When he was 21 years old, Bill Cove was one of the youngest drivers in Canada to take the wheel of a six-tonne transit bus.
Now 86 and a longtime resident of Port Alberni, Cove said while buses were exciting, it was one particular ride that changed his life.
Cove was driving the airporter for Western Bus Lines in 1954 when he met two pilots from Trans-Canada Airlines. They told him flying was exciting, and that he should try it. They offered to take him flying.
“When I took that first flight with TCA in a North Star, I knew I had to get out of the buses,” Cove recalled.
“I listened to them, and I’m glad I did.”
The memories come fast and furious: in 1969 he was working with BC Air Lines in Vancouver flying commercially into a number of small airports including Port Alberni’s grass airstrip. “That summer I started five runs for BC Air with little airplanes,” he said. At the time, BC Air was primarily running float planes, but Cove bought a Beech Queen Air and then a Twin Otter—both of which could land on solid ground.
“The president of BC Air Lines was so impressed with the money we were making with wheels he said ‘let’s get out of the float business.’” They took over CP Air’s mountain routes, and Bill became a check pilot.
He worked with PWA for a couple of years, and started his own company, Bill Cove Air Ltd., flying charters and buying and selling planes. He has flown all over North America as a corporate jet pilot.
Cove flew for Coulson’s aviation division from 1987 to 1990 (he was the aviation manager), even earning his helicopter pilot’s licence while with the company. He was with Coulson when they added the helicopter division, and remembers when Terry Dixon bought the company’s first Sikorsky S-61—now considered a workhorse with aerial firefighting in Australia and California, where Coulson has had contracts.
Cove moved with his family to Port Alberni in 1987 and joined the Alberni Flying Club in 1988. When a television program by Dan Rather panned the Mitsubishi Marquise multi-engine turbo-prop jets, Cove noticed that the price was plummeting, so he approached the manufacturer and bought one. He flew it out of the grass strip beside the Somass River that predates the Alberni Valley Regional Airport.
Cove often landed the twin engine on the 2,300-foot-long grass strip, but finally received a cease and desist order from the municipal government of the day because they thought it was too dangerous to land such a powerful plane there.
One of his favourite memories came when he was asked to put together a bid sheet for an RCAF Twin Beech that was going up for auction from Crown Assets in Ottawa. The buyer, Carl Enzenhofer, won the successful bid and owned the plane for two years before he decided to sell it. He called Cove up and asked if Cove would give the new owner a check ride in the aircraft and help ferry it to his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The owner turned out to be retired United States Air Force Colonel Frank Borman—commander of Apollo 8, the first mission to fly around the moon, and a NASA astronaut.
“I said, yeah, Carl, I think I can teach an astronaut a thing or two,” Cove said.
“We shared a lot of stories.”
Cove flew commercially for 57 years. He finally gave up his pilot’s licence in March 2018, when he was 85. “It was just getting too difficult to keep it,” he said.
The move has not grounded Cove: he still flies, albeit infrequently, with younger members of the Alberni Flying Club who are only too happy to take Cove up in exchange for an afternoon of stories, and perhaps some gas money.
He has also discovered another hobby: skydiving.