By Jason McNaught
Before the Halifax International Airport was built in the early 1960s, there was a considerable “to do” about where to put it. Residents of the tiny maritime province of Nova Scotia spend more than 100 days a year tucked under a thick blanket of fog.
Actually, to be more precise, they aren’t really under it: Bluenosers wade through it, trying to find their way to work; squint their eyes through the windshield of their car to find the centre line of the road; or curse it when scanning the fairway to locate their fog-shrouded golf balls.
You can see how this may be a problem for an airport. Pilots who can’t see the runway when landing are understandably a little uneasy as they plunge blindly towards the earth with dozens of passengers in their care. Thus, it was decided, after an intensive study, to place the Halifax Airport nearly half an hour outside the city itself, in an idyllic wilderness setting a short drive away from the bedroom community of Enfield. This wooded area contains either fog-repellent geography, secret mystical powers or a combination of both that somehow allow it to escape the worst of the North Atlantic fog.
Each week, Jose Martins leaves his house in the city, hops in his car, turns on the news and makes the half-hour drive along Highway 102 to the airport where he works as a Commissionaires patrolman. Martins may tell you, along with many other native Haligonians, that the drive to the airport is as foggy as anywhere else in the province, but on August 10, he could see clear across Millar Lake, making out the modest houses dotting its far shore.
The temperature had crept up to 16 degrees by the time Martins had swapped his car for the Commissionaires’ blue and white Ford Ranger, and prepared to take a run down the main runway’s 3-metre-tall security fence with “the birdman” — an expert trained in the art of clearing wildlife off the tarmac.
The fence itself is a formidable structure. It’s topped with three rows of jagged barbed wire and stretches along the perimeter of the airport. And for the most part, save the winged animals, this fence keeps out the inquisitive rodents, courageous deer, and perhaps the odd beaver that brazenly emerge from the nearby mixed forest.
It must have come as a surprise then when Martins received a call from the airport’s operations centre at approximately 0830 hours reporting a security breach. Not since the Halifax International Airport’s construction — over half a century ago — has anyone attempted to scale the fence.
“She drove up to one of the security gates outside, with the barbed wire on top, scrambled up the fence and landed on the air side of the airport, which is illegal,” Martins explained. “Then she ran onto the runway, screaming and yelling and waving her hands about with aircraft ready to land, trying to prevent [other] aircraft from taking off.”
When Martins got the call from the control tower he, with the birdman riding shotgun, responded within minutes. As an ex-soldier with tours in Cyprus, Egypt, Golan Heights, and Bosnia under his belt, Martins doesn’t get too worked up in tense situations.
“Being able to react to different events and occurrences that happen, and being able to think on your feet quickly,” he explains, “that all goes back to my training from when I was in the infantry, in the field.”
After approaching the woman, truck lights flashing, Martins could see that she was quite distraught. Her clothes were ripped and her face had been cut by the barbed wire. He cautiously exited the vehicle and asked, “Do you require medical assistance?”
After speaking with her, Martins realized that “She was trying to get a hold of her husband who was boarding a flight to Calgary to see his mistress. But what she was doing was wreaking havoc with the incoming aircraft that were trying to land.”
Martins realized that the woman needed to be removed from the runway as soon as possible, and he and his partner took control of the situation. They led her into the truck, and then turned her over to the RCMP so they could begin their investigation.
It turns out the woman’s husband wasn’t on a plane that day; in fact, he wasn’t anywhere near the airport.
Martins’ role as a patrolman with the Commissionaires isn’t always that eventful, but he likes his job. “I am on the go all the time. I am in the vehicle patrolling on the ground side; I am patrolling on the air side of the airport; and I am patrolling inside the terminal on foot. I move around quite a lot.”
And that’s important because standing still is something Martins doesn’t do very well. The 55-year-old is a Canadian Armed Forces national champion in squash and the biathlon, a national-level cyclist, and a mountaineer. He reached the summit of Mount McKinley, the highest summit in North America, in 1994.
Joining Commissionaires was a natural fit for the former 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry soldier. “I knew I was approaching retirement and wasn’t really willing to pack it in all in one shot.”
Martins joined the CAF in 1980, served the majority of his career as an infantryman and then re-mustered as a physical education and recreation instructor out of Chilliwack, BC. After retirement in 2013, Martins was looking for a new challenge.
“I still have a lot in me that I want to achieve and give, so a couple of the guys mentioned that the Commissionaires are dedicated to hiring to ex-military personnel, and that I should consider it. So I went downtown to Hollis St. [in Halifax], talked to some of the Commissionaires in the hiring department, and they kind of convinced me that I should give it a try, which I did,” he says matter-of-factly. “I haven’t looked back since. It’s been pretty darn good.”
Martins feels that his job with Commissionaires, in addition to support from his wife Kathryn, has eased the sometimes difficult switch from life as a soldier to one as a civilian. “It’s a little different,” he says when asked about life outside the military. “When you’re used to carrying a weapon and being in a hostile environment and whatnot, it can take some getting used to.”
What helps, he continues, is that “when you first enter the Corps of Commissionaires, you’ll notice that many of the personnel there are basically ex-military from all the branches. You have a lot in common right off the bat.”
Martins is one of 20,000 Commissionaires, most of whom are veterans. There’s a reason for that. It doesn’t matter if the Halifax International Airport has a major security breach once a year, once a decade, or never. What matters is being prepared and having the skills required to deal with those situations effectively.
On August 10 2014, there could have been any number of sad endings to the story of the woman who scaled the fence and made her way to the main runway. But thanks to the training and professionalism of Canadian Armed Forces veterans like Martins and his colleagues, a bad situation had the best possible outcome.