Cadet finds opportunity amidst pandemic

Dave Richardson, a Ramp Attendant at Celtic Air, signals to start the no 1 engine of a Dash 8 300 aircraft.

Cadet finds opportunity amidst pandemic

By Hannah Meagher

Phones are ringing, planes are landing, and a pilot is asking for a weather advisory as three more planes enter the circuit. This is an average day at the Allan J. MacEachen Regional Airport in Port Hastings, but before working here, I wouldn’t have expected the high demand for air transportation that exists in Cape Breton.

Flight instructor Harper LaPlante, left, with Hannah Meagher, after the Debert Cadet Flying Training Centre’s 2019 graduation for cadet glider pilots.

I also wouldn’t have thought, as a new cadet with a serious fear of heights just a few years ago, that I would now be a licensed glider pilot, working in the aviation industry as it navigates through a global pandemic, and even acting as a role model for other young girls.

In 2016, I joined 719 Stora RCACS, my local air cadet squadron. A senior cadet taught my level about how he learned to fly gliders, which are engineless planes, and said he knew people who were afraid at the start, but who achieved their glider license despite their fears. Even though I was scared of heights, aviation fascinated me, and I knew I was ready for the challenge. Five years later, I’m now a Warrant Officer, Second Class in my squadron and I have held a glider pilot’s license since the summer of 2019.

I’ve tried to get as much experience as possible, but living hours from the closest airports used as familiarization sites for cadets has made it challenging to participate to the extent I would have liked to. I’ve travelled to Debert and Sydney as a member of the ground crew, helping  flights run smoothly, but the distance made it difficult. I made contact with Celtic Air Services in the fall of 2019, and was surprised to get an email the next May inviting me for a job interview. Unexpected as it was,  I happily accepted, and by June of 2020 I was working as a Client Experience Specialist for Celtic Air.

My job is full of surprises and something new happens every day, but a big part of the role is communicating with pilots and other clients. My favourite part about this job is being able to talk to people in the wider community about aviation and teach them about exciting things that are happening in their little town. Doing helicopter tours during the summer was also a great experience, and I enjoyed helping people through any fears they may have. A Girl Guide group came to the airport last November and I led a tour, showing them what we did on a daily basis. I loved being a role model for the girls to look up to, so they know anything is possible if you really have your heart set on it. It was cool to see their eyes light up as I told them I wasn’t much older than them.

My role at Celtic Air mainly focuses on the administrative and practical side of moving passengers from one point to another, but that still provides a very impactful learning experience, explains Don MacKenzie, former Ramp Attendant at Celtic Air, now Operations Administrator at AxAir Aviation.

“This aspect of commercial aviation is the unseen part, but is as important as the crew flying the aircraft or the folks that check your baggage. A young person considering a career in aviation can benefit by understanding the complex behind-the-scenes action that goes into making their flight to and from their vacation destination a pleasant and comfortable part of their vacation,” he said.

I also enjoy being able to talk to different people in the aviation industry who are much farther into their careers than I am. Last year, I got the chance to see a Cormorant search and rescue helicopter and meet the many experienced pilots, mechanics, and SAR techs who work to make sure  others are safe. It was such a great experience to connect with people I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise.

Through the Summer of 2019, the Port Hawkesbury airport had approximately 700 jets land on its runway, along with small-engine planes and helicopters. With COVID, that number dropped significantly. The pandemic put all international flights to Canada on hold. The majority of jets flying to our airport are based in the US, which resulted in a 90 percent decrease in traffic. Airlines struggled too, and it was decided on January 11, 2021 that Westjet would no longer be flying into Cape Breton, and Air Canada followed suit closely after. This was devastating for Cape Bretoners, especially rotational workers, who depended on these flights, sometimes multiple times a month, in order to get home. Luckily, Celtic Air was quick to react and announced their new airline, AxAir Aviation, that will be starting charter flights from northern Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, Atlantic Canada and the eastern United States.

Working up close with experienced pilots and airport managers is something I’m thankful for. Immersing myself in the aviation industry gave me the support and experience I needed to pass the entrance exam for the Power Pilot Course. As my time as a cadet comes to an end, it’s all the more important for me to be able to support cadets in the future, which is why I plan to apply as a CI at a local squadron in Halifax as I pursue my studies at Dalhousie University. Furthering my education will allow me the opportunity to reach more people and make an impact in whatever I choose to do in the future. Whether I take to the skies or plant myself firmly to the ground, I look forward to learning more and to guiding the next generation of cadets in becoming our future leaders.