windrum header

Is commercial flying what it used to be? Not in the opinion of a quiet-voiced man who now sits in an administrative office of Canadian Pacific Airlines at the Vancouver International Airport.

"Pilots today wouldn't fly the planes we did," says W. J. "Bill" Windrum, a former bush pilot of fifteen years standing who helped develop Canada's vast northland when the airplane was the only means of transportation. "They consider them unsafe."

Flying is different in other ways, too. The bush pilot of old was on his own. If his run was across northern B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan. or the Northwest Territories, he used the roughest of maps. He frequently did his own mechanical work.

During cold weather, he warmed his plane in the morning with blow pots and put it to bed at night. He loaded his cargo, which he sometimes purchased and "fueled" his plane by loading 40-gallon barrels of aviation gas.

Should he be forced down in the wilderness, out of gas. or with serious motor trouble, he might never be found. An elaborate search would be made, but the pilots wouldn't know where to look in that vast area. Unless there was a river or a settlement nearby, he would rarely get out.

Bill Windrum has had his full share of hazardous experiences. But he, too, is one of "the lucky ones" who didn't 'get into any trouble they couldn't get out of and can now see the great contributions that pioneering airmen have made to commercial flying.

Aviation for Bill Windrum has come a long way. It all began when he applied to join the Royal Navy Air Service in World War One.

"The head of the Royal Canadian Navy, Admiral Kingmill, didn't give me any aptitude or intelligence tests when he called me in for an interview," he says. "He just asked me, 'Windrum, if you had to go overseas tomorrow, would you go?' After some thought, I said yes, and I was in. That was all he wanted to know.

After a short stint in the government service after the war was over, flying became Bill Windrum's life occupation. He instructed for a few years, and when bush flying was developing in northern Saskatchewan, he took it up.

From his base at Prince Albert, he flew trappers and prospectors and hard rock miners into the north, to the beginnings of current "boom towns" like 'Yellowknife, Uranium City, and Beaver Lodge.

He flew constables and magistrates into the isolated settlements and brought out prisoners. He flew in doctors and brought out sick and dying men. He was a mailman for the north. He took out loads of fish, samples of ore, and raw furs. He once brought out timber wolves for a traveling dog show, and flew in dancing slippers, moccasins and once, a size 44 corset for the women, and brides and whisky and champagne for the men.

He flew the geologists and the geodetic instrument men over the north country, even up to Victoria Land when the first surveys for maps were being made, at a time when he had neither maps nor radio equipment to fly by. When he was forced down, he was the first pilot to take off on ice with pontoons

Once when he lost oil on the snow, he had to land and run to gather up enough oil-saturated snow to get his plane to the nearest northern oil and gas cache. And every season at break-up or freeze-up, the competition between himself and Wop May and the pilots flying out of Edmonton would be resumed for the pilot to be first in or last out of the northern settlements.

In the morning before a flight, his plane would be frozen. Bill Windrum would cover a tarpaulin over the engine and start heating the enclosed space with blow-pots until he could work the propeller. He can remember agonizing days when the engine would freeze again before he could clamber into the cockpit to start the motor. At night when he landed on the ice-covered areas, he would have to jack up the plane's skis off the snow or ice.

Bill Windrum believed that caution was a prime requisite. "You couldn't take chances in that country" he says. "If you developed motor trouble, you landed your plane as quickly as possible. Then you had to figure out what was wrong with it.

"You used all the ingenuity you had in any situation. Bush flying wasn't built on luck, it was built on minimizing chance. I always carried a tent, a rifle, an axe, some non-perishable food, snowshoes, and a stove. You couldn't take much bulky emergency equipment because of your cargo, but you needed these. If your destination was too far away for the gas you could carry, you flew your gas to a halfway point and went back to your base for the cargo."

Bill Windrum took few risks. Once in a while he had to cache a load, once it was a half ton of whisky. When on the only occasion his plane crashed through motor trouble, he neither panicked nor despaired, but set off on foot for the nearest cabin or village, setting his tent up in bitter cold and existing on the food he carried or the game he could shoot.

In the only diary he ever kept, written on the back of a rough map of the three western provinces, he wrote of being weather-bound by blizzard. "There are three of us in the party, P. D. Walker, district inspector for the Revillon Freres Trading Co., a trapper Howard Derbyshire, and myself. This is the sixth day of our inspection trip of posts and trappers. It is getting monotonous here and we are anxious to get going. We hope to go further north tomorrow. We are almost out of food. The bread, butter, and jam are finished, and from now on we shall have to go on a fresh meat diet of moose, lynx, and caribou."

To the small population of the north he represented the outside world, the only contact the men and women at some posts and settlements had.

"They besieged me with questions of all kinds, asking after friends, wanting to know what was going on. The rest of the world could end and they wouldn't know the first thing about it."

"But when you got to a trapper's cabin bringing supplies, or to a mine with equipment, you got the best welcome you could possibly imagine. Hospitality in the north is something that makes city entertaining look like mere politeness.

Bill Windrum and his airplane became an institution in the country he flew. The Prince Albert papers made him a celebrity of northern Saskatchewan. When the Provincial Government constituency of Goldfields (the predecessor of Beaverlodge) was established he was nominated for MLA. Every trapper, miner, settler, and prospector turned out to vote for him. He lost by fourteen votes to the representative of the Indians.

Looking back over the adventurous years, Bill Windrum sees quite a few changes in aviation. The big airlines have taken the place of shoestring commercial ventures where a plane lost meant a business ruined. The pilots fly by instrument and not by pure resourcefulness and have little contact with the people they carry. "A passenger becomes a friend," he says. "Modern aviation in comparison has lost a great thing."

As for bush flying, it is also different. The country is opened up now and the pilots know more of where they are going. They use radio equipment now and have better engines and much better airplanes with undercarriages better stressed for rough landings.

But this man, whom his close friends say never got the recognition he deserved like a handful of others, welcomes the progress for he is not a little proud that he has helped it along.

This article was written by John De Wolf.

Credit for this article and pictures - The Vancouver Province B.C. Magazine - Saturday July 10, 1954 edition.

Further credit for material used on this webpage - Roger Hodgson.

Bill Windrum and J.B Lussier.

Pilot and passenger check the route before taking off. "Bill" Windrum (left) took the "flying magistrate, " J.E. Loussier of Prince Albert, trying cases in the far
northland settlements.

Aircraft and dog team.

This dog team brought a load of fish to be taken by pilot Windrum (left) to Prince Albert. Cargoes varied from ore samples and furs flown out, to whiskey and supplies flown in. Passengers varied foam prisoners to superintendents to brides.

Photo credit Harry Rowed Photo and Les Oystryk

A canoe is loaded for a geographic survey.

A canoe is loaded for a geographic survey.

Bill Windrum in the window.

Bill Windrum in the window of his aircraft.

Photo credit: Harry Rowed Photo and Les Oystryk

Bill Windrum with engine cover.

Bill Windrum covering the engine of his air craft.
A blowpot would be lit under the engine shroud to warm up the engine.

Photo credit: Harry Rowed Photo and Les Oystryk

Aircraft at dock.

CF-AKI at a dock, loading or unloading, passengers.
Photo probably taken at Stanley Mission on the Churchill River.

Photo credit: Harry Rowed Photo and Les Oystryk

CF-AKI on the water.

Aircraft CF-AKI on the water with spectators.
Photo probably taken at Stanley Mission, or
La Ronge on the Churchill River.

Photo credit: Harry Rowed Photo and Les Oystryk

Aircraft fallen through ice.

Aircraft CF-CTG and a fuel truck sunk through the ice.
Photo probably taken at Stanley Mission or
La Ronge on the Churchill River.

Photo credit: Harry Rowed Photo and Les Oystryk

Stanley Mission.

Stanley Mission on the Churchill River.

Photo credit: Harry Rowed Photo and Les Oystryk

Bill Windrum Lindsay, Ontario.

Bill Windrum in Lindsay, Ontario - Photo credit: Roger Hodgson.

Bill and his wife Lulu.

Bill Windrum and his wife, Lulu - Photo credit: Roger Hodgson

Bill Windrum with his mother Margaret.

Bill Windrum with his mother Margaret - Photo credit: Roger Hodgson

Margaret Margaret Windrum with her grandson.

Margaret Windrum with her grandson - Photo credit: Roger Hodgson

Windrum Lake.

Windrum Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan,
named in honour of Bill Windrum.


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"Date Modified: January 18, 2022"

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