By Sage Birchwater
After piloting his first flight more than fifty years ago, legendary bush pilot, Gideon Schuetze, is hanging up his windsock, and calling it quits as a commercial aviator. His family company, Sharp Wings Aviation, has shut down and its last three remaining planes are for sale.
“We’re down to a Cessna 182, a Cessna 185 and a Cessna 206 from a fleet of ten aircraft in our hay day,” says Gideon who turns 81 this month.
Gideon was teaching school at Dog Creek Airport in 1959 when he first got the bug to become a pilot. He started taking flying lessons in April 1960 at Williams Lake airport when it was still on Western Avenue, and got his pilot’s license that June. He quickly discovered that taking to the air was the most invigorating thing he had ever done, and immediately convinced his older brother Dan Schuetze to get his pilot’s license as well.
It took Gideon a few years to switch careers from the classroom to the wide open skies. After leaving Dog Creek he taught for two years in Quatsino on Vancouver Island, then took a teaching job in Bella Coola Valley. All the while he had an eye on the sky.
During the summer of 1961 Gideon borrowed Dan’s gillnetter and caught so many salmon he nearly sank the boat. When the fisheries department closed the fishing season early, Gideon and Dan decided to peddle their salmon along Highway 20 to Williams Lake. After two successful fishing and selling expeditions they had enough money to buy their first airplane, a Taylorcraft on floats.
Gideon and Dan caught a ride to Langley to pick up the Taylorcraft and Gideon got his float endorsement. They took off for Bella Coola and fuelled up in Alert Bay. They were fighting a headwind all the way up the Coast, and it was getting dark by the time they got Dawson’s Landing in Rivers Inlet. They managed to land in the diminishing light and spent the night at Oweekeno.
While Gideon continued teaching, Dan started using the Taylorcraft to bring supplies to logging camps and resorts along the coast.
In those days BC Airlines ran a scheduled passenger service to Bella Coola using Mallard and Goose amphibious planes landing in the salt chuck next to Bella Coola in North Bentinck Arm. Flights were subject to weather conditions and high tides because there was no breakwater for protection, so the service wasn’t very dependable.
Photo 1/6 -- Gideon Schuetze and Bill Filbee beside
Bella Coola Flying Club's Cessna 172
Photo 2/6 -- Plane landing in front of the float plane base on the Bella Cool River
Photo 3/6 -- First bella coola airstrip looking toward the tide flats
Photo 4/6 -- The Schuetze float plane base on the Bella Coola River
Photo 5/6 -- First Bella Coola airstrip next to the tide flats
Photo 6/6 -- Gideon Schuetze
Dan got his commercial pilot’s license in the summer of 1963, and the Schuetze brothers joined forces with former crop-duster pilot Dick Poet at Nimpo Lake and formed the company Wilderness Airlines Ltd.
In 1965 Dan built a float plane base in the Bella Coola River next to the townsite. This afforded the planes a more protected place to land and be tied up, and was closer to the community. Sadly Dick Poet died in a plane accident that fall at Fenton Lake in Tweedsmuir Park, so Gideon, Dan and a new partner, Darryl Smith, bought Dick Poet’s share of the company from his widow, Helen.
Because he was teaching school, it was difficult for Gideon to accumulate enough flying hours to get his commercial license. Undaunted, he helped organize a local flying club and all the members pitched in to purchase a Cessna 172 from Air West. This was made possible because Harold Frostrup built the first airstrip in Bella Coola between the float plane base and the tide flats, and it was finally possible to land a wheel plane in the valley.
“I caught a ride to Vancouver and flew the Cessna 172 to Powell River, then up to Bella Coola,” Gideon says. “I flew the 172 a few times to Penticton to visit my folks and managed to get enough hours to get my commercial license in 1967.”
Gideon and Dan bought out Darryl Smith in 1968 and Gideon quit teaching in 1969 to work full time with the company. That year they bought out Chilcotin Airways from Joe Jacobson in Williams Lake and Gideon moved with his family to Williams Lake to run the Cariboo end of Wilderness Airlines Ltd. By 1970 the company had grown to a fleet of ten aircraft operating out of bases at Bella Coola, Nimpo Lake and Williams Lake.
That’s when Gideon’s colourful bush pilot career spanning four decades really took off. Over that time he had countless adventures logging more than 42,000 hours in the air and introducing numerous people to flying.
He says he has many people to thank who have supported him over the years.
“Sharp Wings was a family business and the family wanted to be doing something different,” Gideon says. “I learned to fly without a radio, just smoke signals. The Taylorcraft, to start with, had no radio.”
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