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Wings on the go

Glen Vienneau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Jun 27/01) - With a thirst for adventure and a passion for flying, float plane pilots are in a class of their own.

Last weekend they came from Canada's West Coast and as far away as Arizona for the biennial Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly-in weekend.

The skies roared with the sounds of giant buzz saws as most of them made their way to the Wardair float base in Old Town.

"It's an exiting destination for us, further north. That's why we fly floats, so we can get out and explore the country and fish," said first-time participant Warren Bean, who was among three others participants from Oregon.

Bean joined a dozen pilots who flew six hours to Yellowknife from the Wilderness Rim Resort in Nimpo Lake, B.C. They were part of the event's 25 registered participants.

"The best part of the trip is the destination," said Bean.

"Most float plane flyers are more independent. It's hard to meet other pilots because we're usually out doing our own thing, so it's fun to go to a place where there's more of them from different parts of the country and talk about the challenges they face in their areas," he said.

"We compare our plans and weather problems and flying, that sort of thing."

For Canadian expatriate Bryan Rein, who now lives in Payson, Ariz., coming to Yellowknife with his wife, Kay, meant seeing more of his former country.

"It's an easy country to get around in, lots of water compared to the American southwest," said Rein. "You don't see a lot of float planes in Arizona," he said.

More importantly, Canada has more and better lakes for fishing. Like most pilots, he carries with him a rod for some "off the float" fishing.

An expensive venture

Float plane pilots range from doctors, lawyers and computer specialists to those who use planes to make a living.

Retired electrical engineer Merrill McGavran and his wife Jane came from his home in Carmen, Idaho. This is his third fly-in to Yellowknife, a 1,900-kilometre trip. His Lake Amphibian consumed about $40 worth of fuel for every hour of the 13-hour trip.

Still, he pointed out, it wasn't much more expensive than driving a car, and the flight is much shorter than by road.

"It's nice to have, but you have to be very careful how you spend your money," explained pilot Doug Dubray of Portage La Prairie, Man.

His Cessna 180 cost him $120,000. Then there's the insurance and maintenance that runs him about $10,000 a year.

Aside from his work surveying for mining companies, Dubray flies for fun, something he enjoys more now than when he flew for airlines.

"As a commercial pilot, you actually push yourself, put yourself in situations you shouldn't be in," said Dubray.

"You're only here for a short time, so you might as well try and do the things you would have liked to have done, but you also have to know your limitations," he said.

With safety in mind, after going through his checklist, all he needs is a destination.

While he normally keeps within about a 200-kilometre radius of his backyard, Dubray has ventured to Northern communities such as Hay River, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith and Nahanni Butte.

For longer trips, having company is not only safer, but adds to the fun. His friend and navigator for this year's trip was Rick Alexander of Flin Flon, Man.

Ties that bind

This year marks the fourth fly-in for Ted Millar of Portland, Ore. He keeps coming back because of the connections he makes.

It was here that Miller met up with a few New Zealand pilots. The friendship resulted in an invitation to New Zealand. He went with a group of 31 pilots and navigators from Oregon on a commercial flight. They then rented 15 planes and made a three-week cross-country tour of New Zealand.

"It all started right because of Yellowknife. So, you never know where it's going to lead," said Millar.

"I reached the stage of my life where I don't have any hobbies that don't start with F -- flying, fishing, food, fun."

One thing's for sure, American pilots have a sense of humour.

"Canadians are better drinkers than Americans, but I think the Americans may have just a little leg up on the piloting skills," said Millar.

"That's probably not true -- these guys up here obviously are some of the best pilots in the world, but they talk funny so we have to give them a bad time."

Cheekiness aside, all pilots agreed Yellowknife will be on their agenda for the next fly-in come 2003.