Bits and Pieces
From the Editor: A Year Since the Passing of a Canadian Aviation Legend
By Ian Brown, Editor – Bits and Pieces, EAA 657159
Ray Fiset at his last Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In & Expo. Photo by permission of Rick Runion.
Three years ago I discovered that a man named Ray Fiset who lived in Quebec Citywould help me track down the Recreational Aircraft Association's aircraft scales. Having made the initial contact with him, I asked Ray the following summer to see if he knew of anyone wanting a ride to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. His response was “Yeah, I need a ride myself!” Read more
I had heard that Ray was in a wheelchair, and that was the first thing he mentioned when I said I could take him. A radiographer in my younger days, I was quite used to helping move disabled patients, so it seemed that it would be quite a good fit. We agreed that, if his friends could bring him the first couple of hours to my place, I could handle driving the next 20 hours with him riding shotgun.
Having at the eight-hour mark en route some great friends, Ian and Chris Hatcher, I was reassured that the trip was doable. We could stay over with them, and they really welcomed the idea of Ray stopping over.
It didn’t take long to discover what a character Ray was. One of the first things I learned was that we were headed to his 55th year of attending Oshkosh—surely a record for a Canadian. Secondly, he had been a volunteer every year except his first one, when Paul Poberezny had apparently suggested that he grab a table and chair and set up shop. Ray had said, “I think we need a lost and found,” and that was Paul’s response—go for it.
It was at Oshkosh that I discovered that Ray was such a legend. People were calling at the lost and found every day looking for their friend Ray. I also discovered that almost EVERYTHING that gets lost at Oshkosh gets turned in and returned to its owner, most of it during the same week, and occasionally the following year!
Ray attended and volunteered at every Sun ’n Fun until his passing. For his last year at Lakeland, Florida, he had arrived several weeks early to make sure that the tool shop was ready. He also arranged for setup of the engines workshop tent, which was renamed in his honour at Sun ’n Fun 2011.
He had become disabled around the age of 20 when a prop struck him in the head. He told me that someone who didn’t speak any English was about to walk into the spinning prop, so he jumped to push the man out of the way and was hit himself. Early photos show him in rehab with crutches, but later in life he was permanently consigned to a wheelchair.
Ray was a unique travelling companion. I had to ask him if he would like something to eat, if he needed to stop, what he preferred to drink, etc. He was such a modest man that he only once asked for something. On the 20 hours returning home after an excellent Oshkosh, he said, “Should we stop for an ice cream?” For those familiar with people with severe disabilities, it is sufficient to say that Ray had “long-range tanks”, so it was his driver that needed to run to the bathroom each time we stopped for gas. He was good for 24 hours if need be.
En route I had the good fortune to have a patient encyclopedia of aviation to consult on virtually any aspect of homebuilding. Ray had been one of the first three inspectors of homebuilt aircraft in Canada. I asked him how he ever managed to inspect aircraft from his wheelchair. He told me two things: 1) Most of an aircraft is within reach of the height of a wheelchair, and 2) you can see an awful lot with a mirror. His only request was that he asked that you pick him up at home, drive him to your hangar, and drive him home after the inspection. Oh yes, he liked it if you would invite him for a burger, too!
A wall full of honours in aviation displayed at Ray Fiset’s funeral. Photo by Ian Brown.
On a personal note, Montreal had its own Bernie Madoff, a guy named Earl Jones. Ray, at 72 years old, had become one of his victims, having lost his life savings of around $60,000. Jones is presently serving an 11-year sentence for fraud. In the meantime Ray, forced to continue work as a sandblaster for a meagre living, fell from his wheelchair, injured his head, and passed away in hospital on August 2, 2010.
My friend Ian, whose home we stayed en route to Oshkosh, had worked to get his employer, Honeywell, to pay for Ray’s transportation to Oshkosh on a commercial flight. Sadly, Ray never learned that he was about to be honoured in this way.
It’s over a year that I’ve had his obituary on the notice board in my little office. I guess it’s about time to take it down, but like many of his friends in Canada and in the United States, I will never forget meeting and getting to know one of Canada’s grassroots aviation legends.