The aircraft taxied slowly onto the apron, a light drizzle spattering against the plane’s window; a grey overcast day awaited the big event. My Chief of Staff leaned forward from the seat behind me and quietly said that my wife and I should wait in our seats until the press and the rest of my entourage exited down a back stair and assembled at the bottom of the air-stair at the main door to document my arrival. The Purser would let us know when they were ready. He also reminded me that the protocol people were on a tight schedule and would try to rush me along.
“Ignore them,” he said. “They need to be flexible and go with the flow. After all, you are the Head of State. You’re used to doing things your way.”
My young wife and I sat quietly talking, waiting for everyone to leave and assemble below. After about ten minutes the Purser came and said that everything was ready. When we walked through the open door on to the top of the air-stair we saw that we were surrounded by hundreds of greeters who pushed against the welcoming committee at the bottom of the stairs. A line of limousines was embedded in the crowd. We stood and waved. The crowd cheered and waved back. Cameras flashed and video crews bustled about, modern technology beaming the images back home to the waiting populace.
“This is fun,” I said to my wife. “We should keep on waving a little longer.” And we did.
I could see some of the officials below checking their watches, so we slowly made our way down to the welcoming party. Ambassadors and their wives, Canadian government officials, and local dignitaries were all lined up. Each was introduced and I made sure that I stopped and spoke to every one of them.
This was the best part of politics and I was good at it, and although the protocol people were getting anxious, my Chief of Staff was all smiles.
At this point my wife was herded off to one of the waiting limousines and another member of my entourage led me and my Chief of Staff around to the other side of the aircraft where three helicopters waited, their rotors circling slowly above them. They would be taking me to the G20 conference at the Toronto Convention Center.
It was June 2010, and Canada was hosting the G7/G20 conferences. The Canadian Government needed an Operations and Command Center so they'd approached Pearson Airport. We had an unused infield terminal that sat securely inside the airport’s fences with modern IT infrastructure in place. It even had a VIP lounge that could be used by dignitaries if necessary.
As Vice-President of Operations, I was the one that they contacted and we quickly agreed to a deal. The Government spent tens of millions of dollars fitting out the facility, and when all was ready, they needed to do a live run to ensure that all the correct systems and protocols were in place and that nothing was missing. All they needed was a head of state to practice on.
I was surprised when they approached me about the role but it made sense. I was an outsider, having taken no part in the planning, so I could view the proceedings with an unbiased eye. I was asked to carry a notepad and record any deficiencies for later review. At the same time, both the RCMP and CSIS knew who I was and I was already a party to what and how they planned to deliver the event so there was no risk of a leak. I was the perfect inside-outsider.
My “wife” was a third year Political Science student from Carleton University. She was among hundreds of university students recruited to be “Sherpas” – aides assigned to heads of state and other top officials to shepherd them through the various meetings and events. It was easy to identify a head of state’s place in the world hierarchy by the number of Sherpas assigned to accompany them. It was those Sherpas who made up the crowd around the aircraft. They were there to watch and learn because they would eventually have their own head of state to greet.
My Chief of Staff was actually the Assistant Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was responsible for staging both conferences. The third person who accompanied us to the helicopters was his real Chief of Staff.
The Griffin helicopters and their crews were on rotation from Afghanistan. Men and machines were all work and no play. The three of us were loaded into the first helicopter where we were seated on sling seats and handed headsets with microphones. Helicopters are very loud inside and the headsets were needed for both communication and noise suppression. A soldier crouched on each side. The two other helicopters were escorting gunships. Nothing was being left to chance.
We were heading to the Toronto Convention Center so the pilot’s landmark was the CN Tower. It was still grey and drizzling, and with a low ceiling, visibility had shrunk to barely a kilometer as we rose into the air. It was then that the pilot turned to his co-pilot and asked, “So, where the F*** is the CN Tower?”
I immediately drew out my note pad and wrote a reminder to not let passengers listen to the crews’ conversations.
“Fly to the lake and turn left” was the co-pilot’s response.
The trio of helicopters kept below the clouds as we made our way to Lake Ontario and along the shoreline. As we approached the Tower a controller on the ground directed the pilots to a patch of lawn at the south entrance of the Convention Centre. “It’s a little tight,” he said to our pilot. “Can you tuck it in under the trees on the left so that all three can fit in?”
“Sure thing” said our pilot and in a few seconds, we were all down safely.
Howard Bohan is a long-term resident of Burlington, Ontario. After a long career in the aviation industry, Howard is enjoying semi-retirement: volunteering, dabbling in the industry, and enjoying writing stories, true or otherwise.
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