MONTREAL – Serge Labreche had just bought the plane of his dreams, sight unseen, at a price that seemed a steal: an iconic Piper J-3 Cub, built in 1946. But there was a problem. It was sitting 6,000 kilometres away from his native Quebec in Whitehorse, and he had no way of getting it back.
He bought it from a man whose grandfather came to the Yukon from Quebec during the Gold Rush a little more than a century ago and never left. The plane was only $29,000, less than half the normal selling price. Produced between 1937-47, the diminutive two-seaters were used primarily for flight training for hundreds of thousands of potential pilots during the Second World War, and became one of the best-selling aircraft of all time. At 340 kilograms, it’s one-quarter the weight of a Toyota Corolla. It’s also a tight, uncomfortable fit inside, which Labreche discovered when he went to Whitehorse to fly it back. Labreche had logged several hours in a Piper J-3 in his 20s, but he’s 70 now, and after two hours in the air he realized spending days cramped into the plane was no longer as appealing.
He flew back home, on Air Canada.
He tried to sell it for $25,000, and discovered why it was such a bargain: no one was willing to fly all the way to the Yukon to buy it. Paying a professional pilot to bring it back would cost $200 a day plus living expenses for a trip that could last as long as 20 days.
Then he got a call from Samuel Daigle of Laval, Que. “I hear you have a Piper J-3 you want flown back to Quebec,” he said. “I’m your guy.”
A fan of all things motorized from a young age, Daigle started flying remote-controlled airplanes at the age of 12, taking them apart and modifying them so they’d fly faster. Daigle’s uncle, a pilot, bought him his first flying lesson as a Christmas gift when he was 16. He got his private licence within a year, and his commercial pilot’s licence the year after that, an exceptionally fast transition.
The only problem was Daigle just turned 18 last June. But he had 260 hours of flight time experience and was already working as a flight instructor.
They worked out a deal: Labreche would pay him $20 a day, and for his motel rooms.
With aspirations of becoming a bush pilot, and later moving on to bigger planes, Daigle needs to log hours to increase his experience, but renting plane time costs around $120 an hour. This trip would give him 60 hours. They had a deal.
“I was embarrassed, driving to the home to give him the keys,” Labreche said. “He’s an 18-year-old, and I’m asking him to drive a 64-year-old plane across Canada. I thought his parents were going to be angry.”
They were thrilled.
“He’s a mature young man. He’s very serious,” his father, Mario Daigle, said. “And he’s living his dream.”
Half a week after the deal was struck, Daigle was flying out of Whitehorse on Aug. 6, his belongings stuffed behind him in the narrow hold of the metal plane, a five-gallon plastic can of gasoline strapped into the seat in front of him, in case he had trouble finding an airport and needed extra fuel.
On his seat there was a blue-and-white striped pillow, to cushion the impact of eight-hour days aloft.
He was hoping to make it in 10 days, at an average cruising speed of 120 kilometres an hour.
The J-3 Piper can attain altitudes of about 12,000 feet, but pilots shouldn’t fly much above 10,000 because the air is thin and they can pass out. Samuel flew where weather conditions dictated, generally about 3,000 feet up, below the clouds and the buffeting winds. But he wasn’t always spared: Above Brandon, Man., the lightweight plane was rocked by 60 kilometre an hour gusts.
On one takeoff, his side window fell into the plane, so he had to handle both ascension and window maintenance simultaneously. A mechanic later repaired the window. A small amount of oil leaked from the cylinder heads of the 90-horsepower engine, running up the side of the plane and smearing his windows, but it was “no big deal,” he says.
His favourite passages were through Canada’s soaring Rockies, where 3,350-metre peaks forced him to fly through the valleys in between, guided by highways below.
The Piper can fly for about five hours on a tank of gas, but Daigle would never push it far beyond three. Planning his route was the hardest task, plotting possible runways at airports along the route. He rarely knew for sure where he would spend the night. He would sleep in the quiet terminals, or was often invited to stay at the home of pilots, and they would talk airplanes into the night. Weather kept him grounded in Saskatchewan for several days, but fellow plane buffs let him fly six different planes, so it was time well wasted. His exploits were talked about on aviation magazine blogs and sites.
The teenager, who is one of the youngest people to attempt this type of flight across Canada, received particularly warm receptions in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“I didn’t see it as a particularly big deal,” said a smiling Daigle after he landed just outside of Montreal on Friday to a welcome of TV crews and elated, relieved family members. Asked why he chose to fly 6,000 kilometres across Canada in a plane normally used for two-hour local jaunts, he said he had little choice.
“There’s only one reason to do it – if you’re passionate about it. And I am.”
When the media had finished with him, he turned to Labreche.
“Here’s your plane,” he said, and handed him the keys.