Despite his brightly optimistic name, Michael Sunshine has had to work harder than most people for much of his life.
Born without a right hand, the Belmont secondary alumnus has nonetheless proved to people in various capacities that he is a can-do, not a can’t-do person.
Sunshine’s latest victory is a huge example of that capacity. Earlier this spring the 40-year-old Surrey resident passed the flight and written tests for his commercial pilot’s licence, opening the door to potential employment flying for an airline.
“The big hurdles are over …” he said of the arduous tests. “For me, I had to go through a couple of extra hurdles. Transport Canada wants to make sure that from a medical standpoint I’m fit to fly the plane. But the licence is almost as good as mine.”
While his achievement can be considered no small feat for anyone, consider that Sunshine did so after building his own prosthetic to be able to fly with two hands, a rarity in this country.
The road to obtaining his commercial licence has wound through career changes, moves and starting a family with his wife, Tanya. It’s taken dedication and perseverance, not to mention the need to convince people who could derail his dream that he was up to the challenge.
“It’s interesting, dealing with the various layers of officials and medical staff, you get mixed reactions,” he said. He recalled how people at some flight schools responded when he was first trying to find an instructor willing to take him on. “Some people were cynical, saying, ‘are you just doing this to cause trouble?’”
While a couple of schools said outright, ‘no, don’t bother,’ and many others were blunt about his slim chances of succeeding, he said to himself, “no, I gotta try.”
While he has loved airplanes since he was young, he didn’t immediately gravitate to a related career. After graduation in Langford, he completed his mechanical engineering degree at the University of Victoria, then travelled to Australia. While there he rekindled his love for aircraft, a scenario fuelled by living in the flight path of the Sydney Airport.
Upon returning to Canada he realized he wanted to be more involved with planes and enrolled in BCIT’s rigorous aircraft mechanic program. He finished at the top of his class, almost a necessity to be taken seriously in subsequent job interviews, Sunshine said. “When you go into an employer they’re going to wonder. That’s been my experience, everyone’s skeptical.”
By that time he had begun flying and in 2003 tested successfully for his private pilot’s licence, flying one-handed without a prosthetic. Even then he was held to a higher standard. “I was able to demonstrate that, ‘hey, I can fly the plane and I can do some things that other people can’t do.’” To celebrate he took his classmates up for a flight, three at a time.
He got a job with Cascade Aerospace in Abbotsford, where his first job was installing TVs on Westjet planes. He also worked on 737s and even a Hercules transport plane. He received an apprenticeship with an airline in Whitehorse and gained valuable experience. “There was a lot of really challenging situations, where you have to perform and you have to make things work.”
He returned to the mainland and was doing summer work when he secured a temporary position as a fleet manager with the City of Vancouver. What was intended to be a stopgap measure turned into a solid career position.
Sunshine and his wife lived in various places around the region including Pitt Meadows, from which Sunshine would commute via the West Coast Connector. It wasn’t until he happened to be reading a book called “Start with Why” on the train that he realized he had lost touch with his dream of flying for a living.
“It was like this weight just kind of came off both of us,” Tanya said. “This was more like an emotional opportunity for us. For him to have this epiphany and pursue becoming a commercial pilot … it made his heart sing, and I just saw the person I fell in love with come back. It was good; it felt like the right thing to do.”
Sunshine, son of Langford Coun. Lillian Szpak and husband Robert, made a joint decision with Tanya to change their surnames after they married in 2010. The couple chose the new name as it reflected how they felt about each other.
Tanya’s support has been monumental to the further pursuit of his dream, Michael said, especially since their two children are growing and requiring more care.
Since he began the process, first of securing medical clearance to work toward his commercial licence, and later meeting the practical requirements, Sunshine has gained the respect of many in the industry.
One of those people is Soheil Fatehisar, a former flight instructor with Canadian Flight Services at Boundary Bay airport. He worked with Sunshine on achieving his commercial rating and was immediately struck by his student’s perseverance.
“He’s a very dedicated person,” Fatehisar said. “At times he would come into the hangar and just sit in the plane and visualize flying.”
Because of his physical challenge, Fatehisar added, Sunshine had to work harder to convince his instructors and federal officials that he could control the plane, even in emergency situations.
“Transport Canada doesn’t see many examples like this. He’s limited in the amount of mistakes he can make; he was held at a much higher standard through his training and his flying. But he had the control and the patience that it takes to fly in this industry.”
Long term, Sunshine would love to start out flying smaller planes such as the DeHavilland Beaver and work his way up to larger aircraft, which require more stringent tests and pilot ratings. He likes the fact that pilots of smaller aircraft are more involved, sometimes unloading items or doing spot mechanical work.
He knows finding work and advancing in this new career will require amassing 1,000 or more flight hours, a milestone that will take more time and dedication. He may consider sharing the cost of a private plane with another pilot, to boost those hours, but is determined to get there, he said.
A good sign he’s feeling comfortable with his skills came shortly after he passed his commercial flight test. He finally got to take his whole family up for an outing, in a Cessna 172. “It was a really good experience. It’s one thing to fly by yourself, but to pack everything in the plane that you love is something quite different.”
The pursuit of his dream is truly a family affair. Daughter Charlie, 6, is a frequent co-pilot, as he builds up the crucial flying hours. And Tanya is fully on board with managing the family’s finances – they’ve been renting since selling their home as a way to create the necessary liquidity to be able to rent plane time.
Sunshine’s passion for flying and airplanes is definitely fuelling his momentum. “It’s a dream come true for me,” he said. “On the day I get a real gig and actually start making some money, it’ll be the next step in that dream.”
True to his name, it appears this pilot’s future is bright.