In the decades after the Second World War, the use of aircraft in northern Saskatchewan greatly increased. One operation that was easy to establish was fish freighting. Hauling fish by air was not new, of course. M&C was one of the first companies to air freight fish from the north in 1932. One of M&C's flying students was Len Waite of Big River. Waite gained his pilot's licence and, with his father John, formed Waite Fisheries.
Waite Fisheries' first airplane was the de Havilland Fox Moth CF-APO purchased from M&C in 1937. The company then acquired a Fairchild KR-34C biplane, CF-AMW, which crashed and was in turn replaced by another of M&C's airplanes, a Waco registered as CF-1313Q, in 1943. Len Waite, meanwhile, had become a chief flying instructor at #6 Elementary Flying Training School in Prince Albert.
After the war, Waite returned to civilian life and bought a de Havilland Tiger Moth, CF-BFV, from the RCAF. He also entered the airline transportation business, setting up Northern Airlines Limited, with. head-quarters at Big River, to cut the flying costs of his fish business. He purchased four twin-engined Avro Ansons from War Assets. Two of them, CF-GLT and CF-GLV, were put into service and the other two were used for spare parts. A couple of Harvard trainers were added since they had the same engine as the Anson.
Between "fish stops," his non-scheduled service to the public included delivering mail, passengers, and freight to Buffalo Narrows, Dore Lake, Ile a la Crosse, and Beauval.
Waite Fisheries' Fairchild KR-34C biplane, CF-AMW.
Photograph courtesy of Richard Waite.
Len Waite in front of Waite Fisheries' Anson V, CF-GLT.
Photograph courtesy of Lenora Midgett.
Fish prices remained high enough to warrant freighting fish out from northern lakes by aircraft. In. 1946, Waite's airplanes were making two trips a day to bring lake trout from Cree Lake to Big River. From there, the trout were shipped by rail to Winnipeg, Toronto, and other distant markets. They hauled over a quarter-million tonnes that summer.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, Waite's company flew an average of 240,000 kilometres annually, handling approximately 270,000 kilograms of cargo, most of it fish. The Northern Airlines pilots included Tom McCloy, RCAF veteran Jim Barber, and George Greening, who had worked with Waite at the Flying Training School.
Eventually, the competitors got out of the fish business, leaving Waite as the sole operator at Buffalo Narrows. The business operated successfully for over five years. By 1951, Len's son Richard Waite said, "We thought the Airlines was not our piece of cake," and negotiations were begun. to sell Northern Airlines to SGA. SGA studied Northern Airlines' offer and agreed to purchase the entire operation for $45,000 including the Waite Fisheries aircraft: the Ansons CF-GLT and CF-GLV and a Norseman, CF-CRU.
Waite Fisheries' dock at Buffalo Narrows busy with boats,
a barge, and airplanes.
Photograph courtesy of Richard Waite.
Waite Fisheries' Fairchild 82, CF-AXQ, in 1947.
It was flown mostly by George Greening and Tommy McCloy.
Photograph courtesy of Richard Waite.
As part of the agreement, SGA would provide Waite's fisheries with two Norseman aircraft for fish freighting as the season demanded. For its part, Northern Airlines agreed to relinquish all its licences for charter services in the Big River area in favour of SGA. Floyd Glass of SGA assured Len Waite that, "Saskatchewan Government Airways will give you full co-operation, and it is hoped that harmonious relations will exist at all times."
Northern Airlines passed into the history books, and SGA flew fish for Waite Fisheries for many years. But the Waites were not totally out of the airplane business. In 1959, Len Waite bought a new Cessna 180 directly from the manufacturer in the United States. He did not know the Canadian registration when he purchased the airplane. It was painted on the aircraft at the factory. When he picked it up it read, CF-LJW - for Leonard J. Waite. Richard Waite, the operator of Waite Fisheries, still flies the Cessna, and today that airplane has flown more than 6,000 hours. The Waite family has operated aircraft in northern Saskatchewan for over 50 years.
Another air company which had its beginnings in the fish-hauling business was C&M Airways of La Loche, started by Grover Clark and John Midgett. Grover Clark was the son of a Meadow Lake businessman. The family made their living from farming, cattle, general merchandise, and fish freighting. John Midgett grew up in the Meadow Lake area and hauled fish by "cat-train" and truck for several years for Waite Fisheries and then became a fish buyer for the Clarks' commercial fishing operation.
John Midgett, Grover Clark, and co-worker Leo Belanger spent the 1950s hauling fish for the Clark family in trucks and "Snow Bugs," the Bombardier vehicles propelled by tracks and steered by skis. Belanger recalled:
We sold [the fishermen] nets and equipment. Then we flew them in and got them fishing. They would pay [for the equipment] with fish and it was theirs after they finished paying for it. They had up to ten nets.
It was a good arrangement for trappers because they could earn extra money by commercial. fishing while on their traplines.
Pilot Ernie Boffa, here standing in front of a Fox Moth,
flew for Waite Fisheries and SGA, and went on to a
distinguished flying career across northern Canada.
Photograph courtesy of Richard Waite.
Midgett, Clark, and Belanger would drive supplies from the company store into the fishermen and haul the fish out to market. Because these fishermen and other established commercial fishermen were located over a large area of the north, the advantages off having a plane soon became evident to Midgett. "We were buying fish from Cree Lake, Thompson Lake, all over," Midgett recalled. "We had to get the fish out and there were no roads, so we just started flying them out by airplane." Midgett took his training in 1956 at Mitchinson's Flying Service in Saskatoon, and he immediately began flying fish on his return to the north. Grover Clark also gained his pilot's licence. Midgett then convinced Belanger to try flying, and two years later Belanger earned his licence.
To make hauling fish by air profitable, the pilots packed as much into their aircraft as they could each trip. Belanger recalled:
You loaded it till you couldn't take off, you had to make it pay to haul fish. You don't put in 45 minutes extra gas, none of that stuff, you put in enough to get you home. If you couldn't take off, you unloaded a little bit more (fish). Cree Lake was pretty big and you had lots of room to take off. But the main thing was to haul lots of fish.
John Midgett, rear, loading a snowmobile onto the side of de Havilland
Beaver CF-EZT to take a trapper to his cabin.
Photograph courtesy of John Midgett.
John Midgett and Grover Clark established C&M Airways in 1968, based in La Loche, and over the years used a variety of aircraft with a line-up of eight during its busiest times. "We used a little Stinson 108 at first for moving fish short distances," Midgett said. "Then we got a Bellanca Skyrocket, CF-EQQ, and later a Norseman Mark 6, CF-GTM, the one the flying priest Father Leising used in B.C. and Alaska." "We bought Norseman CF-BHS from Thomas Lamb; two Cessna 180s, CF-SLL and CF-JWH; Beaver CF-AXC from New Zealand; another Beaver, CF-EZT; Otter CF-LAP; and a Twin Beech, all on floats and skis," Midgett said. They also purchased two airplanes with wheels, a Cessna 206, CF-HYC, and Navaho CF-EUA, and based them on the 1000-metre gravel airstrip at La Loche. Midgett recalled that many good pilots flew for them. over the years. Some are still flying in the north, others moved on to the airlines, and one started a helicopter business.
C&M Airways' CF-AXC carrying a snowmobile tied to the float struts.
Photograph courtesy of John Midgett.
As well as hauling fish, C&M Airways became involved in all the usual charter flying. "We hauled out firefighters, and we water-bombed for quite a few years with Beavers and Otters," Midgett said. "We put tanks on them, and a snorkel would shoot water into them as you went down the lake. An Otter could put a fire out if you caught it right away."
"We also hauled out trappers and flew medical evacuations," he said. "We had radio contact with the small villages like Descharme and Garson, and if anybody got sick we'd bring them out. Then, a few years back, there was a lot of uranium exploration, and we were busy flying prospectors and diamond drillers."
Midgett remembered one flying incident which illustrates the ingenuity and daring typical off old-time bush pilots:
I landed at Russell Lake where Raymond Servatius was fishing, to bring out a load of fish. It was snowing really heavy, and the snow was so sticky that I'm sliding along and the skis stopped. The plane went straight up on its nose and bent the prop around the cowl. The wind was from behind and we couldn't pull the plane down. Raymond came out and hooked on with his four big dogs, and with the three of us, we managed to pull it down. We had no radio so I went in the bush and got a log, and with a chain and an axe from the plane we kept bending and hammering those blades back. I would get in and try it and the plane would just shake, so we would keep on bending. Finally, it was alright and didn't shake, so I put on a load of fish and came home!
One of Midgett's pilots during the company's early years was Lloyd Reid, who was a Lancaster bomber pilot during the Second World War. Reid recalled Midgett's long and active career:
Johnny Midgett was famous all over the north. He's been up in that country right from "cat-train" days and winter roads. As well as flying, he owned a fishing lodge at Lloyd Lake. He's been involved in flying for many years up there, pretty well from the time they started bush flying up around there with old Bellancas. He's a famous old guy around the north!
Midgett operated C&M Airways for several years after Grover Clark left the business. He sold the company in 1989 to Marvin Bather, who had previously flown for him, and two partners. Bather continues to run the business today as La Loche Airways.
As the "end of the road" pushed ever further north, fish hauling by air declined. The all-weather road to Wollaston Lake was used to bring fish out of the northeast corner of the province. On the west side, winter roads extended north to Lake Athabasca from the end of the Semchuk Trail at Cluff Lake, and northeast to Cree Lake. Today, few fish take wing.
But Len Waite of Waite Fisheries predicted another type of flight for northern fish. He was looking forward to the day when sport fishermen would fly their catch out of northern lakes. Waite saw that Cree Lake had great potential for sport fishermen. He ventured that "there are hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars available, but unless we awaken to the opportunity we will continue to lose those dollars to other provinces."
Parsons Airways of Flin Flon unloading spring supplies from their Single Otter CF-DRC at
Hatchet Lake Lodge in 1978. Guide Patrick McKay of La Ronge loads the boat.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tornney.
Waite was not the first to see the possibilities for sport fishing beyond the end of the roads. In 1932, Brooks Airways was advertising trips by airplane to see "Lac La Ronge with its many islands and its superb fishing." Dick Mayson and Angus Campbell of M&C had been among the first outfitters in northern Saskatchewan. As early as 1937, they were flying tourists to Lac La Ronge, "a fisherman's paradise." They provided the fishermen with room and board, guides, canoes, and outboard motors. M&C and Brooks Airways had both provided year-round flights to take big game hunters north to areas that only trappers and prospectors had seen before.
Bill Chanin of La Ronge remembered that Chris Olsen and a few other outfitters had fly-in tourist camps before the roads penetrated the north, but fly-in operations really began about 1956 when Floyd Glass promoted the idea with his new company, Athabaska Airways. Chanin recalled:
Floyd had been with SGA and promoted some tourism over on Maribelli, Hickson, and Deception lakes. They had flown hunters over there in wintertime with an Anson. But then Floyd saw the possibilities and came to my father-in-law, Ernie Backlund, and Ernie and I decided to go into putting out fishing camps.
In the mid-fifties the tourist business in northern Saskatchewan was booming. Backlund already operated a successful tourist outfitting camp in La Ronge. Chanin recalled that they began to realize the potential of the fly-in. camps:
There were an awful lot of tourists in La Ronge in those days. There were 12 to 14 outfitters in, town, and any morning there would be at least 175 boats go out.
A lot of people wanted to be away from everybody else and get the very best fishing there was. We decided to run a string of cabins with boats and motors throughout the north. It started with Backlund's Camps and Red's Camps. We went into it more than most of them did at the time. But as the other outfitters saw the business was going this way, more got into it.
Backlund and Chanin developed a string of fly-in fishing camps that ran as far north as Unknown Lake and Wapata Lake, close to Black Lake. They used aircraft to search for sites for their camps, choosing a place where a river flowed into a good-sized lake. In spring, the mouth of the river would be free of ice, and they would be able to land on the water before break-up to prepare the camp.
Backlund and Chanin flew plywood, siding, and other building supplies to the lake during the summer. Other material was hewn right out of the forest. "My father-in-law could make do with anything," Chanin recalled. "He set up a 32-inch (about 80 centimetres) blade and sawed trees to make strips to build boats, and two-by-four material for cabin walls."
Each spring they would fly into the camps and check the cabins and motors and take in supplies of gas. Aircraft then flew the tourists in through the season. At first, tourists were transported to the camps by Cessna 180 aircraft. Beaver and Norseman aircraft hauled supplies. Soon, La Ronge Aviation bought a twin-engined Beech Model 18 airplane on floats. The Beech was popular with the fishing camp operators because it could carry a large load or six passengers, it was faster than the other aircraft, and it could transport a boat underneath the fuselage, between the floats.
A twin-engined Beech 18 on a lake near Creighton. The Beech 18 was popular with tourist camp operators because it carried six passengers and could transport a boat beheeen the floats.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.
Chanin began to use Single Otters in the 1950s. The Otter was designed by de Havilland in response to requests by bush operators for an airplane similar to the Beaver but with more freight capacity. The Otter could carry nine passengers or plenty of cargo by folding up the seats against the walls. It had large double freight-loading doors and was designed to take off and land in 300 metres. The aircraft operated well under extreme conditions and could be operated on wheels, skis, or floats. It proved ideal for the needs of the provincial forestry services and mining as well as the tourist camp operators.
Chanin and his wife Mae eventually opened their own outfitting business at Otter Lake, taking over some of Backlund's camps and building several more. By this time the road had been built to Otter Lake, and aircraft were operating from there. Chanin had a Cessna 185 aircraft himself for several years and hired a pilot each summer. Later on, one of the air companies would keep a plane at Otter Lake for Chanin's camp. "We were doing about $100,000 of fly-in fishing business with the air companies a year," recalled Chanin. "We kept the aircraft busy in those days."
Another area that developed in the post-war years was missionary flying. Stan Collie became the director of the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission in 1946. He became interested in flying the Gospel across the north. He recalled:
I had my first flying lesson in 1941. George Greening, a pilot with Waite Fisheries, invited me to accompany him, one winter's day, for a little flight. I jumped at the chance. After we had taken off I began to watch George at the controls. The plane was a Waco biplane, CF-BBQ. I said to George, "How do these things work?" "Oh, there is nothing to it, Stan. When you want to go up you just pull back on the stick like this." He pulled it back into his lap and up we went. "Then when you want to go down you just push it ahead, like this." I thought we were doing a somersault. "When you want to turn left you go like this." My head was spinning and my heart was in my mouth. As our old starched-shirt preacher used to say, "Thus endeth the first lesson." If there was anything I learned it was don't ask George Greening hasty questions.
Gleason Ledyard joined the mission in the summer of 1946. Gleason was already a pilot, and he brought a small Taylorcraft, NC23810, up from the United States with him. Collie was now able to get into those far-off villages. Ledyard's missionary interests began to turn toward the arctic regions north of Churchill, Manitoba. He soon moved there, taking his Taylorcraft with him. Collie was back on the ground again.
Collie never let the lack of an airplane stop him, and he returned to travelling by canoe and dog team. Years later, he wrote:
I hitched rides when I could, once with Lefty McLeod; to Cree Lake with Jimmy Barber in a "war-assets" Anson. When they had available space they seemed to appreciate the company, and probably even more, help in getting the skis up on poles, putting on the engine tent, or taking a turn with the blow-pot.
While grateful to the pilots for their help, he always thought, "If I were the pilot I could make it more worthwhile; I could be taking an Indian evangelist or another missionary with me."
Marshall Calverly joined the mission in 1951 and with him came a two-place Fleet Canuck, CF-EAP, purchased with the help of gifts from Elim Chapel in Winnipeg. It was a good start, but its usefulness was limited by its size.
The mission workers decided they needed a larger airplane to supply their growing number of missionaries. The mission picked up a Stinson Reliant, CF-OAY At the same time Calverly operated a Seabee, CF-GTW. Eventually, the Reliant was sold, and the mission bought a Cessna 170B, CF-HDN, which flew for the mission until the mid-1960s.
Stinson Reliant CF-OAY was purchased by the Northern Canada
Evangelical Mission in the early 1950s for northern missionary flights.
Here it undergoes maintenance at Meadow Lake in 1954.
Photograph courtesy of Marshall Calverly.
Three members of the Northern Canada Evangelical
Mission beside the mission's Seabee flying boat CF-GTW.
From left: Marshall Calverly, John Penner, and Stan Collie.
Photograph courtesy of Marshall Calverly.
Collie had done hundreds of hours of "right seat" flying with Calverly and other pilots, so he was already familiar with flying an airplane. He just needed the piece of paper that said he could do it. In 1958, at more than fifty years of age, he walked into Paul Salter's office in Meadow Lake and took some "real" flying lessons. With the ink hardly dry on his licence, he climbed into his Cessna and started his first pilot-in-command missionary trip.
During the early 1960s, the mission began sending a team on tours through northern Saskatchewan. The mission had bought a Cessna 180, CF-HPW, nicknamed "Hot Potatoes and Wieners," from Trans-Air in Winnipeg.
Mission pilot Ed Hickey would meet Indian evangelist Tommy Francis at Lynn Lake, Manitoba, and fly on to Brochet to pick up missionary Bud Elford. Both Francis and Elford were well-known across the north.
Francis had been a northern conservation officer for many years, and Elford was widely known for his Chipewyan (Dene) language radio broadcast. From Brochet they flew on to other communities in northern Saskatchewan, stopping to visit and to teach the Gospel.
Marshall Calverly with a Cessna T.50 Crane owned by the
Northern Canada Evangelical Mission.
Photograph courtesy of Marshall Calverly.
The flying missionaries did more than preach. On one occasion when Ed Hickey visited a remote cabin north of Patuanak, he found the owner suffering from a badly infected leg. Hickey nursed the ailing man for two days before the crisis was over. Not only had the leg healed, but Hickey had made new friends.
The Northern Canada Evangelical Mission still flies today, operating four aircraft: two Cessna 185 aircraft, a Cessna 206, and a twin-engine Aztec. Based at Nipawin, the airplanes fly as far as Quebec's northern arctic coast and the Yukon. They carry building supplies and Gospel singing teams, bring students out of remote villages to attend the mission's Bible schools, or gather aboriginal church leaders and missionaries from remote communities for conferences and fellowship. Stan Collie never dreamed it would go this far. Through these many thousands of hours of flying there has been no serious injury or loss of life from an accident.
Another service that the airplane brought northward after the war was medical care for northern people. Josephine Walz, a registered nurse, covered 155,000 square kilometres of northern Saskatchewan testing and immunizing for tuberculosis. She wrote, "I never really know when I leave Prince Albert ... where I shall eat or sleep, but northern hospitality never lets one stand on the dock very long. In this part of the world travellers always arrive at the dock because air, road and water all have their terminus at the lakeside dock."
Walz's interest in nursing started on a farm in Langenburg, Saskatchewan, where she was born in 1913. She was interested in caring for the farm animals, particularly births. At the age of 26, she graduated from a nursing program and, in 1946, went to New York to complete a midwifery course.
The next year, Walz was asked to fill in for 6 weeks for the public health nurse from Buffalo Narrows which then had a population of 350. She ran the hospital, looked after the sick, held clinics and attended mercy calls by airplane. For recreation, she went with the pilots on freight hauling trips. Six weeks stretched into six months; Walz was caught by the lure of the north.
She had many experiences while relieving public health nurses. On one circuit to the Athabasca region, Walz and other passengers sat on top of the Christmas mail on a five-hour flight to Stony Rapids. "We arrived just as it was getting dark, landing in front of the rapids, which were splashing in spite of the 60 below weather. This gave the appearance of a volcano. Dog teams met the plane for the freight...." The next day, after sick calls at Fond du Lac, Nicholson, Goldfields, and Camsell Portage, they returned to Stony Rapids after dark with no beacon to guide the airplane, except a small fire on the lake made by the RCMP at the radioed request off the pilot.
After serving as the public health nurse at Cumberland House for four years, Walz joined the Saskatchewan Anti-tuberculosis League, searching out and treating tuberculosis in the north.
It was a nomadic life, and she had no time for loneliness; her home was wherever there was work to do. In winter, she covered the northern communities by airplane, Bombardier, or dog sled, testing for and vaccinating against tuberculosis. In summer, she went by airplane, canoe, boat and motor, or on foot. Bush pilots gave her lifts to northern communities on mail airplanes, delivered her BCG vaccine, and brought her patients out to hospitals and the tuberculosis sanatorium.
Many times Walz or her patients benefitted from the pilots' daring. On one trip to Fond du Lac, a blizzard came up and she thought she might be stranded for weeks. But early next morning she heard an airplane go over - then a knock at the trading post door. There stood the pilot saying, "Quick, quick, we have to get out of here."
"Bush pilots risked their lives to pick up people," recalled Josephine Walz. "They kept track of where people were. "Walz retired from the Anti-tuberculosis League in December 1964, after serving the northern people for 17 years.
After the war, mineral exploration continued to be a spur to aviation in northern Saskatchewan. John Mullock undertook mineral exploration for Canico, the exploration arm of Inco Limited. He came to Uranium City in 1955 to conduct aerial reconnaissance surveys in the area. For the next seven years, he was based in La Ronge, carrying out geological and geophysical surveys.
Saskatchewan Government Airways pilot Jim Barber
moving drill equipment with a de Havilland Beaver
for a diamond drill camp near Hanson Lake in 1961.
Photograph courtesy of John Mullock.
Canico had first come to Saskatchewan in the 1940s to look at nickel properties and, with the evolution of airborne surveys, expanded in the early 1950s to the exploration of the greenstone belts. Canico carried out aerial reconnaissance surveys, geophysical and geological surveys, and diamond drilling in remote areas of northern Saskatchewan.
Since the exploration work was undertaken in winter and summer, a de Havilland Beaver was contracted from SGA on an annual basis, usually with Jim Barber as the pilot. The Beaver aircraft was selected for its short landing and take-off ability.
For winter exploration, a centrally-located base camp was established and two to three crews of three men were flown out every day to perform geophysical surveys on lakes and swamps. Often, if the aircraft was not needed for other uses, Jim Barber, the pilot, would work double-duty as the third crew member. If interesting anomalies were discovered by the geophysical surveys, a diamond drill, complete with fuel and a six-man camp, was flown into the site by the Beaver. Barber became very efficient in, moving equipment and crews. In under eight hours, Barber could fly out two geophysical crews, move a diamond drill, its crew, and camp to a new site, and return for the geophysical crews before dark!
In the late 1950s, Mullock was working in an area covered by swamp, and he contracted a helicopter to move the men and equipment to the site since the area was inaccessible by airplane. The helicopter soon became an integral part in Canico's exploration work because of its ability and speed, compared to overland methods, in moving men and equipment in difficult terrain.
Canico also utilized aircraft for airborne surveys with their development of an airborne electromagnetic system. This equipment was installed in an Anson twin-engined aircraft, and because of the wood construction of the Anson, there was a minimum of interference to the equipment. In later years, as the equipment became more sophisticated, the electromagnetic system was installed in a Twin Otter, and airborne operations were flown from a base camp in remote areas.
In 1961, John Mullock moved on to exploration work at what is now the Lupin Mine in the Northwest Territories. The aircraft used there, Bristol Freighters and DC-4 and DC-6, were much larger than those used in northern Saskatchewan because of the longer distances to supply sources. "Aircraft played an important role in Canico exploration in Saskatchewan," Mullock said, "by being able to access remote areas quickly and to obtain the airborne geophysical data to pinpoint targets in drift covered areas."
A Bell 47 G2 helicopter being used to move a geophysical crew south of
Deschambault Lake in 1961, for the exploration company Canico.
Photograph courtesy of John Mullock.
Jim Barber, War Hero and Bush Pilot.
Jim Barber first became interested in airplanes when he saw them flying overhead as he broke horses on the family homestead near Whitecross, Alberta. At the age of 23, in 1942, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.
During the Second World War, Barber earned his Pilot's Flying Badge and held the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and Clasp for volunteering and serving overseas, and the France-Germany Star for seeing action in the European war theatre. G.T. Rowan recalled that at that time Barber was the youngest pilot in the RCAF to fly a Lancaster bomber. His heroic exploits included saving his crew by bringing his damaged airplane safely back to base and flying low under enemy fire to drop his bomb load on strategic sites.
Near the end of the war, Barber married Jean Newby who was also a member of the RCAF stationed in Ottawa. After their years of service, the couple moved to Buffalo Narrows where Barber flew for Len Waite's companies, Waite Fisheries and Northern Airlines. A few years later, Waite sold his business to Saskatchewan Government Airways, and Barber moved over to the SGA base at La Ronge.
Long-time northern Saskatchewan pilot Lloyd Reid recalled Barber's bush flying skills.
He was famous for being able to get around the country in horrible weather, and he'd make it safely to wherever he was going. I remember one story where he was delivering ballot boxes through the north. He'd call ahead, say to Uranium City, to say he'd be landing in so many minutes, and they'd say well you can't land here it's zero visibility. But old Jimmy would come in and land and drop off and away he'd go again! He was quite famous for that type of flying.
During his time with SGA, Barber often flew for the exploration company Canico. After the close of Canico's exploration operations in Saskatchewan, Jim Barber continued to fly for Canico in the Northwest Territories and Manitoba. With his familiarity with company operations and personnel, Jim Barber became one of the Canico family. John Mullock of Canico recalled working with Barber:
Jim Barber was a good pilot, dedicated, an excellent navigator, and not afraid of work. During the long evenings in camp in winter months, Jim spent time around the dining table with Canico personnel to discuss many topics. The most common, especially when visitors were present, was about experiences in the north. He always had a supply of pocketbooks, and when he was delayed by weather (or on a long flight on a nice day!) out would come the book.
John Finch, who was with SGA at the time, recalls that whether SGA got the contract with Canico depended on if "Jimmy Barber was available as a pilot - so high was their regard for his common sense and ability."
Many people around the north held the same high regard for Jim Barber. When Barber died in 1977, his last employer, Lamb Air, sent a DC-3 of friends, fellow employees, and businessmen from Thompson, Manitoba, to La Ronge to attend the funeral. To honour Barber, the new La Ronge airport was named Barber Field.
Jim Barber, fourth from left, with his Lancaster bomber crew during the Second World War.
Photo taken after 33 operational sorties without any injury to the crew.
Photograph courtesy of Heather Crowdis.
Jim Barber during his years as a northern bush pilot.
Photograph courtesy of John Mullock.
Another post-war development was the establishment of the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers. No other region of Canada adopted the smoke jumping system for fighting forest fires, but every summer from 1947 to 1966 crews of parachutists assembled in La Ronge to serve in the battle to protect the northern forests.
In the early 1940s, the provincial Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was looking for new ways to combat forest fires, and their attention was drawn to activities south of the border.
The first fire suppression parachute jumps had been made in 1940 in the Nez Perce National Forest, Idaho, and at Missoula, Montana. The United States Department of Agriculture forest service division had established a base for several hundred smokejumpers at Missoula, who were moved around to fight fires across the western states and in Alaska.
Saskatchewan forestry officials visited Missoula to see a smoke jumping operation first-hand, and came back enthusiastic about the possibilities. The Edmonton-based company Hargreaves and Dick, which. trained parachutists for search and rescue work was contracted to get the operation started. It was further developed by DNR fire control supervisor E.J. Marshall, assistant supervisor Ansgar Aschim, and ex-military parachutist Dennis Kelly.
A 9-metre training tower was built at Prince Albert airport, and a 6-week training course began. in. June 1947. The 8 trainees had to pass a tough medical examination, be between 22 and 32 years of age, weigh less than 80 kilograms, and be temperamentally stable. Shortly after their training was completed, however, the DNR hangar at Prince Albert airport burned to the ground with the loss of all their equipment, preventing any jumps that year.
Dennis Kelly became jumpmaster for the 1948 season and was well-suited for the task, having been a paratrooper and commando during the war. For the next decade, he ran the outfit with military precision.
Physical conditioning was based on paratroop training in the armed forces. "The biggest thing was to be conditioned, so we weren't going to injure ourselves on landing," recalled Bob Milne, a smokejumper from 1960 to 1965. "There was a lot of training in running and jumping off ramps so we could do a relaxed roll."
The ground school taught first-aid, fire fighting, the theory of parachute jumping, parachute packing, and the art of escaping tall trees on landing. Final preparation included jumping off the back of a truck zig-zagging at 50 kilometres per hour down the airstrip. The trainees then gathered up their gear, each having packed his own. parachutes, and boarded the Norseman plane for the first of seven qualifying jumps that would earn them their jump wings.
The smokejumpers aimed to parachute into a fire as soon as smoke was reported and to extinguish it, or contain it until regular firefighters could get there by landing at the nearest lake and packing in overland. "It was a tremendous concept," said former smoke jumper Syd Nelson of La Ronge. "The idea was to hit the fire quickly and save costly fire fighting later."
The smokejumpers building in La Ronge, or the "barracks" as it was called, served as a bunkhouse, canteen, and recreation area for the jumpers. The upper floor contained a parachute packing room. and a tower for hanging parachutes to air and dry.
When the hazard was high, the jumpers stayed close to the barracks. "Jump Fire!" was the order barked over the speakers and four men and the jumpmaster grabbed their parachutes and headed for the Norseman float plane waiting at the dock. Before boarding, the jumpers put on heavy protective suits and helmets with wire face-guards and strapped their reserve parachutes in front of them. After take-off, they attached the static lines to their main parachutes. The static lines automatically opened the parachutes as they jumped.
Over the fire the jumpmaster chose a landing area on the flanks of the fire, preferably a muskeg area. A drift indicator was dropped to show the speed and direction of the wind, and the Norseman made two passes over the area at between 460 and 900 metres to drop a "stick" of two jumpers each time. In spring training, the jumps were made from the door. When jumping from a floatplane, the jumpers dropped through a chute in the floor to ensure a clear exit.
At a signal from the jumpmaster, the pilot throttled back to reduce propeller blast on the jumper and allow him a stable position when the parachute opened. After two seconds of free fall, the jumper would feel a tug as the static line pulled open the parachute, and he would sail to earth. Other passes followed to release bags on smaller chutes or streamers containing a ration box, messing gear, sleeping bags, a two-way radio, fire fighting tools, and back-packs.
Most landings were made amongst trees, and this often meant getting hung up. During practice, they learned to release themselves and drop to the ground, or if too high, to swing to the trunk and climb down, but some landings in trees still provided problems.
Don Hadden of Prince Albert, a smokejumper from 1957 to 1966 after gaining parachuting experience in the army, recalled that the only serious accident to any jumper during his time was the result of a hang-up. "George Horne's chute caught up in a poplar, and the brittle top of the tree broke off sending him crashing to the ground with the tree on top of him, causing several broken bones," Hadden said.
Two smoke jumpers leaving Norseman CF-SAM on a practice jump near Prince Albert in 1959.
First out was Howard Graham, and free-falling head downwards is Don Haddon before the
static line to the plane pulls open his parachute. Norsemnan CF-SAM is now at the
Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Photographic Services.
Hadden himself had his leg impaled on a sharp stick when landing in a burn, but he still fought the fire and then packed out for 11 kilometres. Vern Studer of La Ronge, a smokejumper from 1951 to 1953, also had a bad experience with a poplar. "I was hung up 30 feet (about 9 metres) from the ground, and as I pulled myself towards the tree the limbs broke off above and I fell headfirst. Luckily, I landed in some shrubs and only broke a bone in my hand and was still able to work on the fire."
After dropping the smokejumpers, the Norseman circled until the crew leader signalled all was well, then flew off in. the direction of the nearest lake to give the jumpers a compass bearing for their walkout to be picked up. On the ground, the jumpers set up their radio and began fighting the fire.
They continued fighting the fire until it was out, or until other firefighters arrived overland from the nearest lake. The smokejumpers then packed out all their equipment to where they could be picked up by floatplane. Don Hadden recalled that their packs usually weighed about 34 kilograms, and on one occasion he packed out 54 kilograms for 5 kilometres. Hadden's longest walkout was 27 kilometres, and another jumper recorded a trek of 40 kilometres.
Back in La Ronge, the crew would dry and repack their parachutes, be re-equipped, and stand by for the next alert. Sometimes they could hit two fires in one day. Frank Tompkins, a jumper from 1951 to 1959 and then jumpmaster until the program ended, recalled an occasion when he divided his four-man crew onto two fires, and they put out four fires in one day.
On rare occasions, a jumper would have trouble with his parachute. Herb Isbister of La Ronge, a jumper from 1964 to 1966, remembered when John Beatty had trouble on his one-hundredth jump. "His main chute didn't open and he pulled his reserve chute, but it was still fairly rough. Landing," Herb recalled. "But afterwards John was just as cool as ever."
Don Hadden was the first to make 100 jumps and became the first member of the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers' Century Club. The following year, John Beatty of La Ronge also completed his century.
Jumpmaster Frank Tompkins expressed the feelings of many of Saskatchewan's smokejumpers when he said: "I had been intending to become a conservation officer, but I liked smoke jumping so much I stayed with it. We developed it into a very effective operation, and it was a terrific experience!"
Changes were beginning to take place in northern fire fighting by the mid-1960s. Helicopters became more available for fire fighting. If a fire in a remote area got beyond a few hectares in size, only two smokejumpers would be sent in. Their job was to clear a helicopter landing area. Within half an hour the landing zone was brushed out. Helicopters arrived with ground crews and ferried the jumpers to the nearest lake so a floatplane could pick them up and carry them back to La Ronge.
The smokejumpers greatly reduced the fire losses in the north. From 1931 to 1941, an annual average of 250 fires destroyed 1,600 square kilometres a year. From 1952 to 1955 this average dropped to 102 fires and 80 square kilometres.
After 19 years of operation, the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers program was cancelled in 1966. About 120 men served as smokejumpers. They came from many parts of Canada and from overseas, and following their smoke jumping experiences went on to many different careers. Among them were future cabinet ministers, pilots, reporters, doctors, tourist outfitters, corrections officers, and hockey players. The Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers remain a unique element in northern Saskatchewan's history.
Smoke jumpers in full jumping gear ready for take-off at La Ronge airfield in 1963. The
wire-mesh masks protected their faces when landing in the bush and the high collars
prevented branches from. getting under their helmets. From left: Jim Guise, Don Herzak,
Syd Nelson, Jack Broom, and back to camera, Jumpmaster Frank Tompkins.
Photograph courtesy of Syd Nelson.
Fish and faith and forests, medicine and minerals, were not the only spurs to northern aviation in the post-war world. The Cold War which followed also spurred some northern aviation activity.
Canada was geographically in the middle of the world's two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. A nuclear war between the two was considered to be a very real threat. An obvious attack route for Soviet bombers was via the Arctic.
The fear of such an attack prompted the United States and Canada to begin building three east-west transcontinental radar lines in 1954. The most northerly line was the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, built along the 69th parallel from Alaska to eastern Canada. The second was the Mid-Canada Line, which crossed Canada on the 55th parallel. Finally, there was a third, southern line, named the Pine Tree Line, which straddled the Canada-United States border along the 49th parallel. The system became operational in the summer of 1957.
The Mid-Canada radar line passed near the south end of Lac La Ronge. In the village of La Ronge, so far removed from Moscow and Washington, the activity boosted the local economy, and the Americans with their Sikorski helicopters provided some excitement.
Henry Hegland was a freighter living in La Ronge. His son Mel, later mayor of La Ronge, helped transport material to the sites. Mel learned to fly in 1957 at Prince Albert in Fleet Canuck serial number 1. He also became a licenced aircraft maintenance engineer. Here is his story about building the Mid-Canada Radar Line:
The construction started in 1955 and went on until just into 1957. Four sites were serviced out of La Ronge. There was the one on the far end of Wapawekka Lake, one on the Wapawekka Portage, another over by Egg Lake, and the last site at Emmeline Lake.
The contractor, Bell Telephone, came in and wanted gravel hauled out to the sites. They made a contract with my dad to put up bagged gravel - one cubic foot (about 0.03 cubic metres) per bag. We did the bagging in the winter and had to go into the pit and blast it open. We put up 8,000 bags of gravel by hand with a shovel. Then we hauled it out to the old La Ronge airport and put it in four nice long piles - one for each site. They had a change of plans and later they hauled it all in by "cat-train."
At Emmeline Lake, they didn't get any gravel hauled in that winter so they started flying it in, in one-cubic-foot bags, seven bags at a time in a Cessna 180. That helped Athabaska Airways get going real good.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police played an important role in the history of northern
Saskatchewan. This RCMP Grumman Goose flying boat, CF-MPG, toured the northern
bases and served as a flying courtroom. Over the years, the RCMP had Norseman and
Stinson aircraft based in Regina and Prince Albert and smaller float planes in La Ronge.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
Hegland serviced the Mid-Canada Radar Line for several years, usually starting in late January to haul diesel and helicopter fuel to the sites. Two International tractors pulled a pair of sleighs loaded with 18,200 litres a trip. "We ran 24 hours a day - when you left town you didn't stop until you got back," Mel recalled. In good weather, it took 5 hours to cross the 37 kilometres over the lake.
In one incident, as the Heglands ate lunch at a tower site, a Piasecki helicopter flew in and set down a load of steel beams that were slung by cable under the helicopter. The pilot should have released the cable but for some reason, the cable remained attached to the helicopter.
He took off and when he came to the end of the cable the helicopter went over on its side and just bounced down the helicopter pad and onto a brush pile.
We all ran out there and it was laying on its side. The young chopper pilot came out of there - he couldn't have been more than twenty years old. He stood up on top of the helicopter and said, "Here we are, baby, but I'm not taking you back." He climbed off of it just as calm as a kitten.
He came into the diner afterwards and sat down and shook like a leaf. They were lucky. There were only three on board. The only guy that got shook up was the [loadmaster]. He was looking out the door and saw it happen. He said he just grabbed a seat belt and hung on. That was the only real problem they had here on this line. Airplanes were coming and going all the time.
The radar stations didn't operate too long - until. `60 or `61. There is nothing left of the sites today but you might see some foundations where the towers were. Three of the metal buildings, where they had the main radar equipment, are here in La Ronge.
Few people knew what a U-2 spy plane was before the Soviet Union downed an American pilot on a secret mission in their air space in May 1960. The incident occurred during the height of Cold War tensions and made headlines throughout the world.
But it was not the first spy plane to come down in a foreign country. A few months earlier, another of these secret Lockheed jets had come down in Canada near La Ronge. Luckily, the U-2 pilot was not injured. He landed on Wapawekka Lake within 6 kilometres of the radar line and was quickly picked up by one of the radar line service helicopters.
At the time, Henry and Mel Hegland were building a winter road to Stanley Mission. Two helicopters set down nearby, and men from the helicopters walked up the trail to where the Heglands were bulldozing. They wanted to rent the bulldozer - or purchase it if necessary - to snowplow an airstrip on Wapawekka Lake, where an airplane had gone down. "What kind of airplane?" Henry Hegland asked. But he received no answer.
Henry and Mel Hegland travelled through the night and arrived at Wapawekka Lake the next day. They made an airstrip about 300 metres long.
That night Pat Campling, outfitter and owner of La Ronge Aviation, drove the RCMP in a Bombardier across the frozen lake to the site. They stayed nearby until the military arrived. Hegland recalled, "When they first came in they brought a bunch of military guys from the States and everything was top secret. They had guards stationed there." Mel Hegland remembered that the airplane did not need repairing.
They didn't have to repair the undercarriage or anything. They just shovelled the snow away from the wheels, put a new battery in, started it up, and that thing went out of there like a helicopter. Melted a little snow behind him but he just went right out of there. They flew it over to Cold Lake, Alberta. It was a pretty interesting thing for a few days around here.
By this time, airplanes were having a growing influence on the everyday life of people in northern. Saskatchewan. The airplane brought an increasing variety of goods and services to the people of northern Saskatchewan and transported northern furs and fish to southern markets. The airplanes also brought newcomers like doctors, missionaries, geologists, policemen., and tourists. Aviation was helping to develop and diversify the provincial and northern economies and enrich the lives of people in the north.