The weather was stormy. The waves were cresting, foaming over the rocks and hurled upwards to curve downwind out on the James Bay islands. The sea never looked worse from this angle, so I was glad I wasn’t out there in a canoe. I had drifted off course by 40 miles in the DC-3 I was piloting, but I still enjoyed the fact that I was now barely 200 feet over the Loon Islands.
The strong east wind slowed the war- and north-battered aircraft to walking speed over ground. The airspeed still indicated that we were going top speed. The fuel was fine and nothing seemed to inhibit the sturdy craft, even with relentless rain and regular lightning strikes making the radio pop seem like an acoustic explosion. There being no air control tower in Chisasibi, I dared to fly low, dangerously low.
In the late 1950s to the early ’80s, DC-3s changed our lifestyles to one that enabled us to fly regularly, carry incredible loads and even haul fuel for entire towns. In those days, fuels of all types were dirt cheap and dirty too – who could forget the acrid odour of an airplane’s exhaust fumes.
The plane was a legendary icon for the company I had worked for back in Fort George, with two flights a day. Timmins for $75 return was about the best deal around. About the only deal I really got out of it was the biweekly pay check of $17 and free trips anywhere on its routes. I also got into great physical shape by constantly lifting, loading, fuelling and unloading the thousands of pounds of cargo and hundreds of 45-gallon drums.
On one particular flight to Great Whale River in 1974, at 8,000 feet somewhere near Burton Lake, the co-pilot emerged from the front cabin. He casually got down on his knees and magically removed a panel from the floor. The other pilot emerged from the front and engaged in a loud yelling match with the other guy, now deep within the mechanical intestines.
My uncle, who I happened to be travelling with to Montreal, was a rather nervous fellow and lit up a cigarette. I forgot to caution him about the dangers of smoking in an area that smelled of gas, but my curiosity got the better of me. I had to go ask those occupied pilots just who was piloting the plane?
The captain looked up and replied, “Don’t worry, just make sure you put on your seatbelt, things might get turbulent. We’ll soon hit Hudson Bay and there’s plenty of head wind.” Okay, this is an obvious answer to an obvious question so I went to reassure my mother’s brother.
All this zoomed past me like a ghost of the past life I formerly lived. Once a pilot who dared to ply the Arctic skies, was today to be my last? The Douglas, built to withstand antiaircraft fire, might soon meet its demise in my rookie pilot hands as we neared Fort George.
On approach, the wings dipped dramatically close to the ground and I bounced the plane up and down until I remembered to brake. Just before the end of the runway, I came to a halt. Not bad for my first solo in the tail dragger. Flight simulators have come a long way, and for 40 bucks, I was able to go back to Fort George any time I felt like.