The Flight Of My Life

Lesson: Be prepared to take control

When your work involves looking for gold, or if fortunate, looking for more gold, you probably are going to end up in some pretty remote locations.  One of these projects took me to the southeast Yukon, middle of nowhere to many, but not to those who work or live there.

Travelling to remote projects often means something different than your usual commute on the train, subway or drive across the city to the office. After spending more than a day on 737 flights you end up at the Whitehorse Airport where you then take a small plane- not a regional jet- a small plane. On this small plane you fly through the mountains to a dirt runway with trees and bushes growing out of it, then you bounce along the 4WD ‘runway’ throwing up dust in the summer and snow in the winter, this is followed by a truck ride to a remote camp, with no water, sewer, or electricity – just outhouses and generators. All along the way, stunning scenery, no sign of people or communities along the route; an experience most people will never know first-hand.

Helicopter at 3 Aces Project

Once in the camp, your day starts with a helicopter trip across the river to your work site of the day. I know many people have never been in a helicopter, let alone required to do so every day. I understand the absolute privilege it was and that this was my lot in life. Our helicopter commute was used to do work, to clear bush to make roads, to sample outcrops looking for gold, and to hover above projects gathering photos from 10,000 feet. The pilots are amazing, they know their machines and work with a safety-first mentality. They also often go well beyond their job as a pilot; many have been known to help with the work of the day, sampling water, bagging rock samples, and making sure we all enjoy the glory and the beauty of the land where we work.

To say I was comfortable in small planes and helicopters would be a fair assessment. When I was much younger, probably late 20’s, I decided I wanted to learn how to fly and ended up with my license to fly an ultra-lite (pictured in the top photo). In all my time out on remote projects and living in remote communities I am fortunate to have only have a few incidents. There is only one that really sticks out in my mind, and one is enough.

3 Aces Terrain

Following my arrival at the Whitehorse Airport, I connected with a local airline, and the pilot and I were off in a small two seater plane loaded to the teeth with supplies for the camp, about a 90-minute flight. We were above the clouds pretty quick, with the sun shining bright, blue sky and white puffy clouds below us. At some point the pilot let me know the weather at the camp was sketchy and did not look too good. I had a choice to make: camp, or the local community of Watson Lake.

As always in flight, the decisions belong to the pilot, and I let him know it was his call. I know the general rules as I have had numerous flights (some rough, some good), been tossed around in bad weather, had wicked motion sickness flying around Canada’s highest mountain and discovered the hard way what happens in an unpressurized cabin when you bring a box of potato chips. Those bags blow so loud it resembles a gun shot.

Aerial shot of 3 Aces camp

Back on my flight, we started to descend to get a look at the weather but before we did, I looked over and the pilot was under the console of the plane having dropped his phone while taking a picture of the scenery above the clouds. That was the first time I started to get a little concerned.

We dropped below the clouds, he kept asking me where I wanted to go. I kept telling him that was his decision. Second concern surfaced, we kept flying.

I noticed the 90 minute flight was now over 2 hours, and we were still pretty far from camp, again I asked what was going on. “Just checking things out”, I was told.  “You sure you don’t want to go to Watson Lake?”, he would ask again. Okay, concern #3 officially registered.

“Is that Frances Lake?”, I asked pointing out the window to a landmark lake I knew well. The pilot said yes.

“S*&t…it’s on the wrong side of the plane, we are flying in circles…” I said to myself. Not good, not good at all. It was at that point I moved beyond concern and into controlling the situation.

Aerial shot of 3 Aces and surroundings

I pressed him to make a decision and we went into the mountain range, heading for camp, the weather was just fine. Our project was in very mountainous terrain and flying in meant navigating tightly over a mountain range, banking over two mountains, rounding a corner and dropping pretty quick into the valley. Once we rounded the mountains, we seemed to be coming in very low and extremely close to the mountain on my side, the right side of the plane. It wasn’t getting any better and I could see the mountain peak on my side was well above the plane. In addition to being very low, we were at a 45 degree angle I could easily see individual bushes and rocks, up close and personal.

With several issues between us already, fear took over as I was sure we were going to clip the right wing on the mountain. I grabbed the pilot’s arm and uncharacteristically screamed… “WE ARE GONNA DIE!!!”

We didn’t clip the mountain, we cleared it, which you think would have been enough to calm me down. Instead, straightened out and in the valley, the pilot turned to me and asked me if I knew where the runway was.

I didn’t know I could be speechless, swear and hyper-ventilate at the same time but amongst my verbiage describing my bewilderment at his lack of a flight plan, I assured him it was straight ahead about 50 miles, keep flying, you’ll see it.

Once on the ground, the camp manager was waiting for me, I opened my door and stepped out. The pilot opened his door and fell out. As the camp manager went to the plane’s storage bay to start to unload the plane he stopped and came over to escort me into the camp truck. It was an odd move as you always help unload, many hands making light work, but I was unusually extremely cold from the flight and happy to get into the truck. Without a word spoken he turned up the heat in the truck and went back to unload the plane asking me to wait in the truck.

The Mountain!

With the truck loaded up, the camp manager and I headed off to the camp, about a 30-minute drive, leaving the pilot to return to his base alone. I was thankful for the extra blast of heat, it was summer and I asked the camp manager how he knew I was so cold. That’s when I found out the storage bay door had been open for the entire 2 ½ hour flight.

I was left with a story to tell at camp, complete with laughs and eye rolls once I warmed up and calmed down. Probably not the same for the pilot, I called the President and we never saw that pilot again.

Photo Credits:

Anatole Tuzlak (see website)

Archbould Photography (see website)


About the Author

Janet Sheriff

An innovative entrepreneur, Janet brings her extensive experience in all aspects of strategic planning, management, indigenous affairs and communications to start ups, new ventures and the mining & exploration sectors. Janet focuses her entrepreneurial spirit, leadership skills and vision to create new opportunities, award-winning innovative programs and new ways of conducting business. Her strong commitment to community engagement, sustainability and inclusion provides her the proven ability to work effectively and respectfully in cross-cultural environments.