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Port Alberni to Paris: Tseshaht member hits landing strip after 38 years as United Airlines pilot

38 years in the skies

Wallace Watts spent his 38-year career as a commercial pilot for United Airlines travelling the globe visiting countless places every week.

The Tseshaht First Nation member, one of the first Indigenous pilots to be hired by a major commercial airline, received two awards for preventing a plane crash on two different occasions.

From hiking Mount Huashan in China, deemed the world’s deadliest hike, to biking in the jungles of Singapore, to his countless visits to Paris and Rome, his career — which combined his love for aviation with a passion for travel — has been memorable.

“It’s pretty much allowed me to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do, see everything I’ve wanted to see, [and] taste everything I wanted to eat,” said Watts, 65. “Looking back, I was really thoroughly blessed to be able to fly that much and see the entire world.”

Flying commercially was the realization of a dream that began when he was a teenager growing up in Port Alberni.

He recalls watching James Bond movies in the early 1970s, seeing Bond dressed in a tuxedo, drinking a martini, surrounded by beautiful women, and thinking: “I need to see the world and get the heck out of here.”

He had read about Pan-American pilots and decided to bike to the old airport, down the road from Tseshaht’s main reserve in Port Alberni, when he was 15 to look at the planes, dreaming of a future as an airline pilot.

The Alberni Indian Residential School had finally closed its doors in 1973. Watts said he only attended the school for a year, but the impact was all around him.

“There was a lot of violence, drinking, drugs and domestic violence in the community and I knew I had to get out because I could see myself going down that path,” said Watts, who was born in Port Alberni. “I can say now that I am a proud survivor of inter-generational trauma. I refused to pass it on to my children.”

Later, after high school, he began working at the paper mill in Port Alberni, saving up money to enroll in the professional aviation program at Selkirk College in Castlegar. The band covered the cost for some of his academic courses.

At Selkirk, Watts flew every day.

He recalls watching a Boeing 747 fly overhead while with his instructor.

“I said: ‘One day I want to be a captain of that plane,’ ” said Watts. He recalls his instructor responding: “You’ll never do it because they don’t hire brown people.”

But Watts was determined and ultimately proved his instructor wrong, becoming one of the first Aboriginal pilots to be hired by an airline.

He said getting there was tough.

“Of the 26 people in my graduating class, only four ended up becoming airline pilots. You need to get a job flying, build your hours fast and get as much jet time as possible,” he said.

His first job was flying for Austin Airways out of Timmins, Ont. in 1980, when he was 22.

He recalls working tirelessly to land a job with a major airline.

“I would send out 100 résumés a week. I would keep applying. One time, I got called into United Airlines. The person brought me into a room and showed me stacks of résumés they would receive every week. In each stack was a résumés printed on neon-coloured paper — mine. Every week, I would send in my résumés in a different neon colour.”

The recruiters would sometimes tell him that there were no vacancies — and to call back in six months.

“I would tell them that I didn’t want a job in six months — I wanted one yesterday.”

Watts had taken up boxing in his youth, with an eye toward becoming a professional boxer. While he ultimately hung up his gloves, he said he used the fighting spirit he learned in the sport to get a job.

“It was like getting into a ring. I knew I had to fight for my life.”

He also kept himself physically fit.

“Major airlines only want the best of the best. In 1984, American Airlines would put recruits through the equivalent of the astronaut training program, so I trained just in case I had to qualify,” said Watts.

By that time, he had amassed more than 5,000 hours flying DC-9s, which was, at the time, the highest qualification an applicant could present before moving to flying in major airline fleets.

After he was finally hired, he still had to face hurdles, including discrimination.

He recalls walking into a meeting to go over pre-flight information, and seeing only white men. “They all stopped and looked at me and I thought I forgot to put my clothes on because they were all staring at me. I just walked right in. I just didn’t care.”

He said that what he experienced paled in comparison with the discrimination the first Black pilots who were hired faced.

Watts said anyone in that position needs to be determined not to let “anything stop what you want to do.”

The highlight of his career was accepting two awards for preventing a plane crash — what airline companies call a “hull loss.”

They were the kinds of situations pilots train for but often never face in real life. “When that situation comes [and] when it all works out, it’s really rewarding.”

In 1997, Watts was behind the controls of a DC-10 freighter, departing from Los Angeles, that was loaded up with almost 40,000 pounds over the maximum takeoff weight after a mistake involving weight measurements.

The system had been switched from pounds to kilograms to weigh asparagus, but was never switched back, so the rest of the cargo was also mistakenly weighed in kilograms in the belief that the number was in pounds.

Since there are 2.2 pounds in every kilogram, that meant the plane was grossly overweight

“We barely took off,” said Watts, adding that at the time, they had no idea why. “We rotated [and] we almost crashed at the end of the runway.”

“We started burning a lot of gas, and when we landed we still didn’t know why,” he said. “We found out later that day that we were heavily overweight.”

In 2000, four hours into a flight from Sydney, Australia, to San Francisco, a warning light came on that indicated there was a fire in the cargo hold. At the time, the plane was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Watts was trained in handling a cargo fire, but when he and his crew followed procedure to extinguish it, the fire kept burning.

They contacted dispatch. It turned out they were near a runway, but it was too short for them to land.

Dispatch directed them to land at Pago Pago International Airport in American Samoa. As their avionics — the electronic components in an aircraft — began to overheat, they lost instruments, radios and eventually contact with dispatch, he said.

Pago Pago was closed, so they were diverted to Faleolo International Airport, 40 kilometres west of Apia, the capital of Samoa.

When they eventually landed, Watts recalls the head of the Samoan army, who had had a couple drinks and was in possession of a machine gun, ordering everyone off the plane.

“One of my co-pilots [said]: ‘Hey, we’re just [going to] be here a couple hours then we’re [going to] leave,” recalled Watts. “He pushed my co-pilot [and] he [said]: ‘This is my country, you don’t come to my country and talk to me that way.

“‘This is my airplane now.’”

But the drunk officer eventually fell asleep, said Watts. The crew and passengers boarded another plane sent to replace the first and departed for Honolulu.

The cause of the cargo fire was never determined. Watts suspects that it could have been a laptop battery — at the time, there had been a number of incidents where faulty batteries caused laptops to burst into flames spontaneously.

The Boeing 747 carried more than 300 passengers, who were told about the fire and the need to land the plane as quickly as possible.

Among the passengers were 100 English teachers, who all wrote their wills and what they thought would be their last words to their loved ones. Later, the group presented Watts with a picture of the plane on the tarmac of the tiny airstrip and copies of what they had written, which brought tears to his eyes.

Watts also enjoyed calm moments in his career during layovers in different cities.

“For a long time, my favourite city was Paris,” said Watts. “When I kept going to the same place that I liked, I just keep going down different streets, and going to different art galleries and eating at different places.”

Watts said he would get up in the morning to watch sunrises, and stay up at night to watch the sunset.

His most memorable layover was in 2020 in Amsterdam, after flying a cargo flight. He rented an electric boat and piloted it down the canals that weave through the city.

“It was dead quiet,” he shared. “It was a clear sunny day and you could hear the birds chirping. Normally in big cities, all you hear is cars driving.”

The upper age limit for a commercial pilot in the U.S. is 65, which has forced Watts into retirement, though he is certain he will fly again.

“The U.S. government is going to increase the age of retirement from 65 to 67, and I’m just sitting at home waiting for the government to sign the bill to do it,” said Watts, who calls Gig Harbour, Washington, home. “I might be able to go back to work.”

But since his age does not limit him from operating private jets, he plans to continue to fly regardless.

“I never think anything is ever over,” said Watts, whose last commercial flight was to Tahiti on Dec. 15.

“I know I’m [going to] keep flying. I’m never going to give up.”

Watts has inspired his son, Gianni, to get his wings as well. The 21-year-old graduated from the aviation program at Central Washington University last year.

His goal is to be an airline pilot with Air Creebec, a regional airline based in Val-d’Or, Que. — previously known as Austin Airlines, Watt’s first airline.



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