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After Saskatchewan Government Airways

Aircraft Line.

The late 1940s and early 1950s had been uncomplicated days for starting an aviation business. The private operators mentioned earlier entered the charter service almost accidentally. Len Waite and John Midgett needed airplanes to haul fish out of the north. Bert Burry bought out an established operator. Walter Johnston's Carrot River Air Service and the Balych brothers' Meadow Lake Air Services grew from non-charter origins. The north was growing by trial and error, and so were the private air operations.

By the middle of the 1950s, however, any new flying operator faced established private competition as well as the formidable Saskatchewan Government Airways. Anyone trying to set up a new shop in the north would have to know both the private and the government business sectors. Few were better prepared for this than former SGA manager Floyd Glass.

Glass resigned from SGA in 1950 and went to British Columbia, where he piloted Canso flying boats and Norseman aircraft along the coast for Queen Charlotte Airlines.

Not content to fly for someone else, within two years he was looking for a place to start his own air charter service. His search led him right back to the area he knew best - northern Saskatchewan.

In 1954, he submitted a proposal to the Air Transport Board for charter service out of La Ronge and Prince Albert. SGA opposed the application, as would be expected, but the board said that competition was necessary and there was room for more operators. By February 1955, Glass and his new company, Athabaska Airways, were ready to do business.

With the help of two financial partners, Glass bought a new Cessna 180, CF-HZE, and based it at La Ronge. His office was a small building purchased from the Prince Albert Chamber of Commerce and moved to La Ronge. Business was so good that two months later he bought another Cessna 180, CF-IEA, and based it either at La Ronge or at Prince Albert, depending upon where it was needed. He also earned his aircraft maintenance engineer's licence during that year.

Those were busy days for northern aviators. Tourism, mining, and the federal government provided more than enough work for the company, and the Mid-Canada Radar Line provided a tremendous financial boost to Athabaska Airways. Whenever the Cessna was free from tourist and mining flights, it became a gravel truck, hauling 400 kilograms of gravel per load to radar construction sites. In Glass' opinion, SGA could not compete with a small operator who was willing to beat the bush for business. Growth was steady, and he was adding two or three aircraft to his fleet each year. After two years of operation, Glass bought out his two financial backers.

Unlike the time he built SGA, Glass built Athabaska Airways buying each airplane one at a time. His business philosophy was simple: start small and grow. Acquiring his first twin-engined aircraft, a Cessna 310, was a good example of the principle. In July 1963, a pilot with four American tourists flew the Cessna 310 on wheels north to Cree Lake for a summer fishing holiday. Despite warnings of bad weather, the pilot continued on. They were soon lost. Instead of turning south, they made a tour of the north in search of an airstrip. With fuel running low, they finally turned south, but it was too late to reach an airport. They crashed into a small lake near Haultain Lake. Doug Neilson, who was a pilot with SGA at the time, was the first one at the scene. He recalled:

When it was determined that the airplane had not reached Cree Lake, a search was initiated by Search and Rescue. The whole route was searched extensively, but the Cessna 310 was not located.

While flying over Haultain Lake several days later, I spotted the downed airplane and radioed its location. The entire plane was visible from the air, sitting relatively unharmed in about seven feet (about 2 metres) of water. The pilot told me that all of them thought the lake was much deeper and, after exiting the cabin, started to swim to shore. Only the pilot made it.

The pilot himself was unhurt but did not seem to realize the situation. He said his Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) had not worked properly but that he thought he was on Cree Lake. In reality, he was considerably off course, hence the delay in finding him. While I was talking to him, the Search and Rescue Otter arrived.

Glass was able to purchase the Cessna from the insurance company at salvage prices. Along with Mel Hegland, Richie Rasmussen, and a diver, he went to the little lake and built two rafts from tractor tire inner tubes. The rafts were floated over to the sunken Cessna. The diver attached a cable to each engine mount and the airplane was winched up to just below the water level.

The rafts and their underwater airplane cargo were sailed to the other end of the lake where there was a gravel bed and sandy shoreline. Once over the firm lake bottom, the landing gear was lowered and the airplane settled back on the gravel. Glass and his crew used cables and winches to slowly roll the plane out of the lake, making sure the water was allowed to drain from the wings and fuselage to prevent stress damage to the airframe. Once on shore, the engines were taken out and the instruments and radios were removed to be overhauled in the south. The engines would be brought back and installed so the Cessna could be flown out after freeze-up.

A De Havilland Beaver owned by Athabaska Airways.
A De Havilland Beaver owned by Athabaska Airways unloading bags of wild rice in La Ronge.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.

Athabaska Airways' Turbo Beaver at the company's base in La Ronge.
Athabaska Airways' Turbo Beaver at the company's base in La Ronge.
It was purchased from the Yukon government in the 1970s.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tomney.

Unfortunately, the lake was not big enough for take-off. Haultain Lake, which was about half a kilometre away, was large enough. They cut a road through the bush to Haultain Lake and used sheets of plywood under the wheels to roll the Cessna, one length of plywood at a time, over the muskeg and sand. The trip took four days.

In October, the engines and a couple of basic instruments were re-installed. By mid-December, the ice was thick enough to support the airplane. Glass brought back the Cessna 310, reconditioned it, and registered it as CF-PPF. The entire cost of putting the plane on his flight line was $12,000, less than half the price of a new one. That is what Glass meant when he said, "Start small and grow."

In 1959, Glass bought Meadow Lake Air Services from Shoquist Construction in Saskatoon. The deal included one building, two Cessna 180 and two Cessna 195 aircraft, and two full-time pilots. Just as important, Glass gained a licence allowing him to operate heavier aircraft. He also gained an airbase at Buffalo Narrows on the northwest side of the province.

He closed the Meadow Lake base and sold the Cessna 195 and 180 aircraft. For a year he operated from Buffalo Narrows under the old name, in order to write off Meadow Lake Air Services' business losses and depreciation. Then he merged the company into Athabaska Airways. One of the pilots, Athabaska Airways was the first company in Saskatchewan to operate helicopters. Maurice Gran stayed on at the Buffalo Narrows base until his retirement.

Athabaska Airways' Single Otter CF-AZW.
Athabaska Airways' Single Otter CF-AZW
on a trip to a northern community.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.

Athabaska Airways was the first company in Saskatchewan to operate helicopters.
Athabaska Airways was the first company in Saskatchewan to operate helicopters.
Here one of their helicopters, a Bell 47J on pontoons, lands at a dock.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.

In 1961, Athabaska became the first company in Saskatchewan to operate helicopters. The provincial forestry service had been leasing two helicopters from Alberta each year. Glass offered to take on the contract for a year. The government agreed, so he purchased a Bell 47G2 helicopter and leased another one from a Calgary company. He later negotiated a four-year contract, which allowed him to plan ahead and buy more equipment.

Now in his seventies, Floyd Glass remains active in the day-to-day business of his company. Between 70 and 100 permanent and part-time employees work for the company at bases in Saskatoon, Prince Albert, La Ronge, and Stony Rapids. Athabaska Airways operates 28 fixed-wing aircraft and 9 helicopters for charter work in northern Saskatchewan and across North America. Charter work includes contracts in mining and exploration, forestry, fire control, government travel, executive travel, and medical evacuations. Athabaska Airways offers scheduled routes to communities in northern Saskatchewan.

The company also operates another base at Points North Landing at the end of the road near Wollaston Lake, 400 kilometres north of La Ronge. Float and ski aircraft are in demand there more than in southern areas where roads have been built into most settlements. Floyd Glass said, "It is the same old story - where the road's end, the bush planes take off."

With all the growth occurring in La Ronge in the early 1960s, it was just a matter of time before yet another company would compete for the business. When Pat Campling started out in the tourist lodge business, he never dreamed of operating aircraft.

Campling's uncle, John Stanley "Red" Boardman, had come to Canada from England after the war and ended up in northern Saskatchewan. In 1946, Boardman established a tourist business in La Ronge known as Red's Camps.

La Ronge Aviation's Norseman CF-BEM.
La Ronge Aviation's Norseman CF-BEM unloading the first
large wooden boat at Hatchet Lake Lodge tourist camp.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.

Young Campling had never been more than 150 kilometres from his family's farm in England and was restless to do something exciting. In 1953 at the age of 18, he sold his pigs to buy a boat ticket to Montreal. From there, he travelled by train to Saskatoon and came north to help his uncle. Three years later, Red Boardman died, and Campling negotiated with the executors of the estate. At the age of 21, he was the owner of Red's Camps.

Campling's customers flew out to fishing camps aboard Floyd Glass's airplanes. At the same time, Russ Aronec and an American partner operated a local venture called Hard Rock Resources. They had a Cessna 180, CF-HZY, and Aronec was the company pilot. When Hard Rock Resources closed down, Aronec acquired the airplane. In 1960, he joined Campling and his wife Shirley in forming La Ronge Aviation. The operating licence was approved in 1961.

Twin Beech 18 CF-HZA owned by La Ronge Aviation Services.
Twin Beech 18 CF-HZA owned by La Ronge Aviation Services,
on a lake in the Northwest Territories.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.

La Ronge Aviation Services' Twin Otter CF-WTE.
La Ronge Aviation Services' Twin Otter CF-WTE is greeted by
children at the dock of a northern community.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.

Aronec soon had the Cessna 180 operating full time. Campling invested $10,000 for another 180, CF-HZJ. Richie Rasmussen was hired as a pilot and engineer and stayed with the company for seven years. At that time, La Ronge Aviation was basically a tenant at the Red's Camps dock.

As with Athabaska Airways, La Ronge Aviation grew with the northern economy and added a Norseman, CF-BEM, to its line. Later, de Havilland Beavers began appearing at the dock. In the 1970s, the company also ran two Twin Beech aircraft, CF-PCL and CF-HZA.

In 1966, La Ronge Aviation expanded out of La Ronge, buying Dolphin Airways at Lynn Lake, Manitoba, 300 kilometres northeast of La Ronge. There was a lot of mining activity in the area and Dolphin's two Norseman aircraft and licence to operate from Lynn Lake were a boost to La Ronge Aviation.

Aronec, ever a prospector, decided in 1969 he would rather get involved with mining promotions on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. The Camplings bought him out. Two years later, opting for the lucrative, all-year aviation business over the seasonal tourism business, Pat and Shirley Campling sold Red's Camps.

In 1973, La Ronge Aviation bought Northwest Territorial's water base at Yellowknife, nearly 1,000 kilometres northwest of La Ronge. Prospecting and mining kept the company more than busy in the vast La Ronge - Lynn Lake - Yellowknife triangle.

Pat and Shirley Campling and family continue to operate La Ronge Aviation with bases at La Ronge and Lynn Lake, Manitoba. From the La Ronge float base and airport hangar, the company maintains a fleet of 12 aircraft. Flights for tourists and the mining industry still make up the majority of business. As well, La Ronge Aviation provides flights for circuit judges and has equipped an aircraft for medical evacuations.

The Camplings and Floyd Glass have competed against each other throughout the years but maintain a good friendship. As Pat Campling said, "You've got to talk to your competitor. If you don't, you lose. There are certain things you can do and certain things he can do. Sometimes you give the other one some work because you can't handle it yourself. We want to see the business come to the local area."

Norcanair pilot Doug Neilson.
Norcanair pilot Doug Neilson, right, helps a tourist fisherman hold up
his catch of trout beside the company's Beech 18 on a northern Saskatchewan lake.
Postcard by Color Productions Ltd., Regina.

The Beaver Airplane

C-FFHB at La Ronge, Saskatchewn.

Norcanair's original colours are still proudly displayed at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa by the first Beaver aircraft ever sold - Beaver CF-FHB, serial number one.

De Havilland produced the first versatile and sturdy Beaver in 1948, and within a few years, Beaver aircraft were operating in 50 countries around the world. Before production stopped twenty years later, 1,632 Beaver aircraft had been built.

Before designing the Beaver, de Havilland had surveyed air operators and pilots across Canada for their ideas for a new bush aircraft. They wanted an airplane that was easy to maintain in the bush, could operate in the cold weather of Canada's north and had a tough airframe. The result was a hard-working aircraft like its name-sake. Its features included generous power, short take-off ability, and doors wide enough to receive rolled in fuel drums. It could accommodate six passengers. The Beaver was the first all-metal Canadian bush airplane, a difficult accomplishment in a small airplane without drastic weight penalties.

Beaver aircraft proved their versatility for both civil and military use. They saw service in sub-zero temperatures of the polar regions and the heat of the Middle Eastern deserts. They were operated by the United States government in both the Korean and the Vietnam wars and by many other air forces around the world.

The de Havilland company has not manufactured Beaver aircraft since 1968 but as more military Beavers are declared surplus they are being quickly bought by the civil air operators and many have been brought back to Canada. Ten years after manufacturing was discontinued, more Beavers were on the Canadian civil register than ever before. Over half of the Beavers were still in operation when Beaver #1 ended its career in 1980.

Beaver #1 was first operated by Central B.C. Airlines from 1948 to 1966. Norcanair purchased it from BNB Aviation in 1969. The Beaver was based at Uranium City, and it served out its last days, on skis and floats, freighting goods and ferrying passengers in northern Saskatchewan. During its 32-year career, the Beaver logged over 3 million kilometres and wore out 16 engines in over 18,000 flying hours.

In the summer of 1980, the museum in Ottawa decided to purchase Beaver #1. It was immediately grounded by Norcanair so that it would not be damaged before delivery. Three weeks later, Norcanair's John Stewart arrived at the La Ronge base to be checked out on the Beaver by Ray Cameron before flying it east. Stewart had many hours of experience flying Beaver aircraft from his days at Uranium City with SGA and later Norcanair. For about 20 years, though, Stewart had flown DC-3's from Norcanair's Saskatoon base.

After the check-out and a photography session, Stewart taxied the Beaver away from the dock, lifted off the water, and started on the two-day trip to Sault Ste. Marie. There, the airplane was refuelled and another pilot, George Neal, de Havilland's Chief of Flight Operations, took over for the final leg of the trip to Ottawa and the National Museum. Neal, then aged 62, had performed the original Beaver test flights with floats and skis in 1947.

One strong competitor facing both Athabaska Airways and La Ronge Aviation was Norcanair, the newly privatized Saskatchewan Government Airways. After purchasing SGA from the province in 1965, the directors of Norcanair developed an aggressive marketing policy for the new company to allow expansion wherever a need for air service was found. The keen business sense of its president, Jack Lloyd, contributed to the company's success. Lloyd had gained a variety of experience in his rise from bank clerk, to marketing petroleum products, to the aviation industry. Lloyd stressed that he and his new company, Norcanair, were "continually looking for ways in which we might improve our services."

Norcanair offered three types of services to ensure stability and diversification for the company: scheduled flights, charter work, and speciality work such as forest fire water bombing.

Norcanair's Bristol Freighter CF-WAE.
Norcanair's Bristol Freighter CF-WAE. When the company bought its
first Bristol only one other company in Canada was operating
this type of aircraft as a northern supply carrier.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.

To meet the needs of the mining industry, Norcanair purchased a large Bristol Freighter airplane. At that time, it was one of only two such aircraft in Canada operating as northern supply carriers. The Bristol carried a load of six tonnes and Norcanair was able to increase its freight flying with the Bristol and three more DC-3 aircraft. One of the Bristol pilots was Ray Cameron of La Ronge, today a 30-year veteran of northern flying.

Norcanair charter service was extended across most of Canada and into the United States, and scheduled service provided links with the east-west flights of larger airlines. Norcanair also continued to provide SGA's scheduled service to many remote communities of northern Saskatchewan. The northern loop provided a variety of conditions for the Norcanair pilots from 1,500-metre paved runways, to short strips covered with baseball-sized gravel, to sheer drops at the ends of runways.

In the summer months, Norcanair accommodated the busy tourist season with charter flights for fishermen to remote northern lakes. Summer months were also busy for forest fire suppression work. Four Norcanair Canso water bombers were kept busy fighting fires across northern Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, and the Northwest Territories.

Norcanair's Single Otter CF-LGM.
Norcanair's Single Otter CF-LGM at the company's water base at Uranium City,
which was previously owned by McMurray Air Services Limited.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.

By 1975, Norcanair employed more than 200 people at bases in Saskatoon, Prince Albert, La Ronge, Buffalo Narrows, Stony Rapids, and Uranium City. It operated over 30 airplanes which included bush aircraft, like Beavers and Otters, to a fleet of Fairchild F-27 aircraft purchased from Hughes AirWest for scheduled passenger service. The new F-27 aircraft changed the company from a bush operation to an airline operation. Norcanair soon installed a computerized reservation system and worked to become a successful regional airline.

Despite the changing nature of the company, the bush flying division continued to be busy, operating 12 aircraft, including 2 Twin Otters. The Twin Otters could provide Norcanair's customers with the large freight doors and short take-off ability of the Single Otter but provided almost twice the power and gave the reliability of twin engines.

Throughout the years, Norcanair moved its employees up through the ranks. This policy provided a pool of experienced personnel as well as built a great deal of employee loyalty. Most of the Norcanair aircrew and senior management owed their experience to the bush flying division.

Norcanair was sold in 1982 to Albert Ethier of High-Line Airways charter operations from Saskatoon. During the next five years, Ethier expanded Norcanair operations by adding two Fokker F-28 jet aircraft to the fleet. The Saskatchewan airline added Lloydminster and Edmonton to its route system. It also linked the province to the United States with a trans-border route to Minneapolis.

In 1986, Ethier sold the airline to Time Air, which continued the scheduled service to communities in northern Saskatchewan. It even added a special cargo door to its Dash-7 to assist in loading fresh fish caught by Lake Athabasca fishermen. But in the spring of 1991, Time Air discontinued its northern service.

In June 1991, Norcanair was reborn when Albert Ethier received new licences for the air operation. Scheduled flights were immediately introduced between Saskatoon and Prince Albert and the northern communities of La Ronge, Fond du Lac, Uranium City, and Stony Rapids. Norcanair maintained a summer charter link between Minneapolis and Hatchet Lake Lodge, a large tourist lodge with its own 1,300-metre runway in a remote area of northern Saskatchewan. Norcanair has continued to grow and to add more aircraft to its fleet as routes and services have developed.

Many pilots, engineers, and air operators had started their careers with Saskatchewan Government Airways. Ed LaClaire was one of them.

LaClaire had left Shellbrook to join the RCAF in 1943 and served in Canada, England, and Germany until 1946. In 1954, he began overhauling aircraft engines with chief engineer John Pool at the SGA shop in Prince Albert. He earned his pilot's licence and soon moved to the La Ronge base, sharing pilot duties with Jim Barber, George Greening, and other SGA pilots. In 1959, LaClaire moved over to Athabaska Airways, working double duty as pilot and chief engineer.

With his skill in both flying and engineering, LaClaire soon decided to form his own air operation. He and his wife Lucille formed Nipawin Air Services Ltd. in 1961. From bases at Jan Lake, Cumberland House, and Pelican Narrows, Nipawin Air Services flew tourists to fishing and hunting camps, carried freight, and ferried people between northern communities. From bases at Nipawin and Melfort, LaClaire gave flying instruction, and many of his students are flying today for bush and airline operations. The company operated ten aircraft during busy times.

Over the years, LaClaire often flew Norseman aircraft and recalled they were "noisy, hot in summer, and cold in the winter." In one incident in 1981, LaClaire was flying Norseman C-FBHS for John Midgett of C&M Airways of La Loche. He said, "I was moving a camp out for Resources people. On the sixth and last trip, the engine quit in the old Norseman - and I had to land in some trees." He and his passenger were unhurt but the Norseman was perched up in the treetops. They were forced to shinny down a tree to reach the ground.

In 1968, LaClaire broke his leg quite seriously while loading his airplane at Pelican Narrows, and he decided to sell Nipawin Air Services. A group of five men bought and operated the company for a couple of years and then sold part ownership to Garry Thompson.

After more than 35 years of flying, Ed LaClaire still enjoys flying bush aircraft. Although beyond the age when many retire, he maintains his commercial pilot's licence and every spring checks out floatplane pilots for Athabaska Airways.

Garry Thompson grew up in La Ronge, and after high school, he started a tourist outfitting camp at English Bay, on the road north of La Ronge. His sister Shirley was operating La Ronge Aviation with her husband Pat Campling. Thompson, too, soon became interested in flying.

He gained his flying experience on his first airplane, a Luscombe, in 1964. The following summer, Thompson purchased a Stinson which he and prospector Vern Studer used on the Rottenstone winter road survey.

Over the years, Thompson bought and sold several airplanes and in 1969 purchased from Northwest Industries the first 300 hp Cessna 185 to operate in Saskatchewan. The next year, he purchased a portion of Nipawin Air Services which came with a well-known Norseman, CF-SAM. The Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw later arranged to purchase CF-SAM for display. The company bought a Single Otter to replace it and, later, three Twin Otters. Thompson expanded the air company by purchasing other aircraft as well as the Norcanair base in Uranium City. He now operates 6 floatplanes from his company, Osprey Wings Limited, based at Otter Lake, 100 kilometres north of La Ronge.

Single Otter CF-XRI owned by Osprey Wings of Otter Lake delivering lumber and supplies to a cabin on a remote lake in 1991. Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tomney.
Single Otter CF-XRI owned by Osprey Wings.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.

Eagle Airways' Norseman.
Eagle Airways' Norseman delivering tourists to Hatchet Lake Lodge in 1991.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tomney.

Thompson also purchased the water base which was previously owned by SGA and Norcanair in La Ronge and began operation of four helicopters in partnership with Brooke Ede. Thompson has been pleased with the helicopter operation and said, "So far it has been much more productive than a fixed-wing."

Although Norseman CF-SAM has been retired to a museum, Norseman aircraft are once again being flown over northern Saskatchewan.

In the early 1990s, Eagle Air Services of Wollaston Lake was the only commercial air company in Saskatchewan operating a Norseman. This Norseman was built in 1943 and was flown in northern Ontario for 20 years. While operating on floats, the Norseman was sunk and, though salvaged, was not flown for several years. It was last flown in 1964 and as a result, has exceptionally low flying time on the original frame.

Northland Aircraft purchased the Norseman and restored it to mint condition for Jim Olson, owner of Eagle Air Services of Wollaston Lake. Its fuselage has been re-covered in a new, stronger fabric and large picture windows have been installed to brighten the passenger area. "Visibility in the back of the original Norseman was minimal - like being in a dark tunnel!" Jim Olson remembered. Otherwise, the airplane has been restored to its original appearance, even to the polished wood of the instrument panel.

Why purchase a 50-year-old airplane? Olson explained that older bush aircraft are gaining in popularity. The last few years have seen an increase to seven Norseman airplanes now operating in Manitoba. Because the production of other float aircraft like the Beaver and Single Otter was discontinued in the 1960s, remaining aircraft are more expensive. Now, strong, new fabrics last up to 20 years and make the upkeep of fabric-covered Norseman aircraft similar to the upkeep of other aircraft. "Besides that", said Olson, "they perform well, hauling freight and passengers, for small operations like mine."

In the early 1990s, Jim Olson began operating the Norseman for freight and passenger service as part of his fleet. He started Eagle Air Services in 1976, primarily serving the mineral exploration industry. He operates a total of five aircraft on floats, skis, and wheels and serves local travellers, tourists, and forest fire patrols.

These and other companies not mentioned here have grown with the times and are well-respected across the north. Over the years many young pilots have begun their commercial flying careers with these organizations. Some have remained in the north, but many have moved on to other flying jobs. For them, their northern flying was an education in itself.


Author: Webmaster -
"Date Modified: April 16, 2024."

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