A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

October 2012   

ACROSS CANADA on FLOATS… (and other good stories.)

The weather 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.   

It was 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 Meadows, B.C.   

The COPA 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.   

When Lillian’s 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. 

They’ve flown 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. 

Neil’s bandaged 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: http://www.kobobooks.com/ebook/Headwinds-seeking-a-murder-forgotten/book-Pd7QqLjfOEqRj2mIqueVPQ/page1.html?rId=1840d7e5-d7b1-4d4c-9c81-6668e3d1fd30  Ed.)

I do look forward to hearing much more of the couples’ adventures.  And perhaps there will be more of them in future articles.  Stay tuned!


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