SaNaeah Allen and Loyal Letcher were taking their private pilot’s license testing this week on the road to getting a full commercial license at the Salt College in Fort Smith.
Short for Sub-Arctic Leadership Training, the Presbyterian-based small institution is working to revive aviation teaching after two years of operation and is one of only two schools in the North, with the other being in Whitehorse.
One thing the two Fort Simpson Indigenous students can agree on is that the school is a positive option for Northern First peoples seeking post-graduate options. What’s more is that the industry needs more Indigenous representation.
“I mean absolutely hell yeah,” Allen, 18, said with enthusiasm. “The fact that the school is in the noise, that was a big plus for me when there were other schools to choose from across Canada.
“Being right close to home and close to family and the fact that they want Indigenous to go out and actually do it (pilot training) is a big plus for the school.”
Letcher, 21, pointed out that aviation is a critical service for the North and one that Indigenous people should be able to participate in its delivery.
“Because being up here everything is so spread out and it is far between places, aviation is a big part of how we live in the North, so having Indigenous people be part of a vital role is definitely great.”
Allen is actually Letcher’s distant cousin and both received scholarship award funding – $2,500 a piece – on Sept. 17 to complement their work toward a commercial license.
Both students had to provide statements to Northwestern Air Lease talking about what an aviation career means to them, how their scholarship money would be used and where they plan to go in the future.
James Heidema, chief operating officer of Northwestern Air Lease, said that he hopes that the two students are indicative of what lies ahead for the school. He said it is quite common and frustrating in the northern aviation industry for people outside the jurisdiction to come and fly to gain experience only to be recruited by larger airlines in the South.
Since the institution’s inception, the goal has been to develop northern pilots for the North.
“Our goal is that we are not interested in international students or students from the south because there are lots of aviation options for them,” Heidema explained. “We are interested in kids from the North and if possible Indigenous students.
“If we can find kids familiar with the northern environment and familiar with extremes of the weather, it makes for better pilots because they tend to be more thoughtful.”
The school takes in up to 10 students per year and although expensive, will lead to white collar, lucrative jobs, Heidema says. Training consists of ground processes as well as mechanics of the aircraft and management-related and communications skills. Flying solo is taught and students are guided toward being able to fly twin-engine crafts by the end of their tenure.
The paths into aviation differed for Allen and Letcher. For Allen, while attending high school, he said he was lucky enough to have a teacher who cared enough about his future to point him toward the idea of flying. He hadn’t even finished high school when he jumped at the opportunity and entered SALT last January.
The process of learning to fly has brought him to a place where he is now feeling increasingly comfortable in a plane,, he added.
“I used to get stress headaches and feel sick after flying and I think that was like the first two weeks,” he said. “It was really stressful because you’re trying to pay attention to what the instructors are saying and at the same time they’re slowly giving you more and more of the airplane. If you’re not used to turning and doing big movements in airplanes it kind of affects your brain fluids.”
For Letcher, he had taken a few years off after high school before beginning the program in January 2020. Because his family owns the remote North Nahanni Naturalist Lodge, he wants to have the ability to access it whenever he wants.
“I always would go there as a kid but the only way it was easily accessible was to fly out by floatplane,” he said. “I have wanted to be able to freely access the area in the future and the only really easy way to do that is to become a pilot.”