Airplane GEEK

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Bits and Pieces: The West Coast Pilot’s Club — Langley, British Columbia

By Mike Davenport, EAA 89102, Langley, British Columbia

Note: This is a follow-on to Mike’s article last month about the volunteer relief flights after the catastrophic flooding in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and parts of the interior. — Ian Brown, editor, Bits and Pieces enewsletter

November 2021 saw a new phenomenon with the advent of an “atmospheric river” (a new name for what we had known as “The Pineapple Express”), dumping vast amounts of rain water on the Fraser Valley in the lower mainland and parts of the southern interior of the province of British Columbia.

The Sumas Prairie over 100 years ago was known as Sumas Lake until it was drained and became valuable farm land. This low-lying land was inundated by overflow from a nearby river in Washington state. Added to this loss of farmland, hundreds of homes and farms were flooded. The loss to vegetable and berry farms, livestock and poultry was still uncalculated at this writing but is anticipated to exceed 2 billion dollars just in the Abbotsford area.

In addition to the lower mainland, all major highways and rail lines connecting Vancouver to the rest of Canada were severed. For days, no freight moved in either direction. One highway was so badly damaged with the loss of five bridges that it may take up to a year to repair. Another secondary road between Merritt and Lillooet may never be rebuilt. Others were opening temporarily only to be closed again as yet another “river” arrived.

Towns and villages were under evacuation orders as they were either flooded or cut off from all road access. This meant no food, no water; none of the necessities of life as vital truck supply routes were closed. Landslides closed all roads to the interior and also caused the loss of four lives as their vehicles were buried in the slides. A fifth person is still missing.

Into this chaos stepped the owner of the West Coast Pilot Club, located at the Langley airport. Shaun Bradley Heaps made the club’s aircraft available to volunteer pilots to fly relief supplies into Hope, Merritt, Princeton, and many other cut-off communities. Others supplied their own aircraft expecting nothing more than fuel reimbursement. One pilot regularly flew in from his home on Vancouver Island to fly several loads each day into the interior of the province. Fixed-wing aircraft ranged from Cessna 172s thru to 185s and Cardinals. Piper Warriors, Mooneys, and a T-tailed Arrow rounded out that group and were also in the lineup waiting first for weather then for their loads. Pilot experience ranged from 150 hours of recently licensed pilots to airline pilots with more than 20,000 hours. Flight instructors volunteered and were on hand to ride along with any unfamiliar with either the destination or mountain flying.

While each was assigned a destination, there was need for relief in several other communities that had no airport or strip. Into that void stepped the helicopters, a Jet Ranger and an AStar also flown by volunteers with only the fuel covered. Shaun put much of the fuel used on his personal credit card with no assurances that he would ever be reimbursed.

Help and assistance came from everywhere. A Surrey-based Sikh temple, Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara coordinated by Pritpal Singh Sekhon stepped up and provided vast amounts of supplies from their food bank inventory filling several hangars on the airport. In addition, he ensured that any specific requests were filled within hours. Other contributions came from individual families, the Langley Food Bank and Telus who provided prepaid cellphones. Local area people made cash donations to help with some of the costs. Volunteers came from all over the British Columbia lower mainland and even Vancouver Island to get involved in all the work of preparing skids of product for each flight.

bits and pieces the west coast pilots club langley british columbia Airplane GEEK Bits and Pieces: The West Coast Pilot’s Club — Langley, British Columbia
Hangar loaded with supplies

Brenda Lennax supervised the loading and the product mix being included for each flight. This ranged from dog and cat food and water to diapers and bread. It was a food bank with wings. Each aircraft was loaded under her and the pilot’s supervision to ensure that the weight was properly distributed and no overload occurred. Cargo nets and bungee cords were used to secure the load as turbulence was expected. In just one day, they moved 35,000 pounds of vital material. In addition to making deliveries of much-needed supplies, his group of volunteer pilots were able to evacuate many trapped people on their return trips.

Flights continued to be scheduled whenever the weather permitted flight. This is a critical safety issue as all flights are flown through mountain valleys and in winter weather changes happen rapidly and so it has to be monitored constantly. There were often several days in a row when no flights took place as weather systems moved through the Fraser Valley and the southern interior of the province.

By the time the roads reopened and the flights ended, more than 400,000 pounds of relief supplies have been delivered by some 728 flights to interior towns and villages. The cost was estimated at somewhere north of $70,000. This breaks down to $40,000 for aircraft fuel and $30,000 for helicopter rentals; an example of that being $10,000 on Monday, December 20, to cover the actual operating cost of two helicopters, but no cost for the pilots who donated their time.

A GoFundMe campaign has raised $22,000, email donations total $13,000, and in addition to all the products they have supplied, the Sikh community has kicked in a further $15,000. According to my math, Shaun is still short some $20,000. This begs the question; where were our governments in all of this?

While no one from either the provincial or federal governments have contacted Shaun to offer any assistance or funding, a California-based disaster relief team (DART) was in touch offering help.

All of this was extensively covered by the local and national print press. Camera crews and on-air personalities from CBC and Global TV conducted numerous interviews with Shaun and others.

bits and pieces the west coast pilots club langley british columbia 1 Airplane GEEK Bits and Pieces: The West Coast Pilot’s Club — Langley, British Columbia
CBC conducting interviews

Since Christmas was coming soon, Shaun decided that he didn’t have enough to do and somehow found the time to set up ”Operation Elf” to supply Christmas presents to First Nations villages by helicopter. He pressed his own into the task as well, and convinced two other commercial operators to participate. However, while there were costs involved — approximately $10,000 to cover the operating cost of the two units — normal profits were deferred and pilots donated their time.

The lack of useable airfields in many areas prompted the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) to offer to block roads if necessary in order to provide a safe landing surface for the fixed-wing aircraft. The helicopters of course are able to use any open clearing and they have been the mainstay for suppling goods to the more isolated communities. One former airstrip at Lytton, British Columbia, has been reduced in length to 600 feet and yet two pilots were able to demonstrate their exceptional piloting skills by delivering airplane loads of supplies to that site.

Many private individuals operating their personal private aircraft flew relief flights into the upper Fraser Valley and the southern interior of British Columbia in order to support Shaun’s efforts. Some flew almost nonstop. An example of just two are Langley resident Stan Corfe who did 77 trips while Sigmund Sort flew 49 trips, not including positioning flights from his home in Qualicum Beach. Also during the first few days of the emergency he evacuated 13 people and 4 dogs.

While still operating relief flights, Shaun was thinking ahead to the possibility of having to do this yet again in some future “hell and high water” climate emergency. In order to have pilots trained, he is exploring the idea of creating a version of the US DART (Disaster Airlift Response Team – BC). This group of pilots and aircraft owners would be trained in the basics of search and rescue and disaster relief. The need for light aircraft to provide aid for isolated communities is obvious and clearly demonstrated in British Columbia when so many communities were completely cut off when the roads to their villages were washed out. Only small aircraft and helicopters were able to provide much-needed aid. Much more to come on this.

January 9, 2022, saw an introduction meeting on Zoom with the goal of developing a robust group that would respond quickly to a future need similar to that of November and December of 2021. The initial plan is create a functional board consisting of a president, secretary, and finance and membership chairs. A subcommittee will be created to register the group as an NGO. Another member met with his MLA on January 7, 2022, and while he appears to be politically savvy, it was stressed by others that we can’t become an arm of government as this will restrict activity and remove our freedom to act as may be required. The goal must be to work within the regulations but be involved with locals to supply immediate needs. We must be invited to act through a contact such as the mayor.

This raised an important issue to be addressed; that of supply management. The mayor of Princeton stated that it will be important to supply only what is needed vs. what is available. He explained that he has several containers full of unwanted goods supplied by well-meaning donors and no way to dispose of them.

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