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Cleared for landing one last time

Captain Lester Powell and Captain Romain Butler, 98 years combined experience in the skies.
Captain Lester Powell and Captain Romain Butler, 98 years combined experience in the skies.

After logging more than 45,000 hours as a pilot, Lester Powell stepped out of the cockpit on June 16 ending a 44-year career with Air Labrador.

Powell’s daughter Lisa Dempster was among those to greet him following his final flight.

When contacted by phone about her father’s career, Dempster (the MHA for Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair) said her father’s legacy won’t soon be forgotten.

“Growing up in complete isolation here on (Labrador’s) south coast, mail used to be delivered by coastal boat... So Dad’s dream was to deliver the mail and freight (by air) to the communities along the coast – his people really,” Dempster said.

Powell, who grew up in Charlottetown, came from a family of seven brothers.  All but one became pilots.

Powell spent his entire career with Air Labrador, flying – oftentimes from dusk to dawn - into what Dempster describes as “some of the most unforgiving territory a pilot can fly in.”

“Dad saw many of his colleagues come join him but they’d always move on. But he never wanted to do that.”

**

When asked how aviation has changed over the years, Powell said the airplanes he started off flying didn’t have radios for communication.

“We had no nav (navigation) equipment or anything like that in the older days. Today we got all the modern GPS (equipment)” he said.

In the early years, he said, the planes were equipped with floats in the summer and wheel skis in the winter for landing purposes in remote areas.

“Airstrips only came up when we got the Twin Otters in later years,” he said.

Powell’s terrific sense of humour came through during the phone interview.

“One of the pilots said, ‘He loved flying. He’d fly for nothing but he wouldn’t let his boss hear him say that,’” he said lightheartedly.

**

According to Powell’s daughter, delivering mail and freight was just some of her father’s duties.

Dempster said her father completed over one thousand medavac flights and, since his retirement, she’s been inundated with messages about how he touched people’s lives through the years. Some of the stories are about medavac flights, she said, going on to share one particular message.

The message was from a man who recalled how – two decades ago – his mother was about to be medavaced out of Cartwright.

The man told Dempster how her father was the pilot doing the medavac. He picked up the woman, taxied out on the runway and was about to take off when the doctor made a sign to Powell that the woman had passed away.

“Dad cut the power and they sat there at the end of the runway for a few minutes. Then he taxied back. The guy told me, ‘I don’t remember any words being exchanged between myself and your dad that day but what I do remember is him getting out of the plane.... and leading me to the terminal with the most kindness I have ever felt,’” Dempster said in summarizing the man’s message.

From the cradle to the grave, Powell was there for families in their time of joy as well as deep sorrow.

“We didn’t have a road back in early days so Dad flew home a lot of bodies. People remembered him for taking the extra care when he landed and the families were there waiting... then there would be exciting times when Dad would tease me. He always called me Missy. He’d say, ‘Missy, some cute little fellow born last night. What a head of hair he had on him.’” I would laugh as say, ‘My gosh, Dad. Why didn’t you take him home.’”

Dempster said she became emotional when she saw her father taxiing into the airport in Goose Bay for the last time as pilot with Air Labrador.

“I’m pretty strong and tough, very much like Dad... but I got so emotional thinking it’s amazing that - given all the times he had to put down on a pond in the winter and people would be wondering where he was, was he safe, did he crash... was he just waiting for the weather to clear – now, at almost 70 years old, to be able to walk in (to the terminal), hang up your headset and go home. You’re well and you’re healthy and you’re safe... I just felt tremendous gratitude that somebody was watching out for him all those years.”

danette@nl.rogers.com

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