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When COVID-19 grounded airlines around the world, Air Transat A330 and A321 captains Steve Zago and Adam Wright say they were at the pinnacle of their careers.
“We were loving life — flying the jet-set lifestyle,” said Zago. “But then things came to a grinding halt.”
In March, both pilots were bringing Canadians home through repatriation flights. “We were watching our loads down south diminish,” Zago said. “I checked loads the night before; we were down to 120 passengers [from 199].”
“I’d been doing the same,” added Wright. “I remember going into the operations office at Air Transat and wishing everybody good luck, and I hoped to see them soon.”
There were just three passengers on Wright’s final flight to Cancun. Two of them were wearing hazmat suits and respirators. “That was kind of weird and memorable,” he reflected.
It would take almost two months for the reality of their furlough to sink in. “You’re trying to be optimistic, but you’re also re-evaluating things,” said Zago.
Wright began working with his wife at their Guelph, Ont., bakery, With the Grain. “I didn’t have time to wallow, but there was a mourning going on in my head,” he said. “Just listening to the news was so depressing, and my wife and I were so afraid that if the bakery failed, we’d lose everything.
“All that we’d built up in our life was hanging in the balance,” added Wright. “It was a tough, tough period — and not to say that we’re out of that necessarily.”
Flash forward to June, and Wright was “working his tail off at the bakery,” while Zago admits he was spending too much time on social media, “arguing with people because they said something ignorant about airplanes,” he joked. “As I detached from that and started focusing, my life got a lot better.”
One sleepless night, Zago found himself researching how to roast coffee. “I did a deep dive through ‘YouTube university’ for a couple of hours and wrote down some ideas,” he laughed.
The next morning, he called Wright and said, “Lost Aviator coffee, you in?”
Pre-pandemic, the two pilots often looked for ways to work together outside of flying, including cooking, brewing beer and, admittedly, creating an “aggressively mediocre cider.”
The pair met 15 years ago while working as charter pilots. Wright moved on to Air Canada Jazz, and Zago followed shortly after. Eventually, both landed at Air Transat as captains.
For “Sky Admiral” (Zago) and “Air-Commodore” (Wright), titles you’ll find on their Lost Aviator Coffee Co. business cards, the next leg of their journey was on the horizon.
The name “Lost Aviator” was something Zago had come up with long before COVID-19. “It was easily adapted to coffee,” he said. “People assume that it’s because we’ve lost our jobs and our planes, and there’s a bit of truth to that — we’re metaphorically lost.”
You’ll find their coffee on a front shelf at With the Grain Bakery. The online store opened Aug. 31, selling Lost Aviator merchandise first. Coffee sales continue to catch up to the swag, with the top-selling bean being a medium roast called “Constellation.”
“People were starting to try our coffee, and they’re like, I got this cool mug that’s got a DC-3 on it, but the coffee’s pretty damn good, too,” Zago joked.
As airline pilots, they say they know what bad coffee tastes like. They’ve done a complete walkaround on the coffee-roasting business, having spent months building relationships with suppliers and learning the fundamentals of the farming process.
Naming the coffee was an opportunity to do a “deep dive into aviation history at the nerdiest level. We’re trying to find that balance, with an Easter egg buried in it for the pilots,” said Zago. They settled on “Mile High” for their decaf “just for a good laugh.”
The support from the aviation community has been more than they expected. “They got right behind us. It’s been humbling,” Wright said.
They recall the day their phones “blew up” with the buzz of online orders from Texas, California and Michigan. A female pilot had shared Lost Aviator’s story with a Facebook group called Female Aviators Sticking Together (FAST). Zago and Wright received messages from pilots who said they loved what the pair were doing and wanted to support their fellow lost aviators.
“I had a guy who flew helicopters for 40 years pop in yesterday and just chat for an hour,” added Zago. “And the next day, [it was] an RCAF Harvard, DC-3 and retired A330 Air Canada pilot.” They find the visits uplifting.
Over the next year, Zago and Wright see themselves expanding, acquiring a larger roaster and even hiring more lost aviators. “We’re going to hire fellow members of the aviation community,” Zago told Skies. “You know, roast some coffee, crack jokes about airplanes and stick airplanes stickers on literally everything,” he laughed.
Although their caffeine addiction is two-fold, they found a positive focus, which they say helped them out of a “dark place.” When travel restrictions ease, they plan to do origin tours with their producers.
Wright and Zago’s forced absence allowed them to take a pipedream and turn it into a soft landing for other lost aviators and coffee lovers alike.
A grand opening is on standby for 2021.