Piloting a one-man show

Juneau color

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2000

A plane crash three years ago almost drove pilot Jacques Norvell from the business, but his passengers called him back.

``He's one of the niches, one of the little islands, that make it worth living here,'' said Sam Skaggs, one of Norvell's loyal passengers. ``I fly a fair amount with my family and he's the one I call first.''

Norvell has 15,000 hours in the sky, flying some of the roughest routes in Southeast Alaska year-round. He's hauled everything from groceries to corpses.

In 1997 he walked away from the twisted wreckage of his only plane near the Llewellyn Glacier, 50 miles north of Juneau, with only a cut above his eye.

The accident could easily have been the end of the air service he bought the year before, but Norvell stuck with it, and so did his customers.

When Norvell bought Reid Air in May 1996 he was living on a 34-foot sailboat with his wife, Susie, and infant son, Tal, trying to pay off $20,000 in medical bills from the birth.

``I had to borrow money from my mom just to have a down payment on (required airplane) insurance,'' he said.

The insurance became useful June 1, 1997. On the way home from a flight to Atlin, Norvell tried to land in a small inlet at the foot of Llewellyn Glacier, then realized the landing area was too short.

As he turned the plane up and away from the glacier, a strong downdraft caught it.

``That pushed me right out of the sky,'' Norvell said. ``It was all I could do just to maintain control of the airplane.''

The plane hit the rocky beach, strewing its propeller, engine, floats and tail, then flipped.

Within 20 seconds it was over. Norvell and his passenger were hanging upside down in the cockpit, the only part of the plane still intact.

``It was a bent, twisted piece of metal,'' Norvell said. ``One of those situations where you look at the wreck and wonder anyone came out alive.''

Not only did Norvell and his passenger live, neither was injured. Amazed to be walking away from the crash, Norvell considered also walking away from the business.

``I was at that point pretty dejected, ready to throw my hands up in the air,'' Norvell said.

He could just take the insurance money from the totaled plane, close the business, pay his debts and move on. Then the phone rang.

It was one of his customers, the first of many to call and ask, ``When are you going to be back in the air?''

``I was absolutely overwhelmed with the customer support,'' said Norvell, who went ahead and leased an airplane and was back in the air in a few days. Within a month he bought another Cessna 206 amphibious plane.

Now Tal Air is back on firm financial footing, with a steady trickle of flights in the winter that becomes a torrent in the summer.

``I do everything. I answer the phones, schedule flights, do all the flying, do the loading, unloading,'' said Norvell, sitting in his 5-foot-wide Juneau Airport office at the end far from where most people buy tickets or claim baggage. Pictures of his wife and son line the wall above his desk.

During the busy summer season, many pilots go three to four months without seeing their families.

``It's historically been really tough on families, this kind of business,'' Norvell said.

As a Seventh-day Adventist, he passes up any Saturday work in favor of his family. Sometimes they meet him after work on other days and all fly out to camp on a remote beach or lake.

``I probably wouldn't enjoy living in Juneau so much if I couldn't get out and spread the horizons,'' he said. ``Within 150 miles of Juneau, I feel like that's my backyard, even 200 miles, and still every year I go places I've never been.''

Flying wasn't Norvell's lifelong dream, just something he thought he'd try after graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1977. Within two years he had his commercial pilot's license and a job hauling freight for a store owner in Elfin Cove.

It was a tough training ground.

``It's right on the ocean, so we have ocean swells to deal with and it's right up against a mountain, so the wind's real flukey, gusty,'' Norvell said.

He went on to fly for most of the small airlines in Juneau - Southeast Skyways, Channel Flying, Reid Air, Ward Air and Loken Aviation.

``Ten years went by real fast and I still enjoyed it,'' he said. Then another 10.

Elfin Cove is still Norvell's specialty. He flies there about three times a week in the winter, three times a day in the summer, carrying local residents, groceries, marine pilots, fishermen and Fish and Game employees. Many of the passengers are his friends. Sometimes he feels funny taking money from them.

``Having Jacques, a local boy almost out of Elfin, it's just great. People love him,'' said Bob Mourant, who helps schedule flights in Elfin Cove. ``Even after the crash,'' he added.

``A crash makes a pilot a lot better pilot if he survives it. You tend to be a little bit more cautious. You know that's one thing you're not going to do again.''

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