Saskatchewan Air Ambulance is celebrating 75 years of saving lives. The emergency response service flies people all around and even outside of the province during times when they need it most. As part of an ongoing series to celebrate this crucial operation, Our Stories is featuring two aircraft maintenance engineers, John Wilson and Tanys Scheelhaase. John comes from a legacy of aircraft maintenance starting with his father in 1946, and Tanys’s story shows how the industry is changing. Both talk about inspiring moments from their work, challenges they face and the unique work Saskatchewan Air Ambulance does.
I am an aircraft maintenance engineer (AME). We’re like an aircraft mechanic and inspector all rolled into one. I have been with Saskatchewan Air Ambulance (SAA) since April 1998, but I started my career in aircraft maintenance in 1989 when I moved to Calgary to go to school.
I grew up around airplanes and SAA. My dad was one of the first AME’s for SAA, starting in 1946 until he retired in 1977. I got to help my dad at work sometimes, holding a flashlight or counting screws, or whatever he could come up with to keep me occupied. My first airplane ride ever was when I was four, on one of the aircraft he maintained. Twenty-five years later, I got to work on that same aircraft when I started working for the government.
There have been many defining moments in my career. For instance, the night of the Fond Du Lac air accident in 2017, I was working late and was told that there was an emergency up north and was asked how many aircraft were available. The information coming from the scene rapidly changed, and I knew from experience that we needed multiple aircraft to get airborne ASAP, so I stayed to make sure all of our aircraft were ready to go. At times like this, I feel like a true part of the larger team, where what I do during my normal day-to-day job of inspecting and fixing aircraft can make a difference to someone in distress somewhere in Saskatchewan.
The Humboldt bus crash is another example of us coming together to get help to those who need it. This was a heartbreaking, difficult moment for the entire province. Supporters of the Humboldt Broncos gave us a quilt as a thank you for our involvement in the emergency response. It’s an honour to display this quilt in our hangar, and it’s a constant reminder of why we are here and who we serve.
Sometimes I am still amazed at what we in the maintenance department get to do here at SAA. We get to take apart multimillion-dollar aircraft, inspect and repair them, and put them back together (properly!) and then send them flying at 25,000 feet and 500 kilometres per hour through the air far from home. The medical and flight crews must really trust us! It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.
I have been twisting wrenches on airplanes since spring of 2001. Working in aviation maintenance has had its challenges throughout that time. In the beginning – 20 years ago things were a lot different – I had to work extra hard to prove myself and explain to people that yes, in fact, I am the person working on and maintaining your airplane. A lot has changed since then.
Before coming to SAA in 2017, I was the director of maintenance for the Regina Flying Club until having a baby and moving to Saskatoon. Now, I’m an aircraft maintenance engineer with a structures rating, and I focus on quality assurance for the maintenance department.
There are no two days that are the same in aircraft maintenance. One day everything is working perfectly, and the next you’re running off your feet making sure everything is safe. There are so many different systems and parts to maintain on aircraft. From plumbing, to electrical systems, mechanical systems, engines, landing gear, to special computer gear called avionics. There’s such a variety of things that your mind is always working. If it wasn’t for maintenance engineers, there wouldn’t be safe and operational aircraft ready to fly in on a 24-hour basis.
As with everything, COVID-19 has presented new challenges. Each flight requires a lot of protective equipment like gloves, masks, eye protection and gowns. Protocols were put in place to ensure the aircraft are cleaned after each flight and before anyone can enter them. We are an emergency service and transporting patients with infectious diseases is not a new thing for us here, but the frequency and the amount of unknown associated with COVID-19 definitely came as a shock for many of us.
That said, I think we have all adapted, come together as a team, and are focused on doing the best job we can.
All photography and video done for this project followed COVID-19 safety procedures. Minimal staff were present during filming and all wore masks whenever possible. Maskless photos and videos were taken in a large, well-ventilated space or at a distance with telephoto lenses. Saskatchewan Air Ambulance also does regular sanitation before and after equipment is used.