Friday, 31 January 2014

It Takes A Village

"If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others."  African Proverb

One of the people in this plane is a
Retired Major General - and it's not me!
The first time I met Scott Eichel, he and Don were practicing instrument approaches.  I didn't know what The-H they were doing with that fancy playbook they were following, all I knew was that I was thrilled to be invited along for the ride.  It wasn't until Don was cleared for an RNAV into Nanaimo, that Scott handed the set of plates back to me so that I could follow along.  I stopped taking pictures and started paying attention.

Aside from being a lot fun - these
people know where all the best food is!
This was a couple of flights into a period where I was in between instructors.  I had recently returned to flying after a too-long break and was a little bit frustrated that I wasn't flying.  My first day back "a little bit frustrated" may have looked like a temper tantrum.  Lucky for me, the Victoria Flying Club's resident group of rec flyers noticed and invited me to tag along.  We took two planes and, like any group of good friends, they had a familiarity and joviality with each other that I loved.  "No Spins!"  It was great fun.  I was "their student" and until I found the great and powerful Sean Tyrrell, they were my lifeline.

I swiped this off the internet.
Don't tell him.
The day I was introduced to IFR Approach Plates, I was having such a good time, I didn't have a clue that Scott was mentoring me.  I don't think he did either - or maybe he did and like all good teachers, didn't let me in on it but he kept me very interested.

What I didn't know about Scott was that he is a Retired Air Force Major General.  After a bunch of interesting twists in his military career including working in a psych hospital, Scott received his permanent commission in 1963, with the rank of flying officer.  Although Scott had always wanted to be a pilot (and to hear him tell this story is fantastic!) he had "a bad eye and an okay aptitude" so he didn't think he would ever become one.  Around that time the Air Force let go of 500 pilots and navigators and, of course, in the ensuing years there became a incredible need for experienced air crew and he was selected for pilot training.  Military pilot training "trained you to be a captain",  and he became an Argus captain with a crew of 10.

With the USAF T-38 Talon in Arizona
One day I got brave and asked Scott who his most memorable teachers were.  He would dream up scenarios for weather and mechanical problems - the "what-ifs" and would bring them to guys he respected and ask them if they would work through a problem with him.  "What if you were half way between Iceland and Goose Bay and you lost an engine?"  He would work out all the combinations and all of his options, and the senior pilots would critique them.  He learned that when you're in the fighter and bad stuff happens, you deal with the immediate stuff first and worked through everything else with the crew.

"There was one guy in particular who decided that he was going to make something outta me."  With his powerful booming voice, when Bill Muse talked you couldn't help but listen.  He had been flying Lancasters in the Arctic and had the ability to take complex problems and translate them into useful terms.  He taught Scott that you always have to have a gopher hole that way you always have an out.  It was important to be aware of all your options.

At the other end of the spectrum was a navigator, Ed, who was a consummate professional.  He was quiet and meticulous, he left no stone unturned.  He would talk things out with violent men and never criticised.  He played no favourites.  He was a man who lead by example; all you had to do was watch and learn.  Hmmmm... sounds familiar.

After a distinguished career as a pilot, Ret. Major-General Eichel, went on to and equally interesting career "in the bowels of National Defense Headquarters".  These days, while not charming everyone at the Flying Club, Scott gives back to the aviation community as the President of the Vancouver Island Aircrew Association, an association of military aircrew.  Most of the members of the association are former bomber and fighter pilots who are now in their 90's, some decorated.  Scott tells me that it's a privilege for a young-blood like him to be celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the RCAF on April 1 at Government House with this group of distinguished gentleman.  These men are the last of their generation of warriors.

"Indeed I have had a number of mentors over the years … whether they knew it or not." Scott Eichel

Todd Lemieux, paying it forward with the Cadets
at the Victoria Flying Club, 2013
Vintage Wings of Canada Chairman, Todd Lemieux, learned important lessons early on.  As a "farm kid with some motor skills" learning to fly in the Air Cadet program, he was surrounded by achievers which, by default, forced him to get his stuff together.  Chris Weisgerber, the guy who taught him to fly gliders, was going to medical school at the time and one day he asked Todd what his plans were.  "You're going to university right?"

He didn't have any plans - he hadn't really thought about it before.  So he got some.

While Todd was earning his PPL his instructor, Bill McKinnon, taught him something he will never forget.  Bill was a "philosopher" instructing in Manitoba.  Todd was a cocky 17-year old kid with a high skill level and false sense of confidence.  On the ground after a bad flight Bill walked away from Todd saying: "If you're not good enough without it, you'll never be good enough with it."  Over the years that really sunk in.  He realized that "you can't be defined by ratings, you are defined by the character it takes to achieve them."  There's a certain satisfaction that comes from achieving.

"It's just what we do."
Tony (Anthony) Slugoski, who is now a member of the Saskatchewan Aviation Hall of Fame, saw character in the kids in the Air Cadet program and developed that.  Todd was one of them.  He was broke and Tony would let him fly the SIM for free - or let him rent it at bottom cost.  At a time when he had limited resources available to him, Tony's mentorship allowed him to advance his abilities and Todd couldn't pass up the opportunity to engage the bomber pilot.

Todd's early experiences with guys with that WWII mentality who just loved to fly have shaped who he is today. "They told cool stories but never boasted because there were so many other guys who didn't make it home.  It would have dishonoured their fallen comrades to boast."

And it is that reverence for those who came before him that drives him in his volunteer Chair position with Vintage Wings.  He spends his time with super passionate people who are into the art of flying.  "Plus you get to fly really cool airplanes and give others an opportunity to experience them too."

"Learning to fly is not purely mechanical.  Your character, developing your judgement, decision making, and fortitude bring achievement."  Todd Lemieux

She really does fly that plane!  At
Air Canada Kelly's dreams came true.
At 22 years old Kelly Jamieson's dreams were vivid and she was filled with hope.  Around that time she had an opportunity to meet and speak with a Chief Pilot on the Big Jets.  Fresh faced, she looked at him and said: "I'm gonna do what you do one day."  And he looked down at her and said: "Oh no you're not."  She was devastated.

"It's amazing how significant events shape who we are.  He looked at me like he was saying: Who do you think you are?  You've got so much to learn."  And she did.

Kelly didn't have a mentor but I knew after hearing Kelly's inspiring story at the BC Aviation Council's "Bridging the Skills Workshop" that she is a woman who-never-gives-up!  And there were lots of times when she could have - and a lot of people would have.  She had a number of dispatch and office jobs with various aviation companies, moved across the country more than once, and was continually passed over for flying positions because she was a woman.  She knew that to be true because she was boldly told exactly that.  While in a ground position in Vancouver Kelly's boss took her out for a nice lunch and told her: "We don't hire women to fly for us."  Women ran the operations, men flew, and they "would understand if you left to fly elsewhere."

The first time I saw Kelly speak
at the BC Aviation Council
She was really frustrated but she was resilient.  She knew if she quit she would always regret it.  Lucky for Kelly she has a tight community of good friends in and out of aviation, who supported her and always told her that it would be worth it.  And eventually, even though she was delivering fliers to supplement her income, she finally got a shot to fly.

She reflects now on how it's interesting how what are seemingly passing events can have such a lasting effect on someone else's life.  One day Kelly had to do a routine maintenance check on a King Air 100.  She called a girlfriend who had previously been a pilot but had given up her career because her husband had been a pilot with Cathay to see if she wanted to tag along.  Her friend was in the middle of a divorce and was finding it scary on her own again. That flight changed everything.  Today that girlfriend flies for Encore.

Today Kelly is a pilot with Air Canada and a one of the champions of the Aviation Leadership Foundation where they have developed a mentorship program that in it's first year has shown amazing results.  While it started as a safety platform, one of the aims of the Aviation Leadership Foundation is to create a more connected aviation community.  It quickly became apparent that there were gaps in industry leadership so they developed their leadership skills and put together this program to assist others in developing their own.

For her it was a long, tough, scary road.  She would like to see others receive the support from the community that she was missing.  She likes seeing people reaching their goals and becoming better leaders.  For many, the experience has been life changing.  "Everyone learns from each other and it's been valuable to everyone involved.  The interest is there and the appreciation is there.  People are hungry to connect and it's amazing to connect with people who have a passion for flying."

"The smallest connections can lead to such large scale change." Kelly Jamieson

 West Jet Captain Gord Simmons (left)
with his good friend from cadets, 
Air Canada Captain, John Sterchi
Gordon "Gordo" Simmons, has a photograph of himself sitting in an F-18 Hornet when he was a kid.  What he remembers most about that experience is that the Air Force Captain looked him straight in the eye and said: "You could totally do this you know."

Now a WestJet Captain and Yellow Wings of Canada pilot, he earned his wings in six weeks with the Air Cadet program.  He had his night rating before he could drive a car and his Dad had to drive him to the airport.  During this time he developed life-long contacts including Todd Lemieux and John Sterchi.  At that age they had a constant stream of positive adults that encouraged them.

Gord has always just loved being around airplanes.  He was a refueller for five years while he was instructing gliding, and had a number of jobs on the ramp.  In the early 90's there were no flying jobs and while he was moving airplanes he got to sit with the pilots and get to know them - and they got to know him. Because of those connections he was eventually offered an opportunity to fly.  In the years that have followed he has had an opportunity to fly a ton of amazing aircraft in a number of jobs that included seven years flying Medivacs up North - three in three out.

He was already flying a King Air when on a commercial flight in an Air Canada A340, he was given an opportunity to sit up front and talk to the crew who were really welcoming and they let him know that he was absolutely on the right track.  It's important to have someone to encourage you that way.

In 1996, the aviation business picked up and WestJet came to town.  About 4000 to 5000 pilots immediately applied and he is one of the lucky ones who gets to call that fancy cockpit "the office".  He loves working at WestJet where there are no set routes which makes you capable of flying everywhere.  "You just go to work and go."  I asked Gord if it's true that even the pilots groom the plane.  Yes they do.  Although most people think it's a cost saving measure (and it is) it's also part of the esprit de corps.  They get the airplane turned around quickly and everyone, from the office to the ramp, have a single vision in delivering the best experience to the guest.  He has his dream job.  "I love it!  I gotta pinch myself."

Flying with Vintage Wings is also unbelievably rewarding for Gord.  He gets to talk to people who are interested and involved.  He has always had an affinity for the military and it's aviation history.  He loves the opportunity to fly with people he really admires and being part of the larger aviation community.

"Pursue what you love.  Do things you like and enjoy with people you like doing them with.  Chase Airplanes.  Have fun!"  Gord Simmons

Sam and his wing.
Richard and his win.
While Todd, Gord, and John met in cadets some of us meet in Starbucks. Some of the magic about aviation is the community that is created with the people you meet along the way.

I love it when everything clicks.  Like when I discovered that the guy I met at Starbucks is a flier too, and so is his friend, who I hadn't met yet, but was about to, and when we did, we all instantly became fast friends because we were all connected by the passion and challenge and all the questions that come with learning to fly.  That connection creates a community where it's safe to talk about where you are winning, and where you are totally blowing it.

We all have different reasons for wanting to fly.  Some of us want to take the family on vacation.  Some of us want to face our fear and do it anyway.  Some of us just know that when we are up there we get to experience who we really are.  At the end of the day it doesn't matter why we want it, as Todd Lemieux says: "It's just what we do."

David Gagliardi has taught me so
much just from knowing him.
Those same people in the beginning who had generously wrapped their arms around me and invited me in were, quite frankly, happier than I was that I passed my flight test.  They literally held my arms over my head and cheered for me.  They had been waiting for me to cross that line without ever making me feel less-than for not having done so already.  They believed in me when I didn't. That's what I love about those people.

I think Gord Simmons said it best when he said: "I love airplanes.  I love airports.  And I love airplane people.  It's all about the airplane people."

Again, who's the luckiest girl in town?  That would be me!  Period.

My instructor, Sean Tyrrell, and I two days after I passed
my flight test. This man has learned a way to challenge me
that's a real screw turner. We are laughing about it now - I think.

Some of my favorite airplane people at one of my favorite airports.

Circa 1979. I can't talk about mentorship without talking about my Dad.
That will be a whole 'nother blog. Ode to my Daddy - wait for it!
Howard Peng: Friend, Mentor, Inspiration

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful read, thank you. On a personal side, both my boys went through the Air Cadet program, which has something for everybody, not just flying. Any cadet I have known has become a productive member of society. And for me, any airport is home to me.