He’s hung up his hat as far as managing the South Cariboo Regional Airport, but for Nick Christianson, flying will always be in his blood.
Christianson, 65, officially retired from managing the airport under his company Nick’s Rag & Tube Aircraft Maintenance on Dec. 1, where he’s worked for the past 12 years. As part of his job, Christianson had split his time between his management duties and occasional repair jobs on rag and tube planes. He loved the job but after last winter, he realized it was time to step aside for new blood.
“You’re committed 24/7 to the airport and if you’re not you shouldn’t be running the airport. I believed, in all the years, I never wanted to miss a medivac. Some baby dying and I didn’t have the strip ploughed? I couldn’t have lived with myself, I took that very seriously,” Christianson said, adding he’d always constantly monitor the snow during the winter.
Christianson has spent his entire life in 100 Mile House, his family having moved here from Saskatchewan a few months after he was born. Although his first name is actually Dennis, everybody knows him as Nick because his first-grade teacher started calling him that and it stuck.
“In Grade 1, Mrs. McNeil here called me Nicky and for some reason, I was so terrified of her I just started answering to it,” he said. “At our 25th school reunion, not one of those kids in my class ever knew my name was Dennis, it’s just a quirky thing.”
Growing up, Christianson’s father and two uncles worked as mechanics in the area. At the time, 100 Mile House had only two streets in town and he got to know everyone and always felt safe, he said. At 16, Christianson dropped out of Grade 11 and went to work with his dad at Fraser Brothers Motors and received his first red seal ticket as a mechanic. After it shut down, he spent 23 years working for the then-Ministry of Highways as a heavy-duty mechanic and got his red seal ticket for that as well.
In 2001, at 46, Christianson went back to college where he spent two years getting his aircraft engineer’s licence. He had started to fly in the late ‘70s and thought it’d be nice to be able to do his own repairs on his plane, though first, he had to get his high school credit before attending college.
“I went to school with a bunch of 19-year-olds and here I am, 46 and older than most of the instructors,” Christianson remarked ruefully.
After graduating, he returned to 100 Mile House and in 2005 bought a hangar and opened up Nick’s Rag and Tube Aircraft Maintenance. Rag and tube refer to the fact that most small, private light aircraft throughout Canada have a tubular design structure with a fabric covering, hence the slang name rag and tube.
About 20 percent of aircraft in Canada have these canvas components and even after Christianson picked it up, it was a dying trade. He’s one of only a few people in B.C. who can now do this type of maintenance and he said he’s always had a passion for that type of work. In 2008 he got the opportunity to become manager of the airport up at 108 Mile Ranch, which he held in June of that year until his retirement this December.
During the 2017 Wildfires, Christianson spent 62 days at the airport which he said was a scary experience, one of the few times he’s ever been genuinely afraid. He spent those weeks refuelling firefighting aircraft and said he was very nearly burned out at the end of it.
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One of the perks of the job was getting to talk to pilots as they came through, as the aviation world is a tight-knit group, and he counts many of them among his friends. Christianson said that when he handed the keys to Ross Donahue, the new manager, he felt good about the airport’s future.
He’s hopeful that Donahue will be able to do what he was unable to do, which is to attract regional airline companies like Central Mountain Air to have a route running through the 108. Christianson is also grateful for all the support the airport has received from the Cariboo Regional District over the years and hopes that support continues.
Looking back, Christianson said he’s a bit disappointed that he might be the last generation who got to experience the true freedom of flying. During his youth, he recalls landing on glaciers and other wilderness flying, which is now a thing of the past due to stricter regulations and rules. Personally, he said he finds some of the security measures that smaller airports need to follow are ridiculous and feels it stifles the interest of young people to get into flying, to say nothing of the price.
“My generation, we enjoyed the bush and the fun flying,” Christianson said. “I never wanted to fly commercial big aircraft, I liked stuff that was on floats and leaked oil.”
Looking to the future, Christianson said he is interested in volunteering at Peter Skene Ogden Secondary School to pass on some of his knowledge to those interested in learning the “art form” that is rag and tube repair work.
“It’s not something you’re going to make a billion dollars at. If you want to make money I always tell students to go become a heavy-duty mechanic and make your $150,000 a year,” he said. “It’s not going to happen in the aviation world, you do it because you love it.”