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Getting to know Debbie Brekelmans

DEBBIE BREKELMANS lives for flying. As a pilot for Maritime Air, the company her husband and a friend started in 1996, she flies the only commercial charter to Sable Island, running tourists and scientists back and forth in a specialized plane with oversized tires and slow stall speed for landing on beaches. Her company also flies doctors to cancer patients in rural hospitals, and organs to needy recipients. Saltscapes spoke to Brekelmans about dreams of flying and first views of Sable and romance in the air.

Q Were you always fascinated with flying?

A I have often had nightmares about being chased. One of the few good dreams I have, I dream I’m flying by jumping off a roof and soaring. Does that mean I have the heart of a pilot?

Q Certainly. Even as a kid, did you have an interest in flight?

A I do recall making giant cardboard wings one time and thinking, now why do birds fly and I can’t. I decided it was the feathers. If mom had actually given me the feathers, I probably would have glued them on the wings and jumped off the roof.

Q Were you the first in your family to fly?

A My dad had a brother in the military who was killed flying in his 20s shortly after the war. I’d always seen the pictures of Uncle Kenny. I didn’t fully appreciate what kind of a sacrifice it was for mom and dad to be encouraging to me.

Q Where did you learn to fly?

A At the Shearwater Flying Club. I like the social and supportive atmosphere of the flying club because you’d learn to fly, but afterwards you’d hang around and listen to old pilots telling stories or lies. Actually I married my instructor. We’ve been married 25 years. People ask me how much it costs to learn to fly. I say it’s cheaper if you marry your instructor.

Q Do you have children?

A No. For the lifestyle, I think it would be really hard. I feel for young women pilots who have to make the decision if they want children. You may work three days on, one day off. You’re overnight and you have a random schedule.

Q Can you describe what it’s like to approach Sable Island from the air?

A You see it and you wonder, how is it even here? It’s just a little sandbar way out in the Atlantic. It’s so narrow that by the time you see any of it, you actually see a good portion of it. Each day depending on the light, sometimes it’ll be dark against the lighter sea or light against the dark sea. The light changes how it looks.

Q What do you like about flying?

A The thing I like most about flying is also the thing I like least—I never know where I’m going to be one day to the next. Sable Island is my real love as a flyer, and when I’m flying a nice group of tourists to Sable or someone celebrating their anniversary to the Magdalene Islands, it’s pretty cool. Besides, how many pilots get to land on a beach on a regular basis?

Q Can you imagine ever giving it up?

A If I won the lottery tomorrow I’d still be flying to Sable. Retirement for me is flying with golfing thrown in.

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