Out of the shop, into the sky

Zoey Duncan

Months of careful planning and meticulously-kept spreadsheets have built up to this: the most fun time of the year for a local fly-in fishing company.
“All the work you’ve done during the winter is coming together,” noted Peter Giles, maintenance manager for Rusty Myers Fly-In Fishing and Hunting Outposts on Sand Bay.
“It’s like a juggling act.”
Fly-in fishing around here is particularly popular with American tourists, who enjoy the chance to take a plane ride to fish at secluded lakes.
Giles spends much of his working hours during the winter months planning maintenance work for the company’s five main aircraft. His office is filled with heavy stacks of operations manuals and work-order forms, and well-used binders of spreadsheets that track the remaining hours of various flight components installed in the planes.
“There’s a joke that says they’re [Transport Canada] not happy until the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of aircraft,” Giles said.
His detailed logs ensure each component—such as an engine or propeller—is run until the end of its life cycle before an overhaul is scheduled. This means the company can save money because they’re carefully controlling how much use is left in each part.
This month, for example, the company’s Cessna Caravan 208 had its overhauled engine re-installed after about 1,800 hours of flight time over the course of 10 years.
Detailed as the lead-up to the fishing and hunting seasons is, Giles said it’s really not too complicated.
“The process [of preparing a plane for spring] is really simple. It’d be like having a motorcycle,” he noted.
“You don’t want to use it? You do some work to it; you put it to sleep. You wake it up in the spring, you ride it.
“That’s basically what we do,” Giles remarked. “It’s highly-regulated but it’s not really complicated.”
At the end of moose-hunting season in mid-October, or whenever an individual plane has completed its scheduled trips for the year, the extensive preparation for the next season begins.
Once the plane is out of the water and into the hangar, Giles’ crew removes anything that is likely to be stolen, such as radios.
From there, it’s “torn apart,” as Giles described it: “All the inspection panels opened up. Whatever is due on it is removed, if it has to go for overhaul or it [needs to be] changed.
“It’s all inspected.”
Giles’ expert eyes are just one of the many tools required for a plane to make it through its designated hours in the hangar.
When it’s finally time to park the Beechcraft and Caravans for winter, extra efforts are made to ensure no feathered passengers attempt to take up residence within the cosy confines of a plane’s cooling duct.
“When we’re done in the winter, we’ll actually Saran-wrap the engines if it’s not going to be back in [service] before springtime, nesting season,” Giles noted.
After that, the engines may be swaddled in fitted red blankets to ensure they’re protected from moisture until springtime.
At Nestor Falls Fly-In Outposts, the process is much the same. October means it’s time for the planes’ major check-up: the “800-hour inspection,” said owner Dave Beaushene.
“You really go through it from one end to the other,” he explained.
Winter also is the time to order major parts that may take a while to come in.
Between seasons, the cabins at each of the companies’ outposts have to be closed for the winter, then replenished in the spring.
Beaushene said he’s even busier than usual right now because he putting the finishing touches on a new cabin built during the winter. Everything required to build the cabin had to be flown in.
For this cabin, it’s taken 30 loads with an Otter aircraft to get the job done.
But even without a new cabin to account for, typical preparation of the outposts takes a lot of work.
“When you do go out there, you have to make sure you have everything with you,” Beaushene stressed. “You can’t run down to the hardware store to get what you need, you know.”
His business has 12 outposts around the lakes northwest of Nestor Falls while Rusty Myers’ 11 outposts are northeast of Fort Frances.
The planes, too, get a chance to look their best for the first customers of spring.
“We paint our floats every spring to make them look nice,” Beaushene noted.
Rusty Myers’ two 1950s-era Beech-18 planes fly the skies with a big shark-tooth grin, painted by former engineer Syl Turcotte.
“He thought it might look like a jackfish,” reasoned Giles. “It’s a paint scheme that the military did way back in the wartimes.”
One of the Beech-18s has a bare metal bottom, which is polished to a mirror-like shine.
At each of the two businesses, pilots take all the planes for test flights to ensure everything is working perfectly before passengers are added to the equation. And that’s on top of all the exams pilots have to write and hours of additional training.
“There’s a lot of little things to do. A lot more than people realize, I think,” said Beaushene.
While each Rusty Myers plane is inspected at least once per every 100 hours of flight time, a decrease in customers in recent years means some planes spend nearly as much time in the hangar being inspected or worked on as they do in the air.
Last year, all five planes flew a combined total of about 1,000 hours, noted Giles, with the Caravans doing most of the work.
“We don’t fly a lot,” Giles said simply. “We used to fly a lot more.”
Giles said that like other local tourism businesses, Rusty Myers has been hit by the high Canadian dollar, sputtering U.S. economy, and more stringent rules at the border.
Angie Korzinski, owner of Rusty Myers, echoed that sentiment. She said she’s expecting to do about the same business as last year, or maybe less.
Beaushene’s experience is similar. His five planes fly a total of about 1,500 hours in a year, which is “a heck of a lot less” than it used to be, he admitted.
“It’s pretty tough to adjust to the border rules,” Beaushene remarked. “I guess I’ve adjusted my bank account.
“I’m holding my own,” he added. “With the U.S. dollar coming down, we haven’t raised our prices the way we want to.
“It makes it a little tough, that’s for sure.”
Beaushene said compared to when he started in the fly-in fishing business 26 years ago, and compared to Manitoba now, the province is far less supportive in advertising for tourism.
“I think it is very bad,” he stressed. “You hear lots about the logging industry and pulp and paper, and how it’s down.
“We’re getting hit with the same thing. It’s a low U.S. dollar, the economy’s bad.”
Beaushene has tried to adjust by attending an extra five trade shows a year, in addition to the three he used to show at. Korzinski, meanwhile, has reduced her staff to help balance the books.
Although the numbers aren’t where either operator would like them to be, they know they’re offering an experience some people truly love.
“It’s not all about the fishing,” Beaushene stressed. “I’ve got so many customers that don’t really fish.
“It’s quiet, they relax, there’s no phones ringing.
“What keeps us going is our good old repeat customers,” he added.