BUSH PILOT NEIL AYERS “WOULDN’T CHANGE A THING”
Sudbury-based Neil Ayers’ aviation enthusiasm stems from his first airplane ride in an Oshawa Flying Club Piper PA-12 during 1954. A year later, he labored with Ontario’s Junior Rangers and eventually, in tree nurseries to finance flying lessons. On June 4, 1957 he soloed a 65 hp Aeronca 7AC registered CF-DNO and went on to earn his commercial pilot license.
In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, an influx of unemployed pilots released from Arctic District Early Warning (DEW) line construction projects saturated the job market. In spite of his low hours, the persistent Ayers talked his way into a Piper J-3 agricultural sprayer with Hicks & Lawrence in Tillsonburg, Ontario, and survived a season with no more than a wheel strike against a power line while colleagues collided with fences, more power lines and the earth of tobacco fields. Hungry again, he found three weeks of work at Huntsville hauling tourists. There he developed float-flying skills in J-3s and a Piper PA-12 which kept him safe throughout his life. ...
Returning to the Oshawa Flying Club, Ayers became a part-time flight instructor and also occupied the co-pilot seat of a Beech 18 carrying car parts from Cleveland on night runs. An Oshawa contact suggested relocating to Sault Ste. Marie’s Algoma Flying Club on the edge of the boreal forest country. Within a year, word filtered out that a bush flying company called Air Dale Ltd. needed a float and ski pilot.
In April 1963, Ayers found himself installed in a Cessna 180 before Air Dale transferred him to Wawa in Lake Superior’s northeast corner. From the mining and tourist-oriented community, several bush charter services covered the “Pukaskwa” region’s short lakes, high hillsides and frequent fog. He also flew classics like a Noorduyn Norseman and Stinson SR-9 jammed with disassembled bulldozers, fuel drums and diamond drill parts and flew non-stop when weather permitted.
“We worked as hard as anybody, seven days a week, dawn to dusk. No question asked. You stretched everything right to the max,” Ayers recalled. “We only stopped at -40 degrees since it was just too hard on the engines and airframes.”
In August 1963, check pilot Gary Bracken introduced Ayers to his first de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver. Instantly, he recognized how well the large doors, docile handling and STOL performance suited Pukaskwa’s harsh environment. Although Ayers and fellow “drivers” enjoyed the camaraderie of the fast-paced atmosphere, they kept watch for opportunities to shift into more “normal” lives. Many applied to Trans Canada Airlines (the name changed to Air Canada in 1965).
“I put in an application and would have been interviewed but withdrew because I couldn’t even sleep at night” he said. “Friends in the airline business described that lifestyle as too structured and boring so I applied to Ontario’s Department of Lands and Forests where I could probably stay with the type of flying I enjoyed.” ...
During a Beaver trip, Ayers received a radio message from his wife Helen that he had been accepted into the famed provincial air arm. After training at Sault Ste. Marie headquarters in July 1966, he became a White River base pilot and soon added another de Havilland to his logbook, the much slower DHC-3 Otter. One pilot suggested replacing air speed indicators with calendars. “The Otter took bigger loads, of course, but just didn’t have the climb in hot weather and noise from the R-1340 got be deafening after a while,” Ayers said.
During his Air Dale era Ayers had watched Turbo-Beaver CF-OEA at Wawa and White River. Ironically, the same “Kerosene Kat” became his first turbine and he logged 7,000 hours on 25 of the 27 in service with provincial air service. He relocated to Sudbury in 1971 to fly the DHC-6 Twin Otter and by 9174, accepted “regional pilot” management position and along with check pilot duties, became more familiar with Twin Otters, DHC-2 Mk III Turbo-Beavers, Beechcraft 100s as well as Canadair water bombers. Ayers never encountered an airplane he considered unpleasant regardless of size or horsepower. ...
Some tasks proved exceptionally interesting. He helped improve fish planting by developing a tank system that, with the pull of a lever, released fingerlings without shutting off the engine instead of hand-spooning the slippery creatures into new habitat. Ayers also dropped “short term retardant” (water) into forest fires from seaplanes with modified floats. In earlier years, duties brought him into direct contact with ground-based fire fighters.
“Working one-on-one with fire crews provided a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when we took the guys in, got them oriented and then picked them up,” he said. “Times changed and you became a number with somebody telling us where to dump a load but that sense of accomplishment was still there because we were part of the team.”
Ayer’s accident-free record testifies to his skill and foresight. It mattered little whose airplanes he flew or what season; he weighed his loads and kept “back door” in mind by preparing to turn around or land in poor weather. He admits to a few errors in judgment and sometimes wondered, “Holy smokes, how am I ever going to get out of here?” Takeoffs occasionally required several abortive attempts. Nevertheless, he always returned to base undamaged. ...
In Ontario’s civil service culture, employees may combine years of service with age and retire earlier than many in private sectors. Ayers’ enjoyment in his choice of career never wavered and new challenges kept him longer than most. A rabies baiting program, for example, use Twin Otters to drop medicinally prepared pellets to foxes, raccoons and skunks for immunization. The project brought crews on contracts south of the border and arranging airport access, permits and spares fell to Ayers. The travels, he said, especially journeys back to Texas, became what he described as the most satisfying in his career.
Time passed quickly for Ayers. Higher level management finally had to inform him that provincial statutes decreed that he must retire at age 65. His “So soon? I’ve only been here 38 years” could not prevent the inevitable so he departed on April 30, 2004. Without positive plans, he still did not cease flying, and carried out the check rides on behalf of Transport Canada until another opportunity surfaced.
A family of outdoor enthusiasts sought someone to manage and fly their new Cessna Caravan amphibian for business and leisure trips for private fishing camps throughout Quebec and Ontario. Ayers accepted an offer on condition he would not be slaved to a cell phone. The adventure of a new airplane type provided the main attraction and enabled him to continue wilderness flying. So far, his logbook show 20,500 hours including 17,000 on wheels, skis and floats with de Havilland products.
...His remark, “I’d do it all over again, wouldn’t change a thing,” should inspire younger pilots and prove some career choice can lead to satisfaction into senior years.
Story by Robert S. Grant
Photos courtesy Neil Ayers