Thursday, June 22, 2017

Capt. Lester Powell retires same day Air Labrador declared to be no more

'I went down with the ship': Labrador pilot hangs up headset after 44-year career

Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair MHA Lisa Dempster greeted her father, Lester Powell, at the Air Labrador hangar with balloons and champagne to celebrate his 44-year career as a pilot. 

Capt. Lester Powell flew his last run June 16, after logging more than 45,000 hours as a pilot. 

The Labrador pilot ended a 44-year long career with Air Labrador the same day the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies, Innu Development Limited Partnership and PAL Airlines announced a new airline, Air Borealis, is taking over flights to coastal Labrador.

Powell's daughter, Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair MHA Lisa Dempster, greeted him at the Air Labrador hangar with balloons and a bottle of champagne to celebrate the milestone.

"He is leaving a tremendous, tremendous legacy on what he has done for the people of Labrador, all the way from Nain down to the Quebec border," Dempster said in an interview with CBC's Labrador Morning.

Sad to see Air Labrador go

Powell admitted leaving his career of 44 years as a pilot is bittersweet, adding it's sad to see Air Labrador go.

"I went down with the ship, as they say, with this company that I worked with for 44 years," he said.

"So I said, 'I might as well call it off.'"

Dempster said her father always dreamed of flying the mail, which had been delivered by marine coastal boat when he was growing up in Charlottetown on Labrador's south coast.

After training to be a pilot, Powell worked for Labrador Airways, a predecessor to Air Labrador. He flew a Cessna 180 to deliver first-class mail from Nain to all points south to Henley Harbour.

As an aviation family, Dempster said six of her seven brothers became pilots thanks to their father being such an icon.

He's flown more than 36,000 hours with the Twin Otter alone and completed more than a thousand medevac flights during his 44-year career.

Dempster said it wasn't unusual to see three planes out on the ice in the Charlottetown harbour being flown by her brothers in the 1970s.


Flying into remote communities

While many of Powell's colleagues moved onto flying bigger planes, Dempster said her father was happy to be "scanning the horizons of the sky of the Big Land."

In the early days, Powell says, flying could be rough without having navigational equipment, like GPS, that newer airplanes have.

"When you've flown in as much weather — and often without [instrument flight rules and] things like that — and you're able to hang up your headset and still be here and be safe, it's worth celebrating," Dempster said.

Before gravel airstrips were built, Powell used to fly into remote communities by using floats on water or skis on ice, remembering how torches were used to light up ice airstrips at night so he could land.

Dempster said her father pushed the limits to get into communities where "people's lives were hung in the balance" if there was an accident or someone was about to have a baby.

"Someone was watching out for my dad over the four decades because many times he was called out in extremely bad weather and delivered a patient, saved a life, maybe put his own at risk a lot," she said.

A good run

Before leaving the tarmac at the Goose Bay airport, a fire truck doused Powell and another pilot, Romain Butler, who also retired from Air Labrador.

"We've had a lot of good years, a real good run," Powell said. "We've had rough times up and down, but it was a good airline."

Dripping wet, and wiping his glasses, Powell said he didn't expect to get the celebratory spray-down while he received heartfelt handshakes and hugs on the occasion of his retirement.

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