Thursday, August 17, 2006

Part 1 of 4

This is not a feel-good story; you have been warned.

I am writing this as I wait to hear whether or not a friend of mine died in a plane crash last night in the Northwest Territories. Even if it's someone I didn't know, it's a terrible loss. The 337 Skymaster went down with 1 pilot and 5 pax on board; there were no survivors. The authorities have not published the name of the pilot yet. I have been very lucky so far in that (knock on wood) I have had to attend only one funeral in aviation after 18 years of being a pilot. This is the story of my friend Daryl, our friendship, and the events of August 7th, 1997.

It's been nearly 10 years, but I still think of him frequently. I met him in March 1997, when I got my first flying job and flew to Stony Rapids. The Jetstream 31 went to Fond du Lac first, and before we departed I was told that my bags would have to be bumped off the plane in order to meet the Jetstream's weight restriction due to the short runway in Fond du Lac (it was 3,800'). That meant I wouldn't have my bags for at least a day as the sked flight didn't operate the next day. Before I got on the plane I had no idea what to expect from my new home, and as I gazed out at Fond du Lac, a mass of broken-down houses, trailers, dirty diapers blowing down the street and general filth, I was contemplating staying on the airplane and going right back down south. I was pondering this while the J-31 crew were unloading my bags when a 185 taildragger landed, taxiied in and shut down. The door opened and out walked this tall, broad-shouldered, Tom Cruise looking guy wearing a heavy red plaid workshirt, a big pair of Ray-bans, and an ear-to-ear smile. He walked right up to me and said "Hi, I'm Daryl. I'll take your bags back to Stony for you" I guess he could see that I was a wet-behind-the-ears pilot type, and knew exactly what my predicament was. We landed in Stony a few minutes later, with Daryl right behind in the 185 with my precious luggage (toothbrush, underwear, my Nintendo 64, etc).

He helped me load it into the back of a company truck, and drove me to my accomodation. I had a choice between living at a trailer by the waterbase or in a cozy little red log cabin. I looked at the waterbase trailer, with it's strange stains on the walls, grime on every surface and pungent mildewy scent and opted for the log cabin, sight unseen. Daryl looked at me and grinned "I agree - this place is nasty! And you haven't even met the weasel that lives under the floorboards". Later on I met the weasel, Ghost, but that's another story. As we drove to the log cabin, Daryl said I would stay there alone for the first few weeks, then another pilot would be joining me as the summer season ramped up. It turned out to be a wonderful little house with a wood stove and oil furnace for heat, big windows and large living room with a working color tv. And it was spotless; I had won the northern accomodation lottery on my first day! Daryl dropped me off and returned to the airport, then flew back to Fond du Lac where he was based.

I was initially hired as a dispatcher for Northern Dene Air, so I busied myself with the job, figuring out how to coordinate 11 aircraft and 3 main bases so that all the scheduled and charter and medevac flights were taken care of, on top of doing the Air Sask sked paperwork and all the countless little jobs that came with the job title. It was hard work, and I put in 14-hour days routinely. I still have my time sheet and I see that in August 97 I put in 271 hours of dispatching in 22 days. I took the other 8 days off, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

April came, and the ice thawed a little more in Stony Rapids. The caribou hunts were going like gangbusters - one of our 185's on skis would fly a few local hunters out to look for caribou and when they found them, the 185 would land and the hunters would shoot as many caribou as they could. Then they'd butcher the meat, cutting it up into useful pieces. Then they'd bury the meat under as much snow as they could, placing ice blocks over it to deter predators. The 185 would fly the hunters back, then the pilot would return to pick up the meat, then fly the meat back to home base, where the locals would load the collection of steaks and hooves into their trucks to take home to their freezers. My dispatching duties kept me painfully busy; by the time I got home at 7 or 8pm, I barely had the strength to cook some food on the wood stove, then collapse in bed. But I was happy, and the boss said I was doing a good job and would be getting a plane soon.

May came, and the ice melted on the lakes. Float season had arrived, and with it a pile of float pilots (like Luke, who I mentioned a couple of days ago) to crew the Beaver, the 180 and the 185's. They would be hauling rich fishermen and supplies to remote lodges where they would spend $5k for 5 days of 'roughing it' - mostly fishing, drinking and eating steak and lobster. I remember I once did a beer run in a float plane, hauling more than 600 cans of beer to a group of 3 doctors in a lodge for a week - 2 cardiac surgeons and an anaethetist; after I flew them back to the airport 7 days later, I asked how the fishing was: "What fish?" they laughed.

Daryl was transferred from Fond du Lac to Stony in order to fly the 185 from the waterbase, and he elected to stay with me in the log cabin rather than catch some dread disease from the waterbase trailer. We got along famously - we had the same sense of humor, the same love of beer and enjoyed a similar taste in music. He also liked playing Nintendo, so we frequently would have epic battles on the Nintendo 64, playing Mario cart until the wee hours of the morning. He was a much better cook than I was, and I looked forward to the end of the workday; when I'd get home to the cabin he would usually have the hibachi barbequeue already glowing and fish cooking. We'd sit in the patch of grass behind our cabin and make up songs about other pilots, or tell stories about our lives previous to our job, or bring the stereo speakers outside and listen to electronic dance music while dancing like crazy people around the cabin, to the bewilderment and amusement of the locals. "It's Duggles, Duggles, the pilot who juggles! Don't ask him for any snuggles, it's Duggles" That was the first line to the Doug song, about a pilot we worked with. It was funnier 'cause Doug doesn't juggle (Duggles is now Assistant CP of a large airline out west). Yes we were bored, but we made the most of it. Daryl and I agreed that we would keep in touch long after we had left Northern Dene Air.

Daryl's girlfriend Nicole came to visit at the end of July '97, travelling from his hometown of Cranbrook, BC. She was awesome; she looked like a cheerleader and acted like one of the guys. She could drink more beer than I could, and she loved to tell raunchy jokes. I took a transfer to Fond du Lac for a week to give them time together in the log cabin, and when I came back it was even more spotless than when I left. Life was good.

Continued tomorrow.

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