Part Two

      And so from my very first summer and a total of maybe 330 hours, I decided that I was going to make the most of every situation to enjoy my time and place. I remember living in a drafty log cabin on the edge of a freshwater lake, where the sunrise sent fingers of light probing through the spaces between the logs to warm my face. I would get up and watch the summer fog wisp across the glassy lake as the temperature rose ever so slightly from the golden rays of early light reflecting off the silent surface.
       I awoke before everyone in camp and had my aircraft ready to fly before daylight. Then I would go back to my bunk and wait for the day to begin. My favorite times of the day for flying were daybreak and sunset. There was nothing finer than doing a one float salute across the morning mirror, flying all day as the summers winds would build to 30 knots plus, and then coming home to execute a perfect glassy water landing in the golden evening dusk just minutes before the official end of civil evening twilight. From glass to glass was the story of my summers.
       My advice to the new recruits is "enjoy what there is to enjoy." Especially enjoy the freedom of floatplane flying, because even if you do get to the airlines you will regret your hurry the rest of your career. I have had countless British Airways and Air Canada pilots tell me that their life dream was to be a floatplane pilot flying in the wilds of the north, but their careers got in their way. And now they are trapped by the seniority list as sure as if they were locked in prison.
       Donít get me wrong. Being an airline Captain for a major is a great job, but itís not flying. Like an Aussie seaplane pilot told me one day, ďIíd be lying if I told you that I donít want to command a 747. Iíd take it in a minute if someone offered it to me.Ē But, I canít imagine how much different he would be if he had not flown C185ís down the Tasmanian rivers, brushed Beavers across the canopy of the Sydney Harbor Opera House, and splashed down Twin Otters into the atolls of the Maldives.
       That does not mean that I have not painted rocks at some sport fishing camp. I fact I did it willingly. In my spare time, I washed the airplane with the fresh water from the lake, I picked up the litter around the camp, I cut the grass, I brushed the undergrowth from the area surveyed out for the new cabin, I guided the tourists and baited their hooks, and generally took pride in doing every job as well as I would if I owned the place. I knew that although I loved the outdoor life as a bush pilot in the Canadian Shield, my time there was limited and I was going to make the most of it. I believe a testimony of how attitude toward work pays off is the fact that I have never been unintentionally unemployed in 25 years of bush flying. And I can honestly say that I have always worked where I wanted to work and not where I had to work.
       By the second summer, the new pilot might then have gained some winter flight time on wheels or skis or wheel-skis, and will often graduate to the bigger Cessna 180 floatplane. And if they are really good they might get to fly a Cessna 185 or Cessna 206. Beavers and Otters will only be given to pilots who are on their third or forth summer and have accumulated over 800 hours on floats, which takes on average 2-3 years to accomplish.
       Finally after completing 3-4 years, or approximately 1600 hours on floats, the pilots will at this time either decide to make a move to the commuter or feeder airlines or continue on floats. As the attrition rate at this stage is high, and most pilots will now move on to the larger airlines, the pilots who do stick it out will end up on the larger equipment, including the Beech 18, Turbo-Beaver, or Turbine-Otter.
       The next phase will be between the 2000 and 3000 hour mark where the boss will finally think you have what it takes to move onto the Caravan amphib or, less likely, the Twin Otter on floats. If any pilot continues past 5000 hours they will most likely stay in the bush for life. (Ha, ha, just joking! Hope I did not scare you too badly.) The real lifers are the bush pilots with anywhere from 6-8 thousand hours flying floatplanes. Those of us who move out to the warm water areas of the world, where the water don't freeze, will end up with 12 thousand hours plus on floatplanes and amphibians. Anything to avoid the white stuff, I say.
       With nepotism or a shortage of pilots these times will be shortened according to the severity of the shortage or the directness of relationship of kin. (Marry the bossís daughter if you can, although that does not work for everyone, eh Dave!) Shortages are cyclical and if you are lucky you will hit the short stroke.
       By the end of the third or forth summer is the point where it would be wise to make a move on getting your Instrument rating and ultimately your ATPL. Arenít you glad you got your multi years ago and have racked up 300 hours ferrying the bosses Travel Air back to Edmonton for itís annual inspection, and, hey, arenít you glad you did it at night! That time will come in real handy now. The good thing about the ATPL is that it is a ďpaperĒ licence, and you can study for it in your spare time. The problem with an ATPL is that it is a ďpaperĒ licence, and you donít get any extra training to go with it.
       It is also tied in with your IFR. If your IFR is not current your ATPL is not current. If your IFR is not current for 2 years then you have to rewrite your INRAT exam. Not a fun thing to have to do. So, the timing to get your IFR and ATPL has to be right. Donít bother if you really donít plan to keep up your IFR at least every two years, because you will forget everything you learned in the first place. If you donít use it you lose it. But, I would say that getting your IF ticket early in your career is a smart move. It shows your dedication to professionalism and toward a disciplined attitude. Even if you do not use it, you will have learned what it takes, and that is important.
       Once you get your IF ticket you can still continue flying floatplanes, but it would definitely be a good time to get a turbine job, but preferably not one on amphibs. That will come in due time. All the floatplane time that pilots accumulate will be working strictly off the water so that time is very valuable for building experience. If I were looking at a resume I would pick a floatplane pilot with 1200 hours over an amphib pilot with 2400 hours. As an amphib driver myself there are days I donít see water, except in a bottle. If you have floatplane time, however, I know that you have done well to survive 4 summers in La Ronge and not have punched the monkey.
       Pure float flying makes for the best overall and most satisfying experiences. Sometime during those 3 or 4 summers I just know any bush pilots will have flown through 55 knot winds, landed on a large lake with wind borne 2 foot swells, and endured 8-10 hour flying days with anywhere up to 30 water take-offs and landing in one day. I always say, ďA floatplane pilotís job starts once he touches down on the water and does not end until he gets airborne again.Ē It is all this actual on-water experience that makes a floatplane pilot what he is. After that accumulation of first hand experience taking an amphib job is like retirement. Ask the B.C.Tel Twin Otter guys. They are just flying around waiting for their hair to turn gray.
       Take one province in Canada as an example of what I am trying to explain. British Columbia has one of the longest coastlines in the world, where many communities, because of the background of mountains, are only accessible by either boat or floatplane. One company I worked for had over (wild guess) 80 floatplanes, and there were two other major companies competing for our business, with at least 5 other smaller companies with 6 planes or less. There were literally thousands of destinations, and each senior pilot would eventually know the details of each place not only during each phase of the seasonal weather cycle and but even through each change of the tide. The pilots virtually lived on the water. The west coast environment, with the summer outflows blowing down the inlets, and the winter southeast gales blowing up the inlets, honed our skills daily. You had to be good at flying floats or you would not survive the next flight.
       Despite the knowledge and skills it takes to be a good bush pilot, Canada takes their floatplane drivers for granted. By example I can show you what I mean. The few countries that have tried to start float plane operations on their own have had most of their start up problems because of not realizing how important the pilot is to the over all operation or they have avoided their problems by going to the source.
       The first amphib Caravan in the Andaman Islands crashed and sunk with a local pilot within the first week. They never brought in a second. Both of the first floatplane operators in Australia, including Aquatic Air in Palm Beach, had hired Canadian pilots. In the Maldives the Danish solved their problem of not having any local floatplane pilots by contracting all their pilots from a Canadian company. After two serious accidents with inexperienced pilots, Turtle Airways has hired almost exclusively Canadian floatplane pilots. An American oil service company in Nigeria, after struggling with 3 non-experienced floatplane drivers, finally started hiring Canadians and has continued that trend for 21 years. In fact, there are many Canadian pilots flying in Alaska. And, of course, the C206 floatplane pilot who flew along with Jacques Cousteau on his voyage up the River Amazon was a Canadian. The pilots who flew the Twin Otter floatplane for the Peruvian military during the building of the Trans-Andes pipeline were Canadian. Venezuela started a seaplane operation only to stall out because the local pilots kept moving to the airlines at the first opportunity leaving the operator with no one to continue their float flying business.
       The reason Canadian floatplane drivers are so valuable is, of course, because floatplane pilots go through an extensive "apprenticeship" to learn the art of flying off the water. For pilots who want to work overseas, I would advise that you first serve your apprenticeship at home in Canada. See Canada, and then bring your experience to the world. Moreover, many of the pilots that do stick it out are true blue bush pilots and won't abandon their seats in mid-season just because the commuters are calling. In order for any company to start and continue a successful floatplane/amphibian operation they first have to address the problem of getting and keeping well trained and experienced pilots.
       When it comes to providing good wages and solid benefits, many Canadian floatplane operators ignore this truism. They rely on having young eager pilots come in and work for the benefit of gaining experience. Of course the argument goes that since the Canadian operators are ďtrainingĒ these pilots as they build their experience, then they should not have to pay them a decent wage.
       The problem I have with that argument is that these companies rarely ever do any real training. A checkout on type usually consists of once around the pond. If the company is real good they may do a couple of hours, usually padded in the logbook to say 3 hours to satisfy Transport. But, a checkout is not training. A checkout is what companies are legally obligated to do to have the pilot occupy the left seat in the first place. Training goes beyond the checkout and will cover aircraft type and technical issues, cockpit resource management, emergency procedures, egress training, fire drills, engine out procedures, survival, precautionary landing techniques, inadvertent IMC practice, advanced floatplane procedures, and extensive line checks.
       Most companies do no real training at all. Their training logs may look tidy and up to date, but ask any pilot when he last did a simulated engine fire in flight leading to a dead stick landing with simulated evacuation procedures all done according to the manufacturerís checklist. Most likely never. I would be embarrassed to say how many different floatplane operators I have worked for in Canada where I never once got any training. All I ever got was a checkout and the owners expected me to be grateful for that.1
       If any company has hired a new pilot and not done at least 5 full hours of training where the new recruit spent 5-7 days with a senior experienced training captain, then the company has not even begun to do their job as a safe a reliable operator. Most regulations require 5 hours minimum for new on type and 2 hours minimum for recurrent training, but few companies ever do that. I know because for the last 10 years I have been a training pilot for various floatplane operations throughout the world and I am shocked by how many highly skilled pilots with 3000 hours plus, have never had any formal training past getting their commercial licence. Remember the ATPL is only paper work, and your last real training was your commercial.
       They have no idea of how to use a checklist, or how to conduct emergency procedures, or of how to do a proper PPC check ride. They have never had to show a training captain how they would conduct a precautionary landing, or what they would do if they had an engine fire. Many have never given a passenger briefing. Basically, they had no idea because their former Canadian employers had never followed through with the basic government requirements of training. These pilots are heavy on skills and light on procedures.
       I hired one pilot who I still admire enormously. He was very very young and very brash. He was going to be an airline pilot someday for Cathy Pacific, no doubt. He had a wife and a young healthy baby boy. When I hired him he promised me he would be grateful for the chance I was giving him. After all he was very young. I gave him all the normal training, which he did very well on. His flying skills were exceptional. In fact, I have never trained someone who was as absolutely precise and controlled as he was. He could literally land on an octopuses back. And, I recognized his type. He was the natural pilot. He did not like the bookwork of learning emergency procedures, but he got by on the first ride.
       Six month later, I hit him hard. I had been hearing about how this job was just a stepping-stone and he was going on to the airlines soon, so I decided to do him a favor. I liked him so much I decided to really make him work for his PPC, to prepare him for the day he has to do a real check ride with a real airline. I spent two days on recurrent training with him, emphasizing emergency procedures, and checklist procedural drills. Skills wise he was ready for his ride, but procedurally he was loath to pickup the checklist. I gave him lots of time to prepare, but on the day of his ride, he was not prepared. Although his flying skills were absolutely faultless, I failed him on improper use of the emergency checklist.
       The poor kid was devastated, especially after I took him off the line and rescheduled him for more recurrent training. He took the failure personally and brooded for days, making it through the recurrent training reluctantly. Finally, when I did conduct the second ride, much to his credit, he had studied and did the ride brilliantly. I commended him and told him that he had done a great job. But, he resigned a week later. He could not face up to the fact that he failed his ride the first time, when obviously lesser skilled pilots had passed their rides.
       I tried to explain to him that the lesser skilled pilot had proven that they knew their emergency procedures by using the memory items on the manufacturers checklist; where he had tried to bluff his way through by using his superior flying skills. That may impress some, but you would get nowhere with a major airline. Standard operational procedures and checklists are the way of your future if you plan to go to the airlines, so you had better get used to it.
       Unfortunately, he did not understand that and we lost a good pilot. I was angry at him for leaving the company in a bind, especially since we had paid for his family to come over when no one else would take the chance on such a young recruit, but I knew that someday he would understand why I pushed him so hard. Training is partly about honing your flying skills, but it is mostly about instilling mental discipline. Just because you are bush pilot does not mean you have to have a ďbushĒ mentality.
       I remember a valuable lesson my university English Literature professor taught me. When I got my English papers back he would have corrections and recommended changes in every white space available on the essay. I was horrified. Especially since another student had very few corrections written in her margins. What puzzled me was that both of us students had received an A.
       When I queried my prof about the multitude of remarks made on my paper and not on my classmates, he told me something I never forgot. He said, inevitably a professor will spend more time correcting a studentís paper if they think the student has potential. Where another student my get an A and no remarks, is where the professor realizes that this student, although very good, has no further potential and they will not spend the time attempting to further their progress. But, the student with all the remarks and corrections on their essay is the one they believe will excel and really make an impression in their chosen field of study.
       Well floatplane companies are not universities and owners are not professors, but the principle is the same. To me a bush pilot can be and should be as professional and well trained as the best commuter airline pilots. What it takes is a lot of energy and commitment from the company management and from the pilot. Teach technical know-how and operational procedures right from the ground up. Teach cockpit resource management to the pilot about to take over your C185. Teach emergency procedures from 3500 feet and down. Teach, but donít preach. Write in the margins. Teach by example. Run your company well and you can expect the best of your pilots. Run your company poorly, but donít expect to blame it on the pilots. Proficiency comes from the top down. Itís up to the operators to take the bush out of the bush pilots, by providing a safe and efficient learning atmosphere through which the pilots can excel.
       I would like to make one other point about apprenticeships. If your company does spend an inordinate amount of time actually training you to fly for them, does that mean they can pay you less? NO. In fact, the opposite is true. The more time the company spends training the pilot the more valuable the pilot becomes to the operation and thus the more they should be paid. Try to explain that to your boss.2
       If the company spends no time training the pilot, then they canít tell him that the pilot owes them for the checkout. But, at the same time, if the company spends the time to train their pilot then they realize their worth to the company and should pay accordingly. What that means is that bush pilots in general and floatplane pilots specifically are valuable commodities. They are ďcommercialĒ and have the right to fly for hire and reward, and they should do so. To fly for hours or to build time is to violate the principles on which a commercial pilot licence is based on. I make a point of remembering every pilot who offers to fly for free. I make a point of never hiring them. You get what you pay for, and from my experience the more we pay our pilots the better we can expect them to be. In fact, maybe if we paid them better than when the time came to make the big decision to move on, the pilot would elect to stay.
       Finally, I will give my answer to an earlier question. What is stopping low time pilots from having as much fun as high time pilots? After 25 years of bush flying, I can safely say I know the answer, even if the obsessed pilot does not. The only thing stopping low time pilots from having fun is the obsession to build time. I have seen it time and time again. The most disgruntled and restless and dissatisfied pilot are the ones that believe that building time is an end to a means. It may be, but it most likely is not.
       Working for nothing, or next to nothing, to build time is like cutting in line at the bank hoping that there will be more money for you if you are first. Or fighting your way onto a bus, to find out there was a seat for everyone anyway. Either way, you have gained nothing.
       What any pilot gains on the way to experience is the experiences. The experience of an autumn morning when you have to bucket the relatively warm water out of the lake to melt the frost off the wings, before you leave the goose hunting camp for the last time this season. The experience of skimming your floats along the top of a pure white glacier as you pass through a 9000-foot mountain pass under the bluest sky ever imaginable, and then have your breath stolen and your head reel as the bottom drops out when the plane passes over the plunging 6000-foot cliff. The experience of reeling in the fattest walleye you have ever caught as you are ďtest anglingĒ a new lake. The experience of standing on the wing of your Beaver and having a gray whale dive under your floatplane so close that you feel the plane rise and fall with the passing of her enormous body. The experience of being the first pilot ever to have landed on a remote blue lagoon on the northern tip of the Maldives, and have the village chief hand you a coconut fresh from the tree to greet your arrival. The experience of hearing the cheering of hundreds of native children deep in the West African rainforest as they see a white man and an airplane for the first time in their lives. The experience of pulling a barbed fishhook out of a native American Indian boyís ruddy cheek, because he would only trust the pilot and not the nurses. The experience of flying up the Canaima River ravine in Venezuela and wondering if floatplane pilot Jimmy Angelís heart was beating heavily when he discovered the tallest falls in the world in 1930. The experience ofÖ Need I go on?

Because I can.  In fact, I can go on for a lifetime...Amphibious Cessna C208 Caravan in Venezuela
George Komander  was checked out on 727, Hughes 500, and C208, and packed a Colt 45

       Before I wrap up, however, I will offer one final word of advice. Invest. The day you get out of university or college with the desire to become a bush pilot, walk right over to your bank branch and open a mutual funds account. Donít go for the life insurance scam or the freedom 55, but start a mutual funds account. Start with $25 per month, or $50 if you can muster the cash, but start with something. Then have the bank put that $25 per month into a growth fund with no front end and no back end. Just use a good bank run investment fund. Then every time you get a job, or get a promotion, or get a raise, reward yourself by adding another $25 into the monthly payment.
       If you lose your job, or go on unemployment, or burn the bossís plane to the ground, punish yourself by not increasing your monthly input to your fund. Challenge yourself by finding ways to increase your fund. And never look back. Never stop putting any money in. Even if all goes to hell keep the minimum amount going in monthly. If you can find the cash to put fuel in your Escort, you can find the cash to put your $25 bucks in your fund.
       Following this advice, more than anything, will make you the best bush pilot there can ever be. You will have the confidence that comes with security, and you can pick and choose your employment as you see fit. I can also bet that if you do so, you will retire with a better retirement income than the Air Canada pilots that had been making so much when you were living the lifestyle they so desperately missed. Most of them will attempt to live the high life while depending on their Air Canada pension. If that is all they've got, they really donít have much.

Article and Images by John S Goulet

Note from the Editor. For an essential essay on the romantic notion of what defines a bush pilot read Romance of the Aviator

1   A memorable exception was Island Air of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. With Ted, the crusty old operations manager, and senior pilots like Don and Bill, Island Air put together and trained a band of professionals of which no fewer than 7 of the pilots I know went on to own their own air services after the dismantling havoc of the early Air BC days. 
    I would like to thank the management of Willbros Energy Services, Pan African Airlines, Hummingbird Island Airways, Knee Lake Air Services, Air Hotel, Travira Air, and The Seaplane Company among several others who really allowed me to train their pilots to the highest level possible for the type of operations they were conducting, and believed that a well trained pilot is the bedrock of a professional flight organization.

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Editor John S Goulet


Last modified on March 05, 2006.
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