Les McInnis, with his Harmon Rocket, on the ramp at Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport. DON RICKERS

Octogenarian pilot Les McInnis preserves his passion for flight

When Les McInnis and his wife decided to leave Grimsby a few years ago, and relocate somewhere else in Niagara, Pelham was a sensible choice. After all, their new home on Martha Court in Fenwick is only an eight-minute drive from the Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport (NCDRA) on River Road, where McInnis, a retired commercial pilot, continues to enjoy his lifelong love affair with aircraft. And it’s been a long affair, considering that McInnis is 88.

His latest winged paramour is a 2005 Harmon Rocket, a sleek monoplane with aerobatic capabilities that McInnis still puts to the test on occasion with loops, rolls, and spins. Prior to that he owned a classic Pitts Special biplane as well as an Ultimate, a scalpel of an aircraft that allows a skilled pilot to slice through the air and make paper-thin changes to his flight profile. The highly maneuverable plane has been a staple at airshow competitions for years, and reacts instinctively to the slightest input of control stick, pedal, and throttle. A pilot needs to be thinking two steps ahead when flying this type of machine.

McInnis, in the 1980s, as captain of a Canadian Airlines DC-10. MC INNIS FAMILY

McInnis downplayed his competitiveness as a small-plane acrobatic flyer, but other pilots at the NCDRA said he was one of the best around in his prime.

He grew up on a farm in rural Chipman, New Brunswick, and did his flight training in Fredericton, located about an hour away.

“I got my private pilot licence in 1959, and my instructor’s rating and commercial licence in 1962,” said McInnis. “I worked as a flight instructor for the Moncton Flying Club for a while, then joined EPA [Eastern Provincial Airways, serving Atlantic Canada] and flew the ubiquitous DC-3 airliner and PBY Canso [a “flying boat” long-range patrol aircraft, also called a Catalina] all over Newfoundland and Labrador, with the occasional flight to Greenland.”

McInnis sometimes flew the Canso on water-bomber missions to extinguish forest fires.

In 1964, McInnis joined Canadian Pacific Airlines (CPA), and flew jets with them out of Vancouver before making the jump to Toronto as a DC-8 captain in 1971. CPA was eventually absorbed by Canadian Airlines, which itself was later acquired by Air Canada. McInnis spent 27 years with Canadian, retiring in 1991.

MacInnis with his Howard DGA float plane (similar to the famous de Havilland Beaver), at a Burlington dock on Lake Ontario, in the 1960s. MC INNIS FAMILY

The McDonnell Douglas DC-10, a wide-body airliner introduced in the early 1970s and a bit smaller than the venerable Boeing 747, was McInnis’ favourite commercial jet over the course of his career. The plane was built to haul 300 passengers and crew on transcontinental flights.

“Yeah, it was beautiful,” he said. “The DC-10 had an engine on each wing, and another on the tail, generating about 15,000 horsepower. It carried lots of fuel—you could fly that thing 13 hours across the Pacific to Tokyo.”

McInnis primarily flew long-haul flights to Europe, Asia, and South America. His favorite destination?

“Probably Rome,” he said, noting the classic architecture and ancient history of the city.

Seniority gave McInnis his pick of the prime routes.

“Pilots worked about 70 hours a month of flying time,” he said. “Rome, to Athens, to Tel Aviv, and back to Canada might log about 20 hours…so after a few long-haul trips, I’d quite often have 15 days off.”

I alerted the police, and they later told me that the guy was preparing to hijack a flight

Aside from some occasional fog, high winds, and poor weather, McInnis had few close calls while flying commercially.

“We had a few engine shutdowns, but nothing catastrophic,” he said. McInnis looks back on his career with satisfaction, but acknowledges that today’s fliers have to deal with more safety and security restrictions, which “probably makes it less fun to be a pilot.”

He has a vast collection of stories involving the antics of passengers.

“One fellow apparently had a habit of purchasing the cheapest ticket for a flight, then would skulk up to first class and occupy a vacant seat. He started getting sarcastic with the service crew, and I had to go back to deal with it. The Mexican police handcuffed him when we landed. The guy wasn’t real happy.”

On another occasion, McInnis was in an airport washroom and noticed the man standing next to him was carrying a handgun.

“I alerted the police, and they later told me that the guy was preparing to hijack a flight.”

Age 60 used to mean compulsory retirement for pilots. Over the years, the Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA) has challenged this stance through litigation in the courts, then, in 2011, the federal government passed a law forbidding federally regulated companies such as Air Canada from enforcing a mandatory retirement age.

Although commercial pilots and private pilots flying internationally require regular physicals, those with a recreational licence, allowing flights over Canadian airspace with one passenger, only require a self-declaration of medical fitness signed by a doctor, which has to be presented to Transport Canada every five years. There is no upper age limit to acquire or renew a pilot licence.

McInnis has been blessed with good health during his life, and has enjoyed flying out of the NCDRA for the past few years. But he is thinking that maybe it’s time, as age 90 looms on the horizon, to hang up his headphones and sell his plane.

“It’s getting harder to get in and out of the damn thing,” he said with a laugh.