Chronicling a life that went sky-high

Hank Sands - Andrew Leong
Hank Sands
— image credit: Andrew Leong

Hank Sands flew at least 18 different helicopters in his flying career of as many years. And he's lucky to be alive to talk about it.

Sands as written a book called A Wolf's Moon, published by Agio Publishing House in Victoria, about his adventures flying whirlybirds all around B.C., from as far north as Stewart to the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Sands graduated from Cowichan High in 1956 and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force when he was 18 years old.

"My grades weren't that great but I had high aptitude. You needed perfect physical health. Perfect eyesight and good hearing. If your legs were too long, you'd be rejected as a jet pilot. If you had to eject, your knees would hit the front console."

Sands said in 1964 there were massive layoffs in the Air Force. He was one of those who found himself unemployed.

"The government decided there were a thousand excess air crew in the Air Force. We got three months notice and three months' extra pay."

Sands said a year later, the RCAF was short a thousand pilots and navigators.

"We all got letters saying they wanted us back in. The reason for the shortage is that people who thought they had a career thought, "If this can happen to Hank Sands, this can happen to someone else.” The American and Canadian airlines were suddenly short pilots. You can imagine being thrown out one year later being asked to come back in."

The change of direction sent Sands to Vancouver where he trained for the first time on a helicopter. After only 25 hours of training, Sands was considered qualified.

"I went to my first job out of Nelson. I lasted for six or eight months and had two accidents and got fired on the fourth of December 1965."

Sands attributes the accidents to a lack of experience and bad luck, and after which, he was afraid to fly.

"It was difficult to go back flying. In the Air Force, if you had an accident they would get you back up flying within the hour. You lose your nerve. That didn't happen. I was months without flying."

After working for as a labourer at a CPR station, Sands was hired by Klondike Helicopters in Calgary, Alberta, where he found his wings again.

"Fortunately the chief pilot with Klondike was good. They did hire me and I didn't have another accident in 11 years."

In A Wolf's Moon, Sands shares stories and pictures of his adventures in the sky, including an horrific accident in the Bugaboos.

"I have a picture of one of the wrecked helicopters in the book, and I describe that whole story in great detail. People who read it ask me, "What are you still doing here?" It's a dangerous game. You're in close proximity with trees and rocks. Ninety percent of airline accidents happen in take offs and landings. That's all you're doing in a helicopter."

When the book was published, Hank was worried about his fellow pilots reading the book for fear they would catch him out on facts. His friend and pilot Bruce Payne was the first to read it.

"I flew many years with Bruce. He called me up out of the blue a few months after the book was published. He said, "I heard about your book and I want to read it." I thought, “Oh no, a helicopter pilot wants to read my book.” I paced the floor for three days. He phoned me up and said he couldn't put the book down. That was the best compliment I could ever have."

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