Pappy's back on the stick
Veteran aviator regains his wings

Terry Halifax
Northern News Services

NNSL (Jun 30/99) - Pilot/engineer Dave "Pappy" Hamel knows his way around the North as well as he knows the aircraft he's flown and rebuilt up here.

Pappy's been around aviation just about as long as he can remember and he remembers it all with a fond reverence.

"I've been involved in flying most of my adult life," Pappy recalled. "I started out with Trans Canada Airlines as a cleaner in 1947."

He went on to work in the undercarriage department at the Vancouver hangar and later maintaining the big steel birds.

"About 1949 things started to happen with Trans Canada Airlines and they wanted to move their base. So you had the choice of going to Montreal or out the door -- I chose out the door," he said through a sly smile.

"I walked across the street and joined Canadian Pacific Airlines," he added.

Pappy stayed on with Canadian Pacific at Vancouver International, while he started taking flying lessons in a deHavilland Tiger Moth and working towards his engineer's licence.

The wages pilots were offered in the '50s were minimal, he said, so he chose to stay on the ground, turning wrenches as he worked towards his engineer's licence. Pappy left CP in 1956.

"They took me off my DC-6 course and put me back in the hangar," Pappy said. "I thought, 'Do I wanna punch this clock for the rest of my life or do I wanna get out and see some adventure and get some experience?'"

He chose the latter.

"I joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Air Division," he smiled.

"My first year on the force, I had 22 transfers on temporary duty across this great nation of ours," Pappy said. "The only place we hadn't been was Newfoundland -- 'course that's a half-hour later anyway."

The Mountie wings eventually flew him North, where he got a real taste for cold-weather flying.

"Eventually I got a detachment in Fort Smith as a flight engineer," he said. "We carried prisoners, transfer personnel, search and rescue, all over the Western Arctic and up to the Beaufort Sea, Sachs Harbour, Cambridge and Spence Bay."

In the absence of a Herman Nelson to warm the frozen engine, pilots were forced to use open-flamed blow pots and a canvas tent to bring the engine to life.

Trial by fire

Pappy said the "trial by fire," was all a part of the introduction to Northern flight.

"We were flying the Mark V Norseman out of Fort Smith," he said. "We used to carry two blow pots with us --you weren't really confirmed, until you had a fire."

The process was a little dangerous, he recalled, but it was often the only way to thaw the frozen old birds.

"You'd cycle gas through your oil to thin it out," Pappy said.

"Upon shut down, you'd always have to shut the gas off and run it dry, by burning all the gas out of the carburettor bowl," he explained. "If you didn't and the blow pots were too close, that gas would bubble up, boil over and catch fire."

"I had that experience and I never forgot to shut the gas off after that," he grinned.

He soon became comfortable with the cold start ritual and when he became too comfortable, he decided it was time for a change.

"I knew it was time to go after I started cooking my food on the blow pot," he joked.

Rather than accept another Northern contract -- this one in Inuvik, the pilot chose to fly south for warmer climbs.

"I joined Skyway Air Services in Langley, B.C. and I've had the pleasure of working for them for 29 years," he said. "It was later sold and became Con Air."

"I flew floats for 31 years, up until two years ago, when I decided to retire," he said.

Six months ago, Pappy was asked to join the team at Fort Langley Air, as chief pilot and float plane instructor. At 72, he recently passed his flight medical.

"So when I get back, I start float training all over again -- it'll keep me off the street," he winked.

The Yellowknife that Pappy remembers as the place he used to stopover and refuel has changed quite a bit since the days he flew in and out of here.

"The changes you see here in this beautiful city of Yellowknife have been tremendous," he said. "You get a feeling that maybe we did help pioneer a little bit of it, you know that's a plus."