Days after November storms flooded fields, loosed mudslides and tore holes in highways in British Columbia, a Metro Vancouver pilot had rallied a small fleet of private flyers to help however they could.
Just two weeks after the devastation, Surrey's Shaun Heaps had grown his fleet from 25 pilots to 80, each one flying free of charge. Like Heaps, many of those flyers are members of the West Coast Pilot Club based out of Langley Regional Airport. Many others come from flying clubs across the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
Heaps has been around aircraft most of his life, flying regularly with his father until he was 16. Heaps later became a firefighter and had a family but once retirement came around six years ago he was in the air again with his private pilots license.
Over 200,000 lbs of supplies
When news of communities cut off from the flooding reached him he said he simply “saw a need.” That, and word had reached him there were some unscrupulous characters leveraging the situation to their benefit.
“People were saying, 'I don't care the cost, get me out of here,' and some guys were taking advantage of that and charging them astronomical amounts of money,” Heaps said in a recent interview with Vancouver Is Awesome. “Here's my buddy and I that are like, 'If you could give us 50 bucks for gas that'd be great!'"
As the scope of the disaster increased, so did Heaps' operation. Soon he was putting out calls for specific donations according to the needs of many communities across the province. He coordinated donation drop offs at the Langley hangar, organized the flights of 70 aircraft including four helicopters to take the donations where they were needed most.
While he doesn't know the dollar amount exactly, Heaps estimates that the total value of goods that have been transported is well into the hundreds of thousands.
"We've literally dropped off just over 200,000 pounds of product," Heaps said. This includes food, feminine products, hygiene kits, pet/livestock feed, and more.
The cost of running a free airport
While Heaps has collected fuel receipts from some pilots in his fleet, most wave a dismissive hand. That being said, with the numbers of planes in the air it's not unusual for $15,000 worth of fuel to be spent in a day’s operation.
At the time of the VIA interview Heaps was getting ready to make a large delivery using the biggest helicopter at his disposal. For a full day’s operation, not including the pilot’s pay, the helicopter will cost just under $20,000 to run.
While there have been generous donations from the Sikh community to the tune of $40,000, when asked if he expects to break even, Heaps had his doubts.
"If we can, awesome. If we can't, no big deal," he said. Nonetheless, a GoFundMe page has been created for the pilots and reimbursements will be given as they are asked for.
‘They were crying. They were on rations’
However to the pilots and especially to Heaps it was never really about the money.
"I was almost losing faith in humanity," Heaps said. "This whole thing has really recharged my battery and lit my candle again and inspired me to give back."
“There was literally a community that we went to on Sunday that had no aid… nothing from the start of this," he said. "We put in so much product there that the people were just enamoured, they were crying. They were on rations. They were rationing their food because they had no idea when or if they were going to get supplies."
In preparation for the holidays Heaps’ wife is working with Mamas for Mamas to put together Christmas presents for children and adults in displaced communities.
A shout out to Ryan Reynolds
Now that the endeavours of the West Coast Pilot Club are becoming more widely known, Heaps has received a good dose of media attention lately. Heaps welcomes this as he says it's keeping the story at the forefront.
"Usually it's about two weeks, and then people drop off, thinking: 'Oh, we haven't really heard anything, everybody's okay,'" Heaps said. “You can go to the corner store and grab a coffee, whereas these people cannot. The only supplies they have is what we give them. That's it."
Heaps has also reached out to Vancouver’s own Ryan Reynolds to keep the story in the spotlight, going so far as to invite the actor on a delivery run to one of B.C.’s many cut-off Indigenous communities.
"It'd be good for the community to see that, to give us more movement and more presence," he said.
While major highways across the province are gradually reopening, Heaps estimates it won’t be until February 2022 that supplies will regularly reach the most isolated B.C. communities.
“As long as we've got pilots that can fly and we have supplies we can supply the planes with, and people in need. We're gonna keep going."