Spotting an airplane in the sky was exciting feat when Jim and Anne Thibodeau were school-aged in the 1930s because it was the only occasion when they and their classmates were allowed to drop what they were doing and watch each plane until it flew out of sight.
Eighty years later, it’s the residents of the South Okanagan who will drop what they’re doing to watch the plane in the sky, as Jim will be in the cockpit, because the lifelong pilot has decided to celebrate his 90th birthday by soaring over local landscapes this Friday, Aug. 19 at 10 a.m.
Even at his ripe age, Jim is still licensed and fully accredited to fly.
But to get himself to the airport in an automobile, he’ll have to travel as a passenger since he no longer has his driver’s license.
Jim and Anne have been living in Osoyoos for the past seven years.
“I’m flying out of Oliver (airport) just to go do a flight and get my log book signed, as certification that I made the flight,” he said. “This is something I wanted to do on my 90th birthday … something to say I’m still a licensed pilot.”
Few pilots can claim to still be active at age 90, but once Jim achieves the feat, it will add another feather to his hat amid his rich career in aviation.
When he was just a young pilot, Jim first found out about Beaver ultralight airplanes after watching one land in a big open field.
“I was interested in seeing what it was so I went over to have a look at it.”
The other pilot, even though he had just met Jim, was insistent on letting him take the aircraft out for a spin.
“So I flew it, then I made some recommendations and they offered me a job. No wages ,but lots of flying time.”
Jim became a factory rep for Beaver ultralights and his talent helped him advance quickly.
He soon brought one of his planes to a renowned airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which he attended on behalf of his work with an aircraft he built from scratch. His work won him a major award and he was gifted a very large and heavy Charles Lindbergh trophy.
“The company had gone to Oshkosh for several years and never won a trophy, and they couldn’t believe that I won the trophy. It was very nice to come back with.”
He said his bosses we quite pleased, but they tried to take too much credit.
“They wanted the trophy, but I’m damned if I was going to give them the trophy, because every time they went to Oshkosh before they come back with a wrecked airplane. I’ve done many, many flights at the airshow and to walk over that trophy, that’s big-time.”
Winning the competition was a significant milestone in Jim’s career, and at that same airshow in Oshkosh, another major milestone in his career began shaping up.
“There was a fella in a wheelchair (Carl Hebert) who wanted a ride in the airshow in Oshkosh, which is a big airshow. I gave him a ride and he liked the airplane and he liked my attitude, then he phoned me afterwards, and he said he said he wanted to raise money for spinal cord research and asked would I build him a plane.”
Jim was interested in helping and after doing a little research, he realized the job would require him to build two planes.
“Because he couldn’t fly alone,” he said. “If he flew alone and went down he’d have no way of helping himself without his wheelchair. So my wife Anne and I built airplanes for him. And Anne did the cooking all the way across Canada. Carl flew from the Atlantic ocean in Halifax to the Pacific ocean in Vancouver.”
To accommodate for a handicap passenger, Jim had to custom build the plane with controls unique to Hebert.
“Installing handicap controls required a little ingenuity, but necessity is the mother of creation,” he said. “It was quite a feat because even though I built it I couldn’t fly it, because I had controls different for me than it was for him.”
The task was one of the biggest challenges of his career and despite a few hiccups, the trip was a success, leaving Halifax on July 1 and arriving in Vancouver on August 28.
“Some of the people thought it was foolish to do it. Both Anne and I donated a lot of time to that trip. On top of having to build the airplanes, Anne cooked for 12 people out of our fifth wheel trailer for the whole trip.”
And that fifth wheel was custom built by Anne just for that lifestyle, to fully immerse themselves in the flying community.
“I went home to my wife one night and said, can you design a trailer that would carry the airplane in the back and we could live in the front? And we did that for about three years.”
That story brings back many fond memories, says Anne.
“We have flown so many miles,” said Anne. “Anywhere we wanted to go, we flew.”
After years of chasing airshows, Jim can now say he’s flown in every Canadian province, Northwest Territories, the Yukon, parts of Mexico and 48 states (Arkansas and Rhode Island still remain).
Although he spent years touring the continent, his piloting expertise was perhaps most valuable at home in the Okanagan.
He was a flying instructor through the local Air Cadets program and when some of his students were losing focus, “bugging down, weren’t paying attention, they were just going off,” Jim challenged them with an offer.
The cadets with the three highest marks would be taken in the sky to fly an airplane.
Jim lived up to his word and the top three students rotated as co-pilots on a three-stop trip.
“We went from Duncan to Powell River with the first Cadet, then Powell River to Chilliwack, then the third cadet flew us back to the strip. And two of those guys are flying (Boeing) 747s now. So they made use of it. Air Cadets is a good way to get into flying.”
And it was more than just members of the cadets who learned how to fly through Jim.
“One of the Oliver teachers told me he had some boys who weren’t doing well academically and asked if I would take them under my wing and get them interested in building airlines,” he said.
Two of those boys that Jim mentored in the late 1990s have since gone on to earn their air maintenance engineer licenses.
“I went to his graduation and I was quite tickled when he said he wanted to thank Mr. Thibodeau for giving him his start in aviation. And as far as I know he’s still going strong.”
There was also another occasion when Jim’s aviation skills helped out a pair of young boys.
“I came home from work one night and the police phoned and said we’ve got two boys lost in the woods,” he said. “They gave me the general area of where they were at and would I go up in the air and see if I could find them.
“It was all forested area, and I said if I see them I’ll circle and I’ll gun the engine until somebody gets there. And I found ‘em. All I saw was two little faces looking up at me as I was flying over, just above the treetops.”
That search and rescue operation took place on Vancouver Island, close to where Jim and Anne were living in Duncan, on a property with an airstrip built they had built.
“I couldn’t see driving 50 miles (to the next nearest airstrip) to rent an airplane when I had a piece of land to build an airstrip on, and we built an airstrip.”
His airstrip was even registered with the federal Civil Defence program, a Cold War-era defence program.
“Back then I sold gas at our airstrip for 46 cents per gallon,” he said.
Whether he’s clearing a lot to build an airstrip, overhauling an engine, building a new plane or showing an apprentice the ropes – Jim said he simply followed his natural curiosity in mechanics, and that he became quite inept.
“It’s a gift,” Anne said.
As a young teenager, Jim’s understanding of mechanics was completely self-taught through playing around with his dad’s equipment and reading Mechanics Illustrated.
By the time he was 15, he’d overhauled a tractor for his dad but never thought about doing it for money – until a neighbour came over looking for a mechanic.
“He said he wanted me to do his. I said no I only do our own.”
But the neighbour was insistent that Jim take a crack at his trailer, and Jim did what he could.
Years after that overhaul, his first professional work – Jim married Anne and they celebrated the birth of their first child. Then he and his young family moved to the Prairies. Three years ago, Jim piloted a plane to Regina and back and that was his most recent flight, though he’s extremely excited that he’ll be doing it again on Friday. The flight to mark his 90th birthday is set in stone, but the time of takeoff is still to be determined.