CANADA on FLOATS…
(and other good stories.)
forecast was for frequent thunderstorm activity in the
afternoon. But the few puffy clouds appeared harmless as
our floatplane, a Cessna 180 departed Sioux Lookout for
Armstrong, Ontario. As we flew, those clouds congealed into
patchy smudges that poured rain, and soon stood across our
path like many dark-footed pillars. Amazingly fast, we were
running out of options. The storms quickly formed all
around, dwarfing the tiny aircraft. Flying parallel to the
darkest part of the sky, I could see the line disappear into
total oblivion, a wall of black rain.
impossible to outrun or punch through the wall. Suddenly, a
tiny lake appeared over my left shoulder. Salvation! I
thought, as the 180’s nose swung around and lowered to a
steep descent. In spite of the turbulence, I allowed the
airspeed to nudge the yellow arc. Level across the last of
the treetops on the approach, the speed bled off quickly.
The floats touched the crests of the choppy water when
suddenly, another gust of wind threw us back in the air
about 30 feet above the waves. The fight was on, pitting me
against the wind, the churning water and blinding rain that
blotted out the oncoming shoreline. We slammed back onto
the water then up again, twisting and turning like a fish on
a line. Wind howled, tearing the tops off the waves.
Finally with the floats firmly planted, we taxied toward the
spiky treed shore and safety. With no beach visible, I cut
the engine and we jumped in the waist-deep water to push the
plane into the overhanging trees and underbrush. The
torrential rain ran down our faces, forcing our mouths open
to breath. Over the thunder and wind, we managed to yell to
each other and finally had the situation secure.
That is an
account from Lillian Varcoe, of what was one of the most
dangerous episodes of her entire trip across Canada, coast
to coast in a float plane, earning her a place in the record
books. By 1984, that flight had never been done by a woman,
and for that matter, never by a man either. Lillian, the
holder of a commercial pilots license, saw an opportunity to
do something completely different, and to promote women in
aviation at the same time. She and her husband Neil, owned
an aging Cessna 180 on floats. To qualify for the record
flight, Lillian collected a small jar of water from the
Pacific Ocean at Tofino, British Columbia, and eventually
poured it into the Atlantic at St. Johns, Newfoundland.
Neil was along for the ride as her engineer (she calls him
her muscle). This record is sanctioned by the Royal
Canadian Flying Clubs Association, and was verified by
reports mailed from various people across the country who
recorded her arrivals and departures along the way.
The name Lillian
Varcoe should be remembered by many long-time COPA members.
In the 1980’s she was a strong voice in the organization as
a member of the board of directors (’86 to ’88) and was
elected to a four-year term as Western Vice President which
ran until 1992. Before moving onto Neil’s boat, she was a
resident of the Vancouver suburb of Richmond and ran a
printing business. She was also a free-lance writer,
contributing articles to several aviation publications of
the day. Through her efforts, COPA Flight 16 Vancouver was
revived and eventually amalgamated into the Aero Club of
B.C. Flight 16 is now back in the COPA family in Pitt
convention in 1988 was in Penticton, B.C. and it seemed
natural that much of the organization for it would fall on
Lillian’s shoulders. Working tirelessly, she arranged with
the hotel to allow Murphy Air to place an aircraft along
with a Rotax engine on display in the hotel’s lobby. She
persuaded the Penticton airport manager to close the airport
long enough to allow a one-man, low level airshow over the
runway. These were activities that had never been done at a
COPA convention. Along with hotdogs and hamburgers served
on the tarmac, the little airshow was a breathtaking end to
a successful convention.
Since establishing her record-setting
flight, Lillian and Neil have flown their C-180 floatplane
several times across Canada to attend COPA conventions. Once
they flew to Ottawa for Lillian to attend a Parliamentary
Standing Committee along with COPA President, Russ Beach, as
representatives of general aviation.
Issues in those days were VFR over-the-top, and keeping
weather reporting stations on the coast, which were
disappearing in favor of auto-reporting facilities.
term on the COPA executive was up in 1992, she and husband
began another chapter in their life. Though they’d been
living on their 45-foot sailboat for years, the winter
dampness finally got to them and they began delivering
yachts to sunnier climes. In the spring they’d return and
spread their wings for much more float flying.
extensively in Northern Canada, particularly in B.C. and the
Yukon. They have seen and visited much of Alaska the same
way - putting the gas cans under the wings, the groceries on
the front seat and sleeping in the plane.
Pressed to tell
a story about what was their most difficult experience
flying up north, they said it was buying fuel. But
sometimes, just getting a good nights sleep in the 180 was
impossible. “It was the partiers,” Lillian said. “They
always want to come down to the shore to party. And always
on the same lake or river where we were camped.”
One night in
Dawson City, Lillian and Neil had bought a 45 gallon drum of
fuel for a flight to Tuktoyaktuk. The barrel was dropped on
the shore near their aircraft. The couple was asleep in the
plane when a large group of people showed up and began to
party. Keeping their heads down, Neil and Lillian watched
as a bonfire was lit and the party got bigger. Soon the
flames were twenty feet in the air, and the bottles started
to fly. Eventually the rowdies spotted the fuel barrel and
proceeded to roll it into the fire. Fortunately the barrel
missed the fire, but rolled down the beach into the Yukon
River after smashing a hole in the floats of a single Otter
which was parked on the waters edge. Without that fuel,
Neil and Lillian had no way of flying out of the spot they
were in. So Neil had no choice but to jump out of his bed,
sprint down to the river and dive in after the drum.
The water was so
cold he couldn’t feel anything from his neck down. It took
several minutes to catch the barrel, and then muscle it back
along the shore to their camp. He climbed wet and shivering
back into the plane and complained that the soles of feet
felt slippery. A flashlight showed there was blood
everywhere. His freezing feet were slashed and bleeding.
Obviously he’d walked on broken bottles and felt nothing.
Not much sleep was had that night.
feet meant Lillian would do the flying in the morning. A 15
knot wind was blowing in the same direction as the river
current. Taking off into the wind is standard procedure,
but as Lillian applied power, the airplane barely moved.
The river was much stronger than anticipated. As people
gathered on the shore, she turned around for a downwind
takeoff, using the current for extra speed. It took over
twice the normal distance to reach the airspeed they needed
to take off. They sped wildly toward a sheer cliff that
rose from a curve a short distance downstream. It was
close, but finally the plane clawed its way into the air as
it swung around just a few feet from the rock wall.
Lillian & Neil
eventually settled on an isolated island off the coast of
British Columbia, and built a house which showcases Neil’s
talent for engineering, building and metal fabrication. They
moved into the house in 1997. Their sailboat is still in
the family, along with the old Cessna 180 on its floats
sitting on a specially built barge. It’s now been across
Canada and back a total of six times.
The Varcoes' island
is just a short boat ride or kayak paddle from mine.
When I paddled my kayak over to meet Lillian, the time
simply flew by as I heard one amazing story after another.
She is now doing more writing, and has finished her first
book. Recently published, it’s called HEADWINDS, (Seeking a
Murder Forgotten) and not surprisingly, it is about flying
floats. She calls it “semi-fictional”, and it’s the story
of a young bush pilot working for a coastal operation and
how he is drawn into a murder that took place when he was
just nine years old. All of the flying adventures
chronicled in the story are from Lillian’s personal
experiences, or from accounts of incidents on the coast.
It’s one of those books that once you start, you will need
to keep reading. Among other stores, the book is available
at Amazon Book Stores as a soft cover. Or look for the
e-book version for many types of readers. (Something
about it here:
I do look
forward to hearing much more of the couples’ adventures.
And perhaps there will be more of them in future articles.