Story by GARTH TRICKEY and JAMES SCHOENMANN
J. Wallace Bisson was born in Jackman, Maine, April 24, 1926. Jackman is a small community of just 900 souls just south of the Quebec border on Route 201 in Northern Maine. The northern portion of 201 is one of the most scenic routes in the United States, but for a lot of people it’s simply known as the Old Canada Road. Because of it’s remoteness, it’s a place where neighbors look after one another.
As a boy Wally dreamed of flying. When World War II came along, he, like so many others of his generation, served in the armed forces. As luck would have it, he wound up in the Navy working on aircraft. He served from 1943 to 1946, overseeing the flight preparation of F6F Hellcats and TBM Avengers for service over the Atlantic.
He greatly admired the young men who were flying the machines he readied for action. He knew that someday he, too, would learn to fly.
Wally became a pilot in the early 1970s, and his hobby evolved into something of a second business. He established Wally’s Flying Service, a combination air taxi and flight school. Over the years he has taught more than 100 people how to fly, while logging almost 8,000 hours in many different aircraft.
Since the mid-1970s, Wally has, to a great degree, acted as the local FBO on behalf of the Town of Jackman, putting in countless time and effort for the betterment of the local airport and flyers coming into the area.
And before the introduction of emergency medical air transport services such as Lifeflight of Maine, emergency medical air transportation was handled by pilots like Wallace Bisson.
On one particular occasion in 1975, Wally was asked to transport a patient who was in critical condition and needed immediate specialized attention. It was 3:30 a.m. when the phone rang at the Bisson residence and Wally told his wife Frances he needed to make a quick trip to Waterville, Maine. Frances was used to the routine of a pilot’s life. She never complained and supported Wally 100% in his love for aviation.
Henry Litz was the doctor who delivered Barbara Kane’s infant son early that morning. By 3:04 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Dr. Litz was worried. The baby was in good shape, but Barbara had developed serious complications. She began to hemorrhage, and unless the bleeding was stopped, the baby’s mother would be lost.
Back in 1975, the Marie Joseph Hospital in Jackman was not prepared to handle this kind of emergency. The doctor knew that Barb’s condition would require a higher level of care…and soon.
After taking the call on that cold Christmas Eve, Wally immediately went to Jackman’s Newton Field to warm up his 1968 Piper Cherokee for the trip to Waterville.
It was a clear, moonlit, starry night; just the kind you might find pictured in a Christmas story book. Conditions were ideal for a night flight to Waterville. There was only one minor problem — the temperature that morning was -20°F.
They loaded Barb into the plane wrapped in a cocoon of warm blankets, along with her husband and a close friend. Wally taxied the Cherokee onto the runway and did all of the last minute instinctive checks. He opened the throttle and felt the PA-28’s powerful 180-hp Lycoming engine begin to work.
It’s a sound that pilots love, coupled with that surge of energy that pushes you into the seat as the plane is drawn down the runway and into the air.
But nothing could prepare the occupants for what happened next. As the plane lifted off the runway, every interior window of the PA-28’s cabin instantly and completely iced over, including the front windshield. The cabin interior was filled with warm moist air from the stressed breathing of the occupants, and the thick coating of ice made it seem like they were flying inside a milk carton. It was one of those terrifying moments that will live for a lifetime.
Wally calmly continued the takeoff as if nothing happened. Eyes fixed to the instrument cluster, he brought the PA-28 up into the night sky to a safe altitude and set the plane on a heading to Waterville.
The Cherokee has a cruising speed of around 120 mph and, with a tailwind, the trip to Waterville would only take around 30 minutes. During the trip Barb went into shock — the young mother was in critical condition.
Slowly the plane’s defroster began to clear a spot on the windshield. With only limited vision, Wally calmly set the PA-28 down on the Waterville runway without incident. The paramedics were waiting to rush Barb to the local hospital, but when the plane’s door opened on the tarmac, she had no discernable blood pressure or pulse.
The EMT’s worked quickly to stabilize their patient, with one EMT actually working from on top of the wing. Finally they were able to get an IV in place. Slowly and carefully they removed Barb from the plane.
Once at the hospital, Barb’s condition improved dramatically, so much so, that the following day she was transferred back to the hospital in Jackman and reunited with her husband John and her newborn son Justin.
As for Wally, now in his late 80s, he’s still flying. He still enjoys flight instructing, and is still very active in airport activities.
He is knowledgeable in flying many different aircraft and is often asked for advice, or to accompany another pilot on a flight. His 40-plus years of devotion to aviation and service to the Jackman community is the reason the airport has grown and prospered.
As for that fateful Christmas Eve trip to Waterville, Wally will tell you with a slight smile, “It was routine, just routine.”
But, he adds, “if I had a choice between skill and luck, I would pick luck every time!”