When three local planes went down last fall, Yellowknife was left reeling. Here's how a community built on bush flying got the wind back under its wings. By Katherine Laidlaw
One brisk October day, a smattering of people stood outside a Yellowknife airplane hangar. It would have been an ordinary sight if they’d been in coveralls and fluorescent-yellow work vests, smokes hanging from their mouths, legs dangling from truck tailgates. But on that Saturday there was no fluorescent yellow, and no workday banter. Earlier, 800 people had waited in the wind to enter the Adlair Aviation hangar, though there were chairs for just 400. Two dolled-up girls handed out deep-red ribbons at the door, the satin scraps the only colour amid the shuffling black figures lining the walls and filling the plastic chairs. Simple white candles were gathered on a table at the front, specks of light barely visible through the crowd. They’d come to commemorate Matthew Bromley, a 28-year-old pilot and a member of one of Yellowknife’s most prominent families. Known for his wide smile and bottomless pit of a stomach, Bromley was a quintessential Yellowknife boy. He’d grown up dreaming of the skies, working at the town’s movie theatre through high school and earning an aviation scholarship. He got a job hauling cargo on the ramp at Air Tindi, where he eventually moved up to flying Caravans, the kind of plane he was flying when it crashed during a routine flight to Lutselk’e earlier that week.
The memorial felt like a party at a morgue. There’s no place in Yellowknife big enough to seat 800. Friends flew in from all across the country. Every person who spoke at the podium cried, and not softly, including Tindi’s president. “There are 10-year-olds who can identify every Tindi aircraft by their serial numbers and paint scheme. Matthew was one of these,” said Peter Arychuk, president and CEO of Air Tindi and a longtime Yellowknifer. “All the boys in Yellowknife want to be pilots.”
The hangar door rolled slowly up into the ceiling, aluminum siding giving way to a grey sky, as the whole crowd turned to face the wind. One plane went by, and another, and finally a Caravan emerged, dipped its wings in tribute, steadied and rose again into sky, which had cleared up just for the fly-by, one last sign of respect and farewell for a fallen pilot.
Last fall, three Yellowknife planes went down. The crews of each were killed. For the North’s aviation community, it was the worst six weeks they’d endured. The facts are these: Sixteen people died, nine passengers and seven crew. The first plane was a First Air Boeing 737-200, a jet bound from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay, Nunavut, chartered by Nunavut businessman Aziz Kheraj. There were 15 on board, 12 of whom died when the plane hit the side of a mountain while trying to land. Kheraj’s six-year-old granddaughter was one of the deceased. The second plane was an Arctic Sunwest Twin Otter returning from a mine site at Thor Lake. It crashed into a narrow strip of asphalt between two buildings in Yellowknife’s densely populated Old Town neighbourhood, overshooting the float base where planes come and go regularly. There were nine people on board; the two pilots were killed. The third plane was Bromley’s Caravan. It was a foggy day and there were four people on board, taking the “sked” across the lake. In addition to Bromley, a passenger was killed. There were two survivors.
But, in a city where bush pilots are as common as bus drivers, and where planes fly so low the homes shake, facts don’t mean much. The North’s lore is built on bush pilots – men like Grant McConachie, Wop May and Chuck McAvoy, taking risks, blazing trails, flying through harrowing weather to deliver supplies to communities, rescue stranded hunters or play the saviour in medical emergencies. Their escapades are legendary, but so are the crashes that inevitably accompany such daredevil activities. Roald Amundsen, the great explorer, died in a plane crash in the Arctic. McAvoy did too, after famously swearing that if he went down, his plane would never be found. (He was wrong, they did find it, but it took four decades.) Many of the North’s earliest heroes were pilots – and in a place with few roads, where air is the only way in or out, they remain heroes today.
Explaining the shockwaves of last fall’s events is thus a challenge – and even more so in a town so small and intimate. According to Statistics Canada, 315,000 passengers travel through Yellowknife by plane each year, a per-capita rate far exceeding Lester Pearson International in Toronto. In a city of 18,000 people, there are nine commercial airlines. Over the past decade, there have been an average of 54 air-related fatalities in Canada each year. Consider, then, that 16 people died in Yellowknife aircraft in a period of just six weeks last year and you begin to understand the magnitude of the tragedy. For two months, it cast a black spectre over a city so reliant upon – and so in love with – its airline industry. The local news ran stories about how passengers were terrified to fly. Peter Mansbridge interviewed one of the survivors on The National. Plaintive Facebook posts by Yellowknifers asked why planes were falling from the sky. Flowers piled onto Bush Pilot’s Monument, a memorial for the pilots who blazed their way through the North in the ’20s and ’30s. By the time the third plane crashed in early October, the feelings were less of abject sorrow and more of utter disbelief.
On August 20, 2011, Jane Hare’s husband Dave didn’t come home. If he had, Jane would have been at the airport in Yellowknife, waiting to board a flight to Edmonton when – for the first time in their 15 years together – Dave would be her commercial pilot. He would have cracked a joke, she says, about his wife being in row 14, seat F, and she would have blushed. They were taking the trip to Edmonton to shop for furniture for the house they’d bought three months before. That morning, Dave left early to report to work as first officer on a Boeing 737 from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay. Jane dropped two of her young daughters, Lily and Adelyn, off at a friend’s house. They were thrilled to have a weekend sleepover. As she turned to leave, her friend Tanya arrived in the doorway, face white and hands shaking, saying there’d been an accident and Jane had to come. And then, she says, “a lot of things became a blur.” They went back to her house, and people began to rush in as though a tap had been left on. Jane went into her bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed looking out the window. “I felt like I was reading the most tragic story I’d ever heard and all I wanted to do was call Dave and tell him about it. But I knew, because he hadn’t called and he would have called, that he wasn’t coming back.”
She thought about going back and picking up the girls, now blissfully playing with friends. But she chose to let them stay, to give them “that last sleep with the innocence of knowing they had a daddy that was alive.”
Now, four months later, on her windowsill, there’s a bouquet of purple and pink carnations in a vase. It brightens up a home whose walls are conspicuously bare, the sign of a family not quite settled after a move. She doesn’t know who the flowers are from. The tag reads, “Your life has touched ours.” Her driveway is shovelled, sometimes twice a day, she’s not sure by who. She doesn’t know it yet, but friends of her husband are planning to do some painting while she’s away visiting her family on the east coast for Christmas. Meals on Wheels delivers food to her home every three days. Once, on a trip to the bank, she looked up to see the teller crying. “I thought, ‘wow, this must be really bad.’ It reminds me of what happened. When you’re in shock, you forget how bad it really is.” Her dining room table is piled with the paperwork that accompanies a sudden death. She stumbles when asked how old she is – 34? 35?
Jane and Dave met one summer when she was 19, two adventurers making money in Jasper, Alberta, before heading back to school. “He’s been the biggest part of my life. All the firsts. It’s all I know,” she says. Dave loved the outdoors, the journey, the open road, she says. He was a long-time tree planter, so it made sense, after all that time in helicopters and bush planes, that he wanted to get his pilot’s licence and go north.
There, the pair amassed a friend-group of mostly pilots and their girlfriends, starting from Dave’s early days at Air Tindi. The dozen-or-so of them became a family. Dave and his pilot buddies had an insatiable thirst for duck-hunting and fishing trips, while Jane and her friends would host dinners for themselves and their kids while their husbands were away flying. After Dave’s death, her friends were with her constantly. When Jane needed a glass of water, there was already one by her hand. When she needed a dress for Dave’s service, a rack of dresses donated from a local shop appeared in her bedroom. When she needed a haircut, there was already an appointment made. When she needed to feed her newborn, Genevieve, a friend was there to remind her.
A few days after the service, Jane stood in her kitchen as a collection of friends chatted in the next room. Suddenly, she gripped the counter, and pilot Jeff Bowden looked up at her. A jet thundered overhead. “It shakes the whole house,” she said. Flying was her family’s life, and for Jane, that hasn’t changed. “If this happened and Dave survived, and he was brought back, I wouldn’t have any hesitation about him going back and flying again. I know that sounds crazy. I don’t know why this happened but I would still support him flying up here.”
Michael Ericsson is getting pretty good at Flight Simulator. It’s how he spends much of his time now, in between hobbling on crutches to doctors’ appointments or counselling sessions or the grocery store. “I know from the game that you can hit the water really hard and the floats shoot you back up,” he says, beaming with pride. This wasn’t how he expected to spend this winter, reliving what he and his fiancée call “the accident” by using a computer game. That day left the 28-year-old with a centipede scar winding up his broken leg, a metal plate holding his femur in place and a Harry Potter-style mark on his forehead.
On September 22, Ericsson boarded a plane chartered by Avalon Rare Minerals to Thor Lake, a diamond mine outside of Yellowknife, to take photos for this magazine’s sister publication, Up Here Business. Here’s what he remembers: packing up his gear. Getting on the plane after eating lunch with the two pilots, Nicole Stacey and Trevor Jonasson. Sitting on the right side of the plane, mid-way to the back. Taking off. Bouncing really hard when the plane hit the water as it neared the Yellowknife float base. Seeing the Air Tindi sign flash right outside his window. Hearing the plane crash again into the water. And realizing quickly, as he started to scream, that the plane was about to crash into an office building. He remembers his leg collapsing. Then he blacked out.
At the Old Town float base, just off McDonald Drive as it turns the final bend before the road meets the Latham Island causeway, neighbours are used to the drone of planes. The sounds become comfortable summertime background noise: the familiar rumble of the take-off, the long rush of the landing. That autumn afternoon, when the plane dove into the asphalt just shy of the office building, the metal-on-metal crash signalled catastrophe. It shuddered through the glass recyclers’ cooperative next door, the bed-and-breakfast across the street, and residences up and down the winding boulevard, tearing down power lines and spilling fuel across the pavement. In seconds, the street was filled with people, running toward the accident. “There was so much screaming,” says Charlotte Overvold, who held Ericsson’s hand that day on the street after he was pulled out of the plane. “So many people were heroes.”
Still wearing his apron, glasses precariously sliding down the end of his nose, artist Matthew Grogono began hauling injured passengers out of the left cargo door, away from the smoking right engine and the leaking fuel. Staff carrying blankets and towels came running from the B&B, whose parking lot had become a frenetic triage centre where people administered CPR and pressed t-shirts to bleeding wounds. An emergency-room doctor who lives around the corner came running and called the hospital, which declared a code orange to prepare for mass casualties. Those who’d been pulled alive from the plane were lined up like ducks along the curb, waiting for their turn to go to the hospital as police cordoned off the area.
Anxious onlookers lined the rocky outcrops that rise above the street. One prominent CBC host paced across the rock, thinking his brother might have been on the plane. Another man stood taking pictures; two weeks later, his cousin would die in the Tindi crash. “Right away, you want to know who’s on that plane,” Ericsson says. “If it happens here, you know them, or someone you know knows them.”
As for Ericsson, after two weeks in the hospital and four and a half months of recovery, his priorities have changed. For one, he wants to have kids with his fiancée sooner than they’d planned. And, he wants to master Flight Simulator.
At the Bromley service, Bob Bromley, Matt’s uncle and a territorial MLA, was master of ceremonies. “Before we begin, the family wants to offer their deepest thanks to the following people, whose help was offered before they even had to ask.” He read off nearly every airline in town, along with grocers, shopkeepers, a copy centre, and endless individuals. After the tragedies, each airline pitched in. First Air reportedly spent close to $100,000 flying grieving loved ones to Yellowknife. The companies provided counsellors, and each offered planes for the others’ flybys. Particularly poignant was the Canadian North plane that flew in the First Air flyby to pay its respects to its fiercest competitor. The First Air service was held at the Arctic Sunwest hangar. The Arctic Sunwest memorial was held at Buffalo Airways' hangar. And the Tindi service was held at Adlair. “At that point,” says Bowden, the First Air pilot, “it doesn’t matter what company’s logo you’re wearing. We’re a family.”
“Flying is hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror.” That’s how the old saying goes, coined by a World War II flyboy. But when Keith Shergold was a little boy in southern Ontario, he didn’t see it that way. A pile of sticks and tissue paper, a model-airplane kit given to him by his dad, was enough to hook him for life. It set him on a path dedicated to flying on planes that could land anywhere, no matter how exotic or wild.
Now the training captain for Twin Otters at Arctic Sunwest, the 38-year-old laughs when he talks about pilot superstitions. Some have a lucky hat. Some won’t say the number 13 on the radio. Some think it’s bad luck to claim they don’t believe in bad luck. One winter, Shergold and his co-pilot kept a pack of hot dogs in the nose corner of their plane. Caught without food and stranded for a day in Howard’s Pass on the Yukon border, Shergold swore he’d never do the flight again without a back-up pack of dogs. “Standing around the fire with no wieners sucks. Standing around a fire with wieners is better,” he says. They had clear weather the rest of the winter. “The hotdogs were in there a good six months before they started to stink,” he says. The first piece of advice he gives to pilots in training is to always wear boxer shorts, not tight white briefs. “As a float plane pilot, you’re going to have to jump in the water at some point. You might as well try to do it with dignity.”
But luck’s not a factor in training, or in flying. And, as he says, it’s not a party zone in the sky. So much of flying is so heavily scripted you wouldn’t know if the pilot and co-pilot even knew each other at critical points like take-offs and landings. And there’s absolutely no chance or luck involved when it comes to training new recruits. Three months ago, he began training replacements for the Sunwest pilots who died. Training can take up to hundreds of hours, between ground school, in-flight practice and emergency procedures. “We fly these things without being able to see out the window, following needles on the dashboard. You can’t be confused, even for a second,” he says.
Shergold moved North to fly Twin Otters. When his company’s plane crashed last autumn, those two pilots who died were his former trainees. Boarding a plane again was tough. “It was difficult to go back to work and have to act like everything was normal. But you have to,” he says. “You have a responsibility to keep flying airplanes. There’s no getting back in there and daydreaming about, ‘boy, I wish that hadn’t happened.’”
Passion for the job, he says, is non-negotiable. He’s drawn to the adventure, the mystery, the three-dimensional world above the clouds. He calls his plane the “Swiss army knife of airplanes. It can fly in the dark. It can go to the North Pole. I can land on a lake, I can land on snow.” But sometimes, it’s as simple as a stunning sunset to keep him in the sky. “I love looking out the window. You know? Seeing waterfalls, and trees, and caribou. We still go places no one has been before.”