Chopper pilot’s life revealed in book

Hank was both very lucky and very skilled during his career

HANK is my brother and the only man I know who can write a book (it’s called Wolf’s Moon) for over 10 years, and renovate his entire house at the same time.  I  recall the days when we were teens and the only time I saw him was with his heels sticking out from under an old Model A.

The next thing I knew Hank was married, a jet plane pilot of CF – 100s, and doing a fly-by for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Canada in the 50s.  My father, having been in the RCAF during  the Second World War, couldn’t have been prouder.

Hank then worked for several companies – Okanagan  Helicopters and Vancouver Island Helicopters. Hank made the first page of the Vancouver Sun  when he hit a major power line in Port Alberni, knocking out all the electricity in town.  Apparently, the main power line was bouncing around the ground like a love-sick cobra, sparks flying.  I couldn’t resist asking:  “Then what did you do?”  He replied, ”I parked the ‘copter’ and ran like hell.”  Hank’s the lucky type, there’s no doubt.

When he first became a Flying Officer in the air force, he had to take a survival course with a  buddy in the Arctic.  He said they were freezing and starving inside a rather lop-sided igloo when they heard the loud clamor of a dog team outside.  He said that in a matter of minutes, a few Eskimo women had cut holes in the ice and caught a mountain of fish.  That was survival lesson one.

Survival lesson number two was when he took his sister for a joy ride up to Stewart.  Suddenly, there was no division you could see between the mountain and the sky.  Hank said blithely, “I think we have a white-out.  I can’t fly over the mountain into the Portland Canal.  We may have to go to Alice Arm for some gas.” Trying not to sound hysterical, I cried out, “What do we do now?”

“Don’t worry, Syl,” he yelled, “There are lots of trees.”   Trees?  That was the most comforting statement I’d heard in a lifetime.  Little did I know that one day I would  take a survival course myself, and the instructor emphasized, “Never go into the woods without a tube of Fire Starter.”  Even with the tube of Fire Starter, I wound up sleeping on branches, and put the fire too far away.  I woke up freezing, had to make a fire and some hot coffee.

Back in the present, Hank asked me what my immediate reaction was to first reading his book.  I told him, “I thought it was very funny, but when I got to the  end of it, I wanted to cry.  You should have mailed a  ‘hanky’ with it. (That was my idea of a pun).  He replied, “I was hoping you’d say that.”  When I read how many times he’d nearly wiped out in blowing snow, and I mean right off this Earth, I was shocked. I didn’t realize helicopters were so fragile.

To understand Hank’s sense of humor, you have to know that one Christmas at home he came out,  wearing a rather short dressing gown, pretending to puff on a stogie.  With this rather benign expression, he pointed to his legs and said,  “I lost the first girl I had a crush on because she said my legs were too hairy.”

Then there was another Christmas when Hank made a film of his whole family imitating the way he coughed.

To explain why Wolf’s Moon brought me to tears, who wants to read about their brother laughing about how his helicopter nearly blew up, or went down, every third page?  What is it with these fragile birds, and the men who have the courage to fly them? I have to say that one of my favourite parts is when Hank took a biologist up to Wood Buffalo National Park, to rescue whooping crane eggs because it seems that whooping cranes only have two eggs, and one usually doesn’t make it.  But by taking the spare egg, it can be saved and later returned to the park, and one more crane saved.

Hank did everything from fire-fighting to rounding up buffalo, to transporting prospectors.  There’s something about the name, Bugaboo Mountains, that leaves little to the imagination. I think he hit a branch there, went down, and wound up joking all night with a prospector he had on board.

I also like the suggestion of a romance in the book,  even one that didn’t quite make it.

The helicopter ‘life’ just about cost him his hearing, so they couldn’t have worn proper ear protection in the earlier days of flying.  But just as our father was deemed one of the best poets on Vancouver Island, he would, if alive today,  be so proud of Hank’s book a Wolf’s Moon.

Sylvia Sands Johnson lives in Rosswood, BC.