Life can often be a game of connect the dots, but a wise man once said that you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.
This month, Steven Morrow celebrated 27 years as an air ambulance pilot in Prince Rupert with his colleagues in the Helijet hanger in Seal Cove. How he ended up on the North Coast, with 7,000 hours of flight time, providing an essential health service to surrounding communities from Telegraph Creek to Bella Coola, can only be determined by connecting the dots backwards.
Growing up in Southern Ontario, Morrow dreamed of the West Coast. When he was 17-years-old, Morrow and a friend hitchhiked west to see the beach, but they only made it as far as Edmonton.
After completing Grade 12, he tried to see the beaches of British Columbia once again. With a friend, he jumped in an old car and drove across the country. The car quit on them in Jasper.
“We spent a month and a half there in 1978, then our car died so we hitchhiked to the coast and I ended up in Tofino,” he said.
For work, he packed fish for six months of the fishing season until he was hired by a falling company that specialized in heli-logging.
Although the money was good, it was a dangerous gig. He found out he had replaced someone who died on the job, and one day while at work, he was standing next to a logger who lost two of his fingers.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Morrow said. “Because of that I got my first aid ticket.” With a few tools in his medical toolbox, someone suggested he should become a part-time ambulance attendant in Tofino.
Without intending to become an air ambulance pilot, Morrow was already heading down the path.
For two years, he worked as a tree faller. A helicopter pilot would drop him into a site in the morning and pick him up at night — but soon he realized that he wanted to be the pilot and stay warm and dry.
“One day one of the pilots on the logging helicopters sat me down and told me how I could become a pilot,” he said.
Before this conversation, Morrow had taken his first flight in Tofino on a float plane when his friend’s dad was starting his company. The experience planted the seed, and Morrow began training for his private pilot licence — a prerequisite he needed for flight school at Canadore College in North Bay.
After acquiring his helicopter pilot licence, he returned to the West Coast in search of a job. No one was hiring at the time, so he continued his training with airplanes and picked up a position at a small airline company out of Qualicum for three years. Then, he flew bush helicopters for a logging company for a couple of years.
The dots continued to connect. He married Lisa, a young woman he’d met in Tofino, and they had two boys. At most, he was away from his family for five days at a time.
But when an opportunity came to work out of Prince Rupert as an air ambulance pilot, he took a chance and moved to a place he’d only heard of from his fishermen friends.
“I like being home every night. This industry is difficult to find the kind of work where you’re home every night. You start being home every night and your kids are in school and the two year commitment kind of went out the window,” Morrow said.
His family made the move in 1990, and 27 years later, he now has grandkids, his wife is a well-established artist out of the Ice House Gallery, and his colleagues care about him enough they crafted him a helicopter-shaped cake to celebrate his tenure.
The experience he had in the logging industry, as a part-time ambulance attendant, his determination to fly and his love for coastal rainforests connected him up to this point.
“It gives you a sense of accomplishment knowing that you’re helping people that are in need of help. I’ve flown friends, I’ve flown neighbours, I’ve flown my wife,” Morrow said.
Lisa was on life support and airlifted to Vancouver, where she recovered from complications to surgery. Five weeks later, Morrow was able to fly over to Digby Island and pick her up off the plane to bring her home. “It was a trying time,” he said.
Morrow is the air ambulance lead pilot for Helijet in Prince Rupert. He works seven day shifts, seven night shifts and then has two weeks off. As the only resident pilot, he has extra duties to keep regular meetings with the regional ambulance unit on operations and safety.
He also manages community relations, and has Santa flown in to visit the kids for Helijet Christmas parties, and he offers heli-tours as a donation to local charities.
At 57 years old, Morrow continues to log memories and photos of the breathtaking coast where he lives with his family.
“I think the biggest thing for me is that it’s a job where you don’t mind going to work.”