By Stephen Hendrie
When Norman Grist was a boy returning from summer camp on a flight with Johnny May, he was lucky to sit beside the pilot, with his pet goose in his lap. During the flight Johnny asked if he wanted to fly the plane. Norman, said “Yup,” and Johnny said, “well you can’t fly it with that goose in your lap.” So, Norman put the goose in the back and Johnny guided him on taking the controls for a while on the way back to Kuujjuaq.
“And that’s pretty much where I can say I got hooked on flying,” said Norman, after reaching his 30th anniversary milestone with Air Inuit on January 21, 2021. He said it was uneventful because of the pandemic, but Christian Busch, Interim President and CEO of Air Inuit, called him to mark the occasion.
Norman talked about being an Air Inuit hangar rat in Kuujjuaq as a boy, always being around the hangar, always around the airport. He even did a couple of years of snow removal for Transport Canada, picking up details about the airport and flying, and then went for his pilot training.
“I initially did my private license at Laurentide Aviation in Montreal. And then the instructor convinced the school board that was sponsoring me at the time to complete my training in Cornwall, Ontario,” said Norman. When he started in 1991, Air Inuit had 38 pilots. There are now about 180, with 17 Inuit pilots. Over his 30-year career Norman has flown most of the Air Inuit fleet, for example putting in 13,000 plus hours on the Twin Otter, both as Captain and co-pilot. He also flew the Beaver that gave him his love of flying, under Johnny May Air Charters, now part of Air Inuit. Norman also worked on the famous Christmas Day Candy Drop in Kuujjuaq with Johnny May, acting as “bombardier” for about 10 years with Junior May.
During his career, Norman became Chief Pilot for the Twin Otters, a management position, which meant moving to Montreal to be closer to the Air Inuit head office in Dorval. Now, he is flying jets, which Air Inuit uses to service Hudson Bay, landing in Puvirnituq.
“Up until last July I was flying the Boeing 737-200, and now I’m flying the 300,” said Norman. The life of a pilot includes constant training. “Every six months pilots have to undergo a refresher training, such as a PPC (Pilot Proficiency Check), which is valid for a year, provided that in six months I do another training in a flight simulator. I just finished the company ground school last week. Every year we do a refresher course on what we do at Air Inuit, aircraft types, and human factors.”
Speaking of human factors, as the Twin Otter pilot he would give the passenger announcement before takeoff. In the jet this is done by a flight attendant. Norman said he still has connections to the passengers. “I see them outside the aircraft. As they’re boarding, they see me in the window in the cockpit, and they wave and smile.”
He has many flying memories from over the decades. “I was doing a KRG charter one time, from Kuujjuaq, Tasiujaq, Aupaluk, stopping in Quaqtaq. Aupaluk was pretty windy, with strong crosswinds too, and it was around 4:30 in the afternoon, in January. The wind was howling, and after about five tries and putting the wheel on the runway once or twice, not able to stay on the runway, we had to forget about trying to land in Aupaluk, because the crosswinds were too strong. There’s always the next day, you know, so the next day we picked up the passengers and brought them to Quaqtaq for the KRG regional board meeting.”
He talked about flying a Twin Otter close to the ground. “Fifteen hundred feet above the ground you’re looking at all sorts of animals, polar bears and muskox, wolves, and caribou. The odd fox will be scooting along. In springtime you see lots of geese flying around, and seals sitting on top of the ice. Those are memorable flights to reflect on.”
Norman advises young Inuit who might be thinking of a career in aviation to just do it. He has enjoyed working for Air Inuit, now a 43-year-old airline. He said it has grown very nicely and hasn’t lost its vision, which is to take care of the Inuit of Nunavik. “I think it’s a great company to work for.”