Sunday, January 20, 2013

Perfect flight plan: Aboriginal aerial survey company tells stories of the land

Teara Fraser with a Kisk Aerial Survey aircraft at YVR's South Terminal. Kisk is the only aboriginal supplier of aerial survey work in a competitive North American market. 

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG , The Province

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG, The Province

Aboriginal currently operate two Piper Aztec's, C-FKSK registered June 2010, and C-GHLS added August 2011.  C-FKSK  C-GHLS

Teara Fraser spent her 20s struggling to file her life's flight plan. 

 She dipped a toe into many things, never staying long. She tried human resources.

She probed a few ologies at Douglas College - psychology, criminology, sociology.

She backed away, without apology. "All I did was seek," says Fraser, 41. "I trusted that if I kept exploring and seeking I would find where I was meant to go."

In 2001, she found herself in a small plane touring the Okavango River delta in Botswana. The pilot made the plane dance and his passengers laugh as he showed them giraffes, zebras, hippos and gazelles.

"I just thought 'This is the coolest job. I wonder what it takes to make it happen.'"

A few weeks later, she was in another small plane, getting ready to skydive in Namibia. Most people would have barely noticed the plane as they anticipated the jump.

It was the opposite for Fraser. "I felt my heart come to life in a way it never had before. I had a physiological response - I wanted to touch everything in the airplane.

"I knew in that moment this was what I needed to do."

She returned to B.C., got her pilot's license a few months later and her commercial license within a year. In 2009, she launched Kisik Aerial Survey, which operates out of YVR's south terminal.

Fraser, who was born in Hay River, NWT, is a Metis with Cree blood running in her veins. Kisik - which is the Cree word for "sky" - is the only aboriginal aerial photography company in Canada.

"Storytelling has long been a fundamental aspect of aboriginal cultures. In a sense, Kisik helps to tell the story of our land," says Fraser.

Kisik takes 3-D pictures up and down B.C. and Alberta with a digital camera mounted in the belly of a twin-engined Piper Aztec plane.

The camera, which is high-resolution and high-priced, is worth more than the plane, Fraser says.

The company captures images of the earth's surface for projects ranging from pipelines to mines, and for research subjects ranging from glacial retreat to biodiversity. Clients include mapping and engineering firms, forest and mining companies, universities and municipalities.

Kisik's images are so detailed clients can count individual trees, or distinguish a cedar from a hemlock. A municipality will know if the shed you built in your backyard is two inches taller than local bylaws allow.

The most common question Fraser gets is why not just use satellites?

The answer is satellites don't cut the mustard - not nimble or detailed

"Satellite orbits are not adaptable enough for changing weather and sun angle."

But aerial photography is a finicky business. Skies must be cloud-free and the sun above a certain angle for images to be usable.

That leaves March to October as the time when Kisik does the vast majority of its flying. And even then, clouds gathering in an afternoon can put an end to a photo flight.

"Cumulus clouds - the little round puffy ones - are very problematic for us because they make shadows," she says.

Kisik may be able to finish a job with one 30-minute flight, or a project may take an entire flying season.

The company's eight-person team devotes the winter months to evaluation and reflection, training and preparation.

Aerial photography is a specialized market. The high-res images Kisik acquires means it caters to a niche within a niche.

But it still finds competition from aerial mappers elsewhere in Canada and from the U.S. For the type of imagery it provides, there are an estimated 10-15 competitors across Canada, says Fraser, who remains Kisik's chief pilot.

The best way for a company to compete is to look inward and strive for excellence, she says.

"I think that it's only when you know who you are as an organization, what your strengths are and what you're trying to accomplish can you respond intelligently to what's going on in the environment around you."

The influence of Fraser's aboriginal values and philosophy may help to set Kisik apart from its competition.

Her background emphasizes relationships with clients, her own team members and the larger community.

"My heritage has taught me how to walk in the world," she says. "People do business with people they like and trust."

In its management, the company is non-hierarchical. All team members contribute. Weekly team meetings embrace aspects of the talking stick practice, giving each speaker authority.

In a recent, informal survey, one Kisik team member - Fraser doesn't feel 'employee' fits - said Kisik exemplifies the group and family oriented approach of aboriginal communities. Another noted Fraser's sense of stewardship for the lands she surveys.

Kisik is making money but Fraser's definition of success goes beyond that.

"Success is not just about money, business is not just about numbers. It's an approach to community" she says.

"We bring our best self. We care about joy. We want to maintain a healthy balance in life."

Is flying and running an aerial survey firm something others of aboriginal descent should aspire to?

"Aboriginals are sometimes freedom seekers," she says. "I believe that anyone can be whatever they want to be with enough courage and commitment to learning a practice."


Teara Fraser, owner of Richmond-based Kisik Aerial Survey, is one busy person - but never to busy to learn.

At home, she's a mother of two teens. At work, she's chief pilot, operations manager, person responsible for maintenance and executive.

When she was first officer several years ago, Fraser faced a challenge communicating with her captain. The incident prompted her to complete a certificate in conflict resolution from the Justice Institute of B.C.

She has also qualified as a certified practitioner of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator psychological assessment.

"It's a powerful tool for personal growth, team building and leadership development," Fraser says.

In 2012, she earned an MA in leadership at Royal Rhodes University.

"It was a fantastic opportunity to awaken and explore and learn and grow.

And, if this wasn't enough, she founded the Aviation Leadership Forum, and chairs the Aviation Leadership Foundation.

She's also executive director of the B.C. Aviation Council.

Late in 2012, Kisik won a B.C. aboriginal business award in the enterprise category.

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