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He of the sky: Ignorant man legally operates small aircraft

Before the Wright Brothers flew experimental aircraft and NASA launched glorified canisters into space, before John Diefenbaker nixed development of the Avro Arrow and Jazz started charging obnoxious prices for disgusting sandwiches, before, in short, there was anything resembling a flight industry, there were kites — Chinese kites, to be precise.

They were built and tethered to the Great Wall in centuries long gone, and miscreants of a criminal persuasion were leashed to these things and then set aloft. Such affairs unraveled without the lionizing context of today’s extreme sports culture, and so one can imagine that the experience produced much in fear, but little in fun.

While that balance is reversed, taking flight instructions from Sea to Sky Air — based out of Squamish’s Brackendale Airport — is still sort of scary.

Peter Balis is the company’s chief flight instructor, and he also flies tourists on sightseeing excursions and research types on charter sorties. While not huge in marketed presence, Sea to Sky Air plays an interesting and special role in the district’s tourism agenda.

In Squamish, Balis is known as Mama Pete. If you see him walking down the street, you shout “Mama Pete!” in one of those under-your-bad-ass-breath voices common in hip-hop. He’ll say “Word!” in a high pitched yelp, common nowhere else. It’s hard to say how these things come about.

But they are fitting. While Mama Pete is in no obvious way transgendered, he does put off a warm and maternal vibe. It’s a necessary communication given that I’m about to fly a 1975 Cessna four-seater with no more cockpit experience than a brief ground lesson — and vague memories of old war footage depicting Japanese pilots hopped up on speed as they resign themselves to a kamikaze climax.

But Mama Pete exudes the sort of calm achieved after logging 1,200 flight hours. It’s strange and foreign to me, this calm, but compelling in its wisdom, which I take as infinite.

“You gotta make this plane your bitch,” he says, all nonchalant. “But you also have to respect it.”

Mama knows, child. Mama knows.

And if you’re going to try this, there’s a bunch of stuff you should know, too. For example, you should know how much fuel you have. You can use the gauges in the plane to arrive at that conclusion, or, as is sometimes done by hard tickets like Mama Pete, you can dip a wooden peg into the mixture.

You should also know about the plane’s controls. Mama Pete has a complete set of the same controls in the seat beside you, and he’ll take over if you have a panic attack.

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