Jessica James says growing up in the remote community of Nimpo Lake made her who she is — which at just 27, is the star pilot in the new reality television series Lost Car Rescue.
She spent her early years in the tiny Chilcotin town, leaving with her parents when she was 14, eventually settling on Vancouver Island, where she graduated from high school in Ladysmith.
“Nimpo and the Chilcotin has such a big piece of my heart,” she says. “Because Nimpo’s such a small community, everyone kind of feels like family … I feel so fortunate being able to grow up there.”
She appreciates the practical skills she gained in her Chilcotin childhood, from the exposure to aviation — Nimpo Lake being the float plane capital of B.C. for a long time — to fishing, boating and four-wheeling.
She started out young, her first flight was at just six months old.
Her dad was a pilot throughout her childhood, and her mom was copilot.
“I have very fond memories of going flying with the both of them and going on family trips. They were a good team up in the cockpit,” she says.
When she was just little, her father Stephen James even made her a plane cockpit out of paper and cardboard to play with.
James got her private pilot’s license while she was trying to decide what to pursue in post-secondary education. She then fell in love with flying and decided to go on to get her commercial license.
James says women can find it hard to break into commercial aviation, even more so in the area she decided to work in, flying float planes where there are even fewer women, but she said she hopes this is changing.
“You definitely have to have the passion for it,” she says, adding that while she may not have had any female pilot role models growing up, she has had some female mentors and been supported by fellow aviators, both male and female, who have helped her in getting to where she is now.
She hopes her role in the television series may also help change some minds about women doing this kind of flying.
“I feel very, very grateful that I have this opportunity,” James says.
The team has turned into family for James during the project.
“Dave is like another grandfather I found along the way and the other three are like brothers,” something she appreciates as an only child, she says,
While James is only one of a crew of five, she plays a key role as the pilot, helping Matt Sager, who is the team leader and the one who started the salvage business which then led to the reality series.
Sager started out hunting for rare cars by himself with one pickup truck, a car trailer and $1,000, seven years ago.
From those beginnings he has built the business and his current team, which now includes using his 1948 Stinson taildragger airplane to help search from the air.
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Once he began using the airplane as a tool, Sager says he came to realize he would need someone’s help flying after a few close calls.
“It’s a lot to handle,” Sager says. “I can’t hunt cars, fly a plane and talk on the radio at the same time.”
Sager had known James for years — they met in flight school and James lived with Sager and his then-girlfriend as roommates.
Sager’s parents even purchased her childhood home on Nimpo Lake, which the family spends a couple of months at each winter and where James joins them for their New Year’s party each year. James is still close with both Sager and his now-wife.
“Jess is probably the sweetest person I’ve ever met — almost too sweet,” joked Sager, describing her as “a rare little gem.”
He also described her as somewhat of a kindred spirit to himself, in that they both enjoy engaging with the people they meet and the stories along the way in the search for cars.
Since they met, Sager had been flying privately, but James had gone on to gain her commercial license and log hours flying commercially.
They had flown together many times since they were roommates and he had a lot of respect for her as a pilot.
“There’s no room for a softie up there in the air,” he says.
“I like to take control and Jess will feed it right back to me if I take control of her plane,” Sager says.
While he knew she would be a good fit for the project when he was growing his team, Sager also says he didn’t want to get in her way when she was doing so well in her profession and if she left her position, her spot would get filled.
But when she was laid off from her job flying commercial float plane trips between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, he wanted her to join the team as the pilot.
James says operating the classic airplane and trying to get Sager a good look at the cars from the air, at just over 500 feet in altitude, combined with all of the obstacles that can come up when landing in fields and on roads was challenging flying that “kept her on her toes” especially in northern B.C.
“I definitely got good practice at my cross-wind landings,” she laughs, adding that the taildragger aircraft requires you to have fast hands and feet.
But these were less likely to phase James than some other young pilots, perhaps.
“I feel very grateful because I grew up listening to all the bush pilot stories,” James says.
For Sager, there was no question James was the pilot for the job.
“Jess was my first-round pick,” Sager says.
The show Lost Car Rescue premieres Thursday, Jan. 13 at 9 p.m. on History and will document a team of men and one woman — James — who spent the summer locating and salvaging rare cars in the Peace Country of B.C.