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Retirement From Above: 49 Years of Aviation

Don St Croix taxi in-1

When compared to ground paramedicine, transport medicine shares certain similarities – both are staffed with paramedics, both provide an exceptional environment for the provision of expert care and both have the goal of transporting patients to definitive care. However, transport medicine is not without its subtle nuances. Facilitating long patient transports in a pressurized tube (at least on the fixed-wing side of life, but we all know our HEMS colleagues are the true heroes in transport medicine), and we rarely get to experience a flight crew member’s retirement. The reason we don’t get to experience the latter often or even at all in the fixed-wing world is that traditionally flying medevacs has been considered a stepping stone for up-and-coming pilots aspiring to reach the big leagues – WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat, Swoop or Flair to name a few. There are exceptions to every rule, and CanWest Air may very well fit the bill.

CanWest Air is one of Alberta Health Services’ aviation partners providing medevac services for the residents and visitors of Alberta. Their operations consist of bases in Medicine Hat, Calgary, Edmonton, Slave Lake, Peace River, Grande Prairie, High Level and Fort Vermilion. A little-known fact about CanWest Air is that the organization and their flight line consists of some of the most experienced Captains in the industry as well as some of the most long-term serving employees with one organization – a seemingly perfect combination to perhaps witness a Captain’s retirement but not just any Captain, Don St. Croix’s retirement.

Don St Croix (Last Air Trails)-2
Captain Don St. Croix (Left Seat) and Captain Warren Abbott (Right Seat) landing in Fort Vermilion, Alberta

I first met Captain St. Croix in March of 2018 in High Level, Alberta, as I began my foray into critical care. My first impression of Don was a no-bullshit kind of individual who operated with military precision, with good reason – Don is an ex-Airborne operator. Before his aviation career, Don served as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. He enlisted in 1968 as a non-commissioned member. He served with the Royal 22e Régiment (Royal 22nd Regiment), colloquially known in English as the “Van Doos” (an anglicized pronunciation of the French number twenty-two, vingt-deux). Don’s military career spanned 45 years (1968-2013). In 1974, Don volunteered to join the Canadian Airborne Regiment, remaining as a Van Doos. He served with 1 Commando.

Don’s military deployments included tours of duty as a “blue helmet” or peacekeeper in Cypress and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he served with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment – colloquially known as the “Loyal Eddies.” It wasn’t until 1972, while redeployed to Chilliwack, British Colombia and while completing the Canadian Armed Forces ‘Officer Cadet Training Program” that Don decided to pursue aviation. I asked him what prompted him to pursue aviation. He recounted that he always had a genuine interest and passion for aviation. Young Don St. Croix, when riding in the 1954 family Buick, would often pretend to use the heat and air conditioning levers as his ‘power levers’ – due to the placement on the Buick’s dashboard, the heat and air conditioning levers, with a bit of imagination, could mimic an aircraft’s throttle levels in the cockpit. In 1976, Don embarked on a sabbatical from the Canadian Armed Forces. During his time away from the Forces, Don built up his time in aviation, eventually returning to the Forces in 1984 as a reservist.

Don’s aviation career has been diverse, to say the least, from multi-IFR instructor to chief pilot and general manager to aviation business owner; Captain St. Croix has accomplished a lot over the years. Don even served as a cadet instructor with the 395 Edmonton Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron, training the next generation of aviators. I asked Don some of his fondest memories in aviation over the years; without hesitation, he shared the story of an American who unfortunately struck a moose while riding this motorcycle through Dawson Creek on his way to Alaska. The unfortunate or fortunate American was transferred to tertiary care from Dawson Creek to Edmonton. Don and his company, InfinitAir (Infinity Flight Services), were called upon later to repatriate the American to Santa Ana, California. This memorable trip was completed in a Beechcraft 100 and allowed Don to land at John Wayne Airport. However, Don’s most cherished memory is when he was called upon to assist in flying a Beechcraft T34C Turbo Mentor thanks to some luck and being in the right place at the right time. Don happened to spot the T34C and its owner; that’s when he was asked to accompany the owner on a search and rescue mission. Following the completion of the mission, which consisted of a flight to Ram Falls and a subsequent fuel stop in Rocky Mountain House, Don was offered a regular opportunity to fly the old military trainer.

Don St Croix (Last Fort Vermilion landing)-8
Captain Don St. Croix waving to a crowd of onlookers as he deplanes following his last landing in Fort Vermilion

Captain St. Croix closes out his aviation career with CanWest Air. This company had gone through many iterations, from Little Red Air Service in 1996 when Don served as their general manager to Nor-Alta Aviation. Don flew numerous medevac missions to the remote northern communities of John D’Or Prairie, Fox Lake and Garden River. While Don is no longer flying the King Air 250, he remains an active part of CanWest Air’s training department, having logged over 12,000 hours in a career that has spanned 49 years. Lastly, I asked Don what he has appreciated most in recent years with CanWest Air. His answer was very fitting for someone with a military background, such as his: “Breaking the rules was never an option.” CanWest Air runs a rather tight operation, an environment in which Don is comfortable and at home. Don’s skill and safe working environment have ensured that many patients over the years have been able to reach their tertiary care destination, while numerous Air Medical Crews have returned home safely to their families.

Captain St. Croix, Merci!/Thank You! For the many safe miles flown, et bonne retraite! (happy retirement).

ON2021 – Retirement From Above

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