It was a retirement party Grahame Wilson will never forget.
The longtime B.C. firefighter pilot left the Penticton airport Tuesday evening, Sept. 13, in a Convair air tanker for the last time after 39 years of service.
His retirement seemed inevitable one week earlier on Sept. 6. The stage was set for a proper sendoff, as Wilson would lead Tankers 44, 49, and 55’s departure from Penticton Regional Airport after supporting BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) in a Convair for decades.
But as Wilson says, it’s never that simple.
The now 10,000-hectare Heather Lake wildfire delayed the sendoff. Crews supported BCWS in fighting the blaze, helping stop the flames before they got out of control.
Finally, though, on Sept. 13, Wilson would get his chance to give both the air tankers and the Okanagan one last farewell.
Black Press Media anticipated the longtime pilot to depart Penticton and make his way to Abbotsford at roughly 5 p.m. Upon arrival, it appeared as though a new wildfire in Clinton would put Wilson and his team in a position where retirement wouldn’t be the No. 1 priority, but instead, an afterthought yet again.
After being on what they call “red alert” for about 10 minutes, Wilson’s team was given the green light by BCWS to finally depart and say goodbye to a community in which he served for decades.
“It’s day-by-day and minute-by-minute,” the 67-year-old said. “I love my job and have been talking about saying retiring since I was 60. But last year, I had an epiphany that since the Convair’s would be retiring in 2022, I would follow them.”
Starting next fire season in 2023, air tankers De Havilland Dash 8 Q400 will be stationed at the Penticton airport. WestJet and Jazz currently use the aircraft for flights to Calgary and back.
Once Wilson knew it was time to leave Penticton one last time Tuesday evening and say farewell to a career that’s spanned more than half his life, he couldn’t help but reflect on all years he’s spent supporting one of the province’s most crucial services.
“It’s emotional in a good way and a sad way,” Wilson said. “There’s a huge following for this in the Okanagan and people have told me how sad it would be to see the airplanes go but the Q400 is coming next year and it goes 100 mph faster and something the region is already familiar with, so it’s something to look forward to.”