Up in the air
A long and difficult flight for one young man trying to find his passion
By Paul McAleer, Contributor
Up in the air, there are rarely quiet moments. Air traffickers spew information through your headset while you try to concentrate on the endless mental checklist of steps and regulations to follow. Focus is key, and if flying were easy, we would have done it a long time ago. There’s no relaxation — at least not yet — for Will Smit when he is soaring alongside birds and drones alike, scrambling around his mind and searching for the lessons he learned in class. Mentally, quiet moments are scarce, but when he is flying in unregulated airspace, sometimes he rockets past the thick cloud of noise and finds silence. Time where it is just him, alone with his own thoughts. Those are the moments that Smit loves the most when he is flying.
Smit is currently enrolled in the Aviation program at Mount Royal University, finishing up his first year with around 150 hours of flight time under his belt. With a year left of school, Smit’s heart is racing with the chance of being a commercial pilot, but lifting off proved to be a challenge for him. The road curved and winded, offering no straight and easy path for the young pilot to soar away into his future. His determination, however, carried him where others would have stumbled.
“Will’s best qualities are wanting to finish the things that he starts,” says Mitch Barnes, a childhood friend of Smit’s. “So if he’s given a task or has assigned himself a task, he’ll push through it even though it’s a shitty thing, but he’s focused on the end goals so he tries to get it done.”
Barnes and Smit have been friends since they were eight years old, but it wasn’t until high school where they truly connected. Although Barnes isn’t surprised that Smit is becoming a pilot, he jokes that the idea of his childhood friend chauffeuring him around in the sky is terrifying. Smit laughs in response, saying that the fear stems from Barnes “Knowing him too well,” but there is both eagerness and excitement in his voice. It’s clear that Smit can’t wait for the moment he can show off his piloting skills to erase the fear from his friend’s mind.
Even though his father was a pilot, following in his footsteps was never part of Smit’s plan. When he graduated high school, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life; after all, he was only eighteen, but he had to make a choice because he didn’t want to sit around and do nothing. So, to make his parents happy and perhaps for himself, he enrolled in the communications program at the University of Calgary.
He regrets the decision, saying that he wish he took more time after high school to discover his interests and passions. Sitting in a lecture hall with no interest in what he was being taught, Smit couldn’t survive in that environment. He stopped showing up for classes, but he still went to school or left the house to keep the illusion alive to his parents. He taught himself the course material online, opting to spend the majority of his time partying with his friends.
“I would not hesitate to go out on like a Monday night because I didn’t care if I missed class in the morning,” says Smit. “Honestly, I would just look at the slides and it would be gravy.”
That gravy wasn’t the homemade good stuff, but rather the store-bought, hard to digest mush. He was barely “scraping by” academically, but he was having a pretty good time otherwise. He didn’t feel motivated to do well and the odd time he went to class, his suspicions were reaffirmed: there must be something else that he was more interested in.
He started checking off the boxes, ultimately deciding to go for a discovery flight. True to its name, a discovery flight helps a budding individual decide if the profession is right for them. With an instructor flying him up, the experience removed some of the haze surrounding Smit’s career path, but not all of it. The instructor letting him “mess around” with some of the aircraft controls was fun, but not enough. Smit yearned to be in full control of the plane.
“I think when I decided I actually wanted to do [flying] as far as a career and everything, is when I did my first solo. So I went flying, like by myself, without an instructor there and it was an absolute blast,” says Smit.
When he decided to switch programs from communications to aviation, Smit thought it would be an easy transition. After all, his high school grades were impeccable, allowing him to go into nearly any program he desired when he first graduated. But since he had been in university for a couple semesters, Smit’s prior academic achievement was nullified and he had to apply to Mount Royal using his current, less studious grades, which flew well below the minimum bar for admission.
Instead of circling back and spending valuable years of his youth upgrading, Smit set up a meeting with Leon Cygman, the Aviation program’s chair.
“I pretty much just sat down, I said: ‘Look, I have done well in other academic settings before as far as marks and everything,’” says Smit. “I’m not a stupid guy. Just maybe one who doesn’t perform so well without any motivation.”
Pleading his case worked in his favour, as Cygman accepted Smit into the program after their meeting. The two saw “eye to eye,” and they still maintain a good relationship today.
Mount Royal’s Aviation program offers a unique opportunity for graduates of the program: the opportunity of getting a great job right out the gate. Major airlines require pilots to have 3,000 hours of flight hours, while intermediate airlines require 1,500. Although Mount Royal students only graduate with over 200 hours, an intermediate airline like Jazz can hire prestigious students as soon as they are finished with school.
Although Smit’s father was worried when his son told him he wanted to be a pilot, Mount Royal’s program and its benefits changed his mind. In his time, he was fortunate to make a career out of the profession and didn’t have the same opportunity his son had. Once he realized how passionate his son was about flying, he switched his stance and became onboard with the decision to become a pilot.
Smit says that growing up with his dad was “interesting” because one week he would be home and the next he would be gone. During the week his dad was home, they would work on projects together, such as building a treehouse, devoting their efforts with a heavy concentration rarely achievable with a normal work schedule. But during the week his dad was gone, Smit had no one to turn to when he had questions only a father could answer, like how to ask out a girl. He gained on some things and lost out on others.
Smit isn’t considering how the pilot lifestyle will affect his own family life. He is ready to hop into a career flying around the world.
“I am almost done my first year and then I just have one more,” says Smit. “I’ll be all done, and then after that I’ll be going on, getting a job and then actually being a pilot so that I can start telling girls that because I don’t yet.”