stripe. While following the usual procedure, we requested special VFR out of Chatham; however, the six-hundred-foot overcast cloud deck quickly turned to two hundred feet overcast over the hills to the north. I told my first officer we would take the highway into Bathurst because it was the first recognizable landmark while frantically scanning the terrain in murky conditions. Less than two hundred feet above the deck, we were precariously skirting the bases over the highway at 180 knots with car license plates easily readable. I didn’t realize two things: first, the new road wasn’t completed, and it quickly ran into the old highway. Second, the old highway had very tall communication towers along the roadside, and luckily, my first officer knew about the towers.

Suddenly, he yelled, “Tower!” It was a dreadful sickening feeling, flying ever so close to the tower with the supporting guy wires clearly visible. The tower pulsed strobe lights, meaning it poked menacingly into the sky to at least five hundred feet unseen in the daunting gloom. Farther down the road, we narrowly navigated around two other, smaller communication towers. We did make it into Bathurst and finally to our last stop, but the lesson learned proved insurmountable. My first officer, still a good friend, brings it up as one of those “there we were stories.”

I’ve been teaching weather to ‘wannabe pilots’ for years, and I usually end my last class with my brush-with-death story. I tell the class that they should always set limits for themselves, and if things start going to hell in a handbasket – get out of there! Also, adhere to the procedures set out by the company; even if they seem a little different and questionable, they tend to be tried and tested.

I highly suggest the book Fate is the Hunter by Ernest Gann. His memoir of aviation alludes to the elusiveness of luck as anyone’s fate is partly contrived by the individual. Luckily for me, fate was on my side that day.

  However, three years ago, I received an email with horrific news. About 15 years ago, I signed a book for a father who worked for my airline that had a young son pining for the skies. The father would read my book’s anecdotes to his son. Eventually, the son became a pilot. At age 21, and with another young aspiring pilot in a Cessna 150, they tragically hit power lines in Les Cedres, Quebec, while flying at dangerously low altitudes during a night flight near the airport. Both were killed. The power line towers topped at 130 feet while the wires they hit were even lower to the ground. I dedicated book number four, This Is Your Captain Speaking, to them. “I dedicate this book to two aspiring pilots, {names withheld}, both tragically killed while chasing their dreams February 2020.” The parents of the young men will never be the same.

In his book, Ernest Gann frequently queried why it was the others, and not him, when disaster lurked. I thank my lucky stars fate was with me that scud running day and continued throughout my aviation career as I encountered challenges. This incident happened over 35 years ago, and I now reminisce about it nonchalantly. Time has withered the fact of how close we came to catastrophe. You, too, will have your close-call stories. Be safe, everyone, and may all your flights always have fate on your side.

Captain Doug

Captain D during his Navajo days.

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