Friday, February 25, 2005

 

Dr. Huot Honoured: An Outstanding Humanitarian

Dec. 9, 1997. A day forever etched in my brain. I was the Operations Manager for Northway Aviation Ltd., and we were operating from the airstrip at Pine Dock, Manitoba. We hauled freight and passengers from Pine Dock to the local Indian Reserves in the area, and we also ran a scheduled service from Winnipeg to these same destinations, with Pine Dock being the "hub".

For several days before Dec. 9, we had been experiencing terrible weather. We had been experiencing low cloud, fog, freezing drizzle, 100-300' ceilings, and variable, but usually 1-2 mi. visibilities. It was getting close to Christmas, and we were busy. The delays were putting everyone on edge, as we were becoming seriously backlogged with freight and passengers.

I had cancelled the morning scheduled flights, and about lunchtime on the 9th, I telephoned the company Chief Pilot, Andrew, and we discussed the weather. Andrew would check the weather at two of our destinations, Berens River and Poplar River, and I would check Little Grand Rapids. I couldn't reach anyone at the airport, so I called the local air carrier, Sowind Air. I queried their employee on the weather, and he said it was poor. He stated the ceiling barely cleared the trees on an island just west of their base (which I was familiar with), and the visibility was poor, though slightly better than earlier. Due to the lingering weather, I made the decision to cancel our scheduled service to Little Grand Rapids again, as I deemed the risks unnecessary and unacceptable. (Please realize that flying safely is directly proportional to proper risk management.) I phoned Andrew to tell him of the cancellation, and he informed me that the weather in the other two destinations was improving, so therefore the afternoon scheduled flight to Berens and Poplar was "a go". Andrew would dispatch the company's Piper Navajo Chieftain, and fly the route himself. The passengers for Little Grand Rapids were told of the cancellation again, and some acted rudely, as some people put convenience over safety until they are affected personally. I tell you, I have a hard time keeping the "steam" inside my head when people act in this manner.

Pilots flying to communities that are in road-inaccessible areas of Manitoba, experience a vast cross-section of passengers. Locals, fishermen, Hydro and MTS employees, contractors, teachers, you name the profession, pilots fly them, including doctors and nurses.

The Northern Medical Unit (NMU) operates from the University of Manitoba and it's mission is to provide care and promote good health to the indigenous people of Manitoba. The NMU provides doctors to visit and care for the "peoples of the north". At the beginning of each week the doctors fly north, and at the end of the week, they return south, from the respective communities they have been assigned to. Northway Aviation flew many of these personnel, and this enabled me to meet Dr. Huot.

Dr. Gerard Huot was a fairly large man, and a dedicated individual. He had been caring for people in the communities of Pauingassi, Little Grand Rapids, and Bloodvein. He had worked elsewhere in Manitoba caring for aboriginal people, and also had co-ordinated health care programs for the Maori people in New Zealand. Having to travel weekly by air, being away from home, and working with limited resources details the dedication of our outstanding medical personnel like Dr. Huot.

Dr. Huot always greeted me each time he saw me, and I did likewise. We saw each other regularly, as he flew with our airline to arrive at his destinations. As I came to know Dr. Huot better, I found something out about him. He did not like flying. He was nervous when flying, and always flew in our Cessna Caravan or Piper Navajos. He always requested a rear seat by the door, and I questioned him on this once, and he stated that he liked to sit there so that if anything happened, he could exit the aircraft quickly. I also refreshed his familiarity with the operation of the exits in the aircraft periodically.

One week our booking agent asked me if I had heard from Dr. Huot, as he hadn't been booked to fly with us recently. I had not. We did some investigating, and found that Dr. Huot was now flying with our competitor, Sowind Air. I was determined that next time I saw Dr. Huot, I would ask him if we had offended him in some way, as he had been a loyal passenger.

I saw Dr. Huot in Little Grand Rapids in the following weeks, and asked if we had offended him. He was very gracious, and said "no", he was quite satisfied with our aircraft and pilots, but our scheduled flight from Winnipeg made a stop in Pine Dock. The passengers would deplane, and then emplane about 20 min. later, and continue on to destination. Our competitor offered a direct flight to Little Grand Rapids, therefore, he could save time, and his fear of flying would be experienced for a shorter period of time. I understood his point of view, and was thankful we had not offended him in any way.

I saw Dr. Huot again occasionally at the airports in the communities that his "calling" had led him to dedicate his expertise to, and we always greeted and chatted with each other. Then, Dec. 9, 1997.

Andrew flew the afternoon scheduled flight himself, arrived at all destinations safely, as the weather was slowly improving along the eastern shoreline of
Lake Winnipeg. He returned to Winnipeg, and we shut down the operation for the day. Joell, an outstanding fellow pilot and friend of mine, and I were driving home later with a few other employees, when we heard news of a plane crash in Little Grand Rapids. We were stunned. "It must be Sowind's flight", Joell stated, "it must be Sowind." Apparently, Sowind had considered the risk due to the weather acceptable, and had dispatched their afternoon scheduled flight to Little Grand Rapids.

It "was" Sowind's flight, and there were serious injuries, and some fatalities. The adverse situation actually continued for another day, as weather hampered rescue efforts, and delayed the transportation of injured people to medical care. One of the severely injured was Dr. Huot, and I was upset when I learned this.

The crash of the Sowind flight was very tragic, and affected a lot of people, and has left many physical and emotional scars, and I am sure, some wounds that will never heal.

Dr. Huot lived, but suffered irreversible, lasting brain damage, unable to practice medicine or live independently. I have told this tale to honour Dr. Huot and other professionals like him who put the well-being of others ahead of their own personal agenda. Dr. Huot could easily have taken a position elsewhere, especially with his fear of flying, but continued to see to the needs of his "northern friends". His health and well-being were sacrificed in his humanitarian quest to help others.

In May of 2000, Dr. Huot received the Manitoba Medical Association (MMA) 2000 Humanitarian Award. He was nominated for the honour by his colleagues at the J.A. Hildes Northern Medical Unit (NMU). Dr. Huot's wife, Maria, accepted the award on his behalf. She had asked him what he would like to say to his colleagues.
His answer was simply, "Thank you. Thank you for everything."

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