Five Questions for ALPA’s Pilot Assistance-Canada Chair

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer
Capt. Tom O’Toole (Jazz Aviation), ALPA’s Pilot Assistance-Canada chair, and his daughter Jeanna on the flight deck of a CRJ900. O’Toole picked up the flight then a replacement was needed for the assigned captain. It happened to be the flight that his daughter was on to come home for Christmas. She knew that he was going to pick her up at the airport, but she was surprised when he picked her up in an airplane.

When the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association (CALPA) and ALPA merged in 1997, CALPA had a robust pilot assistance structure that became integrated into ALPA’s own program while maintaining its identity specific to the Association’s Canadian pilots. Today, Pilot Assistance-Canada operates as one of the six groups under ALPA’s Air Safety Organization Pilot Assistance structure.

Pilot Assistance-Canada provides confidential guidance and assistance to Canadian pilots having difficulty with any aspect of their professional or personal lives that may affect their job performance or professionalism.

Air Line Pilot sat down with Capt. Tom O’Toole (Jazz Aviation), ALPA’s Pilot Assistance-Canada chair, to learn more about the pilot who leads the Association’s efforts to help Canadian pilots better cope with events that could otherwise affect their careers.

Air Line Pilot:

1. How did you get into aviation/flying?

Capt. Tom O’Toole: I was intrigued by airplanes and flying from a young age, often going to the airport with my parents to watch airplanes take off and land. My dad was a Spitfire pilot in World War II and continued flying privately in his civilian life. As one of nine children, I was the least likely my parents thought would become a pilot. I frequently got motion sickness in cars, boats, and airplanes. My dad had a partnership stake in a floatplane, and he would proudly take people for a ride while at our family cottage. I am sure he was a little leery of taking me and a few of my other siblings up because a cleaning of the interior was usually required after the flight.

While in high school, my plan was to go to a university to study science. I was considering a career in either medicine or veterinary studies. As fate would have it, I worked at a mine one summer down at the family cottage and came back to school in the fall financially flush. I discovered that two of my friends were taking flying lessons. As I still had a keen interest in aviation and money from my summer job, I registered for flight training with them. Even after one or two rather nauseous training events, I was hooked! All thoughts of doing anything else faded.

After receiving my private pilot licence and graduating from high school, I wanted to pursue anything in aviation. I applied to Selkirk College in British Columbia to fly airplanes and to Red River College in Winnipeg, Man., to fix them. It was Selkirk College that called first.

After college, I was hired by Perimeter Airlines in Winnipeg, Man., as a first officer on an SA226 Metroliner. I went on to fly Beechcraft Barons and Queen Airs and ultimately the DC-3. In May 1987, I was hired by Air BC, which is now—after many mergers—Jazz Aviation. I flew the Twin Otter on both wheels and floats, the Dash 8, and now am a captain on the CRJ900.


2. How did you first become involved with ALPA work?

O’Toole: In early 1989, Air BC opened a base in Edmonton, Alb. I was awarded the captain seat on the Dash 8 there. With the new base came a new local executive council and a call to volunteer. I was interested in the Pilot Assistance Committee, what it stood for, and what it could do for pilots. I volunteered to work on the committee, and I have been involved ever since in many roles and functions.

While I was the Pilot Assistance-Canada vice chair and the Jazz Master Executive Council Pilot Assistance chair, I was honoured to have been presented with the Association’s 2011 Pilot Assistance Award for my work in helping Canadian pilots who felt overwhelmed by the realities of their personal and professional lives. After the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Halifax, N.S., in 1998 and the crash of First Air Flight 6560 in Resolute, N.U., in 2011, I assisted both pilots and management through the trauma and stress of those accidents. I have also counseled Canadian ALPA pilots in all areas of pilot assistance—from health issues to drug and alcohol dependency to retirement concerns.


3. What are your roles and responsibilities as the Pilot Assistance-Canada chair?

O’Toole: In the fall of 2019, I took over as the Pilot Assistance-Canada chair. In this role, my primary responsibility is to support all of the Pilot Assistance Committee chairs from all of the Association’s Canadian pilot groups. I also oversee the training programs for our committees and am always looking for and recruiting new Pilot Assistance volunteers.

With the growth of ALPA through the addition of several new pilot groups from across Canada, our goal has been to make pilot assistance more available Canada-wide. By doing this, we can offer our pilots in need assistance no matter where they are. We really want to make our members aware that they are not alone and that there is always someone they can reach out to.

We also wanted to create a more seamless and coordinated training program with that of our U.S. ALPA counterparts for our Canadian pilot volunteers. Just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a game plan all sorted out, and all we needed to do was the training. That, of course, was paused, but we hope to get back to training this fall.


4. How do you see ALPA national and staff helping you achieve your goals?

O’Toole: I am incredibly lucky to have the backing of ALPA Canada, ALPA’s Air Safety Organization, and the Association’s expert staff.

As we work to put new programs in place, ALPA Canada’s leadership has given us the trust and support to put these programs in motion.

ALPA’s Air Safety Organization has also been a valuable resource. Making Pilot Peer Support program and Critical Incident Response Program training available to us has been extremely helpful.

The professional staff members from the Association’s Engineering & Air Safety Department are always available to answer any questions I might have. Their support has been invaluable.


5. What advice would you give to new pilots who want to get involved with ALPA?

O’Toole: As easy as it sounds, just do it. You don’t have to be an expert to start volunteering. Find a committee that piques your interest and sign up. ALPA has a great structure in place to help teach you the ropes. You truly will reap more from volunteering than what you put forth. And the educational experience is awesome. It is the best way to find answers to any questions you may have about unions and the airline industry while also helping your fellow pilots.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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