Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The closest I have come to death is aviation-related. The closest I have come to death is NOT aviation-related.

It was 1997 and I was working for Northern Dene Airways. I was based in Stony Rapids, but had taken a weekend off to head "down south" to Saskatoon. I was returning on the Monday morning, along with a company mechanic and another pilot, my friend and roommate Daryl.

Northern Dene Airways had an agreement with Air Sask, and we were allowed to fly non-rev on their Jetstream 31's to/from Stony Rapids. The only downside was that if the plane was full, we'd be the first to be bumped off so that paying customers / freight could be loaded on board. Added to that, on hot summer days the Jetstream was frequently weight-restricted on the northern runs due to the short runways.

Anyhoo, it was Monday morning and the three of us were heading back to Stony Rapids. We made it as far as Prince Albert before being bumped off for cargo. Fortunately the owner, Dave Webster, had a trailer in Prince Albert that we could stay at until the next sked flight, which was the following afternoon. Dave also had a minivan in Prince Albert, so we were set for transport.

So essentially, 2 pilots and an aircraft mechanic had 24 hours to kill in a small town.

We went to the bar.

As it became time for us to leave, we talked about how we were gonna get back to the trailer.

Daryl - "I have spent too much time and money on my pilot's licence to screw it all up with a DUI"
Me - "Yeah, me too. What Daryl said"
The mechanic "I'm fine, I have only had a few. I'll drive"

He was a grown-up, so we took him at his word.

Now I'll just say this before we get to the weird stuff - I have made some poor decisions in the past, but this one seemed solid. I was half in the bag, and the mechanic said he was sober.

Anyway, we were driving through downtown Prince Albert on our way back to the trailer. It was dark, and we were in full bloom - singing drinking songs and yelling incoherent things to pedestrians. I'm going to guess that we were speeding also, and I'm going to guess that our mechanic wasn't as sober as he made himself out to be.

As we came toward a major intersection, I swore I could hear sirens.

I asked the mechanic if he heard anything, and he said "Nope!" then proceeded to accelerate. As we drove across the intersection, we saw a firetruck cross us, sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Then we T-boned a full-sized firetruck while driving at high speed.

Yup, that's right. We drove straight in the side of a moving firetruck with the bosses minivan. We were really lucky - if we had been about 20 feet further ahead, it would have T-boned us and I'd be blogging from beyond the grave.

The firetruck didn't stop, nor did it give any indication that they knew they had been hit. The firetruck kept on going down the street until we couldn't see it any more.

The minivan was mortally wounded, and it started to billow smoke from the engine and spray fluids all over the windshield. Just across the street from the intersection was a funeral home, and it had a parking lot. We still had a bit of momentum going, and the van coasted into the parking lot before giving a few shudders and dying for good.

Daryl had banged his knee pretty good, but other than that, we were all fine. We looked at each other in disbelief.

"We just hit a firetruck"

Then the mechanic started to realize the consequences of his actions.

Mechanic - "Oh shit guys, what do we do?"
Daryl - "We tell the boss the truth. Man I'm glad I wasn't driving"
Mechanic - "No way. I'm gonna tell the boss that his minivan got stolen."

The mechanic then threw the keys to the minivan as far as he could into the distance, losing them forever.

Mechanic - "Yeah, that's what we'll do. We'll tell the boss that overnight the van got stolen"
Me - "Hey, I just got this job. It's my first aviation job. I have been here 3 months, and I don't want to get fired. I'm telling the truth. After all, I wasn't the one who was driving drunk and hit a firetruck"
Mechanic - "I'm not drunk! I just had a few"
Daryl and I simultaneously - "Dude. We. Hit. A. Firetruck. It even had the sirens on."

So long story short, we walked several miles back to the trailer and went to sleep. The mechanic said he'd come clean and tell the boss the next day.

The next morning came, and the phone rang. It was our Ops Manager.

The mechanic answered the phone, and I could hear his side of the convo.

"Hey Chris. What? No way! It was parked here last night, let me look. Yeah, it's not here any more. It must have been hotwired and stolen. What? It had stolen licence plates on it too? I dunno. Oh, you want to talk to Daryl or Sully? They are asleep and I don't want to... Okay, okay fine."

He handed Daryl the phone and hung his head.

"Hi Chris. We were out at the bar last night and we hit a firetruck on the way home. Yeah, mechanic was driving. I have no idea what the stolen licence plates are all about"

Daryl hung up.

"Sully, you and I are to report to the boss in Stony this afternoon. He's paying for our tickets so we won't get bumped. Mechanic, you might as well take the sked flight back to Saskatoon"

The mechanic knew what the outcome was going to be when Daryl picked up the phone and had already started packing his stuff up to head south.

And that was that. Daryl and I flew up to explain to Dave Webster why his van was destroyed, and the mechanic started looking for another job. Dave was very against alcohol so he was pretty mad, but he did give us a lot of credit for refusing to drive, and for telling the truth about the firetruck. And we kept our jobs, which was important to us at the time.

So what was up with the stolen license plates?

As it turned out, the stolen license plates were completely unrelated to our adventure. A few weeks previous, Luke, (the pilot who rolled the Navajo with me in it) had been stuck in Prince Albert and had wanted to use the minivan. He noticed that the license plate stickers were out of date, so he did what any reasonable man would do, he took the plates off another car in the parking lot and put them on the minivan so he'd be nice and legal for driving. At least that's what I think his mental process was.

So that's my story. The closest I have ever come to dying was due to my aviation job, but it had nothing to do with actually flying.


Anonymous said...

I think I ran into that mechanic at another job. He's the SOB who said: "of course the mandatory modifications (Airworthiness Directives) are done - I made the logbook entry myself.."

But as it turned out - they weren't.

The Happy Flight Attendant said...

What a crazy freakin' story! Glad you made it through it!

moe said...

that is quite a story!`

Aviatrix said...

I believe you. I believe every word. I wouldn't have a year ago, but I've been there now.