By Paul van den Berg Editor DDA Logboek magazine
It’s January 5, 2021, and somewhere over the ocean, a young, frail Frenchwoman opens her laptop in a dark Air France Airbus cabin and starts tapping. For Logboek! It is Catheline Leoni, 33 years old, bon vivant, pilot and traveling to Alaska where she flies DC-3.
LIVING THE DREAM
Catheline’s story is like a boy’s book or actually a novel. An interest as a child, later a passion and then with a lot of perseverance, a good brain and a bit of luck to make her dream come true: flying DC-3 in Alaska.
It starts in Tours, France where, as a young girl, she daily enjoyed the Alpha Jets trainers of the Air Force that flew over her parental home. “With my parents I regularly attended air shows such as La Ferté Alais and read the exciting stories of aviation pioneers and especially pioneers such as Hélène Boucher and Jean Batten.” The latter in particular would later play a role in one of her own adventures. Her father and grandfather had a military career and Catheline also wanted to become a military pilot. However, she was told that she could never become a kite because of her Literature study with too little math. “Aviation seemed out of reach for me”. She then decided to study hard to get a good job later and thus earn her license on her own. When she was 18, she went to Tours airport and asked “for a job with airplanes. Every job was good, even if it was lugging luggage!” She became a check-in agent, which she continued to do throughout her bachelor studies. “At the University I took an aviation introduction course: ‘brevet d’initiation aéronautique’. Every Saturday I learned about the theory of flying.” After her bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages and International Law, she went to Lodz in Poland to study Aviation Safety.
The following summer Catheline went to Ireland, working on a farm to brush up on her English language. There she saw a Sukhoi aerobatic box performing stunts above the farm every day and then immediately dropped her work. The farmer noticed this and asked her if she had a thing for aviation? “I told him about my dream to fly and the same evening the farmer took me to the airport, and I got in touch with that aerobatic pilot. That man also ran a maintenance company, and I was allowed to point out my favorite box in his hangar. That became an old red / yellow biplane. The next evening, we flew in the Stampe above the rolling green hills and rivers, made loops and he let me fly himself. I felt the wind in my face, and I was never happier! From that moment on I knew for sure that I would become a pilot. After landing I just couldn't stand… I was lying on my back in the grass staring at the sky and could only laugh and grin… This was it; I was in love with aviation!”
The Irish summer turned into a whole year. Catheline went to work full-time and flew her pilot in the Stampe all over the country and learned to fly by doing. She took instruction and obtained her PPL certification in Cork in 2010. She writes philosophically: "It is amazing how people and events that come your way can influence your entire life course; everything has a reason ..." In 2011 Catheline completed her master's degree in Aviation law and management after a thesis on aircraft accidents and safety management. She did an internship at the Sécurité Civile as a flight safety manager. Here she came into contact with helicopter flying again. “I was so fascinated by the technique and professionalism of those pilots, I wanted that too!" She applied again by defense and contrary to what she was told there five years earlier, she was now the only one (!) to pass the hiring tests and became a helicopter pilot with the French Army Light Aviation in 2013.
In June 2012, at La Ferté, Catheline met Mark Oremland, a New Zealand entrepreneur who had recently purchased a DC-3 in England and planned to use it on an adventurous trip, "Airscapade", to New Zealand. As much as possible following the old route of Jean Batten. Jean Batten was a New Zealand aviator who was the first to make a solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. This of course appealed to Catheline and she reported to Mark. “I went to help Mark with the promotional work, and we drove his 2CV to Duxford that summer to recruit even more passengers for this wonderful but costly adventure. Due to my enthusiasm, I was hired by Mark and helped him with promotion / communication for the project and with the restoration of the Dakota in Pontoise. I never forget the moment I first saw the "Jean Batten Clipper" in the dark hangar. I was alone, it was dark, and she stood there so proudly, I only felt respect and admiration for this almost work of art that seemed to have a soul and wanted to share its history with me. There I got the feeling that I "found myself" at the point of a journey in which I could expand my own limits and show me who I really was”. After a few months of hard work, Catheline was asked to join the team of Airscapade adventurers. Her job during the trip was cabin attendant, communications manager, photographer and blog writer. “They even let me fly the Dakota under supervision when a kite wanted to rest. It became the trip of my life and I am so grateful that I got that chance. Seeing the world from a DC-3 was an experience that touched me forever”.
After this adventure she went to fly a helicopter with the army for four years. She once dreamed of being able to fly DC-3 herself, but that chance seemed to diminish as the years passed. Driven by that dream, she kept in touch with DC-3 friends around the world, and her bedroom was filled with DC-3 books, photos and models. "I understood that the biggest chance of Dakota flying was in the USA, so in 2017 I went there to get all my FAA papers." And that worked. In record time, she became a multi-engine, instrument, commercial instructor in Oregon. But after three years of flying there, it was time for something new for Catheline. “My urge for adventure made that Alaska where I was accepted by a flight school in Palmer. When I posted that on my Facebook page, Joey Benetka, owner of Desert Air and Facebook friend, sent me an invitation to come over.” But that would take a while, because of course our Catheline did not go to Alaska with a regular scheduled flight! Don Hammond, owner of Fly Around Alaska flight school, got her an offer to join him to ferry two Piper Cherokees from Alabama to Alaska. Thus, they flew, in formation, 4150 miles across the USA and Canada in three weeks. Another adventure!
“As soon as I got to Palmer, I immediately bought a car and drove to Anchorage to visit Joey and his surgery. It felt so good to see his DC-3s up close! But the Desert Air DC-3s looked a little different from what I was used to. Not "shiny", but real workhorses, technically fine”. Catheline began teaching in Palmer, but two weeks later, the school dropped out due to COVID-19. She had little to do and wondered what to live on. She took advantage of this period to learn more about the DC-3 and the cargo operation from Anchorage at Desert Air. She was allowed to help with loading the cargo and was finally invited to jump-seat on a flight and on the empty way back she was allowed to fly herself. She couldn't take her luck! One thing led to another and although Joey didn't actually need any new SICs (co-pilots), she successfully convinced him that an extra backup was useful and that she should be. "Joey said I was the most determined and passionate DC-3 person he'd ever seen!" Training on the DC-3 started for her on the empty return flights where she was allowed to steer after take-off and eventually made her first landing. “That was with N272R at Anchorage and was" as smooth as glass ". I was so proud and happy and grateful for the trust I received. I have benefited a lot from my tail wheel experience on the Piper Cub. The "3" is heavier, more stable and therefore easier to land than the Cub. Taxiing is the hardest part; I still have to improve! My SIC check ride was on July 28, 2020 and since then I have been flying as a fully-fledged DC-3 cargo pilot.”
Flying in rugged Alaska naturally requires the necessary techniques. Catheline says: “When landing on short, unpaved strips, you must anticipate any go-arounds. During the approach the power is reduced in small segments to avoid shock cooling of the engines. We usually drop about 250 feet per minute, trying to avoid major power changes. That is sometimes difficult with all that faster traffic on Anchorage!” As a co-pilot at Desert Air, she does much more than just flying, she is also the loadmaster and in charge of sorting / weighing the cargo and loading and unloading with the forklift, clearing the platform and helping with the important tie-downs of the cargo. Refueling / refilling the DC-3 is also her job. “In the summer it takes two to three hours to get the box ready. In winter often two hours more because of the pre-heating of the engines and de-icing of the wings. I work six days a week. We fly on demand and when there is no flight, we wash the aircraft, fill up with oil and clean up a bit. On other days I also give flight instruction at the University of Anchorage.”
Desert Air flies to 200 destinations with three Dakotas. Trips range from one to five hours one way. They mainly fly to remote villages and (mining) settlements with food, building materials and tools. “We see so many happy faces on those landing strips along the way, I think it's fantastic to do this meaningful work and help make the lives of other people a little better. And I often try to take pictures of the beautiful nature and landscapes and show that beauty to the world with the realization how important it is to protect it. At the end of the day, we often get together with the whole team, do a debriefing, do the paperwork and have a drink. On days off I like to go out into nature with my boyfriend. We often do that with a Cessna 150. The mountains here are beautiful, we have seen so little of them. In bad weather we stay at home, make a fire, eat and study. There is always something to study!”
Catheline is already dreaming ahead: “There are a lot of Cargo 747s flying here, and I catch myself secretly watching such a mighty machine pass by… Maybe someday…? Dreams are there to come true, it is never easy to achieve great things, but if you believe in yourself, you will get there. Be alert, curious and take your chances when they come by. Work and happiness go together. If you are determined and convinced of something, you convince others more easily and you get that chance. So, go for it! May all your dreams come true in 2021! “