Monday, December 7, 1998

Ex-policeman trades wheels for wings

Business in the sky beats cuffing criminals


Five hundred feet below us, the blades of a red-and-white helicopter slash the cold, gray skin of the winter sky over the Pinel Institute for the criminally insane. Photographers in the chopper are snapping frames, and the warden is incensed.

Through my co-pilot's headset, I hear the control tower at Dorval Airport warning the helicopter to leave immediately the airspace over the Rivière des Prairies institute. The helicopter pilot replies that he has a few more visuals to record.

The calm voice from the control tower politely informs him that the warden is going - excuse the pun - insane. Better clear out, lads - now. The helicopter complies.

Overhead, our Piper Navajo is purling through cloud cover towards Dorval Airport at a comfortable 130 m.p.h. at an altitude of 2,000 feet. Our pilot, Guy Geoffrion, 52, chuckles as he listens to the exchange between the control tower and the helicopter.

Once a cop, always a cop. In his latest incarnation as pilot and owner of GeffAir Canada Inc., a small charter aircraft company, Geoffrion still loves a good story.

He gives as good as he gets. How about the early 70s when he worked undercover to infiltrate the motorcycle gangs in the bars. He's the one sporting beads, beard, long, stringy hair and metal glasses with a two-cycle 350 Honda engine revving between his legs.

Power and speed - nothin' like it. But two engines are better than one, especially if your wheels don't touch the ground and you can skip the red lights.

Time to trade in the cycle for a plane.

Never mind that his undercover disguises have won him numerous promotions. His code name should be Jupiter, Roman g-d of the skies. Terra firma is laborious and boring. He is destined to be the Flying Flatfoot.

By 1974 - 10 years after he joined the police force - Geoffrion has his pilot's licence to fly single-engine Cessna 172s by Visual Flight Rules. By the mid 80s, he is ready for another challenge - flying twin engine aircraft by Instrument Flight Rules or IFR.

The courses take one year of full-time study, 250 hours of air time and $48,000.

By this time he is a lieutenant at Station 11 on the West Island with a wife, two young children and a nice home. Only a few years away from 25 years of service, do his thoughts turn to pension and retirement - a life of leisure in the country?

Hardly. Geoffrion has a secret life. By day, he's a police station commander.

By night, he services carpet-cleaning machines at supermarkets and works the midnight run for a courier service to help pay for his flying lessons. His shift at the police station ends at 11 p.m. He rushes to Dorval, packs the parcels onto the courier plane and sits in the co-pilot's seat for the round trip to New York-Toronto-Montreal.

Back at Dorval by 6 a.m., he heads home, slumbers for six hours and heads back to his police post by 3 p.m.

By now, he is looking beyond his IFR licence. Under his bronze badge, beats the heart of an entrepreneur.Before she married him, his wife, Louise, must have known he was a bit of an odd duck. She probably figured he'd give up the disguises and the biker scene before the first laurels of gray distinguished him.

What she didn't expect was that he would take a sabbatical in 1989, mortgage the house and buy a used Piper Navajo for $120,000. At age 43, this career police officer is about to trade his badge for a commercial aircraft company flying backup to a courier service. That first year, he flies 600 hours - real good money. So good, that he decides to extend his sabbatical into a second year. Another 500 hours of work and more solid paydays. Time to take his permanent retirement - and pension - from the police force.

By this time, the courier company is noticing his fat paycheques. They decide to purchase two bigger aircraft and drop GeffAir as a backup.

But a free-spirited cop who can transform himself in a mean hombre of a biker is nothing if not resourceful. Lavelin goes bankrupt in 1991 and Geoffrion leaps on the opportunity to hire its chief pilot from the division involved in aerial photography.

He pays $42,000 to punch a hole in the belly of his Navajo Piper, fills the void with a $70,000 Wild RC-10 aerial camera and becomes one of only two Quebec companies offering aerial photography. The Quebec and Canadian governments become major clients.

The cameras show whether forestry companies are complying with government regulations as pertain to the number and kind of trees they are entitled to harvest. The colors on the camera's infrared film indicate the kinds of trees being cut - birch is yellow, maple is red and pine is green.

Using Global Positioning System satellites, GeffAir pilots survey tracts of land for infrastructure development such as construction of roads. Their cameras are so sensitive they can pick out an object the size of a manhole from 2,500 feet in the air.

But you can't have a free-wheeling conversation with an RC-10 aerial camera. So Geoffrion adds a second Piper Navajo to his fleet strictly for ferrying clients. Important people, like Quebec cabinet ministers, Hydro Quebec executives, busy businessmen who want to avoid crowded departure lounges and tie-ups at customs.

GeffAir, which has between three and five pilots, gives its clients the treatment. Up to six passengers in comfortable seats in executive configuration are offered orange juice, muffins, bagels, cereal and steaming coffee to kick off the day. Lunch and dinner compare with the major airlines.

And then, of course, there is the cashews, the open bar and the great view when the plane flies at low altitudes. Unlike jetliners, the Piper Navajo is not pressurized, meaning it flies at below 13,000 feet, depending on wind and weather.

At a cruising speed of 315 k.p.h., it can reach New York City in two hours. A round trip to the Big Apple costs $2,000 regardless of whether the plane is carrying one passenger or the full complement of six.

Then, of course, there is the added bonus of flying with pilots you know on a personal basis. If he happens to be Guy Geoffrion in disguise, you'll recognize him by the grin.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.