Video: Meet the dad who beat cancer to fly his son around the world
On July 1, Bob and Steven Dengler will fly in a Canadian-developed and Canadian-made Bell 429 Global Ranger to promote this country’s prowess in aviation tech.
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It’s an adventure that will cover 38,000 kilometres but that’s not the only way to measure the significance of a coming circumnavigation of the globe by two local pilots.
That they are doing it in a helicopter makes it a Canadian first.
That they will fly in a Canadian-developed and Canadian-made Bell 429 Global Ranger will promote this country’s prowess in aviation technology. A July 1 departure, with a first stop in Ottawa amidst the nation’s 150th anniversary celebrations, adds to the flag-waving potential.
That Bob and Steven Dengler are father and son makes it almost certainly another first in any type of light aircraft. They’re working with Guinness World Records and to see if they can register the achievement.
But while none of that is superficial, this is a trip that can be measured in depth as well as length.
It is also an odyssey of reconnection and second chances as a father and his adult son depart six months after the dad’s last chemotherapy treatment.
To be planning this expedition with his boy so soon after battling cancer has given extra meaning to Father’s Day for Bob.
“After being closeted together inside the helicopter for 33 days, we might not be so much in love with each other, but we sure are right now,” says the 77-year-old. “I never dreamed I would do anything like this with Steven. I pinch myself. It’s mind-boggling.”
The trip is a mulligan of sorts, an opportunity to make up for the time apart that inevitably arrives as children grow into adults. While some might achieve that bond through a cottage stay or golf trip, it just happens that the Denglers have the training and means to spend more than a month together in a cockpit.
“I’m acutely aware of how lucky I am,” says 48-year-old Steven. “This is an amazing vehicle for us to reconnect and really get back into the father-son relationship in the context of this really serious look at mortality.”
Every father-son connection has its own narrative; the push and pull of everyday life that can bring tension or joy.
Bob Dengler was a mining engineer out of Queen’s University. When his only son, the eldest of three children, was 11, Bob founded Dynatec Mining Ltd. As the mining service company grew and prospered, there was stress at home.
Bob’s dedication to growing his business, meant travelling throughout Canada, the Americas and, eventually much of the world, leaving the family home in King township, north of Toronto.
Often being without his dad was tough on the young teenager, and Steven’s resentment deepened at 16 when his parents divorced.
“It seemed like this giant injustice to me personally,” says Steven. “Because of that, there were a few years where my father and I were on terrible terms with each other. When you’re young, you react to big life situations in a way that maybe is without full emotional maturity. I don’t have specific recollections but for sure I know I did or said stupid things or hurtful things.”
Bob doesn’t display his emotions as outwardly as his son but he understands how his career impacted family life.
“My father always preached at me that your job must come first, because if you don’t have a job, you can’t look after your family. It’s a real tough choice. You do try to spend quality time with your children but then as they grow up and become teenagers, you kind of lose them a little bit. They come back when they’re about 25.”
Even through those years of teenaged angst and anger, Steven remained inspired by his father. He saw that someone can take a business idea, dedicate himself to it, and build something tangible.
So in 1993, soon after graduating from Western, where he mostly studied mechanical engineering and computer science, Steven started his own company. Dengler and partner Beric Farmer founded XE, a world currency authority. XE.com grew to become a top 500 website with more than 250 million unique visitors a year, generating $10 million in annual revenue.
But like his father with his business, it required a lot of work.
“To be honest, for most of our lives since the time he started his company in 1980, we’ve been busy doing our own things,” says Steven, who was adopted as an infant. “We’ve had this long period of time where we haven’t had a lot of opportunity to engage.”
But eventually the situation would change dramatically for both men and ultimately allow them to bond again.
When Bob was 65, Sherritt International Corp. took over Dynatec. While the deal was extremely lucrative for Bob, it left him feeling bitter and empty.
“It was a shock,” he says. “Literally, one day you’re running 1,500 employees, you’ve got a secretary, and the next day, it’s over. It’s done. You’re gone. What do you do?”
Bob, afraid his “brain would just atrophy,” tried car racing, a passion from his youth. But he quickly realized that his reflexes no longer matched his desire for speed and it might be a way to get himself killed. So he tried helicopter piloting and, at the age of 67, it was love at first flight.
Meanwhile, Steven was thinking about where he was in his life. With two sons at an age similar to how old he was when Bob started his business, Steven wanted to ensure he was around for his boys. Two years ago, he and Farmer sold his company to Euronet Worldwide for what he calls “a nine-figure valuation.”
Steven also took up flying about 10 years ago. It was a boyhood fascination from when the Denglers lived in North Bay beside an air force base. That was before Bob started the company and moved his family south. He’d watch the planes take off and land. For a young lad it was magical.
“I’d always look up and think, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ ”
Steven finally had the wherewithal to chip away at his licence but he flew fixed-wing planes, not helicopters.
It was by discovering flying that both men rediscovered each other.
Immersed in his new hobby, Bob soon bought his own helicopter. Then a few years later, he saw the prototype for the Bell 429 while touring the company’s plant in Mirabel, Que. He was so smitten by the elegant, twin-engine chopper — the same one used by the Canadian Coast Guard — that he spent $7 million (U.S.) on a fully loaded model in 2010. He got the first one delivered to a Canadian customer.
Almost from the time he purchased his expensive toy, he began thinking it was a perfect helicopter to fly around the world. Late in 2015, he mentioned the idea to Patricia, his second wife of 30 years. She encouraged him, and with Steven suddenly available, the trip was on and the planning began. The fact that they were coming up on Canada’s sesquicentennial was just a happy coincidence.
The Denglers are calling their voyage C150 Global Odyssey and, as a registered not-for-profit, they hope to raise $1 million in donations for Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket and the True Patriot Love Foundation, a national charity that helps Canadian military families. Honeywell has installed broadband Internet on the helicopter. Thestar.com will publish weekly dispatches, and Bob and Steven hope Canadians follow their adventure at www.c150go.ca and on social media platforms.
There have been tricky logistics, such as getting permissions to land at some remote Russian airports. They also had to find a Russian navigator to have on board in that country to communicate with control towers.
But that’s trivial compared with other serious and soul-crushing setbacks.
Since Steven just recently got his helicopter licence and Bob has just more than 900 hours on the Bell 429, they wanted to take an experienced flyer with them. They settled on Bruce Laurin, a highly regarded aviator who was in his late 50s but retired, Bob says. He was one of Bell’s test pilots when the 429 was being developed.
Laurin laid out the initial route and offered great advice to the Denglers. But in September, on a trip to Norway, Laurin suffered a heart attack and died.
“Oh my God, we lost our pilot and a friend,” says Bob.
Another test pilot, Rob (Dugal) MacDuff, who recently retired from Bell, would become the third member of the crew. He has logged more than 12,000 hours of flying time.
Then there was Bob’s cancer. In 2015, he had his prostate removed but last fall a PSA screening test again showed elevated numbers. Doctors found the cancer had metastasized into his bones, and he began chemo.
Bob downplays the cancer’s danger — “Mining engineers by our very nature have to be eternal optimists,” he says — but it did threaten the trip. He says he now has a clean bill of health, his hair is growing back and he’s relishing the time he is spending with Steven.
“While I don’t dwell on my own issue, you start to realize life is finite,” he says. “So I’m delighting in the time with Steven. It’s not that we weren’t close. It’s just that we didn’t spend time together. I was doing my thing and he was doing his thing.”
Now they are frequently together at a heliport in Vaughan — Steven lives in nearby King; Bob not far away on a golf course in Aurora — and are so in sync, in conversation they’ll finish each other’s thoughts. They have clearly become a team. Steven shouldered the burden of planning while his dad was ill, and Bob, the more experienced helicopter pilot, enjoys mentoring his son.
“I think we’ve learned we kind of like each other,” says Steven.
On this trip, they’ll have 150 hours together in the air. To qualify as a circumnavigation — according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which monitors these matters — an aircraft’s route must be at least 36,770 kilometres. That’s essentially the circumference of the globe at the Tropic of Cancer. A helicopter doesn’t have the range to cross the ocean there so what typically substitutes is a flight further north, with enough zigzagging to make up the distance.
The Bell 429 has a range of 740 kilometres before refuelling. (Two seats will be removed and replaced with a 250-litre fuel bladder before traversing the North Atlantic Ocean.) The helicopter has a cruising speed of 270 km/h.
“It’s very stable, very smooth,” says Bob. “You can have an open glass of water and it won’t spill.”
The Denglers will touch down in every provincial and territorial capital of Canada — among a dozen countries and 104 airports — while travelling about 20,500 nautical miles which is roughly 38,000 kilometres. The trip will likely take between 33 and 40 days, depending on weather. That includes two nights in each of Prague and Whitehorse, Yukon, as the helicopter goes through the inspection and maintenance that is mandatory every 50 hours.
Bob says he’s spending “six figures’ to make the odyssey happen. The fuel alone will cost between $120,000 and $150,000.
Photographer Peter Bregg will also be on hand to document the Canadian flights and the hope is, at times, that dignitaries will occupy one of the six seats. Hockey legend Guy Lafleur, an accomplished helicopter pilot himself, will ride along for part of the trip. Astronaut Dave Williams, now CEO and president of Southlake, will be on board for the first leg from a helipad in Vaughan to Ottawa.
While Steven Dengler bubbles with excitement over his coming adventure, he does see a downside. Part of his motivation for cashing out of XE was to spend more time with his children, who are 10 and 13. Now he is leaving them for more than a month and the kids aren’t happy about it.
“In one sense, I’m going to be away from my boys for at least a month and that’s tough, but I can say to them, wouldn’t you want to do something like this with me when you’re older?” says Steven. “This is my chance — now I’m speaking selfishly — to have this time with my father.”