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Pie in the sky

Jim Spentzas - South Surrey Pilot
South Surrey resident Jim Spentzas goes on an excursion that takes him up above the clouds for the perfect slice of pie.

Flying came easily to Jim Spentzas.

He still remembers his first takeoff – a moment he had dreamt of as a young boy building model airplanes, and which had come true while training with the Greek military.

Now, more than 20 years later, the South Surrey resident runs his hands over a Cessna 172 similar to the one from his first piloting experience.

Although the plane is more than 40 years old, its red and white body accented with gold stripes gleams under the threat of a dark, overcast sky.

And it sits in an Abbotsford Airport hangar belonging to the Abbotsford Flying Club, which allows members to book its three aircraft for personal excursions.

“It’s just an old girl with a paint job,” Spentzas says, as he inspects it for dents and bruises.

The pre-flight routine is a vital part of any outing, even if the purpose of today’s trip is a simple, if not unusual, one: pie. More precisely, the $100-pie, as Spentzas calls it, because “you have to do all this just to get it.”

It’s served at Chilliwack Airport’s coffee shop, which has become a well-known destination for pilots from all over the Lower Mainland and parts of the U.S. who make the stop just for a taste of the acclaimed baked treat.

And while flying to the restaurant makes for an impressive entrance, it’s not as simple as jumping in the car and turning the ignition.

Spentzas carefully looks over the wings, wheels, lights, oil, propeller, timing belts and struts. He also checks the fuel by making “her pee in a cup,” squirting the bluish liquid into a container to check for bubbles, which would indicate the unwanted presence of water.

He then records the necessary flight details in the plane’s log, pulls out the 1,700-pound aircraft from the hangar, gets settled behind the controls, fits his headphones and mouthpiece in place and runs through the pre-flight checklist.

“And off we go…”

Spentzas communicates with air-traffic control using radio lingo, and steers “Golf-Zulu-Hotel-Quebec” (C-GZHQ) to a runway for a smooth, quick takeoff.

From there, it’s an easy ascent to 2,500 feet and a speed of 120 km/hr as a relaxed Spentzas casually works the controls, entering the plane into what seems to be an entirely different world. Jagged mountains, open fields, dense city – a collection of awesome sights united into one sweeping view.  Peacefully gliding over the waves of Cultus Lake and small-scaled Chilliwack houses is a welcome departure from the airtime Spentzas gets on his job.

As a first officer with Kelowna Flightcraft, he flies a Boeing 727 during the night from Vancouver to Winnipeg to Montreal, delivering cargo for Purolator and Canada Post.

Although freight can be less demanding than commercial flying – which follows specific timetables to transport travellers in a timely manner – there are still many restrictions.

“You tend to forget what flying is all about,” Spentzas said, likening the cargo plane he flies to a powerboat. “(This) is like a sailboat for me. It’s like I got back into a sailboat and it’s so freeing.”

Being a member of Abbotsford Flying Club means Spentzas can take out the plane at his leisure, avoiding the costs, work and responsibility that would come with owning his own.

His annual membership fee of $375 and airtime fee of $130/hour allows him access to the two 172s and Piper Cherokee Archer II, which he can sign out for a simple day trip or extended journey.

Despite the accessibility, Spentzas said the planes are underused, only flying about 400 hours a year.

“We want them to get at least 1,000 hours.”

The club has discussed refurbishing and rebuilding them – or getting new ones altogether – to make the offering more attractive.

And there are other appeals of the organization, which has 28 pilots in a membership of 120 people.

Spentzas, now the club’s promotions director, said he’d like to see more people from Surrey and White Rock sign up and take advantage of the group’s clubhouse – complete with bar and kitchen – and events that range from family barbecues to the Abbotsford International Airshow.

The club – which marks its 50th anniversary this year – also annually hosts First Flights for Kids, in which pilots take children ages seven to 13 on a 15-minute flight for free.

Seeing the smiles on the children’s faces is one of the most satisfying aspects of Spentzas’ career as a pilot.

That, and sitting in Chilliwack Airport, his plane visible in the parking lot behind him, as he drives a fork into a warm, flaky slice of Bing cherry pie nestled next to a generous scoop of ice cream.

Just one of the many things worth flying for.

For more information on Abbotsford Flying Club, visit