Former Olympic athlete training for future in the sky
By Natasha McKenty | November 1, 2022
Estimated reading time 12 minutes, seconds.
When not flying, pilots often share anecdotes of extracurricular activities they indulge in, mimicking the rush of flight. Ranging from the wind in their face as they ride the open road without destination, or mind-over-matter scenarios like adventuring high onto mountaintops and glaciers — where there’s an opportunity to test the boundaries of visceral experience, a pilot is likely seeking it.
Tristan Walker, a former Olympic athlete and current commercially licensed pilot, is no different. He has spent the past two decades riding the high of being part of Canada’s Olympic silver medal-winning luge relay team. But, after competing for his fourth and final time in 2022 at the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing 2022, he began pursuing a career “after luge.”
Walker, who recently completed his commercial helicopter license (CPL), acknowledges that “retiring from a sport you’ve been doing for 20 years isn’t easy.”
To immerse himself in the helicopter industry, Walker said he searched for online stories and publications for inspiration.
Inspired by Vertical Magazine’s content, the four-time Olympic athlete reached out on Instagram and enthusiastically agreed to share how he was introduced to the aviation industry and what motivated him to seek out a career as a pilot.
Walker admits his love of speed and aircraft was harvested from his earnest admiration for his late grandfather, Len Bolger, a test pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
“I grew up with everything aviation. My grandfather was working on the Avro Arrow program right before it was canceled,” he said.
Known as one of the first RCAF CF-100 pilots to restart and recover an aircraft experiencing double engine failure at low altitude, Bolger was posted at the Central Experimental and Proving Establishment (CEPE), where he tested Sparrow 2 missiles designed for the Avro Arrow. Bolger, who retired from RCAF 409 Squadron in 1959, died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 76. Walker said it was while “[building] model airplanes” and avidly listening to his grandfather’s stories that his desire to fly was conceived.
And after committing two decades of his life to the luge, he shared with Vertical that he always knew his journey would eventually lead him to a flight deck.
“After the 2018 Olympics, it was kind of up in the air — pun intended — whether or not I was going to be doing another four years,” he said. “So, I started taking a more serious look at what was going to [happen] next, and deep down, I always knew it was going to be something with flying.”
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He said he chose helicopters instead of the fixed-wing aircraft his grandfather flew because it’s “a little more hands-on.”
And as an athlete who built a career on speed and adrenaline, an office environment wouldn’t cut it.
“[However,] I have learned that the less adrenaline you can produce while flying, the better,” he quipped.
“I really like the idea of [a career in] search-and-rescue [SAR] — air ambulance is up there, too,” he added.
“But I’m also pretty drawn to offshore stuff. And, for me, growing up in Calgary as a prairie kid, the offshore stuff does mean traveling, which is something I’m quite drawn to.”
Walker’s substantial social media following has helped open doors for the retired competitor, including a “full circle” experience with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds in 2019.
“There aren’t too many life experiences that can compare to winning a medal at the Olympics, [but] taking a rip with the Snowbirds is one of them,” he said. Walker’s once-in-a-lifetime Snowbirds experience became possible after he reached out to the Snowbirds via its newly-created Instagram account.
“[Back then,] they had less than 10 followers. I sent a message, and I said, ‘Welcome to Instagram; if there’s anything I can do to help your channel, I’d love to.’ “
He offered to help build their following and was invited to Comox, British Columbia, to participate in a spring training media flight with the Snowbirds. His flight onboard Snowbird 9, piloted by Capt Taylor Evans of Canmore, Alberta, was “mind-blowing.”
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“We were in formation [with] long, sweeping turns while following a Buffalo, with a camera crew in it. And right at the end, they pulled a full loop right over and in-line with the runway, and as soon as the G-forces kicked in, adrenaline hit.”
“That was one of my life’s top three cool experiences,” he admitted. Following the media flight, Walker was able to return the favor. He and his doubles partner Justin Snith took the Snowbirds “down in a summer bobsled.” Afterwards, the team said it was one of their “favorite things” they’d ever participated in.
Walker recalled the moment he first encountered Capt Jenn Casey, who was instrumental in orchestrating his media flight with the Snowbirds. “Many people have heard the story of us getting to do our media flight, but there’s something a little less known,” he joked. “When we were here for the [Wings Over] Springbank Airshow (in Calgary), I got to ride my motorcycle right out on the apron and park it right next to the jets.
“I was talking to one of the pilots, and I [said, jokingly], ‘We have all the ingredients here to recreate that Top Gun scene.’ Jenn overheard it, and she [said], ‘Hang on, I’ve got to make a call.’ “
Casey made a call to the air show air boss.
“I got to rip up the taxiway, [and] did a little wheelie [alongside the Snowbirds during take-off] while Danger Zone [by Kenny Loggins played] over the loudspeaker.”
Walker chuckled as he recalled the event, admitting he’s pretty sure he’s “the only guy to do that.”
As he looks back at the success he’s celebrated, he credits his grandfather’s RCAF Wings for bringing him luck. The pilot wing lapel pin was safely secured inside the arm of his speed suit for all of his Olympic runs (2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022).
“Unfortunately, he never got to see me become an Olympian, but I know that the love of speed I inherited from him took me all the way to the podium,” said Walker.
Reflecting on his training experience, he perceives learning to fly in B.C.’s backcountry a unique advantage. Flying the Guimbal Cabri G2 in this environment meant some advanced flying techniques were put to use “right off the bat.”
“It’s a big head start when you have training in these mountains,” he said. “[We were] landing in confined areas that, from what I was told by other people training elsewhere, is super advanced.”
Walker recalled how his first solo in the Cabri G2 amped his motivation to keep testing his abilities as a pilot.
He admits, outside of landing among mountains ranges and glaciers, his biggest obstacle is on par with most pilots trying to put themselves through training: finances.
“I’m looking at spending [up to] $70,000 to get [my] license. And on top of that, there’s a high likelihood [I’ll be] sweeping hangars for a certain amount of time before flying. But, as you can imagine, I’m not one to give up a goal.”
And for the 31-year-old who has been sledding since he was 10, even sweeping hangars will be done with drive and passion.
“I get to hang out with aircraft because helicopters will be right there – and helicopters are cool (even) on the ground.”