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Bush pilot's passion for flying matched by skilled professionalism Add to ...

Trevor Jonasson was the smartest hire his boss ever made, according to Keith Shergold, flight-training captain at Arctic Sunwest Charters in Yellowknife.

“When you’re on a plane as a passenger, you are hopefully unaware of the leadership, self-knowledge, courage, dedication and flexibility of thought it takes on the part of the guys and girls in the front of the plane to make the day a success,” he said. “I think Trevor had all these qualities.”

The North was a kind of mecca for Jonasson and the Twin Otter was his dream airplane. The crash on Sept. 22 in Yellowknife that killed him and his co-pilot, Nicole Stacey – but none of the seven passengers – was a tragic irony. The two died a few metres away from the Pilot’s Monument, a site established to remember the many bush pilots who risked their lives to open up Canada’s North. Jonasson was 36.

Eight years earlier, he had survived a plane crash near Armstrong, Ont. It was his 28th birthday and he was hitching a ride to Sioux Lookout for the weekend. The Cessna-185 had climbed 1,000 feet when suddenly the engine quit. It crashed onto a patch of burned-out bush dusted in fresh snow. A handful of hunters from Bearskin Lake First Nation saw the airplane go down and rushed to the scene.

“They left them an axe, some matches, and some coffee and told them to build a fire and they’d come back to get them,” said Jonasson’s father, Raymond. “Trevor phones me about 10 o’clock on a Friday night and he says, ‘Hi Dad. I’m okay.’

“I said, ‘What do you mean you’re okay?’ He says, ‘Well, we just crashed.’ ”

In the industry, a distinction is often made between commercial pilot and bush pilot. Although both kinds of pilots require similar qualifications and many similar job skills, simple desire seems to be what splits the categories.

Commercial pilots tend to fly in highly automated mass-transit airplanes, travelling in high, straight lines between one airport and another. Bush pilots fly older, slower, less automated airplanes for the pure enjoyment of being able to exercise their skills, see the scenery and wildlife, and go to places that few people ever get to go to.

These thoughts belong to Bernie Cox, owner of North Star Air in Pickle Lake, Ont., and Jonasson’s former boss. “I think Trevor was one of these [latter] guys,” he said. Bush pilots need to have well-developed judgment. “Every landing and takeoff requires the pilot to come up with some sort of on-the-spot plan to deal with the unusual conditions, as opposed to having a nice airport runway all lined up for him.”

And, he added, in terms of Canadian mythology, the Twin Otter opened up the North. The plane is able to take off and land in a short distance, fly in almost any weather, haul almost two tonnes of freight, and land in rivers, lakes, oceans, snow and open tundra. “It can go on floats, on skis, and on tundra tires,” he said. “Trevor learned all that and he loved it.”

Trevor Jonasson was born on May 4, 1975, in Winnipeg. He grew up in Sioux Lookout, Ont., with his parents, Raymond and Faye Jonasson, his brother Edward and sister Tammy. His father worked as a signal maintainer for CN Rail. His mother was a hospital worker. A responsible kid with an impish soul, he was known for explosions of laughter. Dry wit and wisdom were among his greatest characteristics.

Reassuring his folks that they wouldn’t have to cough up university tuition for him, he trained as an auto body apprentice, an electrician, and a mill worker. For a while he jockeyed cars around a Chrysler lot in Winnipeg. But then one day in 1999, while attending the Blueberry Festival Annual Trade Show, the flying bug bit him and never let go.

At the Lockhart Air booth, Jonasson paid $35 to fly around Sioux Lookout in the co-pilot seat and plant his hands for a magical moment on the airplane’s yoke. There was no turning back.

“Trevor began squeezing in flying lessons between shifts at the sawmill. Co-workers remember that at every break and lunch period during his shifts, he was studying to be a pilot,” his brother Edward said.

In 2001, frustrated with the slow pace of the part-time flight lessons, Jonasson took out a loan, quit his job, and began training full-time for his commercial licence. He started at the Barrie Flight School in Ontario shortly before 9/11. When the terrorist attacks grounded planes across the continent, it was an extraordinary early lesson. The flight school went bankrupt, forcing him to complete his training at the Winnipeg Flight School two years later.

In 2003, Jonasson worked as a dock hand or “rampy” for Huron Air in Armstrong, Ont. This was an entry-level job before he was experienced enough for the cockpit. That came a couple years later when he flew a Cessna-185 at North Caribou Camps, a tourist outfitter in Pickle Lake, Ont. Now he was gaining on his dream.

Planes become a lifeline

Pickle Lake is an end-of-the-road community, much like Yellowknife, where aviation is the main engine of the economy. Beyond, there are 23 remote, native reserves with airplane-only access. It’s as far north as you can go on all-weather roads in Ontario. It’s where trucks off-load and airplanes take off with people and freight.

“There’s a mining exploration discovery called Ring of Fire 180 miles northeast of Pickle Lake,” Cox, Jonasson’s former boss, said. “Trevor flew many hours in our Turbo Otter and Caravans hauling drums of fuel, drill rods and supplies into remote drill camps.”

Jonasson flew the Cessna Grand Caravan, a nine-passenger turboprop and later moved to the float-equipped Caravan, the Amphibious Caravan and the de Havilland Turbo Otter.

“In bush flying you really need a guy like Trevor who has a really well-rounded range of experiences in addition to flying the airplane,” Cox said. “He could fix plumbing, do electrical work, and he was a great carpenter.”

While working in Pickle Lake, Jonasson fell in love with Betsy Lucko, a teacher in the community. They soon set up a flight-themed household – airplane pillows, airplane water glasses and picture holders, even a floatplane butter dish.

A couple of years into the relationship, Lucko took Jonasson up to Yellowknife to visit friends, and he learned that Arctic Sunwest Charters was looking to hire a pilot. He applied to be captain of the Twin Otter, got offered the job, and, in the spring of 2010, he and his father drove the moving truck north.

“Many bush pilots consider becoming captain on this aircraft to be a real milestone in their careers,” said Shergold. “It is more like a small airliner than the smaller bush planes, yet it is still able to land on water, or on snow, or on rocky ground.”

An excellent captain

Jonasson enjoyed working with other crew members, and testimonials by several of his co-pilots point to his excellence as a captain. Stories going around suggest it was almost a privilege to be yelled at by a guy like Trevor. One co-pilot recalled once making a shaky landing that displeased his captain. “Enough of this cowboy crap!” Jonasson told him before constructively pointing out the errors.

The fatal crash in Old Town Yellowknife came during unanticipated high winds. Witnesses say the plane, coming in from a remote community, aborted a landing on Great Slave Lake and was unstable as it circled back. It narrowly missed some buildings, then grazed one before it flipped around and came to rest.

The passengers were injured – two seriously – but some considered it a miracle that none of the seven were killed and that the buildings that flanked the road hadn’t suffered more damage.

“Unbelievable, really, to go over a bed-and-breakfast and land on a road before hitting an office building,” said Yellowknife Mayor Gordon Van Tighem in a newspaper report. “And it’s not a wide road.”

Jonasson was hailed as a highly skilled hero who did his best to save the lives of his passengers.

He leaves his partner, Betsy, parents Raymond and Faye, brother Edward, sister Tammy and five nieces and nephews.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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