Creating SkyMed

Text by Divan Muller
Photographs courtesy of CBC
SkyMed is a new one-hour CBC drama series about the intense personal lives of young nurses and pilots flying air ambulances in Northern Manitoba. SkyMed premieres in Canada beginning Sunday, July 10 at 9pm (9:30pm in Newfoundland) on CBC TV and will also be available to stream for free on CBC Gem.
Aviation News Journal recently had the opportunity to talk to Julie Puckrin (creator, executive producer, showrunner, and writer of SkyMed) and James Rimmer (the show’s aviation consultant). The series was filmed in Manitoba and Ontario from 2021 to 2022 and featured King Air 200s. As it happened, SkyMed was inspired by the real-life experiences of Julie's own sister and brother-in-law, James, who met flying air ambulances in the north. During a quick 30-minute phone call, we found out more about these two individuals who played an instrumental role in making the show a reality.

James grew up around aircraft, as his father worked in the airline industry, so he knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a pilot. “My sister got me a flight in a Cessna 172 for my fourteenth birthday. I said, ‘I’m doing that for a living,’ as soon as I walked away. So, like most pilots, I didn’t choose it; It chose me,” James remembered.

His first job was as a first officer on a Cessna Conquest, before moving on to flying a Cessna 402 at Thompson, Manitoba, where he met his wife, a nurse who also had a pilot’s licence. James then worked for Pacific Coastal, flying Beech 1900s, King Air 200s, Short 360s and SAAB 340s. He is currently a Boeing 737 first officer with WestJet.

Naturally, being related to James and his wife, Julie was familiar with stories of flying and medical adventures in northern Manitoba, but what was it about these stories that made her think they had potential to be turned into a television series? “It’s kind of got it all: life or death stakes with medicine and aviation, and it’s adventure… The pilots who go up north to build their hours are often very young and a lot of the nurses who go there are very young. So you have this situation with the high stakes patients and the adventure of living in the north, and you have these young people at the beginning of their careers and they are all living together. When they are working, there are intense circumstances, and when they are not working, it is equally intense, because they are blowing off steam,” said Julie. She also mentioned how the show had great potential for character stories.

Telling characters’ stories happens to be Julie’s favourite part of producing a show. “If I’m in the writing stage, or on set filming, or if we’re in editing - for me, it is always about the character stories and emotional stories.” To her, it is all about the viewer’s emotions. “What kind of emotional journey do we want to create for people to make them feel like they have gone somewhere, done something and experienced something they might not otherwise have experienced?”
SkyMed stars an ensemble cast of young Canadian talent including Natasha Calis (Nurses), Morgan Holmstrom (Siberia), Ace (Aason) Nadjiwon (Batwoman), Praneet Akilla (Nancy Drew), Mercedes Morris (Between), Thomas Elms (The Order), Kheon Clarke (Riverdale), and Rebecca Kwan (Taken).
Depicting aviation accurately

Just how important was accuracy in terms of depicting operations in and around aircraft? According to James, “Julie was keen to have it look as realistic as possible. It gives the show so much more credibility… She really wanted to make sure it looked and sounded authentic.” Julie added, “ I want it to be as accurate as possible, unless the accuracy is boring.”

“In terms of the filming,” Julie explained, “James would be there when we were in the cockpit with the actors, and he would make sure hands were on the right controls, radios looked right, we’re making the right movements, saying the right things.”
Actors were also given training before filming the series. “Prior to coming up to Winnipeg, I set up a ground school, exactly the same as an actor boot camp, “said James. “We had classroom instruction, followed by a trip to Winnipeg, where we visited one of the local medevac companies and toured the aircraft. During the classroom instruction, we talked about pilot language, where their hands and eyes should be when they’re sitting in the aircraft, the basic parts of the aircraft…” James also showed the actors how to complete pre-flight checks and took them for a flight in a King Air.

What made the King Air the best aircraft for the show? According to James, “The reason we went with a King Air is because it’s really the most common medevac aircraft we see in Canada… The 200 was more widely available in the Winnipeg area, so it was the logical choice. And it turned out that I had experience on that aircraft type.”

Julie added, “From a story telling point of view, we wanted an aircraft that was small enough that it could land at small runways in the middle of nowhere, but fast enough to carry critical patients. It just turned out that there were two King Air 200s that had rough landings that we were able to acquire and repurpose for our needs.”

What were the challenges in turning these real-life operations into a show that people, who have potentially very little understanding of aviation, can understand? Julie answered, “It’s a delicate balance. Sometimes you think, ‘There’s so much jargon in medicine and aviation, and it’s so specialized.’ You worry in the audience will understand what’s going on, but in a weird way, leaning into that specialization makes it somehow more appealing, exotic and exciting to viewers. The most important thing is that even if they don’t understand what you are talking about, when you’re talking about IFR or making radio calls, they understand the emotion behind it.”

According to Julie, the weather present some of the biggest challenges in producing the series. “When were in Winnipeg, we went from plus 40°C when there were forest fires nearby, to filming in the winter at -35°C and moving inside because the cameras just can’t function in weather that cold.”

Still, on a personal level, the series ranked highly as one of Julie’s most enjoyable projects, as she had the opportunity to share her work with her family. Also, “I’m excited to make a show about aviation and that it’s something we get to showcase. I’m excited about making a show about first responders because I think that’s also a very cool and thankless job. I’m excited to show these people as the kind of heroes they are.”