“I’m on holiday every day,” says Air Cab owner and pilot Joel Eilertsen. Air Cab is a coastal float plane business based in Coal Harbour.
Eilertson moved to Coal Harbour from the United States with his parents John and Margaret in 1952. Living in Canada did not deter him from fighting for his homeland.
As a member of the U.S. Army, Eilertsen spent two and a half years in Vietnam, receiving a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in 1968 during the Tet Offensive.
Eilertson enjoyed his time in the military. “It was great I thought, very exciting,” he said. “When I came out of Vietnam, I was totally bored, so I took up flying.”
He received his commercial float plane pilot’s licence in the United States – paid for through the GI Bill (Veteran’s Affairs).
Eilertsen says what he loves about being a pilot is that it “is challenging. It keeps the mind active.”
With licence in hand, Eilertsen and his wife Chora, opened Air Cab’s doors in 1989 with a Cessna 185. “I had a float plane and three D8 Caterpillars,” Eilertsen said. D8s are large track type tractors used by Air Cab to load float planes into the water.
The company started with two pilots. “We’ve had up to six permanent pilots and two temporary pilots,” he said.
The company currently has four float planes, three piston driven Beavers, and on eturbine-driven Beaver, which take to the skies 365 days a year. The company’s first customers were “mainly loggers and fisherman,” he said.
That is still true today.
The lion’s share of Air Cab’s business is commercial; five to eight per cent of his trips are for tourists. There have, however, been some pretty famous passengers over the years. Air Cab has flown contestants for History Channel’s hit series ‘Alone’.
They also flew American pop star Miley Cyrus to Klemtu last September when she visited the North Island to speak out about British Columbia’s wolf cull.
The largest piece of equipment they’ve ever hauled was an 1,150-pound transmission to a logging camp.
“We fly any place where there’s water to land,” Eilertsen said. “We’ll cover, in a year, a range from Coal Harbour to Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii to Tofino, to the Alaska border. The whole coastline.”
Eilertsen has become known as a leader in float plane safety, with initiatives that go well beyond what Transport Canada requires of commercial float-plane operators, beyond even what much larger industry operators have done.
Eighteen years ago, tracking systems were installed on Air Cab planes – the first company in Canada to do so.
“We track (our aircraft) every five minutes of the flight,” he said.
Air Cab has also put ‘G Switches’ on the aircrafts’ batteries, so that if the aircraft does a hard hit, the battery disconnects which “helps to eliminate fire through electrical shorts.”
Air Cab also became the first airline in B.C. to voluntarily make it mandatory for all passengers to wear life jackets, using self inflating life vests, approved by Transport Canada.
Wearing a life jacket “is very, very important, because 50 per cent of the people that get out of the aircraft after it rolls, drown,” he said, adding he is trying to eliminate as many hazards as possible.
Eilertsen almost lost his own life a second time. In 2005, he survived a near-fatal bout of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.
“I spent the whole year in the hospital. I was 100 per cent paralyzed, unable to speak for 110 days and on ventilator for 85 of those days,” he recalls. For a while he could not open his eyes. When he finally could, they were stuck open.
Today the only lingering sign of his illness is a slight speech impediment.
When he was back on his feet, Eilertsen’s ‘therapy’ consisted of building a massive work bench using reclaimed wood – including some from a 1860 Schooner, destined for the Slave Trade, that sank across from Hardy Bay.
He is also busy restoring a 99-yearold salvage boat, originally from Alert Bay, which he plans to take there next year to celebrate the craft’s 100th birthday.
Owning a business, it appears, is an Eilertsen family trait. “I am from a very long line of independent people.”
His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all businessmen. “This was the thing to do,” he said.
Over the years, he has seen all kinds of things in his travels. “I could tell stories until Hell freezes over,” he chuckled.