William James John Bleach was born on April 22, 1984, in Guelph, Ont., to Marilyn Bleach, a nurse, and William James Bleach, who managed a nearby gravel pit. Named after his father and grandfather, most people called him Bill. Jeffrey, a younger brother, was born in 1985; the two were close, playing together, drawing pictures (Bill had an artistic side), and visiting garage sales with their family. It was at a garage sale that Bill, then just two, found something that sparked a lifelong fascination with aviation—a tiny model airplane. “He was drawn to it,” says Marilyn, 62. “Forget cars, Bill always had to have airplanes.”
When Bill was about eight years old, his mother took him and Jeff to California on a business trip. Their hotel window overlooked the airport runway, Marilyn recalls: “They were glued to the window, watching the planes take off.” At age 8, Bill joined the local flying club, taking out remote-controlled airplanes in a field near the city. At night, he’d curl up with a magazine on the subject. Bill’s father eventually moved north near Collingwood, while Marilyn stayed in Guelph. Bill lived with his father for a couple of years, learning to hunt and fish, and developing a love of the outdoors. Still, Marilyn says, he was “always focused on planes, and his art.”
Back in Guelph for high school, Bill became friends with teacher Rick Vidug, a fellow member of the local flying club. When Rick started a model airplane club at the high school, Bill was made president “by decree,” he says. Bill would visit swap meets to check out old engines, and worked on ever more complicated model airplanes. (Rick and Bill started one together: a Piper Cub aircraft with a 12-foot wingspan, one-third to scale. A multi-year project, it never got finished.)
Aviation wasn’t Bill’s only passion; in high school, he developed his artistic side, too. When he was about 16, Rick—who taught photography at the high school—sold him an old digital camera for “a really good price,” he says, and a love of photography was born. “He would take these incredible pictures, blow them up and frame them,” Marilyn says. “Pictures of nature, birds, wildlife.” When Bill finished high school, he decided to take a year off to figure out what came next, and got a job at a local camera shop in Guelph. “The culture there is a lot of photographers and artists hanging around,” Rick says. “Bill got immersed in that.”
About a year later, Bill left for Sault Ste. Marie, where he attended Sault College for three years to get his commercial pilot’s licence. He lived with his brother Jeff, who studied fish and wildlife conservation. “I missed him every day,” says Marilyn, who’d make the nine-hour drive from Guelph about once a month to see her sons. After graduation, Bill came back to Guelph, returning to his old job at the camera store, where he was “affectionately known as Captain Bill,” Rick says. But if Sault Ste. Marie seemed far away, Bill was about to move much farther. A few months after returning home, he was offered a job at North-Wright Airways, based in Norman Wells, N.W.T., just 145 km south of the Arctic Circle.
A little over two years ago, Bill moved up North, “flying anything from a single-engine plane with two seats, to a twin-engine plane with up to 16,” Marilyn says. “Sometimes he’d fly just a pizza box into a community.”
While he was happy living up in Fort Good Hope, the community where he was most recently stationed, Bill was homesick at times. “He figured maybe in another year, he’d [have enough experience] to apply to WestJet or Porter to fly the really big stuff,” Marilyn says. “He desperately wanted to come back to Ontario.”
Back home in February, he spent time with his friends and family, and purchased a new camera at the shop. Even if living in the North was isolating at times, Bill was living his dream. “He said to me, ‘Mom, it’s so neat up here—just me and the clouds.’ ”
On the evening of May 20, Bill was standing out on the tarmac in Fort Good Hope, filming a single-engine Cessna 207 as another pilot flew the plane. “I think he was probably shooting some pictures of his plane to show us,” Rick says. Suddenly, the plane flew low, the right wing clipping his head. (The incident is under criminal investigation.) Bill was taken to an Edmonton hospital, where he died a few days later as a result of head injuries. He was 26.