The first plane flew into the Alberni Valley, according to historians, in 1920. Since then, the region has seen everything from vintage aircraft to more than one commercial airline, from the iconic Martin Mars waterbombers fighting forest fires from their homebase on Sproat Lake to a controversy over expansion of the paved runway at the existing regional airport.
Writer Anne Pley, bolstered by a small legion of commercial pilots, wants to capture the story in a coffee table book.
“I’m researching the aviation industry from the beginning, from whenever the first plane came to Port Alberni,” Pley said. That plane was a Curtis JN ‘Jenny’, according to Port Alberni historian Jan Peterson, and it landed in 1920 on what was then known as “Lupsi Cupsi” field, where Catalyst Paper Mill is presently located.
(There is a small street at the same location with the proper spelling of the name, Nuupts’ Ikapis Way. It means ‘one tree on the beach’ in Nuu-chah-nulth language)
“The first official person that came in a plane to work here was Ginger Coote, and he had his own airline. He was supplying materials and people to the Zeballos Mine and Tofino Mine,” said Pley.
Pley is quick to explain that she is not the author of the forthcoming book, merely the publisher. “These people are the authors, it’s their stories,” she said.
The idea for the book came from a former pilot’s suggestion. Pley wrote a short feature on Bill Cove for a small magazine she produced (no longer in print). He told her there were many interesting pilots who had flown out of the Alberni Valley, and suggested she feature some of them. The idea germinated until it grew into book form.
“I had no idea the depth of the aviation industry in the Alberni Valley,” Pley said.
“It’s quite a big story. And we’re only going to go as far as when we lost the waterbombers (summer 2016). After that, technology just exploded.”
(Pley hinted there may be a second part on the horizon devoted to the technology and the people driving it.)
Pley and a group of present and former commercial pilots started working on the book itself in November, and she has already amassed a number of stories and photos from the aviation industry.
One of the people she spoke to included a man who supplied fuel for a lot of the planes over the years. “He did a lot for the aviation industry,” she said. “His motto was it’s not what you have to sell to the customer, it’s what you have to serve to the customer. He would come out to Sproat Lake after hours and open his store to give them just enough gas to get a helicopter going in the morning. He’s really well respected.”
Another person she talked to was Terry Dixon, who help Coulson Aviation purchase their first heli-logging helicopter. Dixon was also given an award for bravery for rescuing two people off Mt. Seymour, she said.
“Then there was a 12-year-old boy from the Tseshaht First Nation who, when he was 12 years old, used to ride his banana seat bike down to the Somass airport strip. He watched and helped (pilots) with whatever he could do there. He wanted to be a pilot.
“When he was 16 he became the youngest person (at the time) to ever get a private pilot’s licence. He told his instructor ‘I’m going to fly a 747.’”
That young man was Wallace Watts, who did grow up to captain a 747 jumbo jet with United Airlines by the time he was 42.
“Anybody here who had anything to do with aviation,” could be included in her book, she said, “although you can’t put everybody in there.”
Pley hopes Alberni Valley Skies will be published by June. Her goal is to hand in a completed manuscript by March.
Pley is still looking for aviation stories from the commercial industry only. Any aviator who flew into or out of Port Alberni who has a story to share can contact her via e-mail at email@example.com.