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Life or Strife?: The Tradeoffs of Living With a Helicopter Pilot

Life or strife? The happiness of a helicopter pilot’s spouse is largely a matter of attitude. Hopefully this will be useful information for the wives or future spouses of helicopter pilots and perhaps informative to married pilots. A word to the wise. I have been married for 39 years to a helicopter pilot and know whereof I speak. There are many good times and there are some really tough times, for both parties.


March 31, 2008
By Linda Armstrong

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lifeorstrife
Over the years Linda has joined Ken on numerous flight missions that have involved travelling to remote parts of Canada and around the world.

Life or strife? The happiness of a helicopter pilot’s spouse is largely a matter of attitude. Hopefully this will be useful information for the wives or future spouses of helicopter pilots and perhaps informative to married pilots. A word to the wise. I have been married for 39 years to a helicopter pilot and know whereof I speak. There are many good times and there are some really tough times, for both parties.

Over the years we have had many long separations that leave this home-bound spouse holding the home front.  These calamities have included calls on overdue flight plans, crashed helicopter enquiries, floods, roof repairs and banking emergencies to mention a few. Admittedly, I didn’t have to deal with the major challenge of raising children on my own. However, I have watched other families and there are rarely opportunities to spend summer holidays together as that is the busy season for a pilot, so visiting the family or the beach may be something one has to face alone. On balance, we could travel together extensively over the slow winter months cementing our relationship in preparation for another long summer. These long holidays strengthened our bond, infused us with the joy of our freedom and refreshed Ken from the long summer months.

At first, I worked as a nurse while Kenneth was “up north” typically from May till October. Throughout that time I would get away to visit him a couple of times and in the bad old days he would maybe get home once during the season. This left a long gap between together times. We didn’t have e-mail, or ready access to telephones, so we maintained our relationship by snail mail. The nightly quiet time when I sat down to “talk” to him through the written word allowed me to feel connected. Letters allow a more personal and (possibly) rambling way to connect. I avoided moaning about being alone, or problems he could do nothing about. I did let off steam about things at work or topics that wouldn’t leave him feeling helpless to intervene. If I had an issue he couldn’t solve from the bush, I turned to our network of friends for help. Afterwards, I would advise Ken of the solution and we would often find humour in the outcome.

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Today, our society has the benefit of readily available electronic correspondence. Mind you, I find that e-mails can be too impersonal and bereft of content and one might write something that would have been better left unsaid. Similarly, a phone call can become stilted as you try to filter out any negative emotion – although it does offer a deeper means of communication with voice tones – and instant gratification. Moreover, phone plans are cheap and cell phones are often capable of reaching out and touching someone instantly. But don’t count on them in many remote camp locations….and be careful what you say for more than one reason.  Remember, your calls may be monitored by outside sources and you may make emotional statements on the spur of the moment that cannot be taken back.  There is really no substitute for the written word for being re-readable, caring and well thought out. I still have the letters that Ken wrote me over the years and they are still meaningful to me and I know he kept many of mine.

One of the hardest times is the adjustment period both when he left and when he came home. This may seem strange to those who haven’t experienced  the phenomenon, but when your spouse is away for long periods you develop an alternate life and an alternate personality – that of the committed but single person. As a result, when he first left the void in my life was huge and it took time for the alter ego to develop. Once some time had passed, though, I was involved in my work, friends and activities and developed a different rhythm to my life. Meals were more flexible and there was no-one but myself to consider. Then Kenneth came home and bam! I was right in the middle of a duo again and many of the activities and attitudes were inappropriate to our lifestyle together, and I had to share my bed again and kick the dog off. Poor dog. Turning one’s libido off and on can also require a little time to adjust after the first glow of homecoming and the departure blues. It is altogether manageable, and relies on good friends who understand the changing priorities in your life and both spouses being aware that life is full of such challenges and how we meet them is a reflection on how successfully we run our lives.

On the topic of acquaintances, the presence of good friends cannot be understated. When things get tough it is essential that you have someone to whom you can take the day-to-day emergencies, to help find resolutions. Later, you can report the problem solved without causing the absent spouse to feel impotent or the guilt of abandonment. I called on male and female friends over the years for such things as help with frozen pipes, cars that wouldn’t start, and for shared meals and fun. Life doesn’t end because you are alone, it only feels like it sometimes, and that is where a solid connection with others comes in. When I was feeling alone a quick call to a friend provided an instant mood elevator. One friend arrived on my doorstep with a bouquet of flowers, knowing that it would pick me up. This thoughtful act was of paramount importance in making me realize I was not facing the challenges alone. Also, having a pet was emotionally satisfying company that I could curl up with and not feel alone.  It also meant not coming home to an “empty” house.

For Ken, he found that my accomplishing the day-to-day tasks was immensely beneficial for him. Finances, the care and feeding of the household, and the yard work were completed when he arrived home, leaving him with an empty job jar so he could relax and recuperate from weeks (or months) of flying operations. Moreover, we tried to eliminate projects before he left so that I wouldn’t be trying to make decisions that were not solely mine to make. One act was to educate our bank manager that Ken was frequently absent and I was to have full authority to act on our finances. In hindsight, a power of attorney would have accomplished the same goals.

I was lucky to have a job that helped fulfill me and a boss who was very aware of our situation and who periodically would tactfully suggest that maybe it was time for me to take some time off and go visit Ken. This usually meant that I was getting a bit owly and needed some time revisiting our marriage to centre me again.  Similarly, it’s wise to share your situation with co-workers to reinforce the support system.

A major benefit of having a loved one in the contract helicopter industry is that you can often live wherever you want as your pilot will typically be flying off to a distant location for operations.  This benefit allowed us to move from the prairies to Vancouver Island near my family.

Initially, we decided to put off having children because we enjoyed the freedom to travel. As time went on we decided not to have a family because we were in a habit of spending half the year away together and wished to continue as it seemed to suit our personalities. We made this decision together and it has proven to be a prudent decision as the challenges (and hassles) of largely raising children alone much of the time would have complicated my life. This was a very personal decision, but one that anyone married to a helicopter pilot who spends time away either in the bush or in foreign lands should consider. We eventually came to a decision that when Ken took a contract I would follow him to allow us to spend more time together. This was a serious commitment, as it involved giving up career thoughts (which admittedly were not paramount) and living in widely varying situations through the years. It also meant learning to be a “jug hound” one summer which involved working with dynamite, walking lines in mountainous bush and as a bonus working with Ken on a daily basis. I loved it and have never in my career as an RN made as much money as I did that summer. As well as enjoying fantastic scenery from the ground and helicopter it allowed close and personal contact with nature. Having “bear scare” explosives and a helicopter close at hand proved providential on several occasions. On another occasion I joined him in Fort Smith and cooked for his crew and worked part-time in the local hospital. The combination of continual staff shortages in remote locations and my willingness to learn new tasks provided a plethora of job offers. Huge pay and the opportunity to be close to Ken provided a win-win situation. We made lifelong friends through the exposure to different locales and people and in hindsight realize we were lucky to have found ways that allowed us to be together. So, spouses, you have a choice. You can use the separation to find reasons to separate – or, you can let “absence make the heart grow fonder.” Presumably, you married to stay together.  Make it happen and make it work. Make no mistake, the times apart are emotionally tough, but the reunion and time together can be very special. Finally, I can only say that it takes work and communication to be supportive and supported. It doesn’t come easy but can be endlessly rewarding if you try.


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