One morning in the mid 1980s, a pilot named Fred came to my house. Since I had only met him on a few occasions at the coffee shop, I wondered why he had come to see me. After pleasantries, he explained that he had to fly to Sachs Harbour, but he had a problem.
“What’s the problem?” I asked. He informed me that because he was flying hospital staff on a Twin Otter, the hospital required him to have a co-pilot. The problem was his boss was out of town, so he didn’t have one available. I figured out where this conversation was headed.
“I don’t know how to fly a plane,” I said.
“You don’t have to know anything,” he said. I was super leery of the whole situation, but I finally agreed to go on the trip with him. Still, I told Fred a couple more times that I didn’t know anything about airplanes, so he would have to be careful and make sure that I didn’t screw this up for him. Fred was loosey-goosey and assured me everything would go smoothly. When I got to the Inuvik airport, Fred already had the Twin Otter parked in front of the terminal. We got the passengers loaded and got settled into the cockpit while he fired up the engines. As soon as my headset was on, Fred remarked, “now we can talk and nobody can hear what the f#$k we’re saying. Grab that checklist and start reading it to me.”
As I read each item on the list, Fred gave me a verbal response. I guess we looked half legit. He got the old girl out to the end of the runway and gunned the engines. We used less than half the runway to get airborne. We stayed that way for about five minutes. Then I noticed Fred looking at his gauges and tapping on them.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“My engine gauges have quit, but I think I know what the problem is,” he said. We flew on a while longer and then Fred suddenly dropped the panel above his head and began fiddling with the wires and connectors. He put the panel back in place, with no response from the gauges. Fred’s actions did not go unnoticed by some of the passengers. One of them came up to the cockpit and talked to Fred.
“I’m a private pilot. Is everything okay?” Fred told the pilot about the gauges and assured him that he knew how to deal with the problem.
As soon as we had trouble with the gauges, I started to weigh our options. We could have a two-and-a-half-hour flight over the Beaufort Sea at -25, or we could turn around and be back in Inuvik in 15 minutes. Turning back never entered Fred’s mind. I soon discovered that flying was tiresome, just like driving. Finally, the tiresome routine ended just before Sachs Harbor.
“We got hellish crosswinds on the runway and I want you to be ready to reef on the right side of the steering yoke as soon as we land,” Fred said through the headset. He was right. It was a grey, dirty day with little visibility. The crosswinds slammed into the side of the plane.
After landing, a suburban from the nursing station whisked the passengers into town. We had to wait in the airport for two-and-a-half hours before a woman from the nursing station showed up to tell us they were not going to be ready for the return flight for a couple more hours. Fred unloaded on her. “Do you mean you are going to leave us sitting in this terminal with nothing to drink or eat?” He asked. “Oh, you can come to the nursing station with me,” she said. The Sachs Harbor nursing station had a staff dining room with one table that could seat 10 or 12 people. They promptly served us supper. I was seated at the table across from a spunky nurse, who was also one of my passengers. Little Miss Spunky knew the aviation lingo much better than me.
“So, how long have you been in the right seat?” she asked. So, that’s what a co-pilot’s seat is called, I thought.
“Oh, a while,” I said. I then glanced at Fred who was sitting beside me and appeared to not have a worry in the world. With a big smile on his face, Fred looked at Nurse Spunky.
“He’s my best co-pilot,” he said. That took the pressure off me. An hour or so after supper we boarded the Otter for the return trip to Inuvik.
The crosswinds had died down and it was a smooth ride getting airborne. We were up to our flying height for some time when Fred told me to look for a small lever down by my right foot. In the dark, I searched and found the lever. “What do you want me to do?” I asked. “Flip it up,” he said. I flipped the lever up. “What does that do?” I asked. “It’s getting cold up here and that lever switches the heat from the back of the plane to the front,” he said. “Won’t the passengers get cold?” I asked. “F#$k em, let them freeze,” he said.
Flying back to Inuvik in the dark with the engine gauges still not working made me realize the job was not much more than being a glorified bus driver.
After landing back at the Inuvik airport, I helped the passengers get their gear off the Otter. As I was leaving the plane, a nurse behind me asked if I could fly her to Arctic Red the next day.
“You bet,” I said.
As we went our separate ways, I thought, my flying days were over. Besides, I should not have been flying airplanes anyways. I was a pessimist.