Saskatchewan Government Airways
In the years following the war, several private aviation companies resumed their pre-war operations and other small firms were formed. Opportunities for these commercial firms were plentiful as a result of the provincial government's program of resource development. SGA was facing a growing number of competitors for northern business.
SGA purchased Northern Airlines from Len Waite in 1951, but there were other competitors. In 1947, Edgar Jones started a charter operation out of Fort McMurray, Alberta, using a small four-place Stinson 108-3. His company, McMurray Air Service, served the communities of Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan, 190 kilometres to the north. Both communities were only about 8 kilometres west of the Saskatchewan-Alberta border and were important in the development and supply of mining ventures around Goldfields and Beaverlodge Lake, near Lake Athabasca.
Jones flew in that area during 1948 and 1949 but lost his interest in bush flying after a couple of accidents. He approached Bert Burry, who was prospecting in the Goldfields area and flying his own Stinson 108, about taking over McMurray Air Service. Burry agreed and by January 1950 he was in the airplane business.
Float planes at McMurray Air Service's base at
Martin Lake near Uranium City in 1960.
Photograph courtesy of Len Trevelyan.
Burry took over the Fort McMurray office along with Jones' Stinson. He added his own Stinson to the fleet and purchased a Seabee flying boat. With three airplanes, McMurray Air Service Limited (MASL) suddenly became what he called "a big operator." In addition to the rapid growth of his company, there were more surprises in store for him.
Canadian Pacific Airlines, which had been flying into Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan, relinquished its licence for passenger, mail, and freight service to those communities. MASL soon had as much flying as it wanted and purchased a Norseman to handle the increase in. business.
Uranium City was growing beyond anyone's expectations. Burry believed that exploration and uranium production was going to boom in the Goldfields and Uranium City area. In 1952, he moved the business to Martin Lake, a kilometre east of Uranium City. There he built a dock, offices, and housing. Later the company erected the first concrete block hangar in either northern Saskatchewan or the Northwest Territories.
MASL and SGA had often worked in the same area, especially around Uranium City, and enjoyed a friendly working relationship. The mining boom had brought as many as 85 exploration camps within a 40-kilometre radius of Uranium City, and there was enough business for both companies. Burry bought more Stinsons, but what he really needed was the authority to haul heavy loads, like drilling and mining equipment, with. his Beaver and Norseman from the base at Goldfields. He applied for a Class 4, Group B air carrier licence which would allow the company to operate the larger aircraft with loaded weights of up to 3,400 kilograms. The licence would give him an equal footing with SGA.
Notice of MASL's application was published by the Air Transport Board, inviting all interested parties to make representations. In early December, the Crown corporation filed a six-page document, outlining the expense it had incurred to establish air facilities in the area and the excellent service SGA provided. SGA stated that the amount of business in the foreseeable future did not "justify the existence of more than one operator with a Class 4, Group B licence at the Goldfields base." Allan Blakeney, who was to become Premier of Saskatchewan, represented SGA at the public hearing.
In March 1953, the Air Transport Board released its decision. The Board concluded that MASL could not efficiently transport the mining operators' equipment with its small aircraft: MASL was given the licences to use larger aircraft.
Now it was back to business for the two competitors. The influx of prospectors, miners, and engineers brought about such an expansion that MASL gradually added another Norseman and four Otters. They replaced the Stinsons with five Cessna 180 aircraft, picked up three more Beavers, and bought a Twin Beechcraft on floats.
By the late 1950s, the federal government was turning its attention to the Arctic archipelago. Out of this came the Polar Continental Shelf Project, a series of surveys and scientific studies of the high Arctic. MASL joined the activity with a Turbo Beaver, two Twin Beechcraft, and two of its Otters. Each year MASL sent aircraft to the high north between March and September.
Burry stayed in the aviation business for nearly twenty years, finally selling MASL to Gateway Aviation of Edmonton in 1969.
McMurray Air Service's Beech I8 was used for work in northern Saskatchewan
and northwards into the Northwest Territories.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
McMurray Air Service's Single Otter CF-LAP on wheel-skis at Martin Lake in 1963.
In the foreground is a Herman-Nelson heater used for warming engines and the
interior of planes in preparation for use in cold weather.
Photograph courtesy of Len Trevelyan.
Another of SGA's competitors in the 1950s was started by two brothers in Meadow Lake. The town had never been a centre of northern aviation, but during the boom days of Uranium City in the early 1950s, the Balych brothers, 'Alex and Bohdan, established a north-south air link along the west side of the province, from the farmland to the frontier.
The Balychs were not typical aviators. They were not military air veterans, nor did they come up through the high. school air cadet pilot training program. Instead, these farm boys had not started flying until after they bought a Massey-Harris farm implement dealership in 1948. The young businessmen had prospered and soon became interested in aviation. In 1950, they bought a little two-place Cessna 140, CF-EMJ, and took flying lessons from the Edmonton Flying Club. Both received their licences as private pilots the next year.
They intended it to be an enjoyable pastime, but during that spring the Meadow Lake area was hit with several snowstorms. Snow clogged the roads, and rural people began to call on the Balych brothers to bring supplies to them by air. Then heavy spring and summer rains turned the dirt roads to mud, and again people needed their help. As well, it was convenient, and fun, to make farm machinery service calls and deliver parts to farmers with the airplane.
By the end of that summer, the brothers had each logged almost 100 hours. They decided to increase their service by moving up to a four-place Cessna 170A, CF-EMR. The airplane came with skis and floats. Finally, it was time to get serious about the flying business. In 1952, they applied for and received, a class 4 charter licence based at Meadow Lake under the name of Balych Brothers Flying Service.
McMurray Air Service's Norseman CF-CRU during changeover
from skis to floats in the spring.
Photograph courtesy of Len Trevelyan.
The Balych brothers reasoned that the most expensive shipping costs to the new community of Uranium City were air costs, and Meadow Lake was 130 kilometres closer to Uranium City than Prince Albert. They could make the trip at about 22 cents per kilometre.
They hired Sam McKnight, a pilot and engineer, to fly their Cessna 170. Soon business required a larger airplane, so they bought a Mark IV Norseman, CF-FCU, and hired a second pilot, Zane Palmer. Because Balych Brothers were operating under a class 4 licence, it could not fly a "split load" - it could only fly for one party at a time. That was impractical for customers who wanted to share transportation costs with another local business. The answer was to apply for a class 2 licence, allowing the company to carry passengers and freight to designated points on a route with some degree of regularity. In other words, they could charge by the kilogram and split the load.
Alex and Bohdan Balych in front of their Cessna 140, CF-EMJ.
Photograph courtesy of Alex Balych.
However, just as McMurray Air Service found out when it came into the Uranium City area with a bigger airplane, Balych Brothers found they competed with SGA. McMurray Air Service in March 1953 had won a change in its licence over the strong objections of SGA, and two months later joined with SGA in opposition to Balych Brothers' application.
McMurray Air Service said, "Meadow Lake is so located geographically that service from this point would be of no benefit to the public." The Air Transport Board met in Saskatoon to hear arguments for and against the licence. In December 1953, the board ruled that "it would not be in the public interest to grant the Applicants authority to operate the service applied for," and did not "consider that the evidence showed a need for such a service."
However, it was not a victory for the more established operators, SGA and MASL. The board ruled it would grant the Balychs a Class 3 Irregular Specific Point service "to transport passengers and goods from a base at Meadow Lake on a per passenger basis and that the specific points should be Buffalo Narrows and Uranium City." In other words, Balych Brothers could split loads.
When the Balychs bought their Norseman, it cost more than the brothers had on hand, so they asked eight local farmers and businessmen to invest in it with them and become partners in a new company called Meadow Lake Air Services Ltd. On June 1, 1954, the licences of Balych Brothers were transferred to Meadow Lake Air Services. The small company bought two Cessna 195 aircraft, CF-EKW and CF-GSF, to replace the Cessna 170, and later a Stinson 108, CF-FQU, replaced the Norseman Sam McKnight went on to fly elsewhere. Doug Gant, Roger Sexty, and the Balych brothers themselves flew with Meadow Lake Air Services.
The Mid-Canada Radar Line provided work for the little company as they hauled cement and gravel from Ile a la Crosse to the new radar sites. The firm flew just about anyone that had business in the north, from prospectors to politicians, medical workers, trappers, fishermen, prisoners, and judges.
In one incident, Bohdan Balych was flying over Wollaston Lake one day and saw people standing on the lake ice. It all looked a little strange. Thinking they might be in trouble, he circled and landed. They were indeed in trouble - and they told him that if he had been who they thought he was, they would have shot him. Balych discovered that a fish camp operator from North Battleford had dropped them off before freeze-up and had promised to bring them food after the ice was thick enough to land. It was now early December, and he still had not come. Their stomachs were empty, and they were angry. Balych had a load of supplies, so he left them some food and went on. He was glad they did not shoot and ask questions later.
The Balych brothers had other interests, but found that aviation kept them far from home. There might be a charter to Buffalo Narrows and a police flight to Cree Lake. Then someone would want to go from there to Uranium City, and another from there to Yellowknife. Meanwhile, communications were poor and the family at home never knew where they were or if they were safe.
Meadow Lake Air Services was sold to Shoquist Construction of Saskatoon in. late 1955. Things ended well on the business ledger, and the Balych brothers went on to other careers. Later Shoquist Construction sold the company to Athabaska Airways.
Bohdan Balych with Meadow Lake Air Services' Cessna 195 on floats.
Photograph courtesy of Alex Batych.
Looking back on their flying careers, Alex Balych wrote:
Our careers as bush pilots were short by some standards. However, it was long enough to get a first-hand view of the joys and the hardships northern flying had to offer.
Another commercial charter operation that developed in the 1950s grew out of Walter Johnston's fish-hauling business. Johnston, a farmer from Carrot River, began a fishing business in 1947. Borrowing against his property, he bought an Aeronca Champ and outfitted several men. from Cumberland House to fish for him at Namew and Suggi Lakes. He flew supplies into the camp, picked up the fresh fish the men caught, and freighted it to Carrot River. There, his employees packed the fish on ice and shipped it via rail to Winnipeg and on to Montreal.
A map of Walter Johnston's airstrip for Carrot River Airways, showing
the artificial lake he constructed for float planes.
Map courtesy of Energy, Mines, and Resources Canada.
The Champ was not a big airplane. It carried two people, who sat in tandem, the pilot ahead of the passenger. In this case, the passenger was fish - boxes or bags of fish. In 1949, he traded in the Champ for two other Champs and added a Stinson 108 two years later.
It was a private operation, so he had to abide by the restrictions of being a non-commercial operator. There was demand for a charter operator in the Carrot River region since the area north of the Saskatchewan River had few roads but several villages. In 1956, he applied for a commercial class 4 B and C air operations licence; a charter flying service out of Carrot River, known as Carrot River Airways, was approved. By this time, his flight line had as much variety as a used car lot: a Stinson, a Champ, a Taylorcraft, and a Cessna 140. The fish business was soon abandoned in favour of commercial flying. In 1959, he expanded the original hangar that he had built in 1947. It had a better maintenance shop, an office, and a waiting room. In 1961, he also built an unheated Quonset-style hangar for aircraft storage.
Business success often depends just as much on being in the right place at the right time as it does on skilful management. Two years after Johnston received his commercial charter licence, the Squaw Rapids dam, now called the E.B. Campbell Hydro Electric Station, was constructed 50 kilometres northeast of Carrot River. For the next 4 years, from 1959 to 1963, Johnston shuttled the hydro executives and engineers in and out of the dam site. He often made two round trips from Squaw Rapids to Saskatoon and another trip to Regina in one day, a distance of about 2,000 kilometres.
Carrot River was ideally located to service the east side of the province north of the Saskatchewan River. Johnston served such places as the Red Earth, Shoal Lake, and Pine Bluff Indian reserves, and Cumberland House, Sandy Bay, Pelican Narrows, and Sturgeon Landing. His airplanes pushed farther north to Southend, Kinoosao, and Wollaston Post, and east to the Manitoba communities of Flin Flon, Pukatawagan, and Lynn Lake. He flew public servants, nurses, doctors, and the RCMP. Carrot River Airways also flew the yearly treaty parties to Red Earth, Shoal Lake, Cumberland House, and Sturgeon Landing. As well, he flew mail twice a week into those villages for eleven years.
Johnston's business grew on the profit that it generated and on the quality of his flying, aircraft maintenance, and radio repairs.
Always an innovator, he built a water airstrip for his floatplanes in 1969. Bulldozers and draglines were used to make a dug-out over one kilometre long, 90 metres wide, and 6 metres deep at one end. The project was undertaken during the winter so that the machinery could operate in the low, wet area.
The water base was large enough to handle any of the floatplanes working in the area and deep enough to keep stocked with rainbow trout.
An aerial view of Carrot River Airways base, with
the artificial lake on the right.
Photograph courtesy of Walter Johnston.
The area around Carrot River was good hunting land, and hunters occasionally got lost. Walter Johnston. remembered those search and rescue flights. In one instance, a hunter got lost along the Cumberland Road area and walked about 20 kilometres through the bush to Torch River. He built a large fire, and Johnston spotted him from the air. Another hunter was lost near Cut Beaver River. Johnston, with the RCMP, spent several days looking for him. The hunter got their attention by climbing to the top of a tall tree and setting a hawk's nest on fire. Sometimes time and luck ran out for both the hunter and the searcher. When Archie Laroque disappeared in the Pasquia Hills area, Johnston crisscrossed the district for several days. Laroque was never found.
Another search in the early 1950s sent him out looking for the crew of a United States Air Force B-52 bomber. It had gone down in the Burns Lake area east of Big Sandy Lake. Three of the four crewmen survived and Johnston found one of them. The airman was very fortunate to be found. He had broken his leg and was unable to spread out his parachute for easy spotting.
Carrot River Airways operated for more than two decades. In 1978, though, Johnston laid the business to rest. Roads were penetrating farther and farther into northeastern Saskatchewan. It was clear that bush charter operations would have to move farther north to stay in business. As well, the Ministry of Transport introduced new regulations about public airports. For the sake of air safety, the government said trees below the approach and departure path at Carrot River's airport would have to be removed. Johnston would also have to move his hangars 76 metres farther away from the runway. Johnston hesitated. They finally agreed to licence a tiny airstrip in the centre of the airport that was 23 metres wide and 550 metres long. It met the air regulations, and he could continue his commercial flying. On top of all this, new regulations were coming into effect for aircraft radios, and he would be faced with the cost of installing $35,000 worth off new radios in his airplanes.
Johnston looked back over 33 years of flying experience. At one time his company had eight employees. Johnston proudly notes that many of them now work with the airlines.
But he did not close his pilot's logbook or hang up his tools when he closed the shop. His love of flying and interest in aircraft maintenance brought him in touch with an important episode in American aviation history. In 1985, he purchased a 1956 Cessna 172 that, unknown to him at the time, had once set a world record for non-stop endurance flying. Johnston discovered its history and learned the full story from the Cessna factory in Wichita, Kansas. From December 4, 1958, to February 7, 1959, pilots Robert Timm. and John Cook flew the Cessna continuously in the skies around Las Vegas, Nevada. The total flight time was 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, and 5 seconds. To make the epic flight the airplane had to be refuelled as it flew directly above a fuel truck speeding down a stretch of highway at 120 kilometres per hour. A fuel hose was handed up to Cook, who had to stand halfway outside the airplane. Over the next 3 minutes, 430 litres of fuel was pumped into a special belly tank in the Cessna. Food and oil were brought up with a small electric hoist.
Steve Timm, son of one of the original pilots, now living in Las Vegas, spent two years tracking down the airplane. He approached Johnston, wanting to buy it back as a memorial to his father's flight. Johnston had kept it in excellent running shape. A deal was made and in 1988 the aircraft headed south to Las Vegas. Before it left, Timm was able to get back its old American registration, N9172B. Today it is back in the United States. It has been restored to look the same as on the day it embarked on its record-setting flight, complete with the belly tank.
The 1950s were good not just for the small commercial operations, but for Saskatchewan Government Airways as well. As the northern economy grew, so grew SGA.
One northern centre that was thriving was La Ronge. It was quickly taking over from Prince Albert as the centre of northern aviation. An airstrip had been built at La Ronge in 1947 and charter and scheduled flights flew from the little town. Three of SGA's four scheduled flights radiated from there. SGA opened a new maintenance base at La Ronge and Beaver, Norseman, Anson, Stinson, and Cessna aircraft were stationed there. La Ronge was also becoming a centre for the Department of Natural Resources. The smokejumpers were based there as were some of the flying conservation officers. Commercial fishermen used SGA to bring fish to the new filleting plant at La Ronge. Trappers' supplies went out through the town, and their furs came back. Prospectors made La Ronge their base because it was on the edge of the mineralized Precambrian Shield. Dollar-conscious sport fishermen drove up the new road to La Ronge to the heart of some of Canada's best fishing country. From La Ronge, it was just a short hop by airplane to lakes that had rarely been fished by sport fishermen.
In 1956, Saskatchewan Government Airways had its best year yet in every category of business. It had its greatest number of employees, 94, and it acquired a de Havilland Otter for its fleet. Cessna 180, Beaver, and Norseman aircraft made up the backbone of the fleet, almost two-thirds of the 22-airplane inventory. The DC-3 was getting heavy use as well. Net earnings were just over $60,000.
The Noorduyn Norseman was one of the great workhorses of the north.
Here, SGA engineer Roy Bruman left, and apprentice Bob Neice prepare to
unload a replacement engine for one of the company's Beavers which had
problems while flying prospectors into the Northwest Territories in 1952.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
One of'SGA's DC-3, CF-SAW, on the scheduled flight to
Uranium City during the uranium boom in the 1950s.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
The company purchased a second DC-3, CF-KBU, and increased its DC-3 service to Uranium City to five and then to eight flights a week. The Gunnar mine was in production, and because it was not connected by road to Uranium City 25 kilometres away, the modern town of Gunnar was built. Route 5, the scheduled flight to the mining areas, was upgraded for instrument flight with the installation of homing beacons at Cree Lake and Stony Rapids.
In the last half of the decade, SGA's earnings dropped. The federal government was not spending as much on flying, and the summers were wet, reducing the use of aircraft for smoke jumping and fire patrol. As well, the mines around Uranium City were in full production so exploration in the area had declined. Then the United States and Great Britain decided to end their military stockpiling off uranium. The bottom fell out of uranium production. The federal government tried to keep it going for a while, but finally, all but three Canadian uranium mines shut down. SGA's scheduled service to the mining areas dropped to just three flights a week.
To make matters worse, SGA aircraft were involved in two fatal accidents. Both accidents happened with Cessna 180 aircraft and both on the west side of the province. Three people died in January 1959 in a crash at Garson Lake, west of La Loche. The crash was attributed to low visibility in a snow squall. The other crash took place, it is believed, at Peter Pond Lake just west of Buffalo Narrows. The airplane, with a pilot and one passenger on board, left Buffalo Narrows bound for La Loche and Patterson Lake. After it did not arrive, a massive search was begun by SGA, RCAF Search and Rescue, and private aircraft. The airplane, pilot, and passenger were never found.
SGA engineers changing an engine on a DC-3 at
Beaverlodge Airport near Uranium City.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
Private charter companies were also starting to cut into SGA's business. As a result of a federal policy of unlimited competition, operators were entering the air carrier market and drawing business away from the already established companies. J.A. Austin, president of the Air Transport Association predicted, "The present situation leaves itself open to rate-cutting, over-loading, tariff evasions, and many other breaches and evasions of the regulations resulting in deteriorating maintenance." At the same time, a directive from J.L. Phelps, the minister responsible for SGA, stated that there was plenty of room for private air operators in the north. Saskatchewan's Premier Douglas supported this "plenty of room" policy. There was to be room in Saskatchewan for government, co-operatives, and private enterprise.
Douglas' "plenty of room" policy reduced SGA's competitive edge. SGA recognized that roads were reaching farther and farther into the north and that aviation was an "end of the road" business. A plan was developed to build airbases at the end of each section of major road construction for SGA to stay competitive in the bush flying business.
This series of photographs shows the recovery of SGA Norseman CF-SAM
from Nistowiak Falls by John Finch and his team.
(1) The plane had been swept over rapids, of the photograph to the right, and is
being secured at the top of the falls.
(2 and 3) The wings are removed to haul the plane through the bush.
(4) A trail was v-cut and the plane moved along it back to the lake.
(1) The wings were carried over and the plane re-assembled on the shore.
(6) CF-SAM ready for take-off.
To the left of the picture are the rapids which the plane had been swept down.
Photographs courtesy of John Finch.
John Finch, an aircraft engineer with SGA at the time, said, "It came down from very high places that the idea certainly wasn't to be restrictive to other operators or do anything to put them out of business. We came up with the idea that we would put in utility bases, a utility base meaning an office space, fuel storage, small living quarters, and maybe a powerhouse and an outbuilding. The idea was to keep it small so we could close the place down at freeze-up time." Once the business was there, other operators would set up a base as well. Shortly after the Otter Lake base was built north of La Ronge, two other companies moved in.. The Douglas position on private development was working.
SGA was caught in the middle. It was a Crown corporation with 60 to 90 employees, depending on the season, plus more than 20 aircraft to maintain, to say nothing of the bases and shops that needed upkeep. SGA could no longer be the powerful giant it was in the early 1950s.
To combat its financial problems, SGA sold its last Cessna 140 and its Cessna 170 in 1.961. This reduced the number of parts the maintenance shop had to keep in stock. It also sold a Cessna 180 and a DC-3. To accommodate the diminished passenger load, SGA purchased a smaller Beechcraft to make the Prince Albert to Uranium City flight. The next year SGA also sold a Norseman. It had been 10 years since SGA had been down to a fleet of 19 airplanes.
After almost two decades without a change of government, the CCF was defeated by the Liberals under Ross Thatcher. Just as SGA had appeared following the 1944 change of government, so it disappeared following the 1964 election.
In the months following the election, a group of six men formed plans to purchase SGA, which had changed its name to SaskAir under the Thatcher government. The six were Jack Lloyd; Ian "Scotty" McLeod, SaskAir's Prince Albert base manager; John Pool., who had joined M&C in 1939 and came to SGA with the purchase of that company; Bert Burry of McMurray Air Service Limited; Prince Albert lawyer Clyne Harradence; and Alec Aaron, also of Prince Albert. In March 1965, SGA and SaskAir passed into history and became Norcanair.
Construction of the staff quarters, office, and warehouse for
SGA's Uranium City water base at Martin Lake.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
At one time the northern roads were waterways; now they were gravel. When the road pushed north, La Ronge and other northern communities supplanted Prince Albert as centres of northern flying. Airplanes were spanning shorter and shorter distances, with people, mail, and freight all moving farther north by road.
SGA had fulfilled its mandate of providing transportation services to the north. Being a Crown corporation, it was able to start up quickly. Because it did not have to work under the threat of bankruptcy, it could take chances a private enterprise could not. SGA played a significant role in opening one of Canada's last frontiers.