66-year-old air tanker, pilot retire to B.C. Aviation Museum in North Saanich

66-year-old air tanker, pilot retire to B.C. Aviation Museum in North Saanich

It was an unusual sight at Victoria International Airport Friday as an old air tanker made a final water run, dumping its load on the runway as a ceremonial end to its 66-year career in the skies.

A crowd gathered outside the B.C. Aviation Museum to welcome Conair Aviation’s Convair-580 to its new home. The museum will also welcome the aircraft’s retiring pilot Grahame Wilson, who will become a guide at the museum.

“This for the museum is an incredibly special day, we have the first time in our history the retirement of a pilot and the retirement of an aircraft, both coming to our museum,” said museum librarian Doug Rollins.

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Wilson has been flying for 47 years, the last 20 fighting wildfires for Conair in the plane that’s become like a member of his family.

“I sometimes refer to it as my girlfriend and she’s taken me home every night,” joked Wilson.

The turboprop air tanker started its life as a passenger plane with Belgian airline Sabena in the mid-1950s before making its way to the United States and then in 2000 to Canada to help tackle wildfires.

Wilson has flown it through some of the biggest fires in B.C. He recalls one in Lake Country in 2017 as one of the toughest experiences of his lengthy career.

“I actually had the unfortunate experience to see people’s houses with flames coming out of the building, through the windows, everyone had been evacuated of course,” Wilson said.

Wilson prefers to focus on the many times he and his plane were able to stop a fire before it really had a chance to get going.

“The Convair is very good in the mountains, it’s got a lot of power, it can fly slowly which is important when you’re in confined terrain,” he said.

It was last in action just two weeks ago in Washington State, but because of its age and the cost of maintaining it Conair has decided to retire it, donating it to the museum.

Wilson’s mother, who is nearly 100-years-old, was at the airport Friday to see him land one final time.

“A little sad because he’s sad, this is his life, he talks nothing but planes,” said Olwyn Wilson.

But Wilson isn’t saying goodbye to his favourite turboprop just yet, he will remain by her side teaching the public about her history as a guide at the museum.

April LawrenceApril Lawrence

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