SYDNEY – Helicopter pilot Matt Wallace has long been fascinated with Sable Island.
As a child actor with a role in late-1990s movie Pit Pony, Wallace learned that some of the horses used in Cape Breton coal mines had come from the remote island located in the Atlantic Ocean about 134 nautical miles due south of Sydney.
Years later, as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, the native of Southside Boularderie landed a Sea King helicopter on Sable Island after taking a few crew members of the navy ship to which he was assigned on a flight to the out-of-the-way island best known for the hundreds of feral horses that inhabit the crescent-shaped, treeless and sandy island.
Today, the 34-year-old is retired from the military. He is now the president and chief pilot of Sydney-based Breton Air. On July 19, Wallace will pilot his company’s first-ever commercial charter from Sydney’s J.A. Douglas McCurdy Airport to Sable Island.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the lure of Sable Island,” he said.
“The magic of the island is pronounced once you arrive – I’ve been all over the world on navy ships and there really isn’t anything else like it. I’ve never been to a place with such mystique as Sable Island. It really is off the charts.”
The well-spoken Wallace noted that while charter helicopter flights are available from Halifax to Sable Island, it’s his opinion that the best way to approach the thin 43-km sandbar is from the north, from Cape Breton.
“When you approach from Halifax you’re coming at it straight on so you don’t immediately get the full grasp of the island,” said Wallace.
“But when we approach it from Cape Breton we approach perpendicularly to the island so it looks like mountainous dunes emerging out of the ocean. It’s absolutely fantastic to see. It’s like a mirage.”
According to Wallace, the flight from the Sydney airport takes approximately 70 minutes, while the return from Sable is usually wind-assisted and can be done in an hour. The flight path goes over the Fortress of Louisbourg, past Gabarus and the Fourchu islands and then due south to Sable.
The mode of transport is a Bell 412 helicopter that is equipped with two massive turbo-shaft turbine engines. It’s an airship that Wallace purchased halfway around the world.
“I flew to Paupa New Guinea and then flew it to northern Australia from where it was shipped to Canada and rebuilt in Sydney,” he said.
“It had seating for 13 passengers but we reduced it to nine passenger seats in order to accommodate more fuel and luggage. We equipped it with floats and an auxiliary fuel tank capable carrying 2,760 lbs. of jet fuel which gives us the range to go to Sable and back.”
There are two helipads on Sable Island. Charter passengers will be taken on a tour, served a lunch and then still have time for some exploring before departure.
Through a partnership with Parks Canada, which has overseen the Sable Island National Park Reserve since 2011, Breton has secured eight departures dates for Sable. Along with the pilot and a guide (two Cape Bretoners have been hired and trained), each trip will have a maximum of eight passengers.
And the cost for this unconventional excursion? How about $3,250 per person plus HST. Wallace is a realist as well as an adventurer, but his tone was somewhat apologetic as he explained the high price.
“It’s important to note that we’re not trying to have a price that makes us exclusive to a high-end market, but the fact is that it is extremely expensive to fly this helicopter,” he said.
“We understand that it is high and while I wish I could take everyone out it just doesn’t work like that. There’s a lot of overhead and there’s a lot of cost.
“For most people, visiting Sable Island is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
Yet Wallace is convinced there is a market for his service in Cape Breton thanks to its breathtaking beauty, world class golf courses and proximity to remote areas of niche tourism.
Breton Air, established by Wallace and business partner Parker Horton, already offers helicopter service from Sydney to the renowned Cabot Links golf resort in Inverness and has also set up shop in Ingonish as a base for seasonal charters.
“The other thing that is important to us is to create an interest in aviation here in Cape Breton,” said Wallace.
“And that’s where we offer special event days such as tours over the Mira, say as a grading day special, to give people a flight experience in our beautiful VIP helicopters. We want to bolster an aviation enthusiasm in Cape Breton. And, hey, we wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t for the local support we received during these times of COVID.”
Destination Cape Breton Association chief executive officer and marketing strategist Terry Smith said Breton Air’s new Sable Island adventure should help meet some of the increase in demand for higher-end experiences.
“We’ve seen this since Cabot Links first came on the scene and we now see superyachts coming to the Bras d’Or Lake and coastal Cape Breton on an increasing basis, and more private jets are flying in to both Sydney and Port Hawkesbury,” said Smith.
“This new Sable Island tour from Breton Air will definitely strengthen our offering for that higher-end clientele, but will also provide a bucket-list experience to adventure seekers who have always dreamed of travelling to Sable Island and seeing those wild horses.”
Another Cape Breton company also offering helicopter charters and tours is Port Hastings-based Celtic Air Services which flies out of Port Hawkesbury’s Allan J. MacEachen Regional Airport.