By Mike Balsom
Special to The Local
He’s heard the comments. He’s seen the looks.
First, it was the flight attendant. Her eyes gave it away. “You’re 21?” she asked, incredulously. Then there was the passenger on the WestJet Encore flight. As he was disembarking, he stopped, looked, and asked, “Are you sure you’re old enough to fly this thing?”
“This thing” is a Bombardier Q-400 Turboprop. It boasts a 93-foot wingspan and cruises at a top speed of 667 kph at a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet. Bombardier bills it as the “fastest and most advanced turboprop aircraft” around. As First Officer, 21-year-old Tyler Hill of Virgil is one of two pilots responsible for the safety of the 78 passengers on board. And yes, he is indeed old enough to fly “this thing.”
Hill moved to Calgary last March to begin his career as a commercial pilot with WestJet, following a six-month vetting process with the carrier. He began talks with them in October, 2017, but was short on some flight hours. Once he earned those hours, flying out of the Niagara District Airport, Hill was able to write his exams for his Airline Transport Pilot Licence. Then it was on to an interview with a WestJet pilot, a technical exam, and finally, a job offer in February, 2018. Of course, the process also included a six-week ground school, orienting himself with company policies and learning the ropes on the Q-400 via a flight simulator.
Since then, he’s been based in Calgary, flying mostly short-haul flights (under three hours) to Grand Prairie, Vancouver, Nanaimo and other West Coast and Prairie destinations. He’s also flown many times into Toronto, out to Moncton, and to WestJet Encore destinations in Boston, Nashville, Myrtle Beach and Portland. The pilots get to bid on their schedules, and Hill tries to ensure that his 60 to 70 hours each month include a chance to have some downtime back home in Virgil with his parents, Rob and Tracy.
The Hills moved to Virgil from England when Tyler was about seven years old. From as far back as he can remember, he has wanted to be a pilot. “Whenever we went on vacation, the most exciting thing for me was being on the plane. I even loved the airports.”
He remembers drawing airplanes in Grade 7, and when, as a Grade 10 student at Eden High School, his class was asked to complete a project on their passions, Tyler, of course, completed his on flying. By then, he had begun flying at Niagara District Airport, and as part of the project, he first took his mother for a short flight. Then, his Grade 10 English teacher, Heather Lailey, was invited to soar with her student above Niagara.
Hill credits the St. Catharines Flying Club and its staff for his early success in the field. “I have seen other flight schools, even ones at colleges and universities, and this one is the best. I got to know all of the instructors. With their experience, and their knowledge, they are the best in Canada by far.”
With the airport so close to home, Hill was able to get a job at the desk for the flying club, paying off his lessons by working there. He had earned his private pilot licence by the time he had graduated from Eden, and decided that to continue to progress, the best option for him was to stay right here in Niagara. He enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts program with a major in geography at Brock University, and is currently just one elective credit short of his degree. In the meantime, he became a flight instructor with the St. Catharines Flying Club, earning the money he needed to continue to work toward his next licence.
Moving to Calgary for the WestJet Encore job was a big step for a young man at 20 years old. Rob and Tracy were sad to see him move so far away. But their excitement to watch their young son realize his dream of becoming a commercial pilot took precedence.
Working alongside a captain in the two-person crew, Hill continues to learn from each flight. In the cockpit, he sees his role as pretty straightforward: “To get the passengers and crew from A to B safely and efficiently.”
Hill knows he is very fortunate to be with a company such as WestJet at only 21 years old. “They are a great company. The planes, their level of care, their focus on safety, it’s fantastic.” He would like to progress up the WestJet hierarchy, moving on from the Q-400 to its fleet of Boeing jets. Eventually, he sees himself working for an international carrier overseas, specializing in transatlantic flights.
He encourages young people to consider a career as a pilot. “There’s never been a better time to be a pilot, with so many opportunities out there.“ Clearly, for Tyler Hill, the sky’s the limit.