Category Archives: Helair

The early days of Helair Ltd.

The Helair faciltiy, Kenora Ontario - April 1973

The Helair Ltd. hanger, Kenora - April 1973

In 1965, Helair Ltd. was located out of Pete Peterson’s home on Keewatin Beach Road, just west of Kenora. When the then Department of Transport came by to inspect his operation, they never blinked an eye, and in fact gave their approval. How times change.

Department of Lands & ForestsIn 1967 I had a job as a radio operator with the old Department of Lands & Forests. That same year, Helair had been awarded the L&F contract out of Sioux Lookout to provide services for the surrounding districts. Ron Kincaid, my boss, requested the aircraft for a trip down to Gold Rock, and he offered to take me along on the flight. If I recall, the flight was in CF-HEL, the company’s flagship Bell 47G-4a.

I was hooked from the beginning. I’m not sure if I should thank Ron or not for taking me along on that flight. Then, during the winter of 1967, Pete gave me my first flight from the lakeside base in a dual-equipped G2, CF-MEU.

From that fledgling start on the shore of Lake of the Woods, Helair Ltd.’s business eventually mushroomed to the extent that expanded facilities became a necessity.

HelairI don’t recall the year that Pete built the hanger on Villeneuve Road just off of Highway 658, but it was a pretty nice facility, nestled as it was in the trees ten minutes north of Kenora. In addition to the hanger there was a home on-site as well, complete with a swimming pool. Later, the site would be used as a residence for the students who took their flight training at the base.

Some time just after the new place was built I recall being sent to Kenora. I stayed at the Norman Hotel in Keewatin, a stately old place where I experienced the hospitality of the Norman Lord. Bruce was a real character who loved his cigars. He reminded me a great deal of Buster, the night manager at the King Edward Hotel in Niagara Falls where I stayed during my flight training.

If you’d like more about Helair Ltd. and how it all got started, Pete Peterson’s book A Flying Story is available for download. Not only does he document Helair’s beginnings, but he also spends much of the book examining the early years of helicopter development and use in eastern Canada, starting in the mid-50s.

Why this site now?

In the spring of 1968 I was fresh out of Niagara Helicopters Ltd. and its flight training school. I had graduated to flying tourists over the falls – a great first job for a couple of weeks at least. Fortunately, I ended up ferrying equipment back and forth to Moosonee. Eventually, I spent a couple of hundred hours there doing mining camp supply. In November, after freeze-up, I was out of a job. That wasn’t entirely unexpected, given the nature of Niagara’s business. I was happy to have accumulated the flight time in that northern environment.

My first “real” flying job

A boring winter spent doing nothing encouraged me to hop into a car with Mike Hogan, a fellow graduate of Niagara, and we both headed to Ottawa. We had picked up a lead from Pete Peterson of Helair Ltd. in Kenora about a new company just beginning – much like both Mike and myself. I ended up getting hired by Larry Camphaug and Viking Helicopters Ltd. in Orleans, just east of Ottawa. Mike went with J. J. Cossette, in Quebec, flying his private Bell 47.

During my career with Viking Helicopters and its owner Larry Camphaug I had the time of my life. I have many happy memories of the pilots and engineers that I worked with over the years. Thanks to the untiring efforts of the engineers, our equipment was top-notch. In the field, we received support above and beyond the call of duty from head office. If the parts didn’t get to us in a reasonable amount of time, we were really out in the boondocks, past the edge of the earth.

As a part of the benefits package, I received free travel and living expenses to experience parts of Canada and the world that most people only get to see in front of a television or movie screen, or read about in a book. When passing through somewhere new, time permitting, I always took in the local colour because I knew that I wouldn’t be back to that part of the world again, especially on my own dime.

After Viking, what?

For the most part, outside of some freelance winter flying, I stayed with Viking Helicopters until 1981, when I retired from active flying. Although I stayed involved in aviation, actual flying was replaced with flying a desk for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in Thunder Bay. I ended up being responsible for the Regional Fire Centre’s helicopter program in its entirety, from training fire crews in helicopter safety, training loadmasters, writing operations manuals, budgeting, flight crew requirements, flight and duty time limits, acquiring aircraft during fire emergencies, etc. Upon leaving that position, Ontario’s Provincial Fire Centre took over the task on a province-wide basis.

From Thunder Bay, I went to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, Inc. (CIFFC) in Winnipeg. I got to experience a whole new-to-me world of fixed-wing air tankers, bird dog aircraft, and Air Attack Officers.

One of the difficulties of working on a national level with the various forest fire control agencies was the differing standards and requirements in existence within each of the agencies. One of my responsibilities was to effect an exchange standard that would ensure that when fire control agencies or companies move fire fighting aircraft around the country – be they air tankers or helicopters – the requirements were to be similar in order that the flight crews could more easily integrate their equipment into the area in a safe and efficient manner. Getting all of the provinces to come on board for that lightbulb moment was a job in itself.

In 2000 I retired from CIFFC and moved to southern California for six years where I did something that I really wanted to do all year long: I rode motorcycles. And worked in a bike shop.

Why this site now?

Over the years I became nostalgic for the old company that I knew as Viking Helicopters. I couldn’t find anything on the web that said anything about the company in a substantive manner, other than some .pdf files in newspaper archives. They were pretty bland and flat, not really interesting in themselves, other than from a historical point of view.

Thus, this site.

Obviously, it’s slanted to what I saw, did and experienced over the years that I worked for the company, but I hope that won’t take away from your own experiences. My hope is that if you were a former Viking employee you’ll come by for a look and spend some time reading and perhaps talking about your own memories right here or in the comments on the blog articles.

To that end, should you have something you wish to say, a story you’d like to tell, or a memory you want to share, the forums are here. If you’d like to write something on the blog, you’re more than welcome to submit your story. Or stories. You’ll get your own byline if you wish. In particular, photographs are most welcome, and will get accreditation.

Anonymous submissions are also accepted. After all, if we can’t tell a good story, what’s the point of it all?

The Dark Continent

The Dark Continent

I had been flying Model 47s right up until New Year’s Eve, when I dropped off Helair’s flagship, CF-HEL, in Thunder Bay. Five days later, in early January, 1974, I was in Kenora at the Helair facility to obtain my turbine endorsement.

Gerry Ossachuk gave me my check-ride on C-FDNF, a Hughes 369c. After plodding along in Model 47s for thousands of hours, this, for me, was the epitome of modern helicopter transportation – even though my first sighting of a Hughes 500 had been in five years earlier in Uranium City in the fall of 1969. Now that I was actually flying one, I could tell that the piston-engine helicopter era was essentially over. While it would take some time to convince our paying customers to come around, the inevitable was written in the winds of change.

A few days later I was off to Red Lake on a Water Resources job. Two weeks after that I was in Pickle Lake working for Ontario Hydro in support of their 205 slinging poles. Thunder Bay came up in the windscreen too, until I finally ended up in Dryden working for the Ministry of Natural Resources on Dryden 16, and subsequently, Dryden-18, while flying C-GODW, one of Larry’s new yellow and black Hughes 500c turbines. It was a joy to fly, not having those obscene bags hanging off the sides that were so ubiquitous on the 47s.

Over 500 hours later, in December of that same year, I found myself in Nairobi.

Getting there is half the fun

Getting to Nairobi hadn’t been entirely uneventful, and in fact it was a 20-hour marathon of airplanes, airports, taxis and cargo hangers. For amusement on the night flight across the Atlantic, I wandered up to the cockpit of the 747 and spent some time chatting with the pilots. (Try doing that today and you’ll end up in shackles and chains while being deposited at some out-of-the-way airport in the middle of nowhere, beaten with a rubber hose and sent packing to Gitmo.) My first question was ‘where’s the compass’, after which I explained my background. I think they were more interested in my flying career than I was in theirs.

Before I left Ottawa, Larry had asked me to track down some missing parts at Heathrow. As soon as I could, I hired a taxi to haul me around to all of the air freight facilities in an attempt to track down the missing parts. Eventually they were located and late as it was, I headed back to the terminal in an attempt to make my connecting flight to Amsterdam.

Surprised as I was to discover that the DC-9 was still at the gate, I was even more shocked to find that I would be the only passenger on the flight to Amsterdam. The stews were almost as taken aback as I was, and ended up getting a picture of us together, one  lonely passenger surrounded by all of them.

Entebbe in darkest night

At some point in time during the night flight out of Schipol and Frankfurt, and after watching the grass fires below us in the Sudan during my 20 hour marathon from Montreal, one of the pilots announced that the KLM Royal Dutch flight we were on would be stopping in Entebbe, Uganda.

The girl I was sitting with was beside herself when she heard the announcement, and the closer we got to Entebbe, the more agitated she became. She told me that she had specifically checked with KLM to determine if our flight was direct to Nairobi. Assured by the airline that it was, she had purchased her ticket. Now we were doing an unscheduled stop in Uganda – not a particularly appealing destination for an Israeli at that point in time.

Never one to look the other way when a woman was in distress, I suggested that perhaps we could pretend that we were married. After her initial shock at that remark passed, she went along with me. In the event that we became separated, we exchanged passports, and at that point she appeared pleased to learn that I was Canadian. I found a blanket, and from the time we landed until we took off again, the two of us huddled beneath it with only our heads visible.

Why that airplane was going to make an unscheduled stop in Entebbe was a mystery that the two of us discussed at some length. It didn’t help that the airport went into blackout once the aircraft was on the ground. When we finally came to a stop some distance from the terminal building I heard a cargo door open and voices yelling – no big deal, I thought. Obviously there was something on board that needed to be offloaded – in blackest night.

The real shock for the two of us came when the front passenger door opened and a person of obvious African descent boarded the aircraft. When he finally got near our row of seats, we could see that he was carrying a can of insect repellent in each hand. His job was obviously to ensure that no insect of any variety was left alive. After fogging the cabin, he departed the plane and the door was secured. By then, the cargo door had been closed and we were ready for takeoff one last time – once the runway lights were turned on.

Finally, we were headed for Nairobi’s Embakasi Airport.