Chapter 9: The Old and the Bold

Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the North




The Old and the Bold


The last decades of the twentieth century saw some northern chapters come to a close — the Cold War ended, the last DEW Line sites were decommissioned, and residential schools were shut down — while others were just beginning. Many old patterns of northern aviation continued even as new technologies, regulations, and norms took hold. The boom-bust economy of the North saw to that, as did the ever-present challenges of weather and climate. Human nature also played its part. As people in the industry often say, there are old pilots and there are bold pilots; in the North, there were even some old, bold pilots who lived to tell their tales — and, unfortunately, cautious pilots who lost their lives far too soon.


“Remoteness and Mountains and Weather”


Don Bergren was an experienced and reputable Air North pilot when his Douglas DC-4, C-FGNI, crashed on August 14, 1996, about four hundred kilometres south of After the crew noticed electrical problems right after takeoff, one of the plane’s four engines caught fire and fell off. Bergren, his co-pilot Dan Quaile, and the mechanic-engineer Stewart Clark realized they could not make it back to the airstrip so decided to try and land in the Iskut River, a tributary of the Stikine in northern British Columbia. Journalist Larry Pynn wrote that “With flames pouring from the wing, the crew members feared the aircraft would explode at any moment.” They jumped in the frigid, fast-moving water and managed to make it to a submerged gravel bar, from where they tried to reach shore after the forty-two kilometre an hour current swept them off. Unfortunately it turned out that Bergren could not Quaile and Clark were treated for hypothermia but were otherwise uninjured. “My husband was never seen again and was presumed drowned,” says Sue Bergren, who was left to grieve with their eight-year-old daughter.


Don Bergren, pilot for Air North, with the company’s Beech 18, in the Yukon, c. 1988. It is likely C-FRSX, one of only fifty-nine 3NM variants manufactured for navigational training purposes in the 1950s, and now on display at the Alberta Aviation Museum.

Sue Bergren


     Bergren had been a commercial bush pilot for over fifteen years, twelve of those with Air North. Over his career he had amassed more than fourteen thousand hours on Beech 18s, DC-3s, and even a Kenn Borek Air twin-engine Caribou transport. This was an experienced pilot. On the trip he went down on he was flying twenty-five hundred kilogram loads of gold-ore concentrate aboard Air North’s only DC-4 out of the busy Bronson Creek gravel airstrip at “Snip Mine” near the Iskut River. From there, they traveled eighty kilometers away to Wrangell, Alaska. He had flown the DC-4, nicknamed the Yukon Trader as captain for three years, and had already flown the route twice the day of the crash. Joe Sparling, Air North’s owner, praised Bergren’s handling of the eighteen-tonne airplane. “It was a successful landing under dire circumstances,” he said after visiting the crash site. “He did everything right.” Sparling was just as puzzled at the turn of events as Bergren’s family and coworkers. “The weather was good, the plane was running good,” he said, and the plane had just been

     Too many pilots had died in the “Golden Triangle,” as Pynn called it: nine chartered planes and helicopters had crashed in a decade, with eleven fatalities and twelve injured. Pynn wondered in his article what was to blame. Was it the eccentricity or “macho attitude” of northern pilots? Pressure to fly in marginal conditions from airlines anxious to get the job done or miners eager to get out on leave? Overwork? The operators he interviewed lamented the accidents but could not — or would not — say why they occurred or how to prevent them. An air-accident investigator with the federal Transportation Safety Board, Gerry Binnema, said: “It’s simply the way business is carried on up North because of the situation that they’re in. We can’t ban aircraft from flying up there.... We’ve got remoteness and mountains and weather. It all adds up, making a fairly difficult climate for aircraft.”

     Aklak pilot Bob Heath remembered some of his approach notes would say “‘if you haven’t been here during the day in nice weather, don’t come.’ Pangnirtung is one of those spots. We were in there about a dozen times doing medevacs when I was training about twenty years ago, and there’s a cliff on one end of the runway and cemetery on the Pilots like Heath were exceedingly careful, though. He would always carry an astro compass and know how to use it in case his instruments failed. “When I see my young co-pilots getting too reliant on GPS, I turn it off and make them navigate by watch, astro compass, and gyro,” he noted. Heath once met the chief pilot for the Dornier aircraft company, who made a big impression on him. “He said, for the true professional pilot, there are no war stories. Because you prepare and take steps to mitigate any errors you commit.”


Nordair L-188 Electra, CF-NAX, coming in for a landing at the mine site as Asbestos Hill-Deception Bay on October 31, 1974. The Electra transported passengers mostly miners back and forth between the mine and headquarters at Dorval, Quebec, with the odd diversion to Iqaluit because of bad weather. To help the pilots find the airstrip in winter, those on the ground would use red dye.

Barry Crawford


     Heath also never expected, or wanted, to be a bush pilot. He actually got hired on at Aklak in 1990 while hanging around the dispatch office doing crosswords waiting for a business meeting. “The dispatcher was answering eight phone lines and three radio frequencies,” he recalls. “Finally she said, ‘It’s too bad you’re not a pilot, because we’re just slammed here and could put you to work right away.’” When she found out he had his commercial and could fly Twin Otters he was hired on the spot. “Twelve hours later I crawled out of the airplane. In the first week I flew to Greenland, Siberia, and took a little piece of an oil rig down to Vancouver. I flew the 99, Twin Otter, Navajo — just about anything I ever mentioned that I’d flown they strapped me into.”

     “I always thought they were underpaid jobs with under-maintained airplanes,” he continued. “But you can eat off the hangar floor here and the airplanes belong to the engineers — we just get to fly them.” Joe Muff agrees, noting that his first manager, Dawn Bartsch was “a tough, but fair, boss and instilled a serious commitment to safety and quality in me that guides my own aviation principles to this day.” He also says that his old company, Alkan Air, has continued to be a “really safe and sound operation” under its current management, and that plenty of pilots he knows — his brother Win grudgingly included — were “prepared all the time, and never put a ding in an airplane.”

     But many pilots working for northern operators told stories of clients overloading the aircraft, and feeling pressure to push weather, and work long, hard hours to keep limited jobs in a competitive When Muff was working as an air engineer in the 1970s for Trans North, he says he would fly every trip, often up into the Arctic islands on medevacs to the oil camps. “That way you’d see what was going on and wouldn’t have to start from scratch when you fixed the airplane,” he notes. “Medevacs were not very formal; they would just call whoever had the twin-engined plane, which was Trans North in those days. You’d go into places with no lights in the middle of the night — just skidoo lights or RCMP pickup truck on the side of the strip. Dawson City used flare pots a lot — cans with diesel fuel and a roll of toilet paper in them and set them on fire.” He once flew for fifty-six hours straight, taking turns sleeping and handling the controls while the pilots napped. “Today you can’t do that,” he


Pushing the Limits


Many northern pilots were known to push the limits or ignore them altogether. According to veteran journalist Erik Watt, Jim McAvoy “knew exactly what payload any aircraft he flew could get off the ground, and that was often well above DOT’s load limits.” McAvoy was also known to drink and fight at the Gold Range bar in Yellowknife, fly under bridges, and buzz construction workers in his younger days. But mostly he was remembered for his uncanny ability to spot people who were lost or in distress, even if it meant breaking rules or searching “blind canyons too narrow to turn around in and too deep to climb out of.” The many people he rescued were grateful, but he had a narrow escape or

     Willy Laserich, the owner first of Altair Leasing and then Adlair Aviation, was arrested by RCMP on at least one occasion, grounded several times, and racked up hundreds of charges from DOT. “Willy’s Bandits” were the bane of Ottawa, but adored by the remote communities they served, flying in medevacs, supplies, and groceries, and flying out loads of Arctic char aboard the company’s DC-4. It was with the support of those communities that he finally managed to secure a commercial licence in 1982, several years after he had begun the


Dan Reynolds checking traps on the south branch of the Tatonduk River in his Chinook ultralight with modifications. Reynolds has been flying these “Dan Specials” in the region since 1983.

Dan Reynolds


     Several northern flyers use homebuilt ultralight aircraft in creative ways. Dan Reynolds employs his modified “Dan Special” Citabrias and Chinooks in his guiding and outfitting business, which he took over from his dad, Stan Reynolds, in the 1990s. “My dad would do these landings — no strip, just natural ridges on the tops of mountains, where you’d only have about 150–200 feet,” he says. He has adopted this technique, which allows him to get into every corner of the back country near Dawson City, Yukon where he lives. “Trapping would be impossible without planes,” he says. “And in the winter time an ultralight on skis can handle waist-deep

     This calculated daredevilry has not been limited to commercial flyers. Helmut Schoener, also of Dawson City, calls the Dempster Highway “one big airstrip” and he has made use of it, as well as the Alaska and Klondike Highways, since he started flying in the area in the early 1980s. “There were hardly any private planes at the time,” he recalls. He started with a Cessna 172, CF-ADF, then moved on to a series of ultralights and homebuilts: a Chinook 82; a Clavair in 1988; a scaled-down version of a Second World War-era Fieselerstork; and finally a Skyfly 65 — a low winged all-wood aircraft with side-by-side seating. “I’ve had scary adventures — the weather changes so fast — but I like the adrenaline rush and love flying over the incredible beauty of the territory. It’s a tough environment — you make a little mistake and you’re


John Faulkner with his 1943 Beech Staggerwing, CF-BKQ, in Whitehorse, Yukon, c. 2009. John Faulkner, a local judge, used to fly around the territory on the court circuit in Twin Seneca, C-GZAQ, and then Cessna 185, C-FXZE. Now he flies ’BKQ mostly for fun.

John Faulkner


     Over the years there were many bizarre incidents and scandals involving northern aviators. John Faulkner, a judge and pilot in Whitehorse has followed some of these cases. Taku Air Transport of Atlin, British Columbia, which was owned by Dick and Theresa Bond, was involved in several crashes in the 1970s and 1980s. “After Dick got sick, his wife, Theresa, took over the flying but was involved in a very tragic crash in Dease Lake which killed a number of Atlin’s leading citizens. Theresa was the only survivor,” Faulkner says. The Beaver she was flying on September 27, 1986, apparently nosedived into the lake at full speed while coming in for a landing. After years of inquiries and few answers, Theresa herself was killed when an airplane in which she was a passenger flew into the side of a mountain while en route to Dease

     John Rolls, the owner of Territorial Airways out of Ross River, also became infamous. “Terror-Air” as the company was known by some for its “hair-raising adventures and brushes with the Department of Transport,” was only the beginning, according to Faulkner: “One day in September 1977, Al Kulan was holding a business meeting at the bar of the Welcome Inn in Ross River, when Rolls walked in and shot Kulan point-blank in the face with a .357 magnum revolver.” Rolls was convicted of first-degree murder for killing the successful miner and former business associate; apparently alcohol abuse coupled with “mental instability” made him fixate on Kulan as the source of his


Adam Morrison with a Bell 47G3B2, C-FQJY, at the Trans North Turbo Air base at Dawson City in 1981. That summer Morrison was working with a geology crew at Clinton Creek, about eighty kilometres downstream from Dawson City. One evening two of his passengers were unloading their gear after they had landed, and one of the men threw his pick axe out and up into the main rotor blades while they were still turning. The helicopter started “dancing” in the street, but luckily Morrison was at the controls and able to shut it down right away. Both main rotor blades were damaged beyond repair and they had to call in another helicopter to pick up the rest of the crews. The next day they had to fly in two new rotor blades aboard a Twin Otter, as well as engineers to replace the damaged ones.

Adam Morrison


     Adam Morrison, who was operations manager for Trans North Air out of Whitehorse, remembers one particularly unnerving incident in July 1989. “There was an American tourist, a vet from Vietnam,” he says. “Around 7:00 p.m. the cook at Bonanza Creek called the RCMP because this guy was acting strange.” Morrison, who has roughly thirteen thousand hours on helicopters, flew in with the Bell 206 to help locate the man at the request of the Dawson City RCMP. “When we got there, he started shooting at us and the bullet ended up between me and the sergeant. Luckily it missed the helicopter blade!” Both he and his passenger were slightly injured by shrapnel, but Morrison was able to land successfully. “They ended up bringing a SWAT team in by DC-3 from Whitehorse, and he came out eventually with a white


Reconciling the Past and Looking to the Future


While Morrison was brought in on this occasion, northern law enforcement agencies also had their own planes and pilots. The RCMP Air Section, for example, had been resurrected with new pilots (many RCAF trained) after the Second World War with two Beech 18s, a Grumman Goose, and its trusty Norseman, The Over the next two decades, these aircraft and others — notably Otters — became important for serving the Force’s distant Arctic posts and patrolling the expanses north of 60. As Saunders notes regarding the mid-century, “a typical northern flight would leave Edmonton for far northern detachments carrying replacement members, fresh food, mail and other supplies.” In the Commissioner’s Report for March 1954, he wrote the Air Section was involved in “aerial searches for lost persons, escaped prisoners, wanted criminals, stricken vessels in coastal waters and occasionally stolen livestock and automobiles.”

     RCMP planes flew into communities to investigate crimes and transport bodies to the coroner, but the aircraft were also used to assist Department of Northern Affairs and sent on several mercy flights. In March 1956 several RCMP officers flew to Port Burwell in what is now Nunavut in a Beaver, CF-MPN, to investigate reports of starving Inuit there. They ended up flying in 135 kilograms of food and evacuating a young girl named Anatok to Fort Chimo (Kuujjuaq), Quebec for medical RCMP officers aboard an Otter, CF-MPP, also rescued four men who had forced-landed their Norseman on an ice floe in the Hudson Strait while en route from Coral Harbour to Nottingham Island. The Otter landed on the closest solid ice it could find, unpacked the collapsible boat it had on board, dragged it across three kilometres of snow to the ice’s edge, and then paddled to the stranded men before reversing direction and getting them back to Coral Harbour safely.

     By 1987 the RCMP Air Services — as the Air Section was renamed — had two pilots and one engineer at bases in Inuvik, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Iqaluit with Twin Otters at their Those were later traded for nine-seat Pilatus PC XII aircraft based out of Yellowknife and Iqaluit. According to a 2000–01 report, Air Services flew twenty-five thousand hours each year, a significant portion of that in the North in the “world’s biggest beat,” as journalist Michael Vlessides dubbed the Northwest Territories “G” Division in an article. This territory, which included the Western Arctic and Nunavut, encompassed thirty-eight detachments, eight patrol cabins, and four satellite offices in 1998. RCMP Air Services pilots performed many of the same roles they always had since the earliest days, but increasingly the Force focused on community policing efforts and improving relationships with residents — especially indigenous ones — after decades of mixed

     The Roman Catholic and Anglican churches were also actively seeking reconciliation at the close of the residential school era, while also trying to serve their far-flung parishioners. Between 1982 and 1995, Bishop Ron Ferris regularly visited twenty-six mission points in the Yukon and northern British Columbia using a Cessna 172. “I shared the plane with the Catholic Bishop, who later died in a tragic accident in the plane,” he The seventy-two-year-old Bishop Thomas Lobsinger, OMI, or “Lobby” as he was known to many, was en route to Dawson from Whitehorse with Brother Hoby Spruyt on April 15, 2000, when he crashed into Fox Lake. The “Flying Bishop” had been a popular figure, supporting healing initiatives among indigenous people who were abused at Church-run schools. He was also a pilot with thirty years of experience who was known to “drop into a lake and fish from the pontoons of his single-engine Piper Cub.”

     Aviation has become more commonplace in the North, with people and goods flowing in and out of town without the “big hubbub” experienced by Sandra Pikujak Katsak in Pond Inlet, Northwest Territories, in the 1980s. The plane would arrive at 8:00 p.m. and “Everyone would be out visiting after a plane came in,” she says. “Sometimes it was the Akukitturmiut, the Greenlanders, who came in. Sometimes it was exchange students from the South, workers from Panarctic, sports competitors from other communities, or kids from the Iqaluit high In September 1988 airplanes brought the “polls to the people” for the first time during the territory’s elections. Pilots from Ptarmigan Airways and other Northwest Territories operators flew local election officials in Twin Otters from Yellowknife to Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuuttiaq), Bay Chimo (Umingmaktok), and other points. In Bathurst Inlet (Kingoak), each of the settlement’s five eligible voters turned out to take advantage of their democratic

     Residents may have appreciated fly-in elections, but by 1988 many women saw the need to examine the policy of flying out pregnant women to give birth. The availability of medevacs had certainly decreased infant and maternal mortality, but the system needed tweaking. Inuit women were sent out to Yellowknife or Iqaluit a month ahead of their expected delivery dates, forced to “billet with strangers, stay at a boarding house, impose on friends, or move in with relatives until the baby decides to arrive.” It also meant leaving behind emotional support and family. As journalist Joanne Irons noted, “It’s not unheard of for an expectant mother to try to deceive the nurses about when her child is due, or to miss the flight that was to have taken her Out to the

     “It’s different now with the surgeon up here,” pilot Bob Heath noted of Inuvik, “but when I first came up anything more complicated than a breach birth — medevac. I’ve had a couple born on final here. One fellow that was born on the plane flies with Aklak regularly gets free airfare for

     Women wanted the choice of whether or not to fly out to give birth, but they also wanted the opportunity to enter northern aviation. Marlie McLaren Kelsey followed in the footsteps of her father, famous bush pilot and aviation businessman, Duncan McLaren. After joining CP Air to do Vancouver reservations in 1969, she says she “got very interested in getting ahead in the company. I met some of the agents in Whitehorse, and of course was fascinated with the idea of working north where my dad had flown. So in 1973 I put a bid in to transfer there and it was subsequently denied.” Another male agent who had just finished the training course was given the position instead. “The union by then was in place and immediately disputed it and the company had to guarantee me a position. I was the only woman with twenty-two guys. Sounds enviable but actually it was very challenging and sometimes lonely.” McLaren Kelsey notes that Whitehorse, the largest base in the “BC District,” had had a revolving door of young male agents who would leave after their mandatory eighteen months were up. “I fell in love with the North and ended up staying six years,” she says. One of the main reasons was the variety of work: “I got to do reservations, ticket office, cargo office, and all the positions at the airport including my favorite, doing the weight and balance of the aircraft. I felt that learning all these different jobs would give me a great background to move up into


Marlie McLaren Kelsey, daughter of bush pilot and Pacific Western Airlines executive Duncan McLaren, worked for Canadian Pacific Airlines from 1969 to 1986. She was the first woman in the company allowed to bid for work in the North and became the agent at Whitehorse, the largest base in the “BC District,” for six years.

Marlie McLaren Kelsey


     Soon, many northern companies had women pilots and co-pilots, flying in everything from small airplanes, like Cessna 185s, to Lear Jets and Jet Ranger helicopters. Judy Cameron was hired by Gateway Aviation of Edmonton in the mid-1970s as a co-pilot on a DC-3 out of Inuvik. “I think I pulled my weight, but I understand their concern about my strength,” she says. “We carried drill parts, core samples, supplies to oil companies, and forty-five gallon fuel drums — the DC-3 could take twenty-six.... We often had six thousand pounds of cargo, which we had to load and unload. I wore coveralls and boots with steel toes. I worked as hard as I could.” Mireille Samson was another woman pilot who came of age during this period, and became the first woman to fly helicopters with the Canadian Coast Guard in May 1988; she now has several thousand hours on Bell Jet Ranger, Long Ranger, Twin Huey, and BO-105 helicopters. She has flown medevacs and SARs, but mostly her work has involved flying researchers, maintenance technicians, and doing ice patrols from ice-breakers in the Arctic

     In an interview in 1992, Lorna de Blicquy said her main regret was that she never flew for a major airline. “We just weren’t allowed to then,” she said. “They just never hired women. Back in the ’50s, I had a pile of letters that said ‘you’re a nice girl, but we don’t hire Even in the 1970s, Judy Cameron was told by the chief pilot at Gateway’s Inuvik base “At least the airlines will never hire you, so we won’t have to worry about losing Until April 1973, that is, when Transair hired Rosella Bjornson as first officer on the Fokker F-28 Fellowship and she became the only woman airline pilot out of twenty-eight hundred men in Canada — and the first jet-qualified female first officer in North She flew the F-28 until February 1979 when she moved to the twin turboprop NAMC YS-11. “We were based in Churchill a week at a time and we flew north to Rankin Inlet, Baker Lake, and Pelly Bay to service the north,” she recalls. In 1987 she started flying the Boeing 737 for Pacific Western Airways, which had bought out Transair, and in 1990 she accomplished another first — the first female airline captain in Canada – when she was named airline captain for Canadian Airlines International.


Captain Rosella Bjornson (on the right) with her husband, First Officer Bill Pratt, in front of a Canadian North Boeing 737 on the Yellowknife Airport ramp, c. 1996. Bjornson was the first female jet captain in Canada and regularly flew all seven of the company’s Boeing 737s.

Rosella Bjornson


Gold, Oil, Diamonds, and Other Riches


One of the reasons doors opened to women aviators in the 1960s and 1970s (aside from changing attitudes) was the boom in northern resource exploration and extraction. There was the lead-zinc mine in Nanisivik near Arctic Bay on Baffin Island, and large corporations such as Echo Bay Mines operated the old Eldorado property at Port Radium until 1979 when it opened the Lupin gold mine at Contwoyto It was oil in the Western Arctic that brought in $6.5 billion in exploration budgets and had helicopters and planes fanning out from Inuvik, Old Crow, and other northern points. “In the mid-1970s there were fifty Twin Otters operating in the Mackenzie Delta,” said Bob Heath. “If you had an oil camp, you had a Twin Otter.” When the Geological Survey of Canada estimated in the late 1970s that there were six billion barrels of oil in the Beaufort Sea reserves, worth $150 billion, it sounded like the company’s investments were going to pay off.

     The Canadian government also provided tax incentives to oil companies, and Dome Petroleum, Esso, Shell, and Petro-Canada were particularly active in the region. In particular, these companies wanted to build the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, “the largest mega-project ever proposed in northern Canada” according to historian William Morrison. But things had changed from 1921, when Imperial Oil had swooped in unopposed to create Norman Wells, or from the Second World War and DEW Line eras, when militaries, governments, and civilian contractors had undertaken huge projects in the North. Local residents now wanted a say in how things would proceed — or whether they would go ahead at all.


Echo Bay Mines operated this Lockheed Hercules, C-FDSX, from 1980 to 1982. When the company began mining in the north, it found commercial carriers were not able to provide the service they required, so they created their own. They began by leasing a DC-3 (CF-CUG) in 1975, then a Convair 640 (C-FPWO). Once Lupin Mine was complete, it shifted to a Boeing 727, C-FPXD, which was in use until 1991.

Walter Sopher


     At least one resident kept an eye on things and reported back to the community — and the world. In the late 1960s, “Here are the News” columnist Edith Josie commented on the comings and goings of aircraft from Bullock Helicopters, Okanagan Helicopters, and other operators on contract with oil exploration companies around Old “One helicopter is here looking for oil and busy flying around every day. Andrew Charlie is working with them also Peter Lord he work for them,” she noted. “Some people glad for oil company going to work for oil. Because the boys going to make good money.” By October 1970, however, doubts had crept in about the effects on caribou and the fragile local environment, despite the consortium’s attempts to assuage their fears with town meetings and a tour over the proposed pipeline route. “They talk about Pipe line,” she wrote, “if they put one close to Crow Mountain and if it ever broke the oil will go on the ground and they afraid the Caribou won’t come to Old Crow, and so with water which they drink from the river it might get spoil.” Josie’s columns appeared not only in the Whitehorse but often were printed in newspapers in Toronto, Edmonton, Alaska, and California; it was also translated into several European languages. People far beyond Old Crow could now read about the community’s concerns.

     This international attention helped when the Vuntut Gwitchin around Old Crow and other Gwich’in, Métis, and Inuvialuit in the Mackenzie Delta area began agitating for land claims negotiations in 1973. That year, the federal government, after a Canadian Supreme Court decision, declared the original Treaty 11 from the era of Imperial Oil’s Vic and null and The government had not laid out reserves after the oil boom had ended in 1921 as it did not want to pay to fulfill the treaty promises to the Dene of this distant corner of the Dominion. The government also had never proposed treaties to the First Nations of the Yukon or Inuit in the rest of the Northwest Territories for this reason, and by the mid-1970s, Cree and Inuit had successfully negotiated the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. With the money they received in return for the right to develop the hydroelectric potential of the region, Inuit set up the Makivik Corporation, which took over and expanded First Air (which was a descendant of Bradley Air Services). Air Inuit also got its start through the first phase of the massive James Bay Project with a single Beaver that flew negotiators and field workers between communities and construction sites.

     In the Mackenzie Delta, however, many indigenous people opposed the pipeline and wanted development halted until land claims could be negotiated and the oil consortium could answer technical questions adequately. The Berger Inquiry (so-called because it was run by Justice Thomas Berger) was set up, and in January 1975, he and a commission began visiting thirty-five communities and hearing from one thousand witnesses. Two years later, he issued a report that recommended a ten-year moratorium on the project, and in July 1987 the Yukon created Herschel Island Territorial Park to protect the fragile ecological and historical site.

     The Inuvaluit settled their land claims in 1984, and on April 22, 1992, the official signing of the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement took The political and cultural landscapes were shifting, and by 2002 Inuvik aviator Fred Carmichael became chair of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group after serving as president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council. In both these endeavours, he was a pragmatist who drew on his aviation business background. With his companies, he had always encouraged local people to pursue meaningful work opportunities and, in the absence of formal school programs, tried to give them an apprenticeship of sorts. “I tried to hire and help train local mechanics and flight attendants and office staff,” he says. He saw, and continues to see, the pipeline as one way to bolster the local economy for the Gwich’in, Inuvialuit, and others living in the Western Arctic. “We’re trying to get out from under the dependency on welfare,” he notes. “We need to develop an economic base for our people. People are suffering, hanging on by the skin of their teeth.”

     “I really battle with the environmentalists,” he continues. “There’s a place for them, but they have to have some reality as well — to balance the needs of the human being. There’s no other industry — if that’s not good enough for you, then give us an alternative.” Carmichael also argues there are the necessary agencies in place to control development and that industry is learning from indigenous peoples. “They can’t take a bulldozer and clear trees anywhere they want. They don’t throw garbage out on the roads like other northerners do. Industry, government, and Aboriginal people have all learned — ‘Hey, we’d better look out for this environment.’”


Air North operated this DC-3, C-FIMA, from 1988 to 1998 out of Whitehorse. Nicknamed the Yukon Musher it was manufactured in 1942 as a C-47 Skytrain for the U.S. Army Air Force before being converted for civilian use. In 1998 it returned to the U.S. after being sold to Fly One out of New Mexico.

Sue Bergren


     In an interview in 2010, Bob Heath agreed that since the Inuvaluit settled their land claims, “they have total environmental control over any project in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and are very good at monitoring things. The days when an oil company could just point to a map and say we’re going to build a camp here and we’re going to start drilling tomorrow are over.” He also noted that companies have to hire and train Inuvialuit people to do the various jobs, “and there’s been a lot less resistance from the corporations than I thought would be

     In other parts of the North, especially around Dawson City, mineral exploration and extraction centred on placer gold mining. While journalist Larry Pynn argued that the 1990s gold rush in Northern British Columbia was “the realm of engineers with helicopters and diamond drills backed by multimillion-dollar corporate ventures,” in Dawson, activities were on a smaller scale, especially in earlier As Joe Muff recalls, there were “a lot of penny stock mining companies that had claims up here wanting to do exploration so they could prove their prospects and float the companies on that in the market/public offering.” Even some pilots and mechanics tried their hand at it. Muff quit his engineer job at Great Northern the summer of 1970 to spend a few months in the bush with his geologist friend. “We were doing mostly mining staking and also geophysics and geochem sampling. I had studied some old maps all winter and so I was going to look for gold in the Dawson area, so I quit GN for this more exciting thing. But I figured they owed me a flight so I got them to fly me up to Old


“Buffalo” Joe McBryan in the cockpit of Summer This DC-3, C-GPNR, was involved in the Normandy invasion of the Second World War, according to McBryan, but since 1994 it has shuttled passengers and cargo around the Northwest Territories. It has also become a favourite at air shows and, since 2009, has appeared on the reality television series, Ice Pilots

Henry M. Holden


     Joe Muff, who is now director of flight operations for Air North, knew resident Joe Sparling when they started their companies in 1971. “We were both in the bush,” Muff says, “until I chased him out of the bush and he went into the big Sparling was born in the Yukon, and worked at his family’s hotel where he did maintenance and counted cash. In 1972 he got his private pilot’s licence and two years later his commercial ticket. Unlike most of his contemporaries, though, he also got his MBA from the University of British Columbia. In 1977 he and his partner, Tom Wood, acquired a charter operation, called it Air North, and started doing mineral exploration flights with single-engined Cessnas.

     By 1981 Air North acquired DC-3s for its sked runs, and then brought in a DC-4 in the early 1990s. In 1998 Air North sold off its last DC-3 but, as Joe Sparling noted, he was not ready to call it the end of an era for the vintage aircraft. But it would be for the company, which permanently switched to Hawker Siddeley 748s for its scheduled passenger service. The “Gooney Bird” had been a fixture of northern transportation since the postwar years when Connelly-Dawson started landing on the gravel bars near Old Crow. The DC-3s had been used since to haul people, cargo, and smoke-jumpers for multiple Yukon companies, and earned its place of honour as the biggest weathervane at the Whitehorse Airport in 1981. It was used just as much in the Northwest Territories. Bob Heath recalls Aklak had a Super DC-3 from 1993 to 2007–08. “What we realized is that the DC-3 and those kinds of aircraft fill a particular niche and you really can’t replace them.”

     Another airline was not giving up on the old warbirds quite so soon. Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife had more in its fleet than any other operator north of 60 in 2000. Many had been in continuous operation since Joe McBryan took the company over from its original owner, the famous Barren Lands survivor Bob Gauchie in McBryan had actually first taken an airline job because he wanted to fly a DC-3; he was hired on at Great Northern Airways in 1969 for the last DC-3 course after flying for people like Jim McAvoy. “I went for one year and wore the uniform,” he says. “I flew 1,400 hours on DC-3s that year, but certain people aren’t cut out for a large crew. But it was exceptional training.” McBryan admits that Buffalo Airways was “done by mistake with no five-year plan.” His brother found aircraft — DC-3s, DC-4s, C-46s — and brought them home, and McBryan put them to work. “We tried to make a living. I didn’t know about the financial pitfalls of aviation — probably wouldn’t have gone into it if I Still, in the early 1990s when diamonds were found at Lac des Gras, Northwest Territories, Buffalo Airways became very busy flying passengers and cargo on non-stop “Koala Airlifts” for Australian giant BHP


Herculean Efforts


Canada’s Armed Forces largely switched priorities in the postwar period to peacekeeping operations, but they continued to have a useful and constant presence in the North. The RCAF base at Resolute became “the jumping-off point for researchers, explorers, and government agents travelling in the High Arctic” in the postwar years, and the RCAF provided transportation services for these groups at As historian Peter Kikkert notes, between 1949 and 1951, the RCAF flew the National Museum of Canada as well as the Northern Insect Survey of the Department of Agriculture. Sometimes the RCAF conducted wildlife surveys itself while overflying the Arctic.

     Crews also flew Lancasters and then the Argus while undertaking Northern Patrols (NORPAT) for photo reconnaissance, ice patrol, and sovereignty-boosting activities. As author Larry Milberry notes for the Cold War period, “some Lanc missions also reconnoitered Soviet activity in the Arctic islands.” Departing Comox, Greenwood, Yellowknife, or Frobisher bases, these crews also kept an eye on corporate airstrips, industrial developments (checking for any illegal emissions), and even made “courtesy” over-flights of remote centres “just to let the inhabitants know that somebody down south cares.” In the 1980s and 1990s, residents might catch a glimpse of Northern Operations Readiness Patrol flights by Aurora marine patrol aircraft as

     It was the C-130 Hercules, however, that became the centrepiece of the Air Force in the North. So much so that when the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) and the Department of National Defense (DND) improved Canada’s Arctic airstrips and built new ones from the mid-1960s to 1979, they kept the takeoff and landing needs of the large, four-engined transports in mind. It also became an important symbol: throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Operation Santa Claus collected toy donations at the Parachute Maintenance Depot in Edmonton and sent them by Hercules to Yellowknife. Crews would then pack them onto Twin Otter “sleighs” for remote Arctic communities. As Captain Sandy Antal from the Edmonton Depot noted in 1986, the children knew Santa came from the North Pole, but did not know “he [had] a southern partner, and he [flew] a

     In addition to the Canadian Air Force’s Labrador helicopters and twin-engined DHC-5 Buffalos, the Hercs were central to Search and Rescue operations. In September 1973 the crew of one spotted the wreck of Aklavik Flying Services’ Cessna 185, CF-CMH, which had been doing an aerial caribou survey for a Calgary oil pipeline company. The plane had gotten trapped in a box canyon just over the Alaska border and crashed, killing all on

     On October 20, 1991, it would be the crew and passengers of an Air Force Herc that would require rescuing. Hercules CAF 130322 was en route to the Alert Wireless Station, the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world, on one of its semi-annual Boxtop resupply The pilot, who was apparently flying by sight rather than relying on instruments, crashed into a hill top on final approach to the airstrip. Four of the eighteen passengers and crew were killed instantly, while the captain died later from exposure. Rescue efforts by Canadian and American personnel from local bases as well as from Edmonton and Trenton, Ontario, were hampered by a fierce blizzard, temperatures nearing -70°C with the wind chill, and the mountainous terrain; it took thirty hours for the first rescuers to

     The Boxtop 22 rescue mission, as it was called, was the most decorated peacetime event in Canadian military history. The crash investigation recommended all Hercs be retrofitted with ground proximity detectors and better Arctic survival equipment, and the media wondered if the Air Force had adequate aircraft for these types of operations. Just a month earlier, an anonymous military official was quoted in Peter Tadman’s book about Marten Hartwell, The as saying that “if a jumbo jet crashed in the far North today, rescue forces would be unable to airlift any casualties and could only comfort the survivors until they died.” Major Don Blair, in command of the largest SAR unit disagreed: “Some of the equipment definitely is aged but I think we’re in a good position to respond.” Perhaps it said something, however, that the survivors were apparently airlifted by two American H-60 Black Hawk helicopters from

     The Canadian military presence in the North was small, with only 120 regular, reserve, and civilian personnel spread out over the whole Canadian Forces Northern Area (CFNA) in 1998. The Air Force had officially left the Yukon thirty years earlier after integration, but the Yellowknife-based CFNA maintained a Headquarters Detach-ment in Whitehorse and conducted exercises with the various branches of the Canadian military — as well as its American allies. It also continued to rely on its northern reservists, the Canadian Rangers, to perform ground patrols, and transported them and their equipment using Hercules and Twin


Peter Hill flew Bradley Air Services’ Twin Otters from 1977 to 1981 into spots such as this DEW Line site. He recalls that Bradley made its own approach plates with communications frequencies, navigations systems information, as well as the available length to land. As he says, some were ice strips that only had beacons when the oil rigs were there.

Peter Hill


     One of the reasons for the shrinking military presence in the Arctic was the gradual closing down of the staffed DEW Line sites. Beginning in 1985 the military began replacing them with the new Canadian-run, two-billion-dollar North Warning System (NWS). Brigadier General Duane Daly, the Canadian Forces Northern Area commander, and the U.S. squadron leader were both on hand at Tuktoyaktuk in 1993 when the DEW Line site there was deactivated. Both agreed that the threat of an attack on North America through the Arctic was very low, but that the “potential exists.”

     Approximately fifty military personnel and civilians attended the decommissioning, but Aklak pilot Bob Heath recalls there was little local sadness in its “When the contractors came up — if you were from here you could be hired as a bear monitor — that is you were a guy with a gun outside, not exactly career enhancing,” he notes. “But the Inuit were largely bypassed or ignored or pushed out of the way when they were building the sites. When they decommissioned the last manned site up in Tuk they had a memorial but no one from the village came. The mayor said, well my dad used to work there and they didn’t treat him very nice. I’m glad they’re gone.”

     The DEW Line also left another legacy — garbage. At the time of construction in the mid-1950s, Maclean’s writer Pierre Berton noted that places like Coral Harbour on Southampton Island “had become a gigantic garbage heap.... [because] it would cost too much to move any of the wartime refuse back to the civilized world.” In the 1990s much of it was still there. “A lot of our work up here has been remediating all those things, because if it wasn’t made from PCB or Asbestos they didn’t want it on that site,” Heath noted wryly. “Fuel drums from twenty or thirty years ago are just abandoned here, because who would ever think of contamination in a place that’s four hundred miles away from the nearest road? For the last twenty years, for the most part our work has been undoing the industrial mistakes of the past.”


Plus ça change


British-born Peter Corley-Smith felt at times that he and other pilots in the Canadian North were the “vanguard of destruction,” and envied the blissful ignorance of early bush He recognized when he flew in survey parties in the 1960s it might lead to an open pit mine, and that passengers might spot a trophy grizzly or wolf to “bag” as he ferried them, disregarding all fair chase laws. In the years since, aviation has continued to be central to the resource economy of the region, but northerners like Fred Carmichael have fought for sustainable development. They have also argued for self-determination in these economic and environmental decisions, decisions that do not always line up with what southerners would choose for the North and its peoples.

     Aviation in the North, like the industry in the rest of Canada, has struggled through booms and busts, through recessions, skyrocketing inflation, privatization, and There has been a continuous changing of the guard as well, with personnel and aircraft shuffled around as companies expanded, contracted, and even went under. Pilot, engineer, and manager Adam Morrison remembers in the 1970s and 1980s “you knew everybody.” He was talking about Whitehorse, but it could easily extend throughout the northern airlines and bush operators, especially since many of the companies had “satellite bases” in places like Inuvik or Cambridge Bay. They were like a big complicated family: they would compete for clients, have (usually friendly) rivalries, divvy up routes, and so on.

     As with any family saga there has been drama and death. Even with vast improvements in navigation, equipment, and training, and much more stringent government regulations — aviation accidents happened in Canada’s North on the eve of the twentieth century as they did elsewhere in the world. People and airplanes could also still go missing even with modern search and rescue strategies and communications technologies.

     As the territories prepared for a new political reality after the creation of Nunavut in 1999, the North was poised for success on its own terms. The Ekati diamond mine had just opened, gold mining around Dawson City was taking off again, and Inuit and Inuvialuit had just bought a new airline, Canadian North. Its founding companies — Canadian Airlines, Pacific Western Airlines, Transair, and Nordair — had been involved in decades of DEW Line flights, scheduled runs Outside, and were themselves made up of the building blocks of smaller northern air services. Canadian North’s slogan, “Your North. Your Airline” spoke to the company’s commitment for the future and the peoples of the region. A new century of northern flight was about to begin with new generations of pilots, passengers, and planes.