For the past year and a half I have had the pleasure of working for a VFR charter company in Northwestern Ontario. We operate strictly on floats in the summer months with Otter, Beaver, Caravan and Cessna 206 aircraft. The latter two types are fitted with wheels at freeze up.
As a charter operation there is a wide variety in flying. The main business segments are flying for tourist outfitters and lodges, transport for remote northern communities not accessible by road, and general charter for private individuals, and government personnel.
My personal experience began after completing Aviation College. I was hired as a dockhand for part of the first summer. This position involves virtually non-stop work, often from before sunrise, preparing the aircraft for the day, loading/unloading and fuelling until the last aircraft is tied down, often at dark. The summer days seem endless and exhausting. However, after graduating to a pilot position the lifestyle becomes somewhat easier, having to only report to work for flights, and escaping the joys of construction projects and pumping float after float.
The tourist flying is always enjoyable. You deal with interesting people from across North America in pursuit of the elusive walleye. They are always in good spirits, and interested in what we do, even at 4:30 am. One remarkable thing is the amount of equipment and food that these people will bring for a 5-day excursion into an outpost camp. A fifty pound tackle box, and a dozen fishing rods per person are not uncommon, Combine this with food for a small army, and hockey bags full of clothing in anticipation of both polar and equatorial weather conditions. Just when you thought you have seen it all, a group will show up with 50 cases of beer for the trip, or cast iron fish cookers and automotive batteries for fish finders maxing out the useful load of the aircraft.
Afternoons are dominated with flights to remote northern communities. We transport medical patients, social and technical workers, along with groceries and other freight to these small settlements, which are not accessible by road during the summer months. Spare moments are filled doing sightseeing trips, camp checks, and forestry and anglers survey work.
Sometimes when telling tales about northern bush operations, people speak of how they fly in the poorest weather, flying into football field sized lakes, and carrying twice the legal payload. From my experience, this is complete fiction. My company takes pride in ensuring safety is the first priority, and all regulations are complied with. This is modern bush flying, where passengers and freight are weighed, weather is checked to the extent possible before departure, and the highest level of safety and good judgement are exercised at all times. Moreover, we have our own maintenance staff and facility onsite to consult for even the most minor concerns.
One of the aspects of bush flying I most enjoy is the increased responsibility assumed when operating into remote locations without assistance. When sent to an unknown, unfamiliar location hundreds of miles from civilization, pilots must decide where and if to land, and how to complete the trip with the utmost regard to safety, comfort and efficiency. This is one of the reasons that float flying is becoming more difficult to start out in. Many insurance companies now require a minimum of 250 float hours before pilot approval.
After my first summer as dockhand/pilot, I was invited to remain with the company for the winter season flying the C206. During this time of year, the workday is shorter, because as a Day/VFR operation we are limited by the reduced daylight as well as the usually marginal and unpredictable weather. After freeze up we operate on wheels off a 1500 foot ploughed ice strip on the lake, and into the gravel runways of the north. While not as diverse as the summer float flying, this environment presents its own unique challenges.
Working for a busy and efficiently run charter company, flying a great deal into some really scenic and idyllic destinations, and interacting face to face with interesting clientele has been great. Additionally, spending summers outside and on the water, boating, beaching, and water-skiing between flights, and having access to the finest walleye and northern pike fisheries in the world minutes from home, are perqs not found everywhere. Overall, a Northwestern Ontario float pilot position is pretty hard to beat for a first flying job.
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