A lofty career

by | Apr 8, 2022 | Alumni Network, Alumni Profiles, Spring 2022 | 0 comments

Collin Fay

With qualifications in engineering, geology and other earth sciences, many Mines alumni work with complex issues on and under the ground. Collin Fay ’80 was among them until his career took an unexpected turn. After contributing to the mining industry for twenty years, Fay took his aspirations to the sky, working as an air tour operator, flight instructor and aerial firefighter over the last two decades.

Fay and his wife, Marisa, came up with the idea of starting an air touring company while on vacation. They had recently taken a tour in Australia in which licensed participants piloted planes over scenic attractions while following a lead plane—similar to a guided horse tour, said Fay, except in the sky. The couple loved the experience and knew there was nothing like it in the U.S., so they jumped at the chance to start a similar business.

“Having the opportunity to tour by air gives a very unique perspective, allowing for both aerial and ground-based appreciation for the destinations and landscapes,” Fay said.

In 2000, the Fays launched Parkwest Air Tours and led groups of pilots all over the western U.S., Canada and Mexico. The tours drew clients because they provided exciting environments, full of mountains, valleys and canyons—landscapes many private pilots don’t commonly have much experience with.

“Flying with us provided pilots a ‘security blanket’ to stretch their wings to more challenging environments while also visiting unique destinations and meeting new flying friends,” said Fay.

Facing a fairly narrow market, the Fays took their time and slowly built a clientele. Within a few years, business was booming. At that point, the couple decided to branch out by opening a flight school to make use of their planes in the off-season. They continued conducting tours and training pilots and eventually added an air charter component to their services.

And yet, there was more Fay thought he could be doing as a licensed pilot. From 2015 to 2021, Fay worked as an aerial firefighter, delivering smokejumpers (highly trained firefighters who parachute into the wilderness to fight wildfires) to their destinations and flying tankers and scoopers to bring water to firefighting sites across the U.S.

“I pursued aerial firefighting as a way to further my experience as a professional pilot. I worked as a volunteer EMT and firefighter as a young adult, and the fire aviation world sort of brought all those aspects together,” Fay said. “It was a good way to use my aviation background, and it was satisfying to see the results.”     

A few years into Fay’s firefighting career, the couple decided to scale their business down. They sold the flight school but continued to conduct air tours for clients who brought planes of their own. Today, Fay continues flying for fun and provides advanced instruction and commercial piloting services on a limited basis.

“I didn’t anticipate that [flying] would become a second career for me,” he said. “But I feel lucky to have had two very distinct and rewarding careers.”