How one entrepreneur follows the beat of his own drum
Inside Delmar Washington’s office, a map of the Yukon spans an entire wall. A blanket of papers covers a wooden desk. The main office chair sits empty.
Of course, a helicopter pilot’s office isn’t really where he works. Washington stops by his office to do paperwork between flights, but he’s usually in the pilot seat of one of his helicopters.
“I’m not a businessman who owns a helicopter business,” says Washington. “I’m a helicopter pilot who owns a business.”
Of the six helicopter companies based in Whitehorse, Washington owns and operates two of them: Capital Helicopters (1995) Inc. and the Great Northern Heli Sports. As a member of Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN), his businesses are the only helicopter companies to be certified Aboriginal businesses in Yukon’s capital.
“When you have your own business,” says Washington, “you realize that you don’t have an H.R. department, or a big corporate guy to do your taxes. It’s just you, and you have to be the one to do it.”
It was as a child that Washington, 60, learned how to make the most out of what he had. “I learnt how to play drums when I was just a pup – five, maybe seven years old,” he says. “I learnt to play on my mom’s frying pans, just playing around.”
He eventually got his first drum kit and continued to play as a teen in Whitehorse. He played in local bands and performed at community events until he moved to Vancouver in the 1980s with a rock trio, touring around B.C. and Alberta for years. In his early 20s, he went to Los Angeles to study percussion at the Musicians Institute of Technology.
By the time Washington was in his 30s, after years spent on the road, he decided he wanted to settle down and save some money, so he returned home to Whitehorse.
“I wanted to give the music thing a good run,” says Washington. “Clearly I wasn’t that ‘whatever,’” he adds with a laugh, “but I had a lot of fun and still do.”
Washington says he drove transportation trucks to pay the bills and saved enough money to place a downpayment to buy one of his own. “I had some cash saved up and I was seriously thinking about doing it, but then I decided it wouldn’t be what I wanted to do,” he says.
One of his friends in Whitehorse was a helicopter pilot at the time, and as soon as he was in the air, he knew he had found his new career. “I had always been fascinated by [helicopters], and as soon as I was in the air, I thought ‘this is nice, I could do this.’”
And so, he did.
After getting his helicopter piloting licence, Washington worked for Capital Helicopters, eventually becoming their chief pilot. In 1995, the opportunity came for him to reform the business and take over, but he says the banks wouldn’t loan him the money to do that. At the time, he says, the downpayment for a helicopter would have been around $25,000.
“Helicopters aren’t good investments for banks,” says Washington, “but I realized they’d give me $10,000 for some furniture. So I told them I was buying some furniture and put a downpayment to get my first helicopter.”
Capital Helicopters (1995) Inc. now has four machines on the airport tarmac: two purchased and two leased. Washington usually starts his day well before 8 a.m. But in the 23 years he’s been in business, no two days are the same.
“You have to be light on your feet,” says Washington.
“We would be sitting here and suddenly a [medical evacuation] comes and you have to juggle other trips and this too,” he says, pointing to a stack of paperwork on his desk.
Washington says when he was first starting out, finances were always an afterthought. He got help from däna Näye Ventures, a Yukon-based, First Nation-controlled institution that provides business development and financial services.
Washington reflects the entrepreneurial spirit that däna Näye Ventures is trying to foster.
“There isn’t an age for entrepreneurs or a degree to take,” says Martin Meyer, the entrepreneurship, business development and program delivery officer at däna Näye Ventures. “All you need is a desire and an idea.”
For Meyer, encouraging entrepreneurs to start their businesses in the North is crucial to a sustainable, diversified economy. Whether it’s helping an artist form a business plan or consulting a multimillion-dollar corporation, Meyer says he believes there aren’t the same career barriers for entrepreneurs as there are for other jobs.
Washington credits the help he got from däna Näye Ventures for his long-term success.
Washington says Capital Helicopters is busy, due to a steady demand for medical evacuations, search and rescues, big game surveys and captures, forestry and water surveys, and just about anything else that happens in the air.
One of the memorable calls he received was for the transportation of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, “the man from the ice,” in 1999.
Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi was found by a group of hunters in the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in British Columbia. Some people wanted the 300-year-old body to be left where it was found, while others wanted to bring it into the lab to study.
As a member of CAFN, Washington says being involved with the project was something to remember, both for being part of the team to recover the body but also because he met “talented” professionals in the sciences who adapted protocols to respect the wishes of First Nations peoples.
Washington says he likes to contribute to his community through his business, often giving rides to elders for free.
“It’s great bringing elders up because they’re so knowledgeable,” he says. “Most people couldn’t spot their homes from up there, but you bring an elder up and they can name all the fish camps, no problem.”
He has also been providing transportation for a heli-skiing camp for Indigenous youth. He says camps like this help more Indigenous youth think of helicopter piloting as a potential career choice.
“I think youth, in general, are a good investment,” says Washington.