This story, from Sikorsky S92 Pilot Ken Saumure is a fascinating look into what motivation and passion look like. Whether you’re a pilot or not, Ken explains, why your age should never be a factor if you want to follow your dreams.The Rotor Break
by Ken Saumure
On this particular flight, I was pilot flying sitting in the right seat and the captain was pilot monitoring.
We were on our way back from an oil rig 200 nautical miles east of St. John’s carrying 16 passengers back from their 3-week shift offshore. I’m certain that they were much more eager to get home than we were.
About 30 miles out, we were at 4000 feet just above a beautiful layer of cloud. The sun was shining and the warmth on my face reminded me how fortunate I was to be sitting there in the business end of an S92. We had completed our descent and before landing checklists and were waiting for Gander Centre to fit us into the mix. Back at the airport, the ceiling was reported at 200’ overcast and RVR (measured runway visibility) was reported at 1200 feet. We knew the weather had been marginal, even for a standard instrument approach so we briefed for a Pilot Monitored Approach and the LTS (Lower Than Standard) minima for the Category II ILS on runway 29. The following procedures and verbal banter that follow would have had me completely bewildered just a short time ago.
“Cougar 41 cleared direct TESOX (Intermediate Approach Fix) descend to 3000”.
“Down to 3000, direct TESOX, Cougar 41” the captain read back to which I repeated back to him as well.
“Cougar 41, cleared the ILS 29 CAT II St. John’s, contact tower now 120.6”
“Cleared for the ILS CAT II 29, over to tower, Cougar 41”.
The Category 2 ILS allows us to descend to 100’ on the minimums and with our LTS approval from Transport Canada the RVR can be as low as 600’. On this day, we would take everything we could as we expected to break out right at minimums with very little forward visibility. We began our descent into the clouds.
At the Final Approach Fix, the captain called “crossing EPVAG at 1500 – altitude checks”.
“Check” was my SOP response followed by commanding the final approach checklist.“500 above”.
“Check”, I acknowledged.“100 above”.“Check”. We still hadn’t broken out of the clouds.
Like we practiced in the simulator time after time, the call came from the aircraft automation into my headset right at minimums: “Altitude, Altitude”.
“Visual – continue” was exactly what I wanted to hear from the captain, my thumb no longer hovering over the ‘go-around’ button on the cyclic.
“Continuing” I replied. The transition to landing was typical and uneventful. Moments later the RVR went up to 2500 feet and for the rest of the day, it was actually quite nice: 2 statute miles visibility with 400’ ceilings. Such is life in Newfoundland.
What has become quite normal for me now, seemed like a distant, unobtainable dream just a couple of years ago. I was still flying an AStar in the bush in northern Alberta and had a long list of people who had told me I would never be able to fly complex IFR in a multi-crew environment simply because I had missed the boat: I was too old to learn anything new.
Before we go any further – a little background on me: I was born in the mid 1960’s, poor vision and raised in a “less than stellar” family environment to say the least. I certainly didn’t meet any of the requirements of a helicopter pilot when I joined the Canadian Forces in 1983. But since childhood, flying was the only thing I can remember ever wanting to do.
I was lucky enough to get through the military screening process and spent over 8 years enjoying life with the Canadian Navy in communications & technology. In between deployments, I got my private airplane license in 1986. A lack of cash and family support sidelined any further flying. After my release in 1990, flew airplanes a little bit more, continued my education and worked for several respectable telecom companies, eventually working internationally for ComStream Corporation – A Spar Aerospace company headquartered in San Diego, California in 1997.
The flying bug, however, never went away. Sadly, the only constant was people telling me how great my career had been thus far and how “chasing my dream” of being a pilot was childish and irresponsible, now that I had a young family to support. The money was good, and I was riding the wave of the economic boom of the late ‘90’s living the dream in Southern California. So, like any responsible adult, I bought and built an experimental helicopter kit – a RotorWay Exec 162F. I built the helicopter in a rented hangar at the Ramona Airport and I was in heaven. The airport was a buzzing place with the California Forestry Department, Classic Rotors Museum and everything from Moonies to Mustangs. I met so many wonderful people – pilots, mechanics, aircraft builders, and restorers – the list was endless. And we all shared the same passion and love for aviation. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was truly where I belonged.
Like so many pilots, I love learning and exploring. I loved flying my helicopter and gained a lot of great experience flying in the hills of Southern California. Wanting to gain more knowledge, I decided to get my Commercial Helicopter and Flight Instructor ratings. When I wasn’t jet-setting to the Asia Pacific region for work, I was bombing around the skies of San Diego County with the doors off living life to the fullest. With the combined effects of 9/11 and the exposure of widespread corporate corruption, by the time 2002 rolled around the stock exchange had lost over $18 trillion in market capitalization and our company went down in flames along with nearly every other high-tech enterprise listed on the NASDAQ. Although my departure from work at the time was voluntary, it wasn’t long afterward that Spar sold ComStream and the company closed its doors forever.
I never planned on being unemployed at 38 years old and I certainly never planned to change careers at that age either. Reflecting on it now, the idea scares the daylight out of me. Sitting at home one morning, the phone rang and it was the owner of a local flight school asking if I could fill in for one of the flight instructors who had called in sick. It was a beautiful Saturday morning with clear blue skies and a light sea breeze bringing the smell of the ocean wafting inland. I was out the door like a shot. Little did I know at that time that I would never go back to working in the telecom industry ever again.
The flying was amazing but the money was a joke. In my first year of flying helicopters trying to support myself and my family, the year prior I had paid more in income tax to the state of California. It was as pitiful as it was painful. It seemed like every new year was a new employer with me trying to make the best of it. There were good times and some not so good times but by the time I had ten years of experience under my belt, it was clear that I would never continue to grow in my new career unless I continued academically. The instrument rating was the only way forward.
In 2014, I was fighting fires, long-lining, flying powerline construction jobs and my employer had what seemed to be a pretty good gig up in the Arctic with Bell mediums on an IFR contract. I inquired several times only to be reminded of my age (I was 48 at the time) and that I was too old to “get into IFR” and fly the bigger machines. One manager even took the time during a lunch meeting to draw a cute little graph on a napkin with “age” on the X-axis and “learning” on the Y-axis with a descending curved line from left to right. He pushed the napkin closer to me. “You see,” he pointed at his kindergarten refrigerator art, “you’re too old to learn how to fly IFR”.
And I was stupid enough to believe him. For the next couple of years, I watched my salary decline with every operator explaining to me that it was because of the downturn in the global Oil & Gas industry. In 2016, two of my kids were making more money than I was. I was on the verge of throwing in the towel for at least the second time in ten years.
I decided that I had put this off long enough and at 50 years old, I wrote one of the most difficult exams to pass in Canadian aviation. There were 4 of us who wrote the Instrument Rating exam that morning – 3 young students from a very respectable flight school and me. I was the only passing grade with 89%. The 2 ATPL(H) exams followed shortly afterward with 92% and 88%. I bought an IFR flight simulator from Elite Software and busted out approach after approach at home and completed the airplane IFR flight test in less than a week. The scores were all well above standard. I went back to work for my last VFR shift of the season and when that was done, I completed the Group IV IFR on my helicopter license in 4 days.
My commercial helicopter license was endorsed for instrument privileges on my 51st birthday and a week later I was being interviewed for an IFR EMS job flying an AW139. I was hired immediately and went to CAE to complete the training that endorsed my license for the Canadian ATPL(H). Another birthday present was getting hired at Cougar Helicopters last September. Since then I’ve completed my recurrent Sikorsky S92 simulator ride where I was evaluated as a captain. I fly IFR every single day with most of it in cloud/fog, icing, 50+ knot winds and everything else mother nature can dish out in the North Atlantic in one of the most complex civil helicopters in the world – the Sikorsky S92.
I should have done this a long time ago since looking back at it now, it truly wasn’t as hard as a lot of people made it out to be. And now I find out that many of my colleagues were latecomers to the IFR world as well. We all hear the parroted ideology of naysayers and the negative; if they can’t do it (or haven’t done it), then you can’t do it. It’s a medical fact that our brains develop in very specific ways right after birth, with the elasticity for language development, motor skills and so much more in the early stages of childhood. If we remain intellectually or academically sedentary throughout life, I would imagine that some of what my old boss said would be true. However, if you’re an engineer, brain surgeon or some other discipline that requires continuous academic development, then your ability to learn must continue in some form or another.
If you choose to become a career pilot, you must continuously develop your skills throughout your career. With age comes wisdom and you can put that to good use too. This article wasn’t meant to be a technical story with age-based research on learning, retention or anything like that. What I hope you take away from my experience is that you are never too old to learn something new. You may find it very difficult to step outside your comfort zone and venture off into the unknown. Am I too old to fly? Am I too old to learn? Am I too old to start a new career? You are the only one who can answer those questions. And nobody is morally qualified to make those decisions for you. Anyone can pass an exam or a flight test, regardless of how difficult it might seem to look in from the outside. Fear of the unknown will always be your biggest adversary.
The only advice I can offer is to never listen to anyone who tells you that age is a determining factor when it comes to learning or succeeding, it’s not even in the equation (or the x-y graph).
About the Author: Ken Saumure has over 6000 hours in helicopters. Holder of an ATPL(H) with S92 and AW139 type ratings. His experience ranges from Firefighting, Utility and EMS and is currently flying Sikorsky S92’s Offshore, in the North Atlantic.