Creekstone Press

Northern BC's publisher


Review of They Call Me Lopey: A Saga of Wilderness Flying

They Call Me Lopey is another of those fascinating autobiographies which outline the conditions faced by bush pilots of so many years ago. It’s written by a chap called Bill Lopaschuk, who was, for decades, a bush pilot who flew to places that few people ever heard of, often under appalling conditions, and survived to tell us about it in this sprightly book.

He was born just before the Great Depression struck and like many children of that era, he was mesmerized by airplanes. Also like many of his contemporaries, he was gifted with a strong work ethic, and it wasn’t long before he was contributing to the family coffers with a succession of “entry level” jobs that helped keep life a bit more comfortable for the family.

But, the fascination with flight lingered. He wanted to learn to fly. His father, a practical depression survivor, said, “Well, you always go on a holiday. Why don’t you stay home and learn to fly instead?” Thus, another fledgling bush pilot was born.

But, it wasn’t to be easy. In his words, “I soon discovered that what I spent on a holiday didn’t go far towards a pilot’s license. It took me a year to purchase enough lessons to make instructor Dan McIvor feel comfortable letting me fly solo.” In that year, he amassed, if that is the word I want, a meager 12 hours.

Might there be a better way of doing it? Providentially, the RCAF was selling off some surplus Cornell trainers for a mere $625, and, at his father’s suggestion, he arranged a bank loan that would cover the cost of the aeroplane. There were other costs, among them the outlay to get him from where he was to where the Cornell was, then to return home with it.

The Cornell was fine, but it was an expensive aircraft to operate, so he sold it and bought a more economical Taylorcraft to help him build the hours needed for a commercial license. In the meantime, he found work as an apprentice mechanic with Central B.C. Airways where one of his tasks was to sew the fabric cover onto a Fairchild 71. Ah, the glamour of air travel.

Eventually, he attained the hours needed for a ticket that would allow him to fly for hire, and he embarked on what turned out to be a lengthy, interesting and varied career. That career would eventually encompass 25,000 takeoffs and landings spread over some 17,000 hours of flight time, so you can see that he wasn’t doing a great many flights where he took off, plugged in the autopilot then landed several time zones away after a humdrum flight.

His was a world of ups and downs, generally from a site where there was no support, to another site where there was even less support. Nor was he overburdened with nav aids. There were still many problems to be resolved before GPS would take much of the worry out of the then perennial problems of, “where, precisely, are we, and how do we find this minuscule flat spot we’re seeking?” It was a problem that bedeviled all of that era’s bush aviators.

Like so many of his colleagues, Lopaschuk has a sackful of anecdotes that show the considerable ingenuity which our pioneering bush pilots brought with them so that they could solve problems at the various sites they visited. It wasn’t enough to fly the planes, dump off the passengers or freight, and then be on their way.

Sometimes, they had to resolve problems that were intrinsic to the base, or had arisen as a result of the activities conducted at or near the work site. Few of these activities were uppermost in the various work descriptions, but it was work that had to be done if the objectives were to be met, and they make today’s readers realize that improvising was not just for the era’s jazz bands.

Although Lopaschuk came along well after the Early Birds had largely vanished from the scene, there was still considerable scope for pilots who had the ingenuity to see a problem and, out of touch from elephantine authority, find ways of eliminating the problem, or at least working around it. Complications that, these days, would cause endless problems were, if nothing else, at least rearranged so that they permitted the work to continue.

One such problem was the need to move a D7 Cat from Burrage Creek to Snippaker Creek, using “two Otters on skis and several thick wooden planks on the floor of each plane.” To cite that dreaded phrase, “some disassembly and re-assembly required,” the Cat had to be broken into Otter-sized chunks, then reassembled after the 35-minute flights.

He does not claim to be the man who shouted “Eureka,” then did it all by himself. There was a tear-down and reassembly crew, a sound plan for them to follow, and the operation went smoothly. It’s an excellent example, but the feat shows the problems faced by bush pilots and their customers in those years.

Later on in that story, he describes how another move – this time of a D6 – could have gone horribly wrong had he not been paying attention. A less-than-scrupulous customer did not pay attention to load limits. Fortunately, Lopaschuk did. Also in this chapter is an account of an instrument ticket ride that went bad and it makes one wonder about some of the practices in the “good old days.” Check pilots doing instrument rides under those conditions? Hmm.

The book concludes with a “pilot’s eye view” of the many different aircraft types that Lopaschuk flew, including the prototype, DH-2 Beaver, CF-FHB, which is now proudly on display in the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa, along with the Junkers 34, CF-ATF. It’s an interesting section which all pilots will enjoy reading.

It closes with acknowledgments, which is not all that unusual, but these have a different twist, as he turns the last word over to his children, which could be a dangerous thing, but in this case wasn’t. We’ll give the last word to his daughter, Lynn. “Like he did with all his passengers, Dad delivered his three children safely to their adult destinations.”

They call me Lopey is a smoothly written, nicely illustrated life story of a bush pilot who contributed much to Canada’s development. That development took place in locales which most Canadians have never seen – or are likely to see. His flights weren’t long, or record-breaking. There was little or no glamour attached to any of them. And yet, we owe him – and many others like him – for their mostly unsung efforts to make this a better country.

Bob Merrick is a retired air force fighter-navigator with a lifelong interest in aviation safety. Although now retired from the Aviation Safety Programs branch of Transport Canada in Ottawa, he keeps his readers current on many aspects of aviation. This review appeared in the February 2010 issue of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Assocation (COPA) newsletter.