“Seven-twenty we’re ready to depart,” says Capt. Sean Morris as he fires up the engine of Helijet’s Sikorsky S76 helicopter.
The helicopter gently shakes as the rotor blades gear up to full speed, then slowly lifts up from the landing pad at the Victoria Harbour Heliport, hovering for a moment, before moving over the sparkling ocean.
Travelling at speeds of more than 200 kilometers an hour, Morris takes the helicopter up to 1,000 feet as he flies above a stretch of water in between the Gulf and San Juan islands for the 35-minute trip to Vancouver. His co-pilot Alex Zecher is by his side, along with 11 passengers wearing earplugs in the back seats. Chatter from air traffic control flows through the pilot’s headsets.
“There’s always something different to see out there,” says Morris as he looks down at a cluster of whale watching boats near one of the San Juan islands. “It’s a nice office to have.”
With permission from air traffic control, the helicopter smoothly climbs to 3,500 feet in order to fly over Vancouver and into the harbour, where it’ll make a 10 minute stop to unload and pick up passengers before heading back to Victoria.
After 21 years in the military and another seven years flying search and rescue missions, working as a commercial pilot for Helijet International Inc. is a big change for Morris, who sees many of the same people flying back and forth from Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo on the three round trips he averages each day.
Originally from Manitoba, the 40-year-old Victoria resident joined air cadets when he was 16, then the military, eventually receiving his military wings in 1998. His first time in a helicopter was with the air cadets in Nanoose Bay when he was 13 years old — an experience Morris recalls as pretty cool.
“It was a weird feeling — going straight up and not seeing your wings,” said Morris.
“In a helicopter you look out and see nothing except air so it feels a little unnatural.”
Having an interest in flying at a young age, Morris knew some day he’d have a career in aviation, but he didn’t give much thought to flying helicopters for a living. In the military, however, Morris said more than 50 per cent of the pilots fly helicopters.
From flying off ships in Sea King helicopters and deployments in the Persian Gulf and East Timor, to search and rescue missions with Cormorant helicopters at off-shore oil and gas rigs, international fishing boats, and plane crashes in the mountains, Morris has experienced some hair-raising flights throughout his career.
But the one that sticks out most was in October 2006 when a Bell 206 Jetranger crashed along Knight Inlet in B.C.’s remote coastal mountains. Three people had been onboard the helicopter. The pilot was seriously injured, lapsing in and out of consciousness.
The accident was 150 km away from Morris and his Canadian Forces Cormorant crew from the 19 Wing’s 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron. What should have been a quick rescue ended with an 11-hour marathon thanks to a wall of cloud blocking a direct flight to the crash, forcing Morris to take a 300-km detour.
At the crash site, a Buffalo aircraft from 442 Squadron began dropping high-intensity para-flares, enabling Morris and his crew to enter the cloud in the darkness and climb to the crash site up a steep cliff face, metres from looming trees.
The para-flare suddenly plowed into a nearby mountain, leaving Morris and his crew blind. With the help of radar, Morris was able to maneuver the helicopter sideways from the cliff and descend into the clear.
It wasn’t until the third attempt that crews found themselves at the foot of a waterfall in a box canyon slightly wider than twice the length of the Cormorant. In order to reach the survivors, Morris slid the huge helicopter sideways and inched into the narrow canyon where someone was frantically waving a flashlight. Within hours, the survivors were in a Comox hospital, recovering from their injuries.
Morris and his fellow crewman later received the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award from Britain’s Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. They were the first Canadians to ever receive the award in its 29-year history.
“Everyone got out that was supposed to get out, but one person had nightmares afterwards. There was a lot of stuff that we got into that maybe we shouldn’t have,” said Morris about the mission, adding he’s been in a few risky situations where he thought that could be it.
“If you haven’t had that situation, it would be unusual. You know you’re going to be at risk, it’s trying to manage that risk as much as you possibly can. I’ve been in situations where I can’t do the mission that someone has asked. You have to say you did everything you possibly could.”
These days Morris has a regular schedule, transporting passengers back and forth from Victoria, Vancouver and Nanaimo for Helijet. Most helicopter pilots, he noted, don’t know what they’ll be doing from day to day, and end up in the middle of nowhere, often gone from home for weeks on end.
Even though he now has set routes and altitudes to fly, the job still has its challenges when it comes to navigating through the soggy West Coast winter weather, which often forces Morris to pick other routes.
On this particular day, it’s a clear blue sky and 28 degrees Celsius as the helicopter makes its way back to Victoria, soaring above the gentle tree-covered mountains on Salt Spring Island where boats are scattered along its turquoise-coloured fringe. The rugged interior mountains of Vancouver Island loom in the distance. It’s just another day in the life of a helicopter pilot.
“I like the freedom of it. Sure we have certain routes and altitudes you have to fly, but it’s your thing, you’re controlling it,” said Morris. “I get to know the passengers and almost have a relationship with them and that’s a different role for me. With search and rescue, we pick them up, drop them off at the hospital. We just saved their life and they have no idea who we are.”