For 70 years, Michael Donald Hirshfield has soared above the clouds and he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
The veteran pilot is a familiar sight around the South Cariboo Regional Airport where he can often be found tinkering on the floatplane he designed and built himself.
He helped build the wooden hangar the occupies the centre of the regional airport, his home base for recreational flights around the region.
“It’s a great hobby, if you can put a little money aside for an aircraft you can build your own. A home-built airplane will fly at a quarter of the cost of a certified airplane and your fuel costs are generally lower,” Hirshfield, 88, said. “It’s slow and you won’t be flying tomorrow, but the reward will be there.”
Hirshfield has been flying planes across Western Canada since he was 18, getting his start flying with the Royal Canadian Airforce in the 1950s. After a 10-month stint to gain some flight experience, he earned his pilot’s license around the age of 21.
His love of flying was fueled by a desire to find places to hunt and fish away from everyone else. As a young man in Maple Ridge, he’d take his plane out to the coast and fish for steelhead trout or fly into the mountains to hunt and camp out in his plane although he doesn’t sleep as much on the plane as did before.
“I wanted the good fishing and I wanted the good hunting,” said Hirshfield, a former construction worker and mechanic who moved to the South Cariboo 18 years ago. “I didn’t want to be bothered by other people in the bush, you can become isolated with the aircraft.”
He loves flying in the mountains especially to alpine lakes for swimming. He laughs that he used to take his girlfriends – and later, his wife Joanne – to great spots in the wilderness. Over the years, he has flown about 4,000 hours, all of it recreational. Except for one crash in Alberta when he was in his 20s, he has never had any trouble.
To fly recreationally as much as long as he has, Hirshfield said the plane has to be reliable. He took up building and designing his own planes, called the Hirshfield. An economical plane by design, Hirshfield says it can hold four people and camping supplies, equalling 960 pounds, counting fuel.
READ MORE: Air time at 100 Mile Flying Club
Hirshfield started building his current plane, one of a pair, in 2000 and only has 25 hours in the air on it. His friend Trevor Larsen bought the other plane two years ago, which prompted him to finish its twin. While he had to do some searching to find all the parts he needed, Hirshfield has been able to build the plane up to his specifications and just installed its sound system last week.
The fuselage of his plane is a 1957 Piper PA-20 Pacer, while Hirshfield designed the floats and built the wings out of spruce. He also installed a converted firewall forward automotive engine to power the plane and did the electrical work for the plane’s dashboard.
“It was quite an accomplishment. I had to be right because my kids were all young when I built the first airplane and they were both in the backseat all the time for over 200 hours in the airplane, same with the wife. So you want it reliable and you don’t want the damn thing quitting or suffering structural failures,” Hirshfield said, adding that he built the plan to be well over the stress limits for airplanes.
Both his children Patrick and Faye love flying. His son was almost at the point where he could fly the plane solo with Hirshfield on board while his daughter enjoyed getting her dad sick by making him fly upside down. However, they both married people who are afraid of small planes.
His wife, meanwhile, can’t wait to get back in the air this summer once the plane is ready to fly. After a medical check-up, he said he’s been cleared to fly for at least another two years but admits that once you get in your 80s, it’s always questionable how much more he can do.