Local aviation announcer Roy Hafeli has been called up to the big show — the legendary Reno Air Races.
“Abbotsford is big, but this is one of the top three aviation events in the United States,” said Hafeli.
Billed as “the world’s fastest motor sport,” the air races will be a high-octane experience for the longtime Mission resident who has unwavering childlike curiosity for airplanes.
His infatuation began after a young Hafeli, bored out of his mind during a shopping trip with his mom at Park Royal mall, glimpsed a framed photo of a yellow Harvard with a bright red stripe.
He inquired about the plane with the lady behind the counter at the fish store, Mary. That conversation sparked a friendship that lasted over 30 years.
The Harvard belonged to Mary’s husband Tony, a former RAF pilot. Tony would later take Hafeli for rides in the plane, eventually allowing the wide-eyed teenager to try his hand at aerobatic maneuvers.
Hafeli got his pilot’s licence around the same age most teenagers are just learning how to drive a car, 17.
At the same time, another obsession was brewing.
“I was always interested in listening to shortwave stations at night — when I was supposed to be sleeping,” grinned Hafeli, as he reminisced about picking up radio stations from as far away as Salt Lake City and San Francisco.
After high school Hafeli took a job as a dockhand for a float plane outfit in New Westminster. He later painted planes for Conair in Abbotsford until he was laid off.
That pink slip changed the trajectory of his life.
Hafeli began taking evening broadcasting courses at BCIT, eventually moving into the full-time program. While still in school, Hafeli became the resident evening DJ at CFVR Radio in Abbotsford — a job he retained for 14 years beginning in mid-’80s.
Hafeli would go on to announce other airshows around the province, before landing his big break in 1997, when he was called to the announcer’s booth in Abbotsford for one of the world’s premier aviation events.
It was a dream come true for Hafeli, who would have to drag his parents out to the Abbotsford Airshow from their home in east Vancouver.
“Going to the Abbotsford Airshow when I was a kid was like Christmas, New Year’s and your birthday rolled into one,” said Hafeli.
Now, 16 years later, Hafeli is still a fixture in the announcing tower every August. He and partner Ken Hildebrandt, who has a background in theatre, are the only two-man announcing team in North America for air shows, figures Hafeli.
“It works because it’s like listening to a two-person, morning radio show — instead of listening to one person drone on all day,” he explains.
One of only three aviation broadcasters in the country, Hafeli spends the fair-weather months traveling from one air show to the next.
With the Reno Air Races now in his sights, Hafeli is more giddy than normal. The iconic event, which runs from Sept. 11-15, boasts modified Warbirds whizzing by at speeds in excess of 400 mph.
“It’s airplane heaven. How I got Reno I don’t know,” said Hafeli.
He will be calling the show with Danny Clisham, the self-proclaimed “announcer with more awards and honours than any other announcer in the history of air shows.”
As Hafeli prepares to take his truck and trailer down south — his wife, Laurel, and border collie, Hollywood, will be his co-pilots —he does so with a heavy heart. Mary, the woman from the west Vancouver fish store, died a few weeks ago.
“The cool thing was, when Mary closed the store she gave me the photo,” recalled Hafeli.