CHAPTER TWO A YOUNG PILOT HAS AN ACCIDENT IN THE HIGH ARCTIC

Monday, September 14, 1987 Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

It was seven a.m., the icy wind whistling off Great Slave Lake was enough to make Nat Coulter wonder if he was doing the right thing. He’d run an old cable-operated shovel for months ‘til the manager of the construction company offered him an opportunity to learn a new skill. “We have a contract to dredge the approach to a harbour. We’re going to take the shovel-front off this machine, replace it with a dragline boom, walk it onto a barge then tow it up the lake to the harbour site. You learn fast Nat, you’ll have no problem running a dragline; we’ll pay you to help with the switch then fly you in when the barge arrives at the location.” Exchanging the fronts took longer than anticipated, they were three weeks late and a brisk wind said freeze-up was fast approaching. The tug would have the barge on site this morning, he and Norm, the pilot, spent the previous day loading the Beaver with tools, extra parts, his sleeping bag and personal equipment and Nat was anxious to get started.

“You’re early.”

“The hell I am, you said seven o’clock, it’s twenty after.”

The pilot chuckled. “Yeah but I work on Territory time.”

“I hear that old story everywhere I go in the North, in Whitehorse it’s Yukon time.”

“I thought you’d at least have the engine warmed up.”

“If I knew how to do that I’d have flown it myself.”

He opened the door and climbed inside, when they settled down he said. “It’s time you learned to fly. It's a year-round occupation, sure beats sitting on your butt waiting for the next construction job.”

“Is there steady work for pilots?”

“For good ones, especially those with twin engine and float and ski endorsements.”

“Gotta think about that.”

Nat watched the pilot go through his instrument check. When Norm was satisfied all was well and the engine was warming he exited the machine and did an exterior inspection. He’d done a similar check before they went home only a few hours earlier and Nat was impressed. Finally he untied the lines, shoved the aircraft away from the float and settled into the pilot’s seat. He handed Nat a set of earphones then radioed NavCanada to confirm he was proceeding according to the flight plan he’d filed the previous afternoon. He moved the throttle to increase speed, in the bare light of a northern dawn they were off the lake and heading east by north east. “Up, up and away big guy.”

“Where did you learn to fly?”

“Right here in Yellowknife, I was driving taxi, one night I took Terry, the guy who owns this outfit home, he was pretty drunk, it was cold as hell so I made sure he got inside. The next time I picked him up he asked if I’d like to learn to fly. Here I am.”

“How long does it take to get a licence?”

“A regular pilot licence doesn’t take much time; I think it’s around forty hours. After I got it I kept my taxi job and spent every spare hour here, after a couple trips the pilots let me do the actual flying, pre-trip, take-offs and landings, that sort of thing. They made sure I got air-time credit, I got my commercial licence faster that way.”

When the lake ice made dredging impossible; Nat walked the dragline ashore and winterized it. He flew back to Yellowknife with Norm, the company had a lay-off cheque and a bonus cheque waiting. The boss said. “Keep in touch Nat, see you in the spring.” Nat paid for flying lessons that afternoon; a few weeks later he helped Terry and his crew switch the floats to skis on all three aircraft. The pilots liked Nat; before long he had enough flying hours and courses to qualify for his commercial licence. When a pilot quit there was an opening. Terry knew Nat would fly anywhere, anytime; he was smart, had a great attitude and loved having wind under the wings.

The following October, Terry asked Nat to deliver groceries to a native village about three hours flying time from Yellowknife. They loaded the Beaver in the afternoon, the following morning he radioed NavCan and was off the lake shortly after eight-thirty, came in low over the village at quarter to twelve, banked then returned. Lots of smoke from chimneys, a few people glanced up and waved. The landing was smooth, he taxied to the wharf, as the aircraft eased to a stop he took a tie-up line in one hand and jumped to secure the machine. When his foot touched the deck he slipped, heard a snap and felt excruciating pain in his left leg.

The next thing he heard was a young boy asking. “You okay pilot?”

“No I think my leg is broken.”

“Your airplane is floating away, I'll get my Dad.”