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At one of the forestry briefings I joined last year, I was impressed by the age of the attending pilots.


May 15, 2013
By Michael Bellamy

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At one of the forestry briefings I joined last year, I was impressed by the age of the attending pilots. Of those that were gathered at the table, there must have been in excess of 100,000 hours of flying experience present. And even with the greying hair and sagging midriffs, they displayed an obvious enthusiasm for the coming day. It was readily apparent why so many of the “veteran” pilot set continue on even after normal retirement age. For some, it may be a money issue, but I believe there’s much more to it than that.

Famed Australian aviator Sir Ross Smith, K.B.E. once remarked that in the air, a flying machine ceases to be a mere piece of mechanism, it becomes animate and is capable not only of primary guidance and control, but actually of expressing a pilot’s temperament. Had he not died tragically in a 1922 air accident, Smith might have witnessed the birth of the helicopter and realized just how prophetic his words were.

The helicopter responds best to coaxing as any pilot will attest. Subtle control inputs are carried out that are almost imperceptible, leading the casual observer to believe that there is more inflection than physical control. The pilot who maintains a close rapport with a machine that is as responsive as a helicopter, can, over time, evolve into a part of their psyche or how they perceive themselves.

Who among us hasn’t flown a helicopter and determined a temperament in the machinery whether it be diabolical or benign? The pilot establishes an animated ally to get a better awareness as to how the machine performs, sometimes even cajoling it to do better. Of course, this makes it easier to assign some of the blame to the helicopter when things don’t go as planned. Whether or not this intimacy produces a more skilful pilot is undetermined, but it certainly produces a more dedicated one!

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And it’s this dedication that grips us into living out of a suitcase for months at a time, assured by the familiarity of a machine that youth has not deserted us, at least not today.

After 40-odd years of flying, my chosen career has taken its toll. The Ray-Bans have given way to prescription sunglasses, and some audio tones especially in the turbine range have disappeared. My reflexes are not what they used to be and even with a non-flying day in the offing, I am usually in bed by 10:30 p.m. My comfort level has grown because I know that in order to surprise me the helicopter is going to have to dig deep to find a malfunction that has not already been experienced.

Despite my age, however, medicals and pilot proficiency checks are still passed with relative ease. Now, I am more concerned about a passenger’s perception sitting alongside a pilot who in all likelihood was established in a career when they were still in three-corner pants. Assurances are usually unsolicited, with passengers voicing confidence in grey hair.

Helicopter charter companies, however, may not share that perception. They may maintain that older pilots will not seek out the work the way younger pilots do or may fatigue too easily. That may be the case in some instances. But a pilot who is dedicated, has a mature work ethic, is not looking for an opportunity to be heroic and has a love for the task sounds like a win-win combination especially when it comes to machine preservation and customer satisfaction. There is also the determination that older pilots are not enthusiastic when it comes to stressful or high-demand jobs. But why would they be? Past experience dictates that the jobs they were glad to be rid of would not be sought after, anyway, now that money is no longer the driving factor.

I am told that military pilots, after 20 years of service, evolve into administration duties and fly only to maintain their status and the pay bonus. Unless they opt to engage in a civil flying capacity after retirement, the concept of someone willingly flying beyond is foreign to them.
I have talked to retired pilots who smile knowingly when I tell them of my intention to keep going, at least for a while. They relate that they once felt the same reluctance, but decided one day simply to hang up the helmet and walk away. The helicopter will never appreciate a lifetime of devotion, they tell me. It is only the pilot’s contribution that made the experience so satisfying.

Some of you may find my perceptions absurdly theatrical, which is understandable and I sympathize. If that’s the case, however, I guess for you, piloting a helicopter is just a job.


A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.


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