Indigenous pilot training school loses entire fleet in airport fire

A flight school for Indigenous pilots has lost all 13 of its planes after an airport hangar on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont., was destroyed in a fire.

Fire destroys airport hangar on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont.

The fire at the hangar on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory destroyed the building entirely, as well as all the 13 aircraft inside. (Brandon Cassibo, First Responders Photography)

Canada's only training program for Indigenous pilots has lost its entire fleet after an airport hangar on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory was destroyed in a fire.

It began at Tyendinaga Mohawk Airport around 11 p.m. on Feb. 24, and the 40,000-square-foot hangar collapsed within minutes, according to Mohawk Fire Department Chief Scott Maracle.

The First Nations Technical Institute on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville, Ont., has operated a flight program at the hangar for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students since 1989.

The fire destroyed the school's 13 planes, as well as all of its equipment used to maintain aircraft.

Maracle said the building burned too quickly to be saved — a construction feature preferred by the Department of Defence during the Second World War.

"They were designed to just collapse on themselves and not affect anything else," he said.

Firefighters attend the scene of the fire at Tyendinaga Mohawk Airport on Feb. 24 around 11 p.m. (Brandon Cassibo, First Responders Photography)

Pilots needed by remote communities 

The pilot training program was created to meet the need for more Indigenous pilots, according to president Suzanne Brant, who added that students come from all over Canada to attend the program.

"The students come here to get their licence to be able to fly, so they can directly go into the industry," said Brant. "They can start commercial flights as soon as they want. They mostly get employed before they even leave."

Students often provide air transport services to remote Indigenous communities, Brant said, including those not accessible by road, which depend on pilots to fly in food, medical supplies and people.

The airplane hangar at Tyendinaga Mohawk Airport was built in 1943 during the Second World War. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

The program is essential not just to the careers of aspiring pilots, but also for the communities they go on to serve.

"It's their link, you know, to the rest of the world. So it's significant, not only for employment, but also for those resources that get mobilized in and out of communities."

The program is temporarily paused and applications are closed, she said.

The school is currently liaising with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, as well as the Minister of Indigenous Affairs in Ontario, to explore ways to get the program off the ground again, said Brant.

The cause of the fire is still being investigated, according to the fire department.