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Orescan: Go North, Young Man

Go North, Young Man


November 30, 2007
By Chris Orescan

Not so long ago, the only choice for starting a career in aviation was often to go north. Countless young pilots made the desperate road trip to various northern communities in search of that first flying job. Many had to settle working for a season or two or more on the dock loading aircraft for other crews, while others were a bit more fortunate in securing an actual flying position. For many, this is not a very distant memory, and still there are some struggling to get started even now, amid the highest demand for pilots our industry has seen in over three decades.

Hundreds of pilots over the years were told to go north and that’s where they had to go to get work. It is still a challenge for the brand-new pilot to find work – he or she is told to go north, take a road trip. Getting established, however, is a great deal less difficult and time-consuming than it was even as little as five years ago. One aspect interests me, though: there are still many who righteously believe that serving time in the north is a must; that it makes a person a better pilot and it’s simply a requirement.

I am not one of those people. I don’t believe that flying in the north makes a person a better pilot. Yes, it will broaden your experience but it will not assist you very much when flying into Chicago or Atlanta – it’s not a rite of passage.

Obviously, northern flying is very, very different from flying in southern domestic airspace; the short summer season with 22 hours of daylight and two hours of dusk can make for long days and sleepless nights. The winters, with 22 hours of night and two hours of dusk, can contribute to some serious cases of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). The cold is equally hard on aircraft and people, who are forever trying to keep aircraft warm and reduce the cold effects on various components – removing batteries and bringing them inside to keep warm, hand propping a turbine engine to loosen up the gear box. Countless VFR flying hours in minimum and below-minimum visibility, literally weeks of flying without a horizon, flying with minimal nav aids, a lack of suitable alternates and lastly, insufficient fuel, have been and remain commonplace for some operations. 

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Flying in the north will certainly challenge a person, but it remains a dangerous and  unforgiving environment. The north may as well be a completely different country, and to some it feels like a different planet; it can be a desolate place, which can easily and without consideration take lives. 

As I see it, there are three groups of people who fly in the north; first, the people who are born and raised there – to them there is no other place they would rather be, it’s home.  The other two groups are the ones that went for the experience; the majority leave as soon as the opportunity becomes available. However, there are a number of individuals who go for the work and something clicks inside for them and they stay.  Some pilots have stayed for a very long time until whatever it was that kept them there can no longer hold them, and yet there are some that go and never leave.

What is it, then, that makes a person stay? What kind of person is this? Let’s face it – there are certain aspects that cannot be argued and for most of us northern living would be very difficult and challenging. The cost of living is exceptionally high but there are factors which offset these high costs such as tax credits for northern living and increased salaries; when worked properly, they can be quite profitable. 

Personally, I don’t care for the north. Anyone who knows me knows that I consider winter to be a natural disaster.  However, I have known some exceptional people from the north, but living and working there requires a certain type of person: independent, self-sufficient and confident in their skills.  This person needs to be self-reliant and to possess a broad array of abilities that would not be required by their counterparts to the south.  

To succeed and survive in the north for the long term requires an individual who is very comfortable with reduced comforts and amenities. Typically, this person is someone who would be at ease hiking out into the deep of the forest for a week or so with only a backpack and think they had won the lottery! I’m not trying to stereotype or label, rather I’m simply attempting to draw a picture for the inexperienced pilot that unless he/she is accustomed to this lifestyle, lifestyle change would be extreme and shocking to them.

Chris Orescan is an industry observer, pilot and author of the book, Becoming a Professional Pilot in Canada. You can contact Chris at: corescan@shaw.ca.