A highflying bush pilot: John Wannecke, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Text: Bernadette Calonego
Photos: Courtesy of John Wannecke

John Wannecke Enlarge image (© John Wannecke) When John Wannecke and Yellowknife found each other, this German immigrant from Wernigerode in the Harz mountain range took off. I mean this literally.

He got a pilot license for fixed-wing airplanes and bought his own Cessna 180. Only four years after his immigration to Canada, John had come as close to his childhood dream as one can get.

In Yellowknife, a town on the Great Slave Lake with its pioneer spirit still intact, John found his calling. “It is frontier country up here”, he says. “There is much more freedom.”

For John Wannecke, this floatplane was a dream come true. John became his own airline, imagine! Enlarge image For John Wannecke, this floatplane was a dream come true. John became his own airline, imagine! (© John Wannecke) John, the son of a forester who had lived in a mountain village in Central Germany, had always wanted to go to Canada. “I was watching all these Canadian movies and TV series”, he says. “It was typical boy stuff.”

Later, John became a forester-technician and his interest in nature even grew. But for him, it took a divorce to actually take the step and travel as a backpacker in Canada and the U.S. for one year.

Back from his adventurous trip, he stayed another two years in Germany but detested the congestion in Europe.

In April 1995, he emigrated to Canada and settled in Grande Cache, a mountain town with 2700 people. He worked for 6.50 dollars an hour at a car dealership.

But this was nothing like the dream he had had as a boy. So he took online courses in geology which lead to a trip to Yellowknife. “Within two weeks, I had three jobs”, he says.

Downtown Yellowknife. This is the Canadian town where a German guy named John from Wernigerode found his calling. Enlarge image Downtown Yellowknife. This is the Canadian town where a German guy named John from Wernigerode found his calling. (© John Wannecke) After two months, he was hired as a junior geologist for an expedition. The group was mapping out an area 200 kilometres north of Yellowknife. “I literally put my name on the map”, John says.

But this was seasonal. In the winter, jobs were hard to come by in Yellowknife. So John worked as a jail guard, he was cleaning and did the finances of a hotel overnight.

So when did his childhood dream finally come true?

We had to ask John Wennecke some Curious and Crucial Questions (CCQ):

John, how did you make it from a jail guard in a Yellowknife prison to becoming a bush pilot?

For three years, I saved money having three jobs at the same time. I became a private pilot and later a commercial pilot for fixed-wing airplanes. And in 1999, I bought my own plane. It was simultaneously a float plane, ski-plane and bush-plane. I had my own company.

This sounds so romantic! But tell me, how can a normal person afford his own airplane?

In Yellowknife, everything is different, you see. Flying up here is sometimes the only way to get out. It is not a luxury. A bush plane is like a taxi service in the air.

So who did you fly around with?

With tourists from Germany for instance - two women biologists who wanted to film wolves. I left them for two days in the tundra and picked them up again later.

Sometimes I flew prospectors who were looking for gold and diamonds in isolated areas. I also took mail to remote places. Or when bacon and eggs ran out in a lodge, I flew groceries in. I brought people with canoes out. And I flew prisoners, too.

Prisoners? What did they do in the bush? Escape?

No, no. I dropped them off on islands on Great Slave Lake where there are cabins with guards. These are so-called “healing cabins” because that is where the prisoners sort things out and get to their senses.

Did you take your wife Alison on some of these trips, too?

Living room with view into the wilderness.  Sometimes wolves knock on the door. Or so I have heard. Enlarge image Living room with view into the wilderness. Sometimes wolves knock on the door. Or so I have heard. (© John Wannecke) I have to admit that in my heydays as a pilot, we went shopping by plane to Edmonton, a city that is more than 1500 kilometres away from Yellowknife. So my small plane landed on an airstrip near the city. You can imagine how odd this looked! I would not do it again.

Is it dangerous to fly in the Yellowknife area?

No, not really. Abrupt weather changes are rare. Nine out of ten times, you can predict the weather. But I had a scary experience twice where I had to land on the ice because there was a whiteout. I could not see the sky or the ground. I could not tell what was ten feet ahead of me. All I could see was a white wall.

Why did you stop flying?

Because it got too expensive. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the insurance premiums for airplanes got so high, that I could not make a profit anymore. I had to pay 37000 dollars a year just for insurance. I went to school for four years and became an aircraft maintenance engineer. I worked at a local airline. But I was not entirely happy. For me, it was all about being in the bush.

John is still working on his cabin. I wonder what the home inspector will say once it is finished. Enlarge image John is still working on his cabin. I wonder what the home inspector will say once it is finished. (© John Wannecke) So what did you do?

I sold my plane six years ago and bought a cabin at a lake. I am fixing it up now which makes me happy. This was also one of my childhood dreams.

But I am sure that working as a home inspector was not one of your dreams!

No, not really, but it turned out to be a gold goose for me! I really enjoy it and I have the skills for it. It gives me a lot of flexibility and freedom.

Will you ever buy an airplane again?

Maybe, but I will probably buy a smaller one that is ultra-light and consumes less gas. We will see.

When you have to give up your own plane, you have to find other fountains of youth. Enlarge image When you have to give up your own plane, you have to find other fountains of youth. (© John Wannecke) One last question: Can you remember what you did on the day when the Berlin Wall fell (November 9, 1989)?

I believe I was glued to the TV, just like many of us. Watching the events unfold in front of us. Wondering what will be in store next. Making plans for a future that could not really be planned out. In the end it was all about doing what I always wanted to do: finding the space and freedom of creating a life for myself.

John Wannecke

Visa stamp by Immigration Canada

Bernadette Calonego, author of immigrant portraits

Bernadette Calonego

Most of our immigrant portraits are written by Bernadette Calonego, a freelance Canada correspondent for European German-language newspapers. Writing about German immigrants in Canada made me realise to what extent they helped to shape this country – and still do," she says.