Heartache

 

Yesterday, here in Ottawa, it was a typically hot and sweltering summer day, but it felt cold and hard. The cold of a long Canadian winter with no warmth in sight. When a good man dies, the numbness sinks deep into the skin, words fail to rise from the throat, and a heavy cloud of anguish, anxiety and loss swirls somewhere inside—sometimes in the head, sometimes in the chest. This loss, this pain—it’s the price of love.

Yesterday, around 1400 local time in Cold Lake, Alberta, our hearts were broken when Bruce Evans, one of our most beloved aviators and friends, crashed while performing a low-level aerobatic routine during the Cold Lake Air Show. He lost his life and we lost an incredible and inspiring friend, husband, father and role model.

Having been involved in air show aviation for more than 30 years, I have known a lot of pilots and air show performers over the years. I can tell you it is a world of exceptional professionalism and passion and a world of very large egos. In this latter part, Bruce Evans was entirely different.

Bruce was part of a cadre of young pilots, most of whom are based in Calgary, who love each other beyond measure—Pepe, Maric, Lurch, Krusti, Flecko, Bollinger, Norm, Gordo, Sterchi, Belly, Lar, Liam, Heather, Brophy, and many more. If you hang out with these men and women for any length of time, you feel their passion for flight, their humility and gratitude for their lives, their delight and pride in each other’s successes, and their deep abiding love for each other. It is a thing of immense beauty, this love. It was something anyone with a pulse could feel in their presence and now, today, I feel their loss from 2,000 miles away. I feel it like a burning knot in my stomach, a jangle in my nerves, a numbness in my face. 

Bruce Evans (second from left) was the kind of man who would fly across the country just to have dinner with 93-year-old Spitfire pilot Harry Hannah, the namesake of the Vintage Wings Stearman.

There is great sorrow there today, but those Western boys will surround Bruce’s family and support them with love and deep respect. This love comes from shared adventures with Bruce, hard work at air shows, a lot of laughter and a deep respect for his work ethic and open heart. My heart goes out to you boys, it really does.

The son of an RCAF maintenance engineer and private pilot father, Evans had avgas in his bloodstream and wings in his DNA. His countenance was best described as beatific—kindly in a competent sort of way, direct, welcoming, magnetic, soft-spoken with a constant knowing look that borders on blissful. Evans was a pilot’s pilot, engaged in one of the world’s most expensive and demanding hobbies—warbird operation and flying. In this pursuit, he was “all in”.

Evans was a geologist by training. Educated at Queens University, where he commuted from his hometown in North Bay by airplane, Evans had earned his rock spurs over decades by tramping through the bush in nearly every province and many foreign countries on several continents. With boots on the ground and armed with a rock hammer, inclinometer, a bottle of hydrochloric acid and a can of bug spray, Bruce paid his dues and saw first-hand the importance of mining in Canada. While engaged in mineral exploration in Sierra Leone, Evans, through necessity, got involved in aerial geophysical survey. Before he knew it, he had a company named Firefly Aviation, engaged in aerial survey work in Africa, Europe and the Americas.

Evans was a lover of fast cars, faster motorcycles and anything with wings. He studied the layered and hidden strata of Earth, the time signatures of this blue planet. He loved the early stories of exploration, mining and aviation history and shared them with everyone. Bruce was both an intellectual and a man’s man, an Easterner with a Western heart, a dreamer and a pragmatist. 

Beyond and before his passion for flying and his self-professed “rock-jock” career, Bruce was a family man. He leaves behind his wife Kathryn and two daughters, Kelsey and Delaney. It is a measure of their importance in his life that, when required by Transport Canada to select the three last letters of his aircraft registration, he chose KKD. 

Bruce was terribly injured three years ago flying the Vintage Wings Boeing Stearman with fellow pilot Larry Brown. A propeller blade broke off as they were climbing out of Brandon, Manitoba, followed immediately by the engine. The resulting crash caused broken backs in both pilots, but terrible ankle and heel injuries to Bruce who was in the front seat. Since that day, it was a long, very painful road to recovery. It was a road he had not yet reached the end of. In all that time, Bruce never complained, never whined, never sought blame. He tackled hospitalization and multiple surgeries with his signature white smile and sense of humour, inspiring all of us.

I loved Bruce Evans. We all did. It was a pure and wonderful thing he evoked in everyone who met him. He gave of himself at every turn with humility and great joy. He once said to me, “The best thing about owning a warbird, is sharing one.” Bruce would think nothing of flying across Canada to bring his T-28 to an eastern air show, without ever asking for money or a pat on the back. He didn’t care if you were a basement dweller or a billionaire, a follower or a leader, aircraft marshaller or an astronaut. All that mattered was that you were a human. 

Right now, it is not important for me to know why he died yesterday. I will not speak about these things for they are meant for folks who know what they are talking about. It is only important, at least for me, to know he died doing what he loved. He died with his boots on and his heart full of joy that even the last second could not have destroyed. 

I see him now in my mind and I am grateful that this will come to me over and over in the years to come. It makes me happy to see this image and it makes me sob with heartache. He is sitting in his T-28 at Vintage Wings. His helmet sits on the canopy rail. It’s late in the day and he is taking a young mechanic out for a flight… just for the pure joy of it. The air is liquid and cool. The late sun shines gold on his face. He dons his skull cap, then his helmet. He turns toward me and flashes that wide, white smile at me. “See you when I get back.”

I’ll be waiting Bruce.

 

Dave O’Malley

Chercher
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