Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Pilots celebrate 20 years of flying with one last flight

WestJet's George Hawey (L) and Gerry Erlam pose in a hangar in Calgary, Alta on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. Hawey, who is 67 and will doing his last flight before retirement on February 29th and Erlam, who will be the captain on the flight.

It’s a route he knows by heart, starting from the rolling foothills of southern Alberta, upwards over the majestic Rocky Mountains, then, in just over an hour, descending into the West Coast city considered one of the world’s urban jewels.

On Feb. 29, George Hawey will once again be in the cockpit of a WestJet aircraft, traversing that flight path he’s come to know so well. This trip, though, will be different from all the others.

That’s because it’s the last time the 67-year-old veteran pilot will be flying for the Calgary-based airline. “My wife Joan said, ‘I think it’s time, George, let’s travel, let’s use the air benefits we’ve earned,’” says Hawey, who will be retiring in March. “I’m going out on a high note.”

Indeed, Hawey — one of the first pilots hired by WestJet back in 1995 when it was cobbling together its little-airline-that-could — is making his professional departure in grand style.

He’s taking his farewell flight on the same day that, 20 years ago, a morning flight from Calgary to Vancouver officially launched the airline’s entry into the Canadian market.

On Feb. 29, 1996, a Boeing 737 pushed away from gate B-22 at the Calgary International Airport, with pilots Rupert Bent and Ben Atkins at the controls.

In the 20 years since, WestJet has grown from an original staff of 220 to more than 12,000; the two airplanes in operation on its first day has become a fleet of 141 aircraft, flying to 98 destinations.

For Hawey, closing out his aviation career with such panache is in keeping with the high-flying life, pardon the pun, he’s had for the past half-century.

“I thought, ‘Oh, boy, one day I’d like to do that,’ ” he says of seeing the Golden Hawks aerobatic team perform in his hometown of Quebec City in the early 1960s. A month before his 18th birthday, he signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force. “I had the idea, I’m 17, I’m looking for adrenalin.”

While the era didn’t see him doing any active duty in a war zone, Hawey got more than a few chances to have white-knuckle experiences. In 1971, he joined a crew of courageous pilots in what would later be known as the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, demonstrating his aerial skills for the public.

His nearly three-decade stint with the military saw him fly fighter jets in Bagotville, Que., as well as Phantom aircraft while on an exchange tour with the U.S. air force in the late 1970s.

“It’s like driving a sports car on a race track,” Hawey says with a smile. “I’m an adrenalin junkie.”

At age 40, he decided to leave military life and take a job as a commercial pilot for Time Air, a regional service later merged into Canadian Regional Airlines and then Air Canada Jazz.

“I couldn’t imagine myself not flying,” Hawey says of his decision to stay a pilot rather than take a desk job at Department of National Defence headquarters in Ottawa. “So I applied to civvy stream.”

In late 1995, he was recruited to join WestJet, which was planning a spring 1996 launch. It is a decision he says he has never regretted. “The reward, the feedback I get from an airplane, it is instant gratification,” he says when asked why the life of an airline pilot suits him so well.

And though he likens flying a commercial airplane more to “driving a tour bus” than the sports car thrill of a military plane, he still finds aspects of it thrilling. “You get the adrenalin in the four feet at takeoff and the four feet at landing.”

For his final assignment as a WestJet pilot, Hawey — who at age 65 had to trade in his captain duties for first officer in accordance with international regulations — has hand-picked longtime fellow WestJet pilot Gerry Erlam to be his captain.

He’s also chosen the crew who’ll care for the guests during the flight, three flight attendants who he says have a knack for making his job, and his passengers’ flying experience, all the more pleasant.

So, how will he feel when the day finally comes? Hawey’s eyes tear up at the thought. “It’s going to be emotional, that’s for sure,” he says.

Once he’s back on terra firma, though, it’ll be new adventures ahead for the father of two and grandfather of five.

“I told my wife that I hate travelling, the getting there,” he says with a laugh, well aware of the fact it’s an odd statement coming from a man who’s spent most of his life safely taking people everywhere. “But I always love it when I get there.”

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