Local pilots begin to roll off Fort Smith flight school production line
Two flight school students who grew up in Fort Simpson plan to return and get jobs with local airlines after graduating from Fort Smith’s Terry Harrold School of Aviation.
That’s the flight school’s goal: train northerners to fly for NWT airlines, combating the pre-pandemic revolving door of pilots coming up from southern Canada then accepting jobs back down south.
“This school is not for Northwestern Air Lease,” said James Heidema, who helped the Fort Smith airline launch the school back in 2018. “It’s for the North.”
Loyal Letcher Jr and SaNaeah Allen, students at the flight school, passed flight tests for their private pilot licences in Fort McMurray earlier this month. Next week, they will complete the written portion of the test in Yellowknife.
For Allen, the push to apply for the program came from a high school teacher he didn’t think even liked him and who he thought doubted his abilities.
“One day, I was walking back to class,” he recalled, “and she said really enthusiastically that she believed in me – that I could become a pilot.”
Allen started researching aviation programs and found the one in Fort Smith. He finished high school early, at 17, and headed straight into the aviation diploma program in January. Eight months later, at 18, he nearly has his private pilot’s licence and is working toward his commercial licence.
“I used to watch birds as a kid and I climbed trees to be up high,” he said. “I just really wanted to fly.”
Letcher, 21, wanted to learn how to fly so his parents’ lodge on Cli Lake, near Nahanni National Park Reserve, would be more accessible.
“I just love spending time out there,” he said. “I want to stick in the North because it needs bush pilots and I just love being up here.
“I enjoy being outdoors in the wilderness up here. Being able to fly around, seeing what it actually looks like from a bird’s-eye view … I just can’t get enough of it.”
“When you’re actually in control of an airplane and you’re by yourself,” said Allen, “it’s just you, the airplane, and the world.
“It’s a completely different sensation than just sitting in an airplane riding with someone; you’re doing everything by yourself and it’s total freedom.
“It’s a very big privilege that I’m proud to have – but also very afraid to lose if I do something wrong.”
Letcher said the next step after the written portion of the test will be “racking up flight hours and doing some more ground school” as he works to earn a commercial licence.
Allen added they also have to complete training so they can land on snow, land on water with floats, and learn how to fly a twin-engined plane.
Both cautioned that the one drawback is flight school’s cost. However, they said, that has been manageable with the help of student financial assistance, scholarships, and other pots of money they’ve been able to access.