BY PAUL BOREHAM
Graduates and faculty of the aviation program at Conestoga College are in shock over the death of a well-loved colleague.
Jeremie Belanger, 24, from Kapuskasing, graduated from the program in May 2014, and was an employee with Apex Helicopters Inc., based in Wingham, when the accident took place. The Waterloo Region Record reported the company had an aerial spraying contract south of Timmins, and on the evening of Sept. 8 Belanger and another employee, Ken Mielke, 41, from Kitchener, went missing while flying to a nearby camp. Belanger was the pilot in command. A massive search was undertaken, the report said, and on Sept. 11, Apex owner Chris Vankoughnett found his missing helicopter, along with the bodies of the two men. The aircraft had crashed in an area of dense bush.
“Everyone treated it as a lost helicopter,” said Kerry Townson, co-ordinator of the aviation program. “They weren’t expecting to find a crash; they were expecting to find them and bring them back.”
What made it even more heartbreaking was the fact that Belanger had established himself as the most kind, fun-loving companion to the rest of the students in his program, not to mention the faculty. He was also a top student with high involvement in school activities.
The aviation program partners with Great Lakes Helicopters and Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre at the Region of Waterloo Airport. Students choose rotary wing or fixed wing flight training as an elective. Belanger and Shane Chambers were the only two out of approximately 27 students who chose to be helicopter pilots.
“I remember the first day of class,” Chambers said. “He knew everybody by name, and was friends with everyone. One of the first breaks we had, we were all going down the hallway, and he’s right in the middle, talking to people, and we’re laughing our heads off.”
The two pushed each other to excel, both in the flight training and on the academic side.
“We were within five per cent of each other all the time, so it was pretty cool,” said Chambers, who now teaches ground school for Great Lakes. Chambers ended up graduating with honours, Belanger with distinction, perhaps because Belanger was busy helping others with their studies.
“He was big on that – especially with math and physics. If they had trouble, he would tutor them, sometimes staying up pretty late,” said Chambers. At the flight school, Belanger would sometimes be found taking catnaps on a comfy chair, from the late nights. Chambers smiled when remembering this about his friend.
Jeremie had wanted to fly helicopters his whole life, said Chambers. His “end-all, be-all job” was heli-ski pilot. This involves taking skiers and snowboarders to remote mountaintops and dropping them off. As one might imagine, landing on some unknown, craggy outcrop can take some skill. Chambers painted a vivid picture of a helicopter landing on a mountainous ledge with skis half on the snow, the other half hanging mid-air while the skiers jump off and Belanger flying away through the wild and snowy mountains. “Helicopter pilots are the adventurous type,” said Chambers. It would have taken him five to 10 years to achieve that goal, he said.
At the college, Belanger promoted the program to the hilt.
Both Belanger and Chambers were on the program advisory committee, or PAC, and “they presented the best report the committee had ever seen or heard,” said Townson. She added that Belanger “helped with orientation, career fair and open house.
“Jeremie was outgoing, friendly, he would help anyone with anything,” she said. “In a team situation he would take the lead and organize things. He was always happy, always had a smile on his face. He was a real cheerleader for Conestoga.”
Over at Great Lakes Helicopter, Jo Anne Leyburne, general manager, has the same sentiment.
“Jeremie helped out at every single event we had, from monthly informational sessions, to ride events. I don’t think there’s one he missed.” Belanger and Chambers often did these together.
Graduation for the class was in May, 2014. Chambers said Belanger had been out job hunting since February, and landed the job with Apex. The first summer he was on ground crew, driving a truck, refueling aircraft, etc., but in the summer of 2015 he was promoted to flight crew. Their contract in September brought Belanger close to his hometown of Kapuskasing. The crew was spraying chemicals for a forest operation, he said. And then, the accident happened.
By this time, many of Belanger’s classmates had spread themselves across the country, having obtained jobs of their own. On Sept. 8, news of the missing helicopter rallied them.
When the helicopter was found, they came from all corners – some by aircraft, some driving 11 hours by car. They came from the east and the west, as far north as Yellowknife and Rankin Inlet and south from the Kitchener area. All but two were able to make it to Kapuskasing and say a final farewell to their classmate, who had helped them out so much, who had been the “entertainer” of the group, the “rock star,” as one of his teachers wrote in an email.
“It definitely sucks to say goodbye to a friend. But the way they did it, it was a good tribute to him,” said Chambers.
The night before the funeral, the class had a gathering in the local rec centre, where photos were shown and stories told well into the morning hours. “Being who he was, so many were funny stories, and it actually got people laughing, rather than getting down about it,” he said.
The crash has caused all kinds of rumours. Chambers wonders what happened. They’d had so much training. It could easily have been himself, he said.
“He was such a natural pilot,” Chambers said. “Of all the students at Great Lakes, he was probably, if not one of the best, the best. He was always further ahead in training than the rest of us.”
Chambers said it could be a year before Transport Canada finishes its investigation.
Leyburne, who presented Belanger with his commercial helicopter pilot licence 16 months ago, said the school and the flying community has been shaken. She and her husband, Bill Leyburne, owner of Great Lakes Helicopter, went to Kapuskasing for the funeral and were touched by all the classmates and friends that gathered to say goodbye.
“He was a wonderful kid. I know every time something like this happens, you say they were a good person, but he just truly was. He had the smarts about him, knew what he wanted, and was going for it. It’s just tragic.”